Fighting the Game Mechanics

I just completed Orwell, a sort of Papers, Please-style game that demonstrates the dangers of mass surveillance. As an Investigator, your job is to comb through a few suspects’ Facebook pages, text threads, and anything else you can get your hands on (including medical records) to glean info and connect dots to stop further terrorist attacks.

The game is actually pretty slick in an AR sense, and reminded me of that one old (2012 is old, right?) Youtube video, Welcome to Life. There is no fourth wall – you the player agree to terms and conditions and your participation as an outside observer is intended.

Overall, the game was decent entertainment across the six hours I spent playing. The frustrating part though was how often I ended up having to fight against the game mechanics.

One of the central conceits of the game is that you have to upload information to the Orwell system as “Datachunks.” Sometimes this is straight-forward factual information, like phone numbers or email addresses. Other times you have to exercise judgment and restraint based on context. If someone says they live in “Wonderland, on the other side of the rainbow” or whatever, uploading that will actually make that their address in the system. That example is benign, but as this is a game with multiple endings, you can actually screw things up depending on what you submit and what you don’t.

Yeah, maybe don’t imply that they engage in torture.

The problem I faced rather early on though is that Orwell is a videogame. And as a videogame, progression is based on “flags” which must be tripped before you can continue. There were at least four instances in which I could not progress until I uploaded a specific Datachunk that was not otherwise immediately obvious as being necessary. Once I did so, there would be a totally unrelated phone call or whatever I could listen in on to get more information and continue onwards. But as I mentioned, the game makes it clear that you shouldn’t just upload ALL of the Datachunks lest you pollute the profiles and/or possibly implicate an innocent person.

There is no option to just end the day, or move forward with the information you already have. I suppose it would be more frustrating to basically soft-lock you out of finishing the game at all if you end up missing a crucial bit of information. Nevertheless, Orwell felt like it existed between a visual novel and a Hidden Object game, the latter being a hypothetical one in which you could “lose” by clicking on the wrong thing.

I don’t have a solution to this problem; the Orwell devs don’t either. It’s a shame that an otherwise delightful experience could encounter so much friction in execution based on game mechanics.

Magic Legends: Dumpstered

About three months ago, I played Magic: Legends, and walked away with this impression:

At the same time, it feels like a colossal disaster in progress. Pushing buttons isn’t fun, the loot isn’t fun, and the monetization strategy isn’t fun. How much can realistically change in Open beta? If the answer isn’t “the whole damn thing” then Cryptic is in trouble.

Well, Cryptic eventually came to the same conclusion and is shutting down the game in October. Which is the correct move, although highly embarrassing. How many times has a game gotten all the way to Open Beta and then just shut down?

Our vision for Magic: Legends missed the mark, but we are proud of what we achieved. Thanks to Wizards of the Coast, we got to bring the expansive Magic: The Gathering Multiverse to a wide audience and explore new angles within the established ARPG genre. We learned several valuable lessons along the way, and we will use them to improve Cryptic’s future development efforts.

Sure, I guess it’s good in the scientific sense to “explore new angles” and determine what doesn’t work. But next time? You know… just ask. I’m available at a very reasonable rate. I played that shit for 10 minutes and almost noped myself out of there right then. You can’t have an ARPG where what buttons 1-4 do is randomly switched from moment to moment. I want to see the dev who deliberately designed it that way and went “Yep, I want to play like this for the next 200 hours.”

Non-Service Games

aka regular-ass games.

It is interesting how my perception of games has shifted in the many years we have been living under a “Games as Service” model. Cosmetics, DLC, loot boxes, and all the other myriad monetization strategies nefariously cooked up by black hat economists are just the way things are now. The one little light left in Pandora’s box is that of updates. The suits want to keep engagement high to keep the cash spigot on, so they task the devs with fiddling with all the knobs. Sometimes that ends up making things worse, sometimes maliciously so (e.g. adding time-sinks). But sometimes it works out, and on the player side, hey, at least it seems like someone cares about what’s happening.

