This Peeve of Mine: Blind Choices

It is amazing how many games you can work through when you aren’t playing an MMO. For example, I cleared through Metro: Last Light, StarCraft 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper, Wolfenstein: the New Order, and am currently plowing through This War of Mine. All in the last two weeks. Granted, many of those all had completion times below ten hours, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising, but nevermind.

While I am not entirely done with This War of Mine yet, I did want to talk about it a bit. Specifically, about how the game has one of my least favorite “features”: blind choices. Or maybe “blind choices” is not entirely the correct term, but rather (unintentional?) obfuscation.

I first complained about blind choices nearly four year ago:

Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforeseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforeseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The game I was referring to at the time was the original Witcher, when the game asked me which quest reward I wanted to choose. While the game didn’t hide the the rewards themselves, the relative utility of each choice was very much in question. A book about vampires, your own hut, or the Wreath of immortelles? I chose the latter because italics, and it allowed me to easily bypass a long, involved quest.

Despite having chose the one with the most overall utility, I did not feel particularly clever because the choice itself had no real meaning. Do we praise the stopped clock for being right twice a day? Avoiding a designer trap only highlights the fact that the designers included a designer trap in their game in the first place, which automatically lowers my view of the overall design. It’s a cheap gimmick – one that is overcome only with knowledge that a player obtains after the choice is made. “Giving players the choice to fail” really just means the designers were unable to give players two or more good (or bad) options to choose between.

This concept get a bit murky when it comes to the roguelike genre though. Many roguelikes specifically include things like colored potions that have randomized effects on each playthrough. Sometimes you can minimize the mayhem such potions can cause, by being at full health and in a safe place before sampling the rainbow of colors you have collected. Such testing technically involves risk assessment and valuing the odds, which are pretty high-brow player skills. I was fine with The Bind of Isaac’s random pill effects, for example, largely because everything else about that game was so random it almost didn’t matter. When you could find out early which pills did what though? It sets you way ahead of the curve.

This War of Mine is more or less a roguelike. While the loot you can scavenge is random, it is also random which “scenario” you might encounter when going to a new location. This is generally fine. Roguelikes need randomness to maintain replayability in what otherwise would be short playthroughs. What I found less fine was when I realized that you didn’t need a lockpick to open locked doors, you simply needed a crowbar. That “makes sense” in a sort of logical way, but not always in a game logic way, especially not in a game that also features vegetables that grow to maturity in four days under a heat lamp.

Should the crowbar’s in-game description mention it opens locked doors? I would say yes. There is still a meaningful choice between crafting a lockpick over a crowbar (specifically the amount of noise it generates) when you know the full depth of information about the two. At the same time… well, Minecraft certainly doesn’t give you all the information you might need for a successful¹ run. I haven’t played it in a while, but the last time I did, I knew there was no way I would have ever guessed the correct configuration of materials necessary to craft a bow or shears.

Examining my discomfort in more detail, I suppose it comes down to wasting resources when outside knowledge is readily available. I had no problem playing Don’t Starve for hours and hours despite dying and losing all progress to the most mundane of causes. Murder Bees are serious business, after all. But chasing down the mats to build a blowgun and darts in what ended up being a nigh-useless tool? That pisses me off. I will happily fail in service to muscle memory, even if I lose progress along the way. I will not, however, be so keen to fail because I didn’t read the Wiki first.

There is a distinction between the two that I can feel, even if I cannot enunciate it clearly.

¹ With what constitutes success in Minecraft being left undefined.

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Posted on July 2, 2015, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I don’t entirely agree, but I certainly have had similar issues in games and at least understand your frustrations. I am mostly writing here for the Binding of Isaac mention, because I absolute love those games.

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    • Yeah, I have spent well over 50 hours in Binding of Isaac. Never played the expansion/remaster/whatever though.

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      • Rebirth is far superior. It feels completely different, even though it is a remaster of the original with twice as much content as before. There’s a lot of quality of life in it too. If you feel the itch to play more Binding, then I cannot recommend it enough.

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  2. To be fair, the in-game description of the crowbar is ‘Homemade tool you can use to pry open a few doors before it breaks. It does the job slowly and loudly.’ – which is not the worst summary. Also, in the initial shelter there is usually such a door or locked wardrobe on which one can experiment in relative safety.

    I love This War Of Mine for the atmosphere, possibly because I’m quite familiar with Eastern Europe and some of the cultural tropes are very deftly executed, but it does suffer from clunky combat mechanics and a fairly linear strategy/build order. A rogue-like needs to allow the player some room for adaptation to the hand he’s dealt. In TWOM the random loot/scenarios/buildings are either headwinds or tailwinds for the one course you need to follow anyway. Which deters replayability, which in turn deters unmasking the blind choices the hard way.

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    • I suppose I was more annoyed later on when I realized that the 2-3 lockpicks I picked up in the house were best used not in the house. I had encountered the boarded-up doors early on in my first playthrough, so at that point assumed the crowbar worked like the shovel (with debris piles) in making those easier to pop open. It wasn’t until I read the Wiki that I realized how dumb I was being using lockpicks inside the house.

      It might not have even helped in my case, but I wish they would insert the word “locked” into the description – “Homemade tool you can use to pry open a few locked doors before it breaks.”

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  3. My problem is that once you have enough information and can understand the result it just becomes a superficial choice, no longer meaningful. With those choices you will always make the most optimal one but for me there is something interesting about getting the unknown and unpredictable results.

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    • Are you suggesting it’s impossible to create two equally valid choices where neither is “optimal?” Or at least close enough that there’s no practical difference?

      I agree with Azuriel’s point in general — having to blindly guess because of a lack of information is not an actual meaningful choice. Might as well have the game just randomly pick for you, saves time, same result.

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