The Hearthstone Americas Champion tournament aired this past weekend, and one particular game stood out: JAB vs Trump, Game 5. Or more specifically, this game-deciding bit of RNG at the final moments:
Now, the first thing I’m going to say is this: listen to that crowd. They’re loving it. I was watching the stream live and even I was going “OoooOOOoooh!” For all the derogatory “coin-flipping” and RNG flak Hearthstone gets, I think it’s pretty clear that watching these games can still be pretty exciting. Certainly more exciting than watching a perfectly mechanical, zero RNG game in which the outcome is known by turn four.
But as someone who watched the entire match-up, what gets me is how everyone always boils the RNG down to the final sequence… but seemingly ignore everything that lead up to it. This the final match in its entirety:
There is a ton of RNG at the beginning of the match, including a lot of amazing top-decks that changed the tone of the game. If Trump didn’t draw that Big Game Hunter to answer Dr. Boom, if the Shredder outcomes were different, if some other combination of cards were drawn… and so on. It reminds me of sports like football or baseball when mistakes are made with the final field goal or bottom-of-the-ninth plays. Everyone always remembers that last failure, and not all the other equally critical failures that lead up to it.
That thought then brought me to the Reddit thread in which someone wrote this:
You missed the whole pont, people say Hearthstone can’t be an esport because RNG isn’t affected by skill (mostly), so it’s more like playing bingo than a real sport in which there is 0% luck like soccer, or an esport like StarCraft 2.
There is no question that there is a lot of RNG in Hearthstone. But it is also beyond absurd to not recognize how much random bullshit occurs in meatspace sports as well. It is like suggesting all these soccer goals were 100% intentional, including the one where the guy tries to headbutt the ball, misses, and it bounces off his hip into the goal. Is the fact that a literal random number generator is not involve somehow make those “1cm to the right and it’d have bounced off the pole” scores less random?
Point being: randomness is involved in every asymmetric game, up to and especially including real-life sports. Are soccer games determined by coin-flips? Not ones we can see, anyway. But how else would you describe a penalty kick-off in soccer? That goalie has to arbitrarily decide to jump left or right, pretty much instinctually and before they see where the ball is heading. Or going back to card games like Poker – which a lot of people take very seriously – the most skillful aspect of the game is… bluffing. But what is that? If you read someone perfectly, all that really tells you is “they like/don’t their hand.” It doesn’t tell you what cards they have, or if yours could beat theirs.
I dunno. I don’t play Hearthstone as much as I used to, but I still enjoy watching it quite a bit. To suggest it can’t be an esport due to it having RNG moments though, is just ridiculously wrong. The randomness in other games is just more well-hidden. Perhaps we can say Hearthstone has too much of some arbitrary amount of RNG to be successful in an esports sense, but… is that really the criteria? Or is it “this is fun and exciting to watch?”
Having made it well into hour 30 of The Witcher 3, I am beginning to realize something about the plot. Namely, it is entirely incongruent with the actual gameplay.
The basic premise of Witcher 3 is that Geralt is looking for his adopted daughter, Ciri, who is also being chased by The Wild Hunt. So already there is a trajectory here to the plot, which is “quickly follow the clues to find Ciri.” But every other single element of the game clashes with any sense of urgency that the premise should be bringing.
For example, during a beginning segment of the game, Geralt finds out the baron of the area has met with Ciri. However, the baron refuses to give Geralt any details until he finds the baron’s own missing wife and daughter. Before you can do that though, you will likely need to gain some levels completing other side quests in the area. So you complete quests, level up, go find the wife, then daughter, then head back to the baron to get the full story, 15+ gameplay hours later. The end result is, spoiler alert, Ciri is no longer in the area.
Which of course she isn’t. Literally nobody is the world expects to find Ciri in the very first area indicated by the quest objective. It would actually be incredibly novel for a videogame to feature a “quickly chase down this person” plot structure and actually allow the player to find them in the first area if they are quick enough. It would also make said game really short, and almost punish the player by removing gameplay, but very novel just the same.
The problem in Witcher 3 goes deeper than just using a false sense of urgency though. The problem is actually having any plot whatsoever in an otherwise open-world game. Every time I decide to strike out on my own and investigate every abandoned shack in the woods, inevitably I encounter the end-result of some quest I have yet to accept. For example, I spotted a shack, looted it, found out there was a cave system beneath it, explored and looted that, noticed all the red-highlighted spots (indicative of quest markers), then left the area. An hour or two later, I got a quest to investigate the same shack, “discover” a monster nest in the cave below, and then fight said monster. I ended up feeling punished for exploring on my own.