Cue my surprise and disappointment and surprise at my disappointment at learning a recent game purchase is… done. Finished. Complete.

Fate Hunters is neat little deckbuilding roguelike I bought for $3.74. The visuals are like Darkest Dungeon, the gameplay is kinda like Slay the Spire, but honestly it plays more like Dominion. There is zero plot, and you only accumulate gold to purchase permanent unlocks if you make it past a boss and retire your deck. Oh, and gold is represented by Treasure cards in your deck, so the more you hoard, the more you dilute your deck. There is no energy, so you basically get to play as many cards as you can (Treasure cards notwithstanding). It is the most arcade-like roguelike I have ever played, but it’s engaging just the same.

It is also “abandoned.”

We finished the game and did almost everything we planned. But there will be no new patches and sequels.

(source)

“The devs are done with the game? Can they even do that?!” Fate Hunters actually plays pretty well – I did not encounter anything remotely close to a significant bug. There are some eyebrow-raising balance issues and some card tweaks that would make everything smoother IMO. The thought that nothing will happen with the game anymore though? It feels like I was duped. As though any game I purchase must have full dev support for at least the length of time I play it, lest it be abandonware. If you aren’t Terraria or No Man’s Sky, who even are you?

Well, you’re a regular-ass game from any time 20+ years ago.

[Fake Edit:] I was digging around and found out that the devs are making a new game that looks exactly the same gameplay-wise… but worse, graphically. It’s in Early Access and is called Dreamgate. On their FAQ thread, they mention:

Do you have experience in developing and releasing a game in Steam?

Our team has been developing games for over 7 years and our last game was Fate Hunter. But unfortunately, we could not continue to develop this game, because the rights to it did not belong to our team.

Based on our past experience, we decided to release our own game, the rights to which belong to us fully and which we could develop as we see fit.

So, there it is. Of course, they also mentioned in another post that they are a 2-man team and “this is not our main project” so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Caveat emptor and all that.

[Real Edit:] WTF. How many done games am I going to be buying?! Just found out about Griftlands:

At this time we don’t have any plans for more Griftlands content or DLC. That being said, who knows? I don’t like to ever say we absolutely won’t do more for a game because that often turns out to be not totally true, but at least for now we don’t have any plans.

(source)

Maybe devs don’t actually like deckbuilding games? Don’t Starve and Oxygen Not Included are both Klei games that have/are getting paid DLC and ongoing support and tweaks. Scandalous!

Impression: Griftlands

Griftlands is Klei’s entry into the roguelike deckbuilder genre. And in typical Klei fashion, it overcomplicates everything.

Dialog is actually pretty good across the board.

In some circumstances, overcomplication can be good news. It represents depth and complex systems and a high skill ceiling. Oxygen Not Included is a gem of a colony sim, and Don’t Starve is one of those genre classics that seems simple at first, but quickly demonstrates how deep the rabbit hole goes.

So what’s the issue with Griftlands? The complication is just time-consuming.

One of the central hooks is that Griftlands is a roguelike deckbuilding RPG. The three characters you can pick from each have an elaborate backstory and encounter numerous choices throughout the game. And speaking of backstory, the game’s lore is extremely elaborate and interesting. It takes place on a remote, swamp-like planet populated by the descendants of a spacefaring civilization that… stopped sparefaring. Most of the citizens worship Hesh, an inscrutable Cthulhu-esque monster in the deep ocean. So you have mechs, bioweapons, ancient tech, and post-apoc Thunderdome elements in this gumbo soup of a setting. It’s pretty cool.

Less cool is how all these RPG/Visual Novel elements interact with, you know, a roguelike deckbuilder. Like how my first playthrough with the first character ended when I died to the final boss after 7 hours, 15 minutes. While you can make different choices the next time around, in reality they are more of an A/B route sort of thing. Do you side with the authorities or the rebels? Do you double-cross the one dude or not? The final boss is always the final boss. My second playthrough was a success after five hours. And that was with me skipping some of the dialog I had already heard before.

Just a breezy 5 hour, 20 minute playthrough.

