This Dumb Industry: The Secret of Good Secrets

By Shamus
on Oct 31, 2017
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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



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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Now Playing: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

By Shamus
on Oct 29, 2017
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Game Reviews

There have been 11 total games bearing the Wolfenstein name, and this is the third one in this particular series. I have no idea why some dingbat decided to name it “Wolfenstein II”. You might argue that we’re doing a Grand Theft Auto kinda deal where some titles count and others don’t, except in the case of GTA, the ones that count don’t get subtitles.

Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned (2009)
Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony (2009)
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

The ones with numbers are usually major generational landmarks with new graphics engines and gameplay systems, while the ones with subtitles generally stick with the same engine and focus on gameplay refinement and experimentation. It’s an unusual numbering system, but it works.

Having said that, I have no idea what Wolfenstein is doing. Since the reboot, the games have been titled:

Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014)
Wolfenstein: The Old Blood (2015)
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (2017)

That’s… weird.

Anyway. I liked the last couple of Wolfenstein games, but this time around I am not having fun.

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Doing Batman Right

By Bob Case
on Oct 25, 2017
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It’s accidental Batman week here at Twenty Sided. I was planning to post this last week, but had to delay, so here it is. In this series I’ll be writing my opinions about the general Batman zeitgeist, where I think it’s gone right, and where I think it’s gone wrong.

What it looks like when it`s going right.

What it looks like when it`s going right.

I decided at a very young age that Batman was my favorite superhero, and I’ve stuck to that decision since then.

I was very much into Batman as a kid. Once, when we went to drop my Dad off for a flight, I wore my Batman costume to the airport. It wasn’t Halloween or anything. I just wanted to wear my Batman costume.I regretted that decision once we got inside. I didn’t¬†like attention, and I didn’t anticipate how much attention I would draw by wearing a Batman costume to the airport. I even liked things that were Batman-adjacent. Somehow I learned that Batman had been partially inspired by Zorro, so I became a Zorro fan too.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure what it was that enchanted me so much about the character – what Batman had for a young me that other superheroes didn’t. I suspect I was attracted to the versatility of the character. On the one hand, I knew the character could be, and often was, dark. On the other, I watched the Adam West¬†show religiously. Neither dark Batman nor Adam West Batman seemed either more or less Batman than the other. Which meant that if I wanted to pretend to be Batman, which I often did, there was plenty of freedom of tone in that fantasy, which was a great relief to me during the confusions of preadolescence.

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Batman v. Superman Wasn’t All Bad

By Shamus
on Oct 24, 2017
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I know I’m sometimes out of my depth when it comes to movies. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about film as I am about games, so I’m often shy about doing long-form analysis. I generally dislike a lot of highbrow stuff that movie buffs love and I often miss subtle messages embedded in framing or set designI missed the satire of Starship Troopers and took the whole thing at face value..

I’ve got a few YouTube creators that I really admire, and I’ve noticed that some people are really well-suited for some kinds of commentary and not so much for others. I’ve seen brilliant analysts turn into atrocious dimwits the moment they stepped out of their area of expertise, and so I’m always wary of making that kind of blunder. But sometimes a movie gets stuck in my craw and I can’t resist taking a swing at it.

Cards on the table: I liked Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen. I know opinions on it are mixed, but I think it nailed the tone and worldview of the source material. I don’t generally enjoy pitch-black tales where the person arguing “the ends justify the means” gets to win in the end. But if you’re into that kind of thing then this is a really good version of it. Like Dark Souls, the story of Watchmen is something I can admire even if I can’t actually enjoy watching it. It’s not my thing, but this is a brilliantly crafted version of Not My Thing. And I freely admit that the movie is a really good adaptation of some fiendishly difficult source material.

So it’s kind of darkly hilarious that Zack Snyder was chosen to adapt modern-day Superman for the big screen. I can’t imagine anyone more ill-suited for the material. You can see the fumbling Hollywood thinking at work behind the decision. “This Snyder guy is really good at making movies about the funnybooks. He directed one a few years ago, so let’s give him this one!” It’s like saying, “This guy who made Snowpiercer did a great job, so let’s give him The Polar Express. I mean, both movies have trains in the snow! He’s a natural fit!”

Anyone capable of successfully adapting Watchmen shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near SupermanOkay, I’m sure SOMEONE out there would be capable of working on both films, but the best directors tend to have a really distinct personal style that shines through. Anyone capable of making both films will probably make very bland films in general.. The two works are opposed on a philosophical level. Superman is profoundly idealistic, and Watchmen has cynicism oozing out of its pores. Watchmen isn’t just a deconstruction of the idealized superhero myth, it’s a controlled demolition. It takes the entire premise of superbeings and says, “Actually, having nearly-indestructible godlings running around would be horrible for the world, because they would still be people and People Are Awful.”

