Overhaulout Part 9: Confréries Sans Frontières

By Rutskarn
on Nov 17, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Why are the Brotherhood of Steel in this story? Frankly, what good are they?

Here at the halfway marker the player is well stocked with goals, enemies, and resources James was murdered by the Enclave. Project Purity is both stalled and in enemy hands. Before the end of the game the player will need to find the GECK, escape the Enclave’s clutches when captured, and mount an assault to reclaim the monument and purify the wasteland. None of that requires the Brotherhood unless we say it does. Do we really need to introduce a unique location and dozens of NPCs if all we need to say to the player is, “Go find a GECK, it’s in this part of the map somewhere?” Is the idea of fighting through all the Enclave’s soldiers and singlehandedly reclaiming the monument more unrealistic than, say, fighting one’s way alone out of Raven Rock? Or wiping out small armies of Super Mutants? Or any of the other absurd battles the player’s obliged to win without backup? At best you can argue that you need an armed force like the Brotherhood to hold Project Purity after you’ve taken it…but why would you need them to? I mean, in the original draft, why do you need to occupy the monument once you’ve successfully purified all of the water in the wasteland? Isn’t a desperate lone-wolf attack to fix the device, press the button, and who knows if you’ll make it out alive more exciting anyway? Wouldn’t that give your likely sacrifice a greater sense of heft and dramatic inevitability?

In the game as written, the primary effect of the Brotherhood is to dilute the player’s agency and responsibility. They do nothing to justify this and oblige other tremendous expenses on the part of the artists, writers, scripters, and voice actors. But I can’t cut them out; that’s not the kind of lemonade we’re making here. Instead I will ask myself:

What good could the Brotherhood be? Continue reading »


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Borderlands Part 17: Dee Ell Cee

By Shamus
on Nov 16, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

Borderlands 2 had a lot of DLC. All together, the DLC probably doubles the size of the core game. Some of it is crap, some of it is on par with the rest of Borderlands 2, and one DLC in particular is really good. So before we move on to talking about the Pre-Sequel, let’s talk about this stuff.

These things don’t need or merit much in the way of analysis, so let me do some rapid-fire mini-reviews…

Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep

It`s like if DM of the Rings was a videogame.

It`s like if DM of the Rings was a videogame.

This is the best DLC I’ve ever played. For any game.

I admit I’m biased. I’m predisposed to enjoy humor built around RPG meta-humor. The premise here is that Lilith, Brick, and Mordecai gather around the table to play Bunkers & Badasses, an alt-universe D&D game run by Tiny Tina. You’re still playing as your character, still running around shooting things with your acid gun, and still pushing the big red murder button on the Borderlands Skinner Box, but now you’re shooting skeletons and dragons in imaginary castles.

You may be asking how Lilith playing D&D can result in your Axton gaining XP and loot. I’m glad you asked. The answer is shut up you’re ruining this for me.

A lot of the humor comes from the tension between the game world and the real world, similar to the jokes in Dorkness Rising, or even that one webcomic I did. The comedy here is stronger and more consistent than in the core game. There’s the in-game story about the party trying to defeat the sorcerer who cursed the land (Tina’s story is extremely arch) and the meta-story about everyone dealing with the loss of Roland and Bloodwing.

The main story is played entirely for laughs. We’re not expected to care about the gameworld-within-the-gameworld. The whole thing is just riffs of tabletop games, with a few jokes about story-driven RPGs, MMOs, and nerd culture thrown in for good measure.

Continue reading »


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Doing Batman Right 4: Rogue’s Gallery – Catwoman and The Riddler

By Bob Case
on Nov 15, 2017
Filed under:
Batman

Over the years I’ve come to believe that you can gauge the quality of an ongoing fictional universe quite accurately by looking at the number of supporting characters it has. If, for example, The Simpsons had mostly been about the actual Simpsons, it wouldn’t have been half the show it was. It needed Chief Wiggum, Mr. Burns, Apu, Milhouse, Skinner, and all the rest to get to that next level.

So it probably won’t surprise you at all to learn that I think Batman’s villains are important, and almost as important to get right as Batman himself. In fact, even the tiniest, most insignificant-seeming error can be utterly catastrophic!

Clockwise from the top, this is Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, and The Scarecrow.

Clockwise from the top, this is Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, and The Scarecrow.

Or maybe I’m exaggerating, but still, you should try to get them right.

I Have a Thing for Catwoman

That’s why I’m doing her first. That, and because everyone is probably expecting The Joker to be first, and I’m trying not to be too predictable.

I also ship Batman and Catwoman, because I’m a boring person who likes doing boring, obvious things, and this one is just too boring and obvious to pass up. To me, Catwoman, in her own way, works as well as a foil as The Joker does. That’s because the Batman-Catwoman relationship is based in mutual envy. Secretly, each finds the other’s lifestyle tempting.