Even ignoring the story aspects, the deckbuilding side itself is complicated.

You start off with two decks, completely independent of one another: Battle and Negotiation. Whenever you come across an encounter, you often have the choice of determining whether to use one or the other. Generally speaking, Negotiation avoids “battle” encounters entirely, but sometimes they are used to weaken a particularly stubborn foe before fisticuffs. Negotiation is an entirely different battle system with different mechanics and even different “HP”. Additionally, you can “lose” in a Negotiation without losing the game, although that typically results in you no longer being able to do any more Negotiations for the rest of the in-game day.

On top of this, all cards have XP meters that increase as you play them. Once filled, the card gets one of two upgrades to choose from. The generic cards have a dozen or so potential options, but the main ones you get from shops or win from battle will just have the two options. This XP element will typically encourage you to stall battles out so you can level-up your cards, but this can only be done for X number of rounds before your character becomes exhausted. Nevertheless, the XP mechanic complicates things quite a bit considering the final encounter for each character is always a Battle, so choosing Negotiate all the time will lead to inevitable failure.

Turns out this combo is pretty strong.

On the Battle side of things, everything is more straight-forward. Ish. You face off versus one or more enemies like in Slay the Spire. You might get some help though in the form of a pet, hired goons, NPC helpers, or NPCs summoned from cards in your deck. Each of the three main characters have their own special mechanics. For example, one gets Charges that can be expended to boost cards, another takes self-damage that turns into end-of-turn self-healing, and so on. You can add cards to your deck after successful encounters or buy them from shops. Grafts are permanent items you, well, graft into your skull that act as passive abilities. And so on and so forth.

Oh, I forgot to mention about relationships. During Battles, enemy character have X amount of HP, and then a slightly higher threshold for Panic. For example, someone may have 80 HP but Panic once they get to 20 HP. Cause all the enemies to Panic and the encounter ends with you having the choice as accept their surrender or execute them. Executing characters grants you a special card, but will also likely cause one of their friends to hate you. This hate manifests as a Social Bane, which is just a persistent debuff that exists as long as they hate you. Some are whatever, but others increase the costs of all vendors, or cause you to lose money every time you sleep, and other nastiness. You can try and kill the person who hates you to erase the Social Bane, but unless you properly provoke them into a duel, you just continue the cycle of hatred.

On the flip side, Social Boons also exist. Most of the time they come from doing quests for people, but sometimes you can just straight-up throw enough money at someone to get them to like you. Just like in real life!

Are you feeling the overcomplicated-ness of this game yet?

Overall the game is fun, but honestly it is in spite of all of these systems. A particularly long Slay the Spire run takes me maybe 2-3 hours max. Doubling that for Griftlands does not double my fun. Indeed, the longer things go on, the more disappointed I become if I don’t succeed. The saving grace of most roguelikes is winning or losing quick enough that you can jump back on the horse without questioning your life choices. With Griftlands, you have plenty of opportunity to ask questions.

As a final note, there is a Brawl mode which eliminates all the plot and just lets you play battles in sequence. I just completed my first one before writing this… after 3 hours and 20 minutes. That is one long-ass roguelike experience.

Of Course, Of Course

Hades is coming to Xbox Game Pass on August 13th.

Of course, I bought it for $10 last week. About 5 hours in too, so that’s well past any refund window.

The double-whammy here is that thus far, unlike practically everyone everywhere, I am not actually having all that much fun. I’m in the third zone and all the enemies there are annoying to fight – every room is just me spamming dodge and left-clicking. It’s cool that there’s a lot of unique dialog and all, but that’s not particularly motivating in the face of dodge spamming my way back to the third zone and dying to some nonsense from annoying enemies. And it’s entirely possible that things just get worse!

So, yeah. If you haven’t played Hades yet, continue not playing it until mid-August and take it for a spin.

