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Freedom from Hunger

I am currently playing through a rougelike called “Wasted,” and the experience has been interesting. It is an Adult Swim Game that I believe came in a Humble Monthly Bundle or something, as I don’t remember purchasing it. The premise is very non-serious – think Borderlands rougelike with permadeath – but that’s not particularly relevant. What’s relevant is the addition of the SOB Purifiers.

The general gameplay in Wasted pretty common in terms of opening doors, killing enemies, avoiding traps, grabbing loot. After about two minutes on each floor though, an extremely deadly (albeit predictable) enemy spawns at the entrance and slowly makes it way towards you. The first few times I encountered these SOBs, I very nearly quit playing the game entirely. Why do they need to exist? How much bullshit is it that their miniguns basically stunlock you? The SOBs seem to have sucked all the fun out of exploring the levels.

After a while, I realized something. Namely, that I wasn’t experiencing Fallout-esque burnout.

As the developer has gone through great lengths to point out in the Steam forums (even getting a bit saucy in the process), the Purifiers exist as a gameplay element to shepherd the player around and drive them forward. You aren’t supposed to be exploring, you should be making some strategic gambles on your way to the exit. If I had all the time in the world, I would be fully healed before opening any door, spending 99% of the gameplay crouch-sneaking, and micromanaging an incredibly-limited inventory with the attention of Warren Buffet. In other words, I’d be playing it just like I play every other post-apocalypse game. Or most games, period, if I’m honest.

Other roguelikes have addressed the “problem” of over-exploring characters with Hunger mechanics and the like, but the Purifier feels really interesting to me now. Mechanics like Hunger don’t actually impact my behavior in those games; if anything, it just makes me more committed to looting all the things in the vain hope that there is some half-rotten morsel in that broken filing cabinet. Hunger also evokes that most-hated of all gameplay mechanics: the Breath meter in underwater levels. It feels oppressive, cheap.

After I got over the first few bullshit deaths to Purifiers that nullified hours of progression, I started to realize how… well, elegant is not the term, but perhaps “fair” they are. The Purifiers always spawn in the same location (the entrance to the floor you started on), after roughly the same amount of time, and always move towards your location decently slowly. If you happen to be in a circular sort of area, you can lure them to your location and then double-back behind them. Yeah, getting caught in a long hallway or dead-end sucks, but the Purifier’s arrival is announced both when they spawn and as they get closer to your location (the music changes).

In a real sense, Purifiers give you a sense of agency that Hunger does not. If I hit a fork early in a level, I might skip the locked door (which the exit is never behind) so as to give myself more time to explore a later fork. Or maybe I’ll lay some traps near the entrance to the level so that the Purifier spawns in a mine field that will hopefully cripple a leg and give me additional time. And, hey, even if I just barely escape through the exit at the last possible second, I know that I still get a full X minutes to explore the next floor without having to worry about them. That is a far cry different than Hunger or whatever, which often represents a cumulative loss of time.

For the record, I am taking this mechanic way more seriously than the game does. Indeed, the premise of the game is drinking Booze and getting radioactive hangovers that will help/hurt your next Booze run. But the problem that Wasted solves with Purifiers is a problem that exists in every roguelike (and arguably any survival game), and it’s the best solution I’ve seen in quite some time. I’m not sure it would be especially applicable in future games ala Fallout 5, but I hope the eventual solution is more akin to this than something else.

I don’t think I can stand the freedom to collect 10,000 tin cans anymore.

What is Dragon Age Even About?

I was trying to describe the Dragon Age series to a friend the other day, and failing miserably. You see, this friend is a huge fan of the Mass Effect series. Should be easy, right? “It’s like a fantasy Mass Effect. It’s even made by the same studio!”

Except that is not really true.

I mean, yeah, it’s made by Bioware. But the longer I look at the Dragon Age series as a whole, the less it looks like a coherent narrative and more a mishmash of one-dimensional fantasy tropes. Dragon Age: Origins was a breath of fresh air with the Mage/Templar relationship, turning Elves into wandering Gypsies, and otherwise subverting a lot of traditional fantasy. Perhaps the genre has evolved in parallel or the novelty has worn off, as these days I’m finding the Dragon Age setting floundering for an identity.