I watched Batman v. Superman and Watchmen back-to-back, which really drove home how Zack Snyder was so much better for one than for the other.

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BRB Writing a Book

By Shamus
on Oct 22, 2017
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The project started on September 10. I don’t know what came over me. I wasn’t planning on writing a book. While I’ve wanted to write about this subject (artificial intelligence) for years, this particular story came out of nowhere. I’ve spent 35 days on the novel so far. (Saturdays don’t count. I never work Saturdays.) As of this writing, the book is 120,000 words long. That means I’ve been averaging 3,400 words a day.

This is a phenomenal pace for me. My Mass Effect series is about the same length, and that thing took me months. Same goes for Witch Watch. If I could write at this pace every day, I’d be able to give you 12 long-form articles a week. (Again, ignoring the fact that that I don’t write or post on Saturday.)

One of the strange things about writing this fast is that I never got to the “I’m so sick of this project I can’t stand to look at it anymore” phase. Which means I never went through the “this is garbage and I’ve just wasted months of my life” period. I haven’t entered the period of fatigue and self-doubt. I’m still enthusiastic about the project. Because I’m still in the honeymoon phase, I have this feeling like I’ve just completed the best writing of my life. It feels pretty good. I’m sure the crippling self-doubt will set in later, but for now I’m going to enjoy the unwarranted optimism.

What is it?

It’s a cyberpunk / noir / mystery thing. No, it’s not inspired by Blade Runner 2049, although I did see it in theaters and I really enjoyed it.

When is it coming out?

I have no idea. Editing is like debugging. It’s no fun, it takes longer than you expect, and no matter how much time you spend on it you’ll probably miss a bunch of stuff anyway.

I bring this up because the blog is running a little low on content. I’m used to having stuff queued up a few weeks in advance, but this coming week is the last of my prepared content. On Tuesday we’re going to have the Batman v. Superman post that accidentally went up for a couple of hours last week. I have the Borderlands stuff written, although the upcoming posts could really do with another editing passAnd if I work really hard, maybe I can remember to put the page break into one of them so it doesn’t all wind up on the front page.. I’m not playing any games so I don’t have anything to write about, even if I wasn’t pouring all my energy into the book.

I’m hoping I can finish the story before the blog runs dry, but this is a heads up that things might be a little thin around here. If some of the posts next week seem like they were dashed off at the last minute, it’s probably because exactly that.

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Overhaulout Part 7: Family Picnic

By Rutskarn
on Oct 20, 2017
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Video Games

As we complete the Braun chamber I have no amendments to the substance of the quest worth nothing here., we run into one of my trickier objections to Fallout 3’s story design: the part where we’re actually reunited with our father comes off awkward and not especially satisfying. Partially this is for emotional reasons, since the story’s kept our attitude towards our father more or less in limbo since his inexplicable and extremely irresponsible departure from Vault 101, but more practically it is because what we really need is a sequence where we hash things out with dad and it doesn’t fit into the established meter of this section.

Even story-first players such as myself will get impatient if too much time is spent frozen in conversation limbo right after a sequence that’s overly scripted or linear. It’s bad design to jump straight from the Braun chamber into our heart-to-heart dialogue with our father; we need a little time to roam around and stretch our legs with some unscripted mechanical engagement. Besides, it would feel weird¬†to have a serious talk in the Stanford prison vault…although given that it seems perfectly safe and clean, and how emotionally urgent this scene is, it also feels weird not¬†to unless there’s actually a good reason.

Because¬†you know what else feels weird? Busting your dad loose, trading a few perfunctory pleasantries, then agreeing to defer conversation until you’ve both silently trekked across the wasteland, punching animals¬†and putting¬†the Project Purity band back together.

What would be¬†natural¬†would be to catch up with your father as you exit together, but the engine can’t handle that and it wouldn’t feel right even if we found a workable compromise–for example, breaking the conversation up between “nodes” along our trip.¬†Our story¬†demands a face-to-face comfortable dialogue the logistics of the scene isn’t disposed to give us.

There has to be a better way.

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Borderlands Part 14: The Plot-Driven Forcefield

By Shamus
on Oct 19, 2017
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It takes a lot of door-opening, fetch-questing, and button-pushing, but eventually the player breaks through the defensive layers to reach Angel. But before we get to her, I need to gripe about a plot door. This one:

Fine. I guess we have to do everything the hard way.