Summer Epic Sale

Are we still mad at Epic? Probably not, right? Back in the day, my ire was from Epic throwing Fortnite cash around to buy exclusivity contracts, which bypasses normally consumer-friendly competition. For the most part, that all seems to have died down. Instead, we have the equivalent of Steam sales with a bonus $10 off coupon for games $14.99 and up. Which makes for some rather exceptional deals.

Oh, and apparently they added the Wishlist feature at some point.

Here is what I am currently looking at (post-coupon):

  • Hades – $9.99
  • Death Stranding – $13.99
  • Griftlands – $5.99
  • Cardpocalypse – $4.99
  • Disco Elysium: Final Cut – $19.99
  • Borderlands 3 – $9.79

This is the second time some of those games have appeared on my list, but I know for sure that Hades is getting bought, at a minimum. Griftlands keeps being described as Slay the Spire 2.0/knock-off, which is a bonus in my book, and what sets it over the edge is that it’s made by Klei (Don’t Starve, Oxygen Not Included). I keep thinking that some of these will wind up on the Game Pass eventually, especially in the more-likely-than-not scenario in which I purchase the game but don’t play it right away. It’s hard to tell though, what big names will make it and which ones will not.

[Fake Edit:] I ended up buying Hades, Griftlands, and Death Stranding. Borderlands 3 is just as likely to be given away for free by Epic at some point, and I put in 18 hours into the Pre-Sequel before dropping it from boredom. Heard great things about Disco Elysium, but everything I’ve read puts it so out there gameplay-wise that I doubt it’s a game that would develop enough of an itch to play it right now. For example, if I’m in the mood for a new roguelike, Hades is basically it, as I’ve played most of the others.

Anyway, back to playing.

Mod: Darkness Falls

If it seems as though I fell into a hole… I kinda did. Specifically, in the form a mod for 7 Days to Die called “Darkness Falls.”

I have mentioned it before, but 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a game that somehow pushes all the right buttons for me. It has zombies, crafting, loot progression, skill points and XP, base building, a sort of tower defense angle (during the 7th day Blood moon), resource gathering, scavenging post-apocalypse buildings, and so on. A lot of those mechanics synergize with each other in interesting ways too. For example, you have to weigh the costs/benefits of clearing buildings of supplies versus mining for resources to build out your base to survive the Blood moon every 7 days. And knowing that a horde of strong zombies will be able to hone in on your position on a regular schedule gives meaning and structure around your day-to-day decisions.

The base game has been really good over the years, despite it still being in Alpha, but after 200+ hours the novelty wore off. Updates are more often on a yearly cadence, and sometimes the improvements are a step backwards in some respects. In Alpha 19, for example, loot progression has been tied to one’s “game stage.” What this means is that if you end up clearing out the Shotgun Messiah weapons factory early on – a sort of Tier 5 (the highest) dungeon – the big loot at the special chamber will include… Stone Axes and maybe a Blunderbuss. This was done to prevent people from potentially cheesing hard buildings and walking away with an AK-47 within the first two days, but come on.

In any case, Darkness Falls is one of the many (!) complete overhaul mods available for 7DTD. It takes the current game (A19.4) and rolls back some of changes made over the years while adding new enemies, new resources, dozens of new dungeons, and an actual endgame. The core gameplay loop is still there, including the Blood moon. But now you can choose two classes (out of 8) when you roll a character, and each class has exclusive access to some of the new (or old) mechanics. If you max those classes out, you can collect Skill Notes to build another class book and start unlock additional perks.

I have played so much in the last two weeks that I have perhaps burned myself out on it. Also, sometimes the mod just trolls you a bit. In some of the “custom” added dungeons, for example, they will have a full room of zombies just pop out of a wall and mob your face within seconds. Under default settings, you drop all your loot on death, and thus be extra boned from such maliciousness. I have tweaked my own settings so that I get to keep whatever is in my toolbar, so I don’t accidentally get stranded 2 km from my body, naked and alone.