Continue reading »


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This Dumb Industry: Another PC Golden Age?

By Shamus
on Nov 14, 2017
Filed under:
Column

Back in September a reader emailed me asking about my 2008 article The Golden Age of PC Gaming. That article can kind of be summed up in one image:

Yes, the image quality is terrible. Sorry. I made this image in 2008.

Yes, the image quality is terrible. Sorry. I made this image in 2008.

Games started out in the dark ages with simple gameplay and they were were hard to get runningI have to reboot with a special version of config.sys and autoexec.bat just to have enough memory to get this thing running.. Then we entered this wonderful age where games basically worked and we were getting several legendary titles a yearWe got Half-Life, Grim Fandango, Thief, Baldur’s Gate, Starcraft, Unreal, Starcraft Brood War, Descent Freespace, Fallout 2, and Forsaken. And that was just 1998!. Then we entered the stupid age of DRM, day-one DLC, buggy launches, and PC titles being dumbed down in pursuit of the console audience. You can’t really draw a hard line between these eras and the whole thing is pretty subjective, but in my own reckoning I’d say the golden age ran from 1998 to 2004. You could probably convince me to move the endpoints a couple of years in either direction, but you get the idea.

I didn’t ask permission to use the reader’s name, so I’ll call them KC. The email KC sent was too long to quote in its entirety, but it boiled down to the question of “Could we be in another PC golden age?” Certainly things are better now than they were in 2008. But are they good enough to qualify as a golden age?

To answer this question, let’s look at a few industry markers and see how things are now and compare it to how things were back in the supposed good old days.

Continue reading »


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TV I’m Watching: Mindhunter

By Shamus
on Nov 12, 2017
Filed under:
Television

I just discovered this show last week. It’s a Netflix original series very loosely based on a true story of how the FBI formed a special unit focused on using personality profiling to understand and catch serial killers. It’s set in 1977, and is careful about maintaining the look and feel of the time periodIncluding having the actors smoke. I love the attention to detail, but I often worry about actor safety. You don’t want your cast getting hooked on cigarettes just so you can make a TV show.. This is a true story in the sense that this unit really existed and this is why it formed, but all of our main characters are fictional. I assume this was done so that we can have personality flaws and interpersonal conflict among the team without slandering anyone in the name of drama.

The show is produced by David FincherAnd also Charlize Theron., who is most famous for directing the thrillers Seven (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), and Gone Girl (2014), Zodiac (2007) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). He’s only a producer and not a director here, but it feels like he directed it. It has all the hallmarks of his style. It’s a slow-burn thriller TV series with Hollywood-style cinematography.

I started watching the show because I know parts of it were shot here in my hometown of Butler Pennsylvania. I don’t know that this has ever happened before. I watched closely, but I didn’t see many places that were recognizably Butler. A lot of establishing shots are pretty tight on a single house or parking lot, probably because it’s really hard to construct a long shot that isn’t going to contain a bunch of modern anachronisms.

But there was one particular bit that caught my eye. Halfway through the final episode of the first season, we get this shot:

Continue reading »


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Overhaulout Part 8: Fixed and Broken

By Rutskarn
on Nov 10, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

The brutal Enclave assault marks a point of critical transition for Fallout 3‘s story. This is the part where James ceases to be the de facto protagonist and passes his mantel of agency and primary story-driving responsibility onto the player. In other words, this is where your story should properly begin.

To pull this off, this scene should accomplish three goals:

  1. Bring closure and resolution to your father’s arc, and by extension your relationship with him
  2. Provide a brand-new motivation for the player (since the old driving force, centered directly around your dad’s choices, has become moot)
  3. Establish the villains for the final stretch

Before we go giddily rewriting, an important question: to what extent does the game’s midpoint, as already written, succeed and fail at these goals?

Continue reading »


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Borderlands Part 16: Endgame

By Shamus
on Nov 9, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

It’s a pretty intense moment when Angel dies, Roland dies, Jack recovers the vault key, and Lilith is captured. It feels like it’s supposed to be the crisis moment in the plot, except it’s kind of early in the story for that. We have a lot of hours of psycho-shooting between now and the conclusion, and a lot of it feels pretty unimportant compared to what just happened. If this was a movie, we’d be entering the finale right now while emotions are hot. Instead we get caught up in a couple more door-opening exercises.

You need to reach the Info Stockade to find out where the vault is. Which means you need to blow open a pipe in the Boneyard so you can crawl through it. But to get there you need to lower a Hyperion bridge. Which means you need to get some explosives. Which means you need to get you Sawtooth Cauldron and steal some from the local bandits. Which means you need to reach their storage platform. Which means you need to get the elevator working. Which means you need to kill a local bandit boss. Which means… you get the idea.