The irony here is that Witcher 3 would have been screwed either way. It’s bad the way it is. It would almost be worse if there was some kind of plot lock on the cave system, because it would engender a feeling of false open world-ness. “Go anywhere you want! …except here. And there. And over there too.” It wouldn’t be much of an open world if you could only explore the empty bits.
The other thing that Witcher 3’s open world is demonstrating to me is how much I do, in fact, loathe fixed-level monsters in open-world settings. It is getting beyond frustrating to be exploring and exploring and all of sudden, skull-level monsters. I mean, it makes sense that there might be monsters out in the world that are super-deadly and Geralt would need to become more powerful to overcome. But quite often there is no delineation going on – you’ll be killing level 10 Drowned one moment, and then 50 ft away is a level 20+ monster. I suppose that it is more “organic” than just having all the monsters coincidentally more powerful near the edges of the map, but again, it feels bad to me as a player wished to engage with the “open” world. Especially considering all this really tells me is that the “right” way to play is to not explore anything until level 20+ so I don’t have to skip areas.
I don’t know. I suppose the conclusion I am coming to is that if a game offers an open-world setting, I almost want it to have little-to-no plot, or really level-based progression of any kind. Fallout 3 allowed me to explore every corner of the non-DC map by level 3 (and had scaling monsters), which is probably why I enjoyed that game so much. Minecraft of course lets you punch trees anywhere. I don’t remember being too put-off by Dragon Age 3 either. In the Witcher 3’s case however, I may as well go back to treating it as the hemmed-in, plot-centric game its two earlier iterations were.
…unless it’s Fallout 4 for $42.14:
While my parsimony is well-established, sometimes you just have to spend more money to spend less, you know? It’s Bethesda, I already know there will be crippling, horrible bugs on Day 1 and likely heading into Day 14. It is known.
…but I also know myself. Even if by some miracle I avoid spoilers (assuming there are story elements worth spoiling), I know that every other game I play during Fallout 4’s release to distract me from having not purchased it will necessarily be diminished. “I could be playing Fallout 4 right now.” “Am I having more fun than I would playing Fallout 4?” Thus, to me, in certain specific situations, not preordering will end up costing me more: either by breaking down and purchasing at full price, or by losing the value of fun from an already purchased game. So not taking them up on this deal is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Or maybe I just think ~$40 is a fair-enough price for this game and I don’t expect to be able to pay that amount two months after release.
…or maybe both. Yeah, probably both reasons.
The Witcher 3 is weird.
…what? You need more? Haven’t you played this game for 100+ hours already?
The weirdness comes from the juxtaposition of Witcher 3 (W3) getting some things outrageously, fantastically good, all while mired in mediocrity and out-right immersion-breaking shenanigans otherwise.
For example, the environment, the gritty, dirty, pustule side of medieval fantasy life is back with a vengeance and already a highlight of my Witcher experience yet again. When you walk around hearing peasants cough with genuine phlegm, it reminds you this isn’t Disneyland, this is real (fantasy) life. People lived in the muck, practically nobody has windows, of course they’d be walking around like diseased shit-bags. The entire Witcher series has always gotten this feeling down so well that every other medieval setting I have encountered since has felt like college freshmen at the Renaissance Festival in comparison.
Then you walk into an Inn and the barkeep is selling bottled water for 42g apiece:
In the panoply of absurd gameisms out there – having access to world-ending magical powers but being unable to open locked doors, etc – it might seem disingenuous to pick on W3’s Nestle-style gouging as immersion-breaking. But it is precisely the confluence of W3’s fantasy realism and its absurd gamey bits that make little details like this so prominent.
Playing on the next step above Normal-mode difficulty means that Geralt no longer gets healed by Meditating. Whereas you might have just chain-chugged Swallow potions in prior titles to beef up your passive regeneration, W3 has opted for the Skyrim-esque “scarf fifteen pieces of raw meat in the middle of combat” HP management system. Different consumables heal X amounts in Y amounts of time, so you typically need the best to survive.
And one of the best? You guessed it: plain ole H2O.
I haven’t cared more about water in any game since Fallout: New Vegas hardcore mode. Every time I rummage through a peasant hovel, stealing everything not bolted down, I do a fist pump every time I see a bottle of water. “Silver candle stick. Old bear hide. Ruby dust. Water… score! Time to fuck up some demons!”
I’m only halfway kidding.
Truly though, W3’s combat system reminds me of Blizzard’s game design philosophy between expansions: instead of simply fixing what was broken, CD Projekt RED decided to veer completely in a different direction… again.