So, yeah, that is what I have been up to. Like I said, I may be on the tail end of being burned out from playing the mod for so long. At the moment, I am stalling before heading into the endgame biome because I know that’s where the demons are and I don’t exactly have the proper endgame weapons/armor to take them on in a straight-up fight. But I am also getting concerned that the “surprise room of demons” gimmick is in my near-future and I don’t like it. That sort of thing would work better in co-op or something. When it’s just you, there is every incentive to cheese the zombie AI as much as possible to survive. Which… works, but also kinda sucks.

Preconstructed

It’s been a few weeks already, but one of the latest additions to Hearthstone has been Battle-Ready Decks. These are full decks (one for each class) you can buy straight from the Battle.net store for $20, and include 2-4 Legendary cards, a half-dozen Epics, and some smattering of Rares and commons.

Given that Hearthstone is a CCG, it is refreshing not to have to consider the Pay-2-Win angle. Of course it is P2W, like every CCG. So the addition of what Magic: the Gathering players would call “Preconstructed decks” into Hearthstone is not entirely shocking for the genre. That said, the manner in which Blizzard has rolled it out is a bit interesting.

To start, Blizzard included an FAQ regarding these decks:

  • Why can’t I buy a Battle-Ready Deck when the expansion launches?
    • We want to make sure we preserve the exploration phase of each expansion when everyone is trying out new and interesting things. We won’t be offering Battle-Ready Decks right after an expansion launches because the meta always needs time to settle at first, and we need time to analyze the resulting data to determine which decks we should offer.
  • Why can I only buy one? Will more Battle-Ready Decks become available for the next expansion?
    • We’re trying this limited run now to gauge community interest before we decide how expansive this should be.

There is a lot to unpack here.

The simplest “real” answer as to why these decks aren’t available to purchase right away is because it would cut into pack sales. Most Hearthstone decks these days heavily lean on their Legendaries to either close out games or flip bad situations on their heads. Thus, what you’re looking for in packs is cracking open the necessary Legendary cards to make a deck function. Getting all the ones you need straight away pretty much eliminates the need for you to open additional packs and then dust the unwanted cards and try to craft the missing pieces that way. Disenchanting a Legendary gives you 400 Dust, but crafting one costs 1600 Dust. Huge savings being able to get the right one straight away. Less need for packs means more Gold accumulation which you can use to purchase either cosmetics (which otherwise cost cash) or the mini-sets (same).

But let’s take it on face value that Blizzard really is more concerned with “preserving the exploration phase.” That’s good… and really good for Blizzard. By being able to analyze “hundreds of thousands of play sessions” prior to offering anything on the shop, they ensure that A) people early in the expansion buy packs/craft Legendaries, B) they identify what the most popular meta decks are for each class, C) they save themselves the embarrassment/costs of offering a poor-value or easily-countered deck for sale. That is technically a win-win-win.

Unless you are trying to not spend money, of course.

I do find it very fascinating though about Blizzard limiting the purchase to just one deck. I suppose there would be a mini-PR disaster if it seemed Blizzard was just straight-up saying “playing Hearthstone costs $200.” It does cost that much (technically more) for what I would say is a good time, unless you are willing to be considerably patient and underpowered for a few years. No one “needs” every Legendary from every expansion, but the tricky part is identifying the Legendaries – and class! Just ask Shamans – that will last 3 expansion cycles.

In any case, I ended up buying the Rush Warrior deck for $20. Why? To make the $5 offer more valuable.

Blizzard lately has gotten on a tear with limited time offers that are random Legendaries + X amount of packs. The offer that has recently come up is $5 for 5 packs and a random Legendary. Objectively, this is a real good deal, considering two packs are $2.99 in the store. What makes this deal a bit sweeter is the fact that Blizzard has enabled duplication protection for a while now, which means if you have Legendary X, you are guaranteed to not receive another copy of X until you have collected all other Legendaries.

Have you read this blog long enough to see where my mind started going?

All I was particularly interested in was the $5 deal. But if I took it and opened, say, Rokara, I would be sad if I later decided to purchase the Warrior Battle-Ready deck because Rokara was already in it. You do technically end up with two copies in that scenario, so you can disenchant the other for 400 Dust, which ain’t nothing. But it’s certainly not the equivalent of getting 1600 Dust (cost of crafting a specific Legendary) by changing the order of operations a bit.