Fine. I guess we have to do everything the hard way.

That’s a “death wall” force field that will atomize you if you try to cross it. You need to jump through some hoops to enable Claptrap to deactivate the shield so you can pass safely. My problem is that this door doesn’t look like it should be that hard to get around. The space on the other side of the door is open to the elements, which means you should be able to get there via climbing or flying. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that the previous quests had you do a bunch of work specifically to enlist the help of a fleet of flying machines (called Buzzards) and they’re supposedly under your control now. In fact, they show up the moment the forcefield comes down. It should be trivial to get over this door. Even if hitching a ride on a Buzzard isn’t an option, later in this mission Roland climbs far more daunting cliffs than the ones on either side of this door. Not being able to bypass this door makes about as much sense as being trapped on an escalator.

To rub salt in the wound, the mission to grant Claptrap the ability to open this door is also the mission that got Bloodwing killed. A sympathetic character died for this cause, so it’s annoying that, in retrospect, all of that screwing around was apparently pointless. This would be fine if it was played for a joke or lampshaded, but it isn’t.

I’m not saying I think the developers should have added a Buzzard ride or a climbing minigame. (Please no.) I’m saying they should have changed the scenery so that these two options were no longer (visually) viable. It’s the old problem with 90s shooters: I’m fine with not being able to climb over a chest-high wall, until the moment you put my goal on the other side of said wall and require me to go miles out of my way through waves of foes. Just make the obstacle more visually insurmountable and the sidequest will be easier to swallow.

Anyway, it’s finally time to meet Angel…

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This Dumb Industry: Loot Boxes Are Not Gambling?

By Shamus
on Oct 17, 2017
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Last week the ESRB decided that Loot Boxes are not gambling. We’re talking about “loot boxes” in the sense of in-game rewards, not “loot crates“, the physical merch you can subscribe to. Also remember that the ESRB is a non-government, non-profit, self-regulatory organization. They’re the equivalent to the MPAA in the realm of Hollywood films.

I haven’t played a lot of games that use loot boxes. I played Counter-Strike, but that was in decades past, long before loot boxes. I played Team Fortress 2, but I was losing interest in the game just as the loot-based economy was taking off. (And there the boxes are free, but the keys to open them cost money.) I played the original Titanfall in online multiplayer, but I only spent a few evenings with it and I certainly never bought any microtransaction stuff. The point I’m getting at is that I have basically zero experience with boxes of the lootish variety. I can’t speak with any authority on how the the process works or how exploitative it might be. I’m not really here to convince you in-game loot packages are a good thing or a bad thing, only that I think this debate over “gambling” is an interesting one.

For reference, here is how I understand the system: The game will have some sort of reward-over-time mechanic where you slowly earn “boxes” of in-game items. The contents of the boxes are random. In the games we’re talking about in regards to this particular ESRB rating, these games will also offer you a choice to outright buy these boxes for real money. The trick is that not all boxes are created equal. Some boxes contain things that are so common they’re basically worthless, and some boxes contain exotic in-game goods that can only be obtained through boxes. Again, every game is a little different. Sometimes there’s a meta-currency somewhere along the process and sometimes the boxes are given randomly instead of over time, but this is the idea in broad strokes.

When the ruling was announced, the overwhelming response was, “DUH! OBVIOUSLY THIS IS GAMBLING HOW CAN YOU BE SO BLIND?!”

My response was, “How interesting. What do you mean by ‘gambling’?”

It turns out this is one of those insidious discussions where everyone has a slightly different ad-hoc definition that they assume is universal to all.
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TV I’m Watching: Penn & Teller: Fool Us!

By Shamus
on Oct 15, 2017
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Before I can tell you about this show, let me put it into some kind of personal context by telling a meandering story of why I like it.

I wasn’t into magic when I was young. I strongly disliked the dominant magicians of my childhood, which were guys like David Copperfield: A guy in a blousy shirt spins around for five minutes giving intense looks at the audience while he slowly makes showgirls disappear. It’s plodding, it’s boring, the music gets on my nerves, and I generally know what’s going to happen when the trick begins so there’s little suspense or surprise. I guess it’s fun being presented with a seemingly impossible situation and wondering how it happened, but that curiosity isn’t enough to get me through the show. Now, there were a lot of magicians working in a lot of different styles at the time, but I was just a kid. I could only see magic when it wound up on television and the stuff that wound up on television was based around using well-worn tricks as a vehicle for having leggy dancers strut around on stage.