The combat itself is fine, for the most part. What is different (again) this time around is consumable use. Potions are no longer limited by toxicity (Witcher 1) or preparation (Witcher 2), but rather by what amounts to “per encounter charges.” Craft the Swallow potion one time and you get 3 charges of it, which are automatically replenished by strong alcohol whenever you meditate for at least 1 hour. Craft every potion once, use them all in five minutes, and they all come back after meditation. I’m not really even convinced that any alcohol is actually being consumed to replenish the stock of potions.
While toxicity still exists, it is largely window-dressing considering how a single Swallow potion’s toxicity drops to zero before the potion’s effects even have time to wear off. And while the toxicity meter limits your ability to stack potion effects I guess, the Quick Use menu is limited to two items anyway (presumably to not blow the minds of unwashed console peasants). Decoctions represent longer-term buffs that fully use up your toxicity meter, but I’m not entirely convinced this move towards the trivialization of preparation was worth it. Witcher 2 went way, way too far the other direction – forcing you to use potions before you even knew combat was coming – but why the crazy swing the other direction? Pretty sad how much better the original Witcher feels in comparison.
In fact, that’s precisely where I am mentally every time I boot up the game. It looks amazing, sounds amazing, and generally feels amazing when playing in the moment. If you slow down a bit at all however, and the high-speed blur turns into a mishmash slurry of disparate game mechanics. I’m hoarding herbs and potions out of Witcher 1 habit while throwing back Honeycombs and Wolf Livers by the pound. I’m looting every building and outhouse in sight for crafting materials so I can craft low-level items outclassed by bandit drops so I can kill skull-level monsters guarding swords five levels below me. Random loot is random, but there comes a time when the designers need to put in some goddamn sanity checks, yeah? Sitting on the recipe for Enhanced Beast Oil for 10 hours while Googling where the hell regular Beast Oil is supposed to spawn is not my idea of good game design. Especially when the answer is a shrug.
So. Like I said: weird. Good, but weird.
But hey, Gwent is pretty cool. It’d be cooler if they actually let me have enough cards to make more than one faction deck after 25 hours, but it’s still fun.
For those who might be interested, here you go:
That should link you to a nigh-exhaustive list of all the anime (and manga) I have watched and remembered to write down over the years. While I will continue to actually write reviews in the future, I feel like that list will be good enough for a lot of those shows, especially the older ones. In other words, if we have similar interests and you want some recommendations, just sort the list by Score and work your way down.
As far as the scoring system itself, I had an internal rubric going, but I’m realizing that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense outside of my head. For example, is Serial Experiments Lain really a 9, above even Death Note? Well, Lain blew my mind back 2002 when I watched it, so that’s how I remember it. Chances are Lain would score lower if I rewatched it, or if I watched it for the first time after having seen Death Note. So just keep that in mind.
In light of that, it’s best to read my scores this way:
- 10-8: I really liked these shows, they made me feel something, go watch them.
- 7-6: These deserve a spot on your queue, even if you don’t watch them immediately.
- 5: It’s anime.
- 4-1: I wouldn’t bother.
So there you go. If you have a similar list you would like to share, or notice some glaring omissions in my anime resume, feel free to post them in the comments below. I prefer shows that are on CrunchyRoll, but I have access to FUNimation and even BakaMT.me for the older stuff.
Saw that Witcher 3 was $27 on GMG. Bought it. Time to download & install.
Oh, right, this is a brave new DRM-free world in which I have to manually download and compile all my shit in 4 GB chunks. Let me get right on that, every 30-45 minutes, for the greater part of an afternoon.
Hey, finally done downloading. Now to just run the setup…
Okay, “Grand Old Games,” you win. I’ll download your
Steam Galaxy client to get this sorted out. Oh, there is even an Import folder option, so I won’t have to redownload 33GB of files? That will certainly salvage my evening!
So here I sit, five hours later, starting the download from scratch within the Galaxy client and deleting 30+ GB of game files that would have instantly, invisibly worked on Steam ages ago. All to avoid some hypothetical apocalyptic scenario in which one of the most successful videogame companies and digital storefronts of all time shuts down the money-printing machines. Or my Steam account gets closed under mysterious circumstances and never gets sorted out. And, you know, my entire library of titles end up moving to GOG where I could have bought them in some parallel DRM-free world.
Competition is good though, right? Yeah, it’s worked out great when Mass Effect 3 is trapped on Origin and the goddamn DLC never goes on sale because EA doesn’t have the balls to reign in Bioware’s insane adherence to their arcade token currency. If ME3 were on Steam, we’d sure as shit have seen a dozen DLC sales by now. Or how Witcher 3 is requiring this nonsense, bringing up the total number of game launchers on my machine to 3-5, depending on if you count Battle.net and uPlay or not.