My random Legendary ended up being Zixor, by the way. I had not realized that the random Legendary pool included all of Standard cards, and thus something from three expansions ago. It will still be Standard legal until 2022, but my internal calculous was based on the erroneous notion of it coming from the current expansion (good until 2023). Oh well.

Ultimately, did/will I get my money’s worth? Probably not. I do find myself playing Hearthstone more these days than, say, in the last few months. On the other hand, $25 is 2.5 months of Game Pass. Or any one of the dozens of games that I have on my wishlist but never buy even when they’re on sale because of the minute possibility they end up on the Game Pass. Gamepassgamepassgamepass. Sometimes it really fucks me up, you know?

What I do know is that Hearthstone is still somehow in the small rotation of games I actually do play for whatever reason, so perhaps this was a better deal than I think. For the average player who just wants to be able to play a competitive deck in Hearthstone, it is also a good deal for them. So even though I believe Blizzard is coming out ahead in a secretly nefarious way, maybe you just grudgingly pay for the $5 bottle of water at the theme park and then get back on the rides.

Frostpunk

After putting it off for a very long time, I finally booted up Frostpunk via the Game Pass. What I experienced is one the slickest, most engaging city-builder games that I never want to play again.

One of the reasons I put off Frostpunk for so long was because it was made by the same devs as This War of Mine. Which is a great game, but doesn’t actually make you feel particularly good while playing it. That is kinda the point, from a highbrow, tweed jacket game designer angle. “Here, experience what’s it’s like trying to be a civilian caught up in one of those wars you like to simulate. Have fun!” Aside from that, I also had an issue with the game having a lot of Blind Choices.

So, I had some dread going into Frostpunk.

The premise of Frostpunk is that there is some global cataclysm in an alternate timeline Earth that makes the world freeze over. You are charged with keeping your citizens alive next to a coal-powered Generator as you face increasing environmental threats from the outside, and social unrest from the inside. While there is an Endless mode, the base game really revolves around Scenarios, which have defined escalation points (within a range) and endings.

Like I said before, the game is incredibly slick. You see your citizens march around in the cold, making paths through the snow. Instead of a grid, the game is based on concentric circles around your circular Generator. Laying down roads is a requirement for buildings, but the roads helpfully follow curves by default. Even better, buildings allow new roads to be built beside them, so you never end up in position where you have to destroy a building to make a new road. Everything about placing buildings and such just feels great.

What is not so great is seemingly infinite gulf between utter disaster and zero worries.

Your citizens need food and shelter, and you need Wood, Steel, Coal, and Steam Cores in order to give it to them. No matter the Scenario, the overall world gets progressively colder as time goes by, so you are on the clock. In the beginning, you need to start collecting Wood and Steel from wreckage on the map, and start building tents for your people to sleep in. After about a week, you may be in good shape: you have a Coal Thumper producing infinite Coal (at considerable labor costs), maybe you have a Scoting party able to start exploring the wastes, you have enough food for the time being, and maybe a few buildings that allow you to get Steel and Wood.

Then things go to shit. Maybe refugees arrive. That’s technically good, because now you have a bigger labor pool. But you need to pump out a lot more tents to house them, and they are unlikely to be within the normal heat zone of the Generator. So you research expanding the heat zone, but turning that feature on consumes twice as much Coal as before. Oh, and the weather dropped down two levels, so all your original people are freezing their asses off, which makes them sick, which means they are out of the labor pool and piling up in Medical Centers. Less labor means less people getting food or gather Coal/Steel/Wood, which means you have less resources to build more insulated houses. Meanwhile, your Scouts are accumulating resources, but you have to make decisions on whether to keep going or return back to the city to hand over said resources and otherwise delay finding more/better resources later.