And then Penn & Teller came on the scene, along with the new wave of comedy magicians of the 90s. I warmed up to magic a bit. I saw guys like The Amazing Johnathan and started thinking that this magic stuff was pretty cool. It’s a rapid-fire stand-up routine, but also a magic show, and they do more tricks in two minutes than guys like Copperfield do in an entire hour-long television specialThis is not to dump on Copperfield. He’s beloved and massively influential, but for whatever reason I don’t like his material..

Eventually I discovered Penn & Teller. And I hated them.

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Borderlands Part 13: What a Twist!

By Shamus
on Oct 12, 2017
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Roland decides that the best thing to do is steal the vault key from Handsome Jack. This means “hijacking” a train by blowing up the tracks and then stealing the vault key.

Along the way we meet Mordecai. Like our meeting with Lilith, the game goes out of its way to make his appearance a sort of awkward surprise reveal.

After that we meet Tiny Tina. Let’s talk about her…

Tiny Tina

Tina has the voice of Ashley Burch, the sister of the the writer of Borderlands 2. I guess it makes sense that this character clicks so well.

Tina has the voice of Ashley Burch, the sister of the the writer of Borderlands 2. I guess it makes sense that this character clicks so well.

If I’d been in charge of Borderlands 2 and Anthony Burch had come to me with the idea of making one of the main characters a 13 year old girl, I would have told him he was crazy. “There is way too much murder and torture in this universe, and we’re trying to play it for laughs. We can’t put a child in there!”

But Tina works. In fact, she nails the madcap tone the game is going for much better than any of the returning characters. She’s a demolitionist, and having this kid plot large-scale destruction while also engaging in frivolous little-kid chatter is kind of dark but also really amusing.

But her sidequest is where things get really dark. She throws a “tea party” for Flesh-Stick, a local psycho who killed her family. You have to capture Flesh-Stick and he ends up strapped to a chair where she can blast him with electricity. At the party she has tea and crumpets with her stuffed animals while also shocking Flesh-Stick. She basically tortures the guy to death while the player fends off the waves of psychos coming to rescue him. It’s completely screwed up and it even made me a little uncomfortable, but I really like that the game has an identity now. You can compare this to the “busted girl parts” of Borderlands 1. You might like this part, you might not, but at least we can tell where the humor is coming from and what the story is trying to say.

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This Dumb Industry: Ludonarrative Dissonance

By Shamus
on Oct 10, 2017
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A few months agoThis article was written soon after, but it was pushed back by 70s Suitcase and No Man’s Sky. Folding Ideas – a YouTube channel typically focused on movies – released a video making the point that Ludonarrative Dissonance is a useful concept, even if the conversation surrounding it was generally dismissive and a bit of a mess. In it, author Dan Olson references Campster’s video that touches on the same topic. I’m happy to see the word coming up again, and I’m even more happy that I didn’t need to bring it up myself. I think it’s an important concept. Or at least, I think the version of the word that I understood is important. There was also a medium-sized backlash against some alternate meaning of the word that I never really cared about, which is why I’m glad Dan was the first one to poke his head up for a quick sniper check.

Link (YouTube)

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TV I’m Watching: Archer

By Shamus
on Oct 8, 2017
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I love Archer. Having said that, I think this show has gone on about four seasons too long. Usually fans express this sort of thing in terms of “jumping the shark” or “the writers are out of ideas”. In the case of Archer, I think it’s clear the writers have tons of ideas. The problem isn’t a lack of creativity, the problem is that the Network doesn’t want to let a still-popular show come to an end so the writers can explore those new ideas.

Archer was devised as a riff on James Bond tropes. He’s a high-functioning alcoholic who is also rude, arrogant, selfish, womanizing, and idiotic. He’s a bully and a liar. But the worst thing about Archer is that he’s also really good at being a super-spy. Most of the comedy in the show comes from the banter between Archer and his long-suffering coworkers.

The show exists in this strange alternate world that blends present and past. The world still runs on 60s style tape-drive computers with monochrome CRTs, but they also have modern smartphones. The actual technology level of the world is “whatever technology the scene calls for”.

The thing is, I think they told all the James Bond jokes they had to tell. By the end of season 4, they were done. The James Bond tropes had been mocked. The 60s spy motif had been fully explored. In an ideal world, the show creators would then move on and make another show. They could pick a fresh genre (like 80s cop shows or detective shows) and give us a new premise with a fresh cast of characters. Instead they took the existing show and tried to jam it into those other genres.

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