Good thing we have all these launchers competing on sales though, right? Or wait, was that 3rd-party game sites selling Steam/GOG/whatever keys? I honestly don’t even remember the last time I bought a game within Steam, or any client. Why would I?
…well, now at 13.9% downloaded. Guess I’m going to have to find something else to do. GG GOG.
I’m still slowly working my way through Pillars of Eternity, but this is starting to irk me greatly:
Pillars is not, of course, the first game to tie your in-game dialog responses to statistics or skills. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas come immediately to my mind, for example. But on reflection, I don’t really like it in those games either. I find Pillars a bit worse in this regard though, due both to how much more difficult it is to actually raise your abilities, and how this game is supposed to be a spiritual successor to, you know, stuff like this:
Ironically, Plansescape Torment also required certain attributes to be above an arbitrary threshold to unlock dialog options, so perhaps it is not the best of examples.
Or maybe it is. After all, the attribute breakpoints were invisible.
And I guess that is what annoys me the most: I do not understand the point of showing me dialog options I can never select. I don’t care that the other options would have only increased my quest payout by 100 copper, or saved me from one additional encounter, or given me an extra potion.
As a designer, what are you trying to communicate to me? The fact that I made poor decisions on the character select screen hours before actually playing your game? Are you trying to signal that certain skills will be important in the future? If so, are you giving me any tools or resources to achieve those thresholds later? I mean, clearly I can do nothing about these forbidden choices in the middle of the conversion, or even after I reload the game really. Or am I supposed to simply keep this in mind for some hypothetical second playthrough?
Truth be told, I was a bit miffed back in the day once I realized that most of the best dialog options in Planescape Torment were locked behind Wisdom 18+. But the game never rubbed my face in it, or otherwise treated dialog so… gamey.
Speaking of which: why are we all tying dialog to abstract attributes in the first place? For roleplaying purposes? To cause players to handicap themselves with useless Feats/Skills/Talents so players can’t be good at fighting and not fighting? Just give me my dialog choices and let me work things out from there. Or don’t and just not tell me about it.
This middle way is the worst of all worlds.
Genre: Sci-Fi, Near Future, Drama
Steins;Gate is a gripping, emotional drama that also reminds me of why I hate time travel as a narrative mechanic so much. The anime follows the eccentric teenage “mad scientist” Rintaro Okabe and his two friends/Lab Members as they spend their days fighting the “Organization” and otherwise goofing around with gadgets. After going to a conference on Time Travel, Okabe encounters a woman stabbed and lying in a pool of blood. Shaken, he texts his friend about the incident while the Phone Microwave gadget was running… and his text arrives 5 days in the past, changing the future.
What is brilliant about this anime is exactly what I dislike about the conceptual narrative. The first half of the anime explores the nature and limitations of the “D-Mail” system – the ability to send a phone text to someone in the past – and each successful D-Mail permanently changes the world and resets everyone’s memories to match it… other than Okabe, who remembers everything. Later on, the anime darkens considerably once Okabe realizes the butterfly effects of all these changes and the seemingly inevitable future it portends. And that is the rub. Each time the world is changed, everything that happened previously ceases to be. Okabe (and you) remember that other world, but it’s irrelevant in a practical sense, erasing huge swaths of continuity and character development.
Make no mistake, Steins;Gate is a superb, shocking, draining anime and by far the best version of Time Travel I have encountered in fiction. I still hate Time Travel as a narrative mechanic though, and my attachment to the characters of Steins;Gate and their sacrifices (which are erased) only deepens my antipathy for it.
But if you have no issue with Time Travel? You should see this anime yesterday.
Genre: High school romantic comedy
In a nutshell, Toradora is a high school romantic comedy with enough dramatic elements and interesting characters to set it apart from what otherwise amounts to another entry in the busiest anime genre of all time. The show follows Ryuji, a high schooler who looks like a delinquent but is actually fairly sensitive and domestic, and his new neighbor Taiga, the short “palm-top tiger” with an even shorter temper. Once the two of them realize that they have crushes on the other’s best friend, they set differences aside while trying to set the other up with their crush. As you might expect, misadventures and misunderstandings abound.
Overall, I really enjoyed Toradora to the tune of crushing all 25 episodes across two days. As mentioned, there is enough drama and emotional scenes to set the anime apart from its peers, if the quirky characters did not do so already. And most importantly? There is actually catharsis by the end; this is no harem comedy in which nothing is resolved by the final credits.