I`m sure fighting this skyscraper robot is somehow related to killing Jack, but right now I`ve lost track of why. Fun trivia: That little shelter on the left is where the original vault hunters stepped off the bus back in Borderlands 1.
I'm sure fighting this skyscraper robot is somehow related to killing Jack, but right now I've lost track of why. Fun trivia: That little shelter on the left is where the original vault hunters stepped off the bus back in Borderlands 1.

It feels like Luke just took off in an X-Wing for the Death Star mission, but the director decided to cut away so we could spend a half dozen scenes with C3P0 and Mon Mothma. It’s not that this stuff isn’t fun, it’s that it feels like this is a bad spot in the game to pad things out. This isn’t just a problem with Borderlands 2, it’s a problem a lot of games have. If we go right from the crisis point of the plot into the finale, then we end up with the player being locked into the endgame almost as soon as they enter the third act. If you do this, the final stretch of the game can feel a little too linear, restrictive, and heavy on cutscenes. If we instead drop back into normal gameplay, then the story loses momentum because you can’t sustain that emotional high note for hours at a time, and certainly not across multiple play sessions.

Mass Effect went for the “locked in” approach. The moment you arrived on Virmire, you were basically riding a railroad to the endgameYou could technically fly around freely after escaping the Citadel, but you couldn’t go back and turn quests in, so there weren’t very many USEFUL things you could do.. In an ideal world, I suppose you’d be free to make a beeline for the endgame but also free to do sidequest stuff if you were looking for more gameplay. Obviously that approach doesn’t work for all stories and genres.

The point is that sooner or later the designer has to choose between their gameplay and their story. Borderlands 2 favored gameplay. That was probably the right move, but it still sucks the life out of the story.

Continue reading »


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Doing Batman Right 3: Doing Batman Wrong

By Bob Case
on Nov 8, 2017
Filed under:
Batman

Last week I covered my core “Batman rules”: The more Jim Gordon the better, Gotham is fallen, and Batman is a reluctant hero. But these are just mine. The fandom in general seems to have settled on a different set of rules, ones that I don’t necessarily hate or anything but don’t exactly love either. I’ll call these my “suspicious Batman rules.”

Suspicious Batman Rule #1: Batman can defeat anyone with _____ amount of prep time.

I get the appeal of this. On paper, the superpowerless Batman is the underdog against virtually everyone in the DC Universe. And one of the most satisfying things you can do in fiction is have the underdog win, through ingenuity, grit, and in Bruce Wayne’s case, a nearly unlimited budget.

The movie wasn`t great, but they sure got the bat suit right.

The movie wasn`t great, but they sure got the bat suit right.

So the occasional bat-whooping of one of those hoity-toity actual superheroes (or supervillains) can be fun to read. But it’s something to be indulged in moderation. Batman is a creature of Gotham, and Gotham is in the DC Universe but, to me at least, not of it. So often it even seems to exist in a different time than everywhere else, some sort of relaxed, flexible pastiche of modern day and the prohibition era.

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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossal Screw-Up

By Shamus
on Nov 5, 2017
Filed under:
Column

I know my column doesn’t usually run until Tuesday, but this story is kind of time-sensitive and so you’re getting it today.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is having a very bad PC launch. Oddly enough, this isn’t getting any media attention despite that fact that it’s a major screwup that impacts thousands. I don’t know how it compares to (say) the Arkham Knight PC launch, but I doubt the media does either. Our only point of reference is forum activity. (It’s not like publishers are keen to share their statistics on support tickets and refunds.) Going just by forum posts, it looks like this mess is impacting thousands.

Here’s a timeline I’ve hammered out of the events. Again, this is just the observations of one user based on forum traffic. The dates are not always exact. I’m just trying to give you a basic idea of what’s happened so far.

Continue reading »


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Borderlands Part 15: Loot over Time

By Shamus
on Nov 2, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

There’s an unspoken agreement here between the game designer and the player that major battles need to end with loot. This is a problem in the battle for Angel, since there’s no time for looting after the battle and doing so would be tonally wrong. We can’t very well have the player gleefully popping open chests around the corpses of Roland and Angel or scarfing up loot off the ground while Handsome Jack enacts his ambush.

One of the advantages of comedy adventure is that when the story gets stuck the writer can switch to comedy. That’s what they do here.

Lilith teleports the player away. You appear in an unknown room in an unknown location, surrounded by red chests. After looting them all (because why wouldn’t you?) you find the door and discover that Lilith was indeed able to send you to Sanctuary like she intended. You landed in the back room of Marcus’ shop, which you just inadvertently robbed. It’s a funny moment that helps transition from the previous drama back to the standard shoot & loot gameplay.