I liked the Grey Warden schtick in the first game, even if it ultimately meant you were fighting dragons and orcs. In Dragon Age 2, you really weren’t doing anything of note; things just happened around you. While there is still time for Inquisition to kick into gear plot-wise (no spoilers, please), I’m at a bit of a loss in mustering up the motivation to care about anyone around me. Don’t get me wrong, party banter is pretty much the reason someone plays Bioware games; I just find it hard to like someone when there’s no real context for their decisions or personality.

For example, I have lost all investment in the Mage vs Templar narrative arc. The concept of anti-mage knights overseeing mage initiation rituals was pretty cool in the first game. It evoked a sort of Wheel of Time “mad dog on a leash” image; I started thinking that perhaps a similar thing should exist in the Star Wars universe vis-a-vis Jedi. It gets the mental gears moving, you know?

But now we are left with insane Mage vs insane Templar generic fantasy 101. My next Inquisition plot point indicates I will need to choose between seeking Mage support or Templar support, with the decision being mutually exclusive. I’m honestly about two seconds away from looking it up on the Wiki and making a decision based on which side gives the better loot. Quite simply, the game hasn’t given me any reason to care about the outcome. Compare that to my utter agony over the Genophage decision in Mass Effect 2. Same sort of binary, morally grey decision, but Mass Effect managed to get me to care. Dragon Age doesn’t even try anymore.

If someone asked you to sum up the Mass Effect series, you could say “scrappy Commander gets ship, builds galactic coalition to defeat Reapers.” As for summing up Dragon Age… uh… hmm. “Series of unrelated scrappy heroes collects NPCs and fights mobs.” Obviously it’s a lot harder to come up with a coherent narrative when you change heroes every game, but I’m not sure how much slack Dragon Age deserves. The Far Cry games have nothing to do with one another, and yet I can feel the thread that binds them. Where is the Dragon Age thread? What is Dragon Age even about?

I think Bioware would have been a lot better off sticking to the Grey Warden angle. Having a new Blight every game would be pretty formulaic (and unsustainable), of course, but I would of loved to have seen a more nuanced exploration of what life is like for the condemned Wardens in the post-Blight period. Sort of like a subverted fantasy plot, wherein your coalition and party members start strong and then fade out, slowly ground to dust via political machinations that find the Warden treaties inconvenient once the world is no longer ending. Perhaps there is a schism that develops amongst Wardens that desire children and security for their families. Maybe the Mage vs Templar rebellion could have started by the Mages deciding to free themselves en masse by joining the Warden cause.

Shit, can you imagine? Do you allow the Mages to essentially subvert the Warden code to emancipate themselves? They get their freedom, but there won’t be enough safeguards amongst the Wardens to keep a check on their power. Plus, what of the nobles who suddenly see the Wardens become a stateless army whose treaties supersede their sovereignty? Do the Wardens become complicit in the subjugation of Mages by rejecting them, especially when the Templars crack down extra hard after the attempted mutiny? Meanwhile, an Archdemon stirs from the all the conflict and bloodshed…

That would be an interesting decision. Not choosing between two NPC leaders that I was introduced to 10 seconds ago.

Who knows, maybe Inquisition will turn out to be super interesting in the final analysis. It isn’t terribly interesting now though, and it will have a hell of a time matching the plot I just invented a minute ago. The game is still fun, but I’d rather be playing Skyrim 2. Since I can’t, Inquisition will have to do.

Wrong Choices

Ghostcrawler tweeted the sort of thing I’m sure sends “real” MMO players into howling fits:

“No,actually,there is not a wrong choice.Wether we(players) buy new items OR upgrade old ones should be our decision,not DEV’s.”
Giving players the ability to make choices with wrong answers doesn’t make players happy overall. (Source)

Choices having bad consequences is the best (only?) way to make a decision matter, as the argument goes. However, this quote got me thinking: do such players actually enjoy being able to make the wrong choice, or is it simply that the bad choice existing (which they did not pick) validates their good decision? Or put another way, who really likes making bad decisions?