Now, challenging the player is Game Design 101. Starting the player off in an uncomfortable state and having them work towards feeling comfortable as a result of their own good choices is the Ideal. But what I have learned in my time with Frostpunk is that the inflection point is nearly a vertical cliff. Not in the sense of difficulty per se, but rather in how there is no gradient between struggle and success – one moment you are fighting for your life every day, and the next you have effectively solved the game. And each time it comes as somewhat of a surprise. “Oh… my Coal Mine shut down because I too much Coal. Let me just build more Resource Depots to hold more.” Then the Scenario is over and you’re done.

In this sense, Frostpunk is not a survival city-building game at all – it’s a puzzle game. Do A, then B, then C, then win. It is just a matter of figuring out what A, B, and C are. If you play Frostpunk like a steampunk Sim City, or an RTS without units, you will have a bad time. It is way too easy to get infinite resources, which is “balanced” by the fact that the game only lasts X amount of days for each Scenario. Which is fine, I guess. But why dress it up in such a slick package, including having five tiers in the tech tree, as if any of that matters?

Despite all of that, I nevertheless played through three of the four Scenarios in the base game and briefly contemplated the DLC. It’s fun-ish for the time I spent playing, and I absolutely ended up playing for like four hours straight in one of those “one more turn” Civilization traps. If you end up really liking the formula, there are higher difficulties and even “no death” runs for the ultimate masochism.

If nothing else though, the bar for city-building games have definitely been raised from a UI/feel perspective.

Post-It

I think I figured it out, what I want most in a game. I want this:

That’s a Post-It note I scribbled upgrade materials on and kept near my keyboard. While the Bow portion was for Valheim, the rest of it is for a Survival Management game called Dead in Vinland that I have played pretty heavily lately. Indeed, Steam says 48 hours in the last two weeks.

It’s difficult to discern whether Dead in Vinland is actually that fun. Hell, I don’t even know where or when I got it. After digging into my account history, it looks like it came from a January 2020 Humble Bundle? Anyway, I had been listlessly jumping from game to game because the games I want to play are unfinished Early Access titles. Which may be redundant but nevermind. Titles like the aforementioned Valheim, 7 Days to Die, Grounded. Basically every survival game ever – just got to add “content” to the list of things you have to scavenge for.

Thing is, I’m starting to realize that it may not necessarily be the survival genre per se. What I truly enjoy, what pushes all my buttons, is exactly what is on that Post-It note: Planning. I looked at all the camp upgrades in Dead in Vinland and winnowed them down to the seven that might actually have a meaningful impact. Then I could start making rational decisions on which to build first based on my available resources. It would be suboptimal to complete the two that both take 20 Wood, for example, as that is a resource that would take focused harvesting at the expense of everything else. Plus, Wood has other users whereas with Pelts I only need 30 of them total.

I do find it annoying in how few games allow you to take in-game notes. I have fun with Metroidvanias but dislike how next to none of them let you mark the map so that you know you need to come back to a particular area after getting the double-jump ability, for example. Technically, Hollow Knight let you mark the map, but only with weird icons that you had to purchase with in-game currency. Games like My Time at Portia let you make notes, but not in the way I wanted – if I’ve figured out that so-and-so really likes Apple Pies, let me attach that somewhere on the crafting screen itself. So, again, I can look at my available crafting materials and plan out the optimal route to utilize them.

I bring that up because it is not as though I necessarily enjoy just writing stuff on Post-It notes.

Well, actually, I do.

Names blurred to protect the innocent

And pondering further, it is not even necessarily that I want games where planning is required. Dead in Vinland can certainly punish you for a lack of planning – the antagonist demands a revolving tribute of goods every 7 days – and that’s not necessarily fun. It certainly drives the gameplay and gives you a reason to head certain directions, which is fine. Fun? No.

In any case, when I bust out one of my half-dozen Post-Its and start writing stuff down, I know that something is cooking. The game itself may not always warrant that level of planning – perhaps it will be a shock, but I do have a tendency to over-analyze things – but the act of doing so absolutely increases the net level of fun that is occurring. Or perhaps is just indicative of something occurring deeper beneath the surface and the product is fun.

Now, I just have to find a (finished!) game that is worthy of that attention.