It’s also a disappointing reward, because the chests in this game are full of garbage.

You May Already Be a Winner. (But Probably Not.)

Here is the big payoff for the Angel fight. A bunch of worthless junk.

Here is the big payoff for the Angel fight. A bunch of worthless junk.

I haven’t deliberately clocked the chances of getting worthwhile loot, and I don’t think anyone has done any original research on this subject. The wiki doesn’t have anything concrete on loot probabilitiesExcept for the loot chests in the Dragon Keep DLC, because the workings of those are exposed to the player via 20 sided dice.. It says that red chests pay out “better” than grey ones, but you can intuit that yourself just from opening a few. What we don’t know is how much better.

Continue reading »


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Doing Batman Right 2: The Core

By Bob Case
on Nov 1, 2017
Filed under:
Batman

Last week I wrote about Batman’s potential for variety. Variety thrives best when anchored to a strong core, and Batman has a strong core. You have the suit, the logo, the batcave, the batmobile, Alfred, and the rogue’s gallery. Add to that the various ephemera: sometimes there’s Robin, sometimes not, sometimes the gadgetry is emphasized, sometimes not, sometimes Batman is more of a conventional superhero and sometimes it’s something more like a detective story.

That’s the practical core of Batman, but there’s also a moral core. And it’s not the no-killing rule, if that’s the thing you just thought of. In case you haven’t already read it, Shamus wrote some good stuff on that. To me the moral core of Batman is the acknowledgment that Batman is a vigilante. Many or even most superheroes are vigilantes in practice, but their narratives rarely acknowledge that. In Batman, or at least Batman at its best, it’s written into the story somehow, even if it’s only in the background.

Every American probably has their own thing about this country that especially bugs them. In fact, I have several. But our collective infatuation with vigilante fantasies is at or near the top of my list. I can personally tell you that my heart sank a bit when I learned they were rebooting the Death Wish franchise. And yet I’m a big Batman fan. So what gives? Part of it is that Death Wish protagonist Paul Kersey doesn’t have a grappling hook, or even a cape. But the bigger part is that Batman at its best handles the vigilante subject in the right way.

To cite an example, I’ll tell you about my personal favorite Batman work, out of all the comics and movies and shows and games. My personal favorite Batman work is the 2008 Christian Bale/Christopher Nolan/Heath Ledger one: The Dark Knight.

I`ll probably get flamed for this, but I actually thought Heath Ledger was quite good as the Joker.

I`ll probably get flamed for this, but I actually thought Heath Ledger was quite good as the Joker.

Are you disappointed to read that? I’m a bit disappointed to write it. When I want back through all my various Batman stuff, I was hoping that I could claim that some obscure comic or episode of the animated series or something was my favorite. Instead, I had to pick the Batman thing that’s probably attained more mainstream success and critical acclaim than any other.

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This Dumb Industry: The Secret of Good Secrets

By Shamus
on Oct 31, 2017
Filed under:
Column

This week, my former editor at the now-defunct Escapist said:

Like a lot of the questions I tackle here, this started off feeling like a nice softball column where I could compare good secrets (perhaps the hidden areas in Portal) with bad secrets (like the obvious puzzles in Skyrim) without having to do too much thinking. But then I started asking myself: What are we talking about when we say “secret”? Are we talking about hidden areas? Hidden achievements? Easter eggs? Secret endings? What about absurd jokes like repeatedly clicking on a sheep to make it explode in Warcraft?

Since I want to write a column and not a book, let’s limit our scope: We’re going to talk about environmental secrets like hidden rooms or seemingly unreachable items. Traditionally this stuff is part of a first-person shooter, but occasionally they crop up in third-person games as well.

The First Time

*HUGE GRIN*

*HUGE GRIN*

I remember my first secret. I was playing Wolfenstein 3D at my girlfriend’sNow wife. place in 1992 or so. I have no idea why I did it, but for some reason I hit the “open door” button while looking at a bit of wall. The wall moved, revealing a machine gun and some health.

This was obviously pre-internet. Not only did I not know how many other people may have found this secret, I didn’t even know if other people were even aware that such a thing was possible. Today we take secrets for granted, but at the time this a moment of discovery. I actually got a tingling sensation when I saw the treasure. As far as I knew, I was the only person in the world to have found this particular alcoveI was very wrong..

On the other hand, this moment also ruined the game for me. I found myself canvassing the levels, mashing the spacebar on every section of wall, looking for secrets. I’m sure that’s not what the developer intended, but that’s the behavior the game encouraged.

It’s been a quarter century, and game developers have continued to refine this idea. Some of them, anyway. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it sucks, so let’s talk about why.

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