I understand that the demonstration of skill necessitates there being wrong choices. Demonstrating skill, or improvement thereof, is fun. At the same time, the Mass Effect series (for example) was fun to play even though there weren’t any “wrong choices” (provided you weren’t specifically looking for X result).

There is only ever one correct answer to the questions of “which does the most DPS” or “what is the most efficient use of resources.” Ergo, is there actually any real decision to be made when one is correct and the other(s) not? I suppose the fun is supposed to be the result of figuring out which one is which, but that sort of clashes with the mockery and disdain frequently attributed to those who don’t look up the correct decision from the Wiki/EJ. Compare that to the question of “which transmog set is the best?”

I do not believe that there has to be a wrong choice in order for choices to be meaningful generally. We make identity choices every day – what type of person do I want to be, what do I believe in? – and I do not think that anyone would suggest that those choices are either irrelevant or have wrong answers (well… no one with any sort of self-reflection). And while I am willing to concede gameplay being under the (broad) umbrella of choice, e.g. one makes a wrong choice by pressing 11342 instead of 11324, I consider there to be a distinction between executing a rotation under pressure versus avoiding falling into a designer trap. One has its place as a legitimate test of skill, and the other is simply you winning via a few mouse clicks several months ago.

Character Select Screen

It sometimes depresses me to think about how different a game experience can be depending on the singular decision you make at the character select screen.

As you might have seen down in the Now Playing sidebar, I have playing Borderlands 2 (BL2) for the past couple of weeks. While it might be easy to think that the character select problem would be worse in MMOs – by virtue of spending 100+ hours instead of 30-70 hours – I actually think it can be more important in shorter, single-player games given you are less likely to replay them.

Right now, I am level 40 in the New Game+ Mode as Zer0, the assassin character that can basically focus either on sniper rifles or melee attacks. While my power to go invisible while projecting a holographic decoy has been useful (I have literally one-shot a few boss fights with a melee attack), I am finding it significantly less useful when all the enemies seem to have 10x more health this time around. Also, the power is pretty useless against the larger bosses with their instant-kill melee attacks¹.

I could technically respec to a more sniper rifle-focused build to get around this problem, but it occurs to me that BL2 characters sans their special move are basically all the same. In other words, a sniper-built Zer0 that doesn’t use the Deception skill regularly is just a gimped version of a sniper-built Axton/etc. Plus, it really annoys me that Zer0 is the only character without a passive health regen talent, meaning one of my equipment slots is permanently taken up with a health regen relic.

In other words, I have a pretty big case of Other Class Envy at the moment.

Does it really matter all that much? No. But that is kinda the problem, too. I went ahead and created new characters for all the “classes” and leveled them up enough to unlock their special abilities. But the thought of plowing through the entire game on normal again, which I have already started via Zer0 with New Game+, was just too much to bear. The gameplay would be different with a different class, but not that different. Hence the unlikelihood of ever seeing how the other classes play out. The waveform has collapsed, and there is just the one timeline.

Which got me to thinking: does anyone else worry about picking the “wrong” class at the character select screen in a new game? And the followup question: how do you end up picking a character?

For me, I try to do a little research on how a class is supposed to function by the end of the game before I even start, including looking at every talent tree. Then, I usually get over my inevitable decision paralysis by just picking whatever sounds interesting to me at that moment. My first WoW character was a warlock because I heard they were rare but prized members, crushing their enemies under the weight of a thousand DoTs; I abandoned it somewhere in the Hinterlands, and rerolled my namesake paladin on the basis of always liking D&D paladins but chaffing at the Lawful Good requirement. With BL2, I chose Zer0 because Lilith’s special ability in the original Borderlands was handy in escaping otherwise certain death, and Zer0’s sounded the closest to that.

Around 70 hours into BL2, I kinda wish I would have just picked Maya. Or Axton. Or… yeah.

I would settle for being allowed to start new alts out at level 20ish. Gearbox, make it happen.

¹ I am aware that a level 50 Zer0 with a few specialized pieces of equipment can solo the 4-player raid bosses. Unfortunately, that does not particularly help my enthusiasm gap right now.

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