The Outer Hype, Also
I finished Outer Wilds last week. Finally.
As with its similarly named cousin, The Outer Worlds, I walked into this experience under the cloud of effusive praise. Polygon named Outer Wilds Game of the Year 2019 and added it to their Game of the Decade list (#25). Which… makes sense, I guess. It would be kind of awkward for a GOTY to not be good enough for the decade.
But if Outer Wilds is Game of the Year 2019, then 2019 must not have been a good year for games.
To be fair, there are a number of praise-worthy elements to Outer Wilds. The premise of a time-loop mystery is fairly unique (Majora’s Mask notwithstanding). The lack of any form of combat is similarly rare. The game does a really nice job of simply letting you jet around the solar system right from the get-go. The soundtrack is great and the visuals and setpieces can be breathtaking. In truth, there is a lot to like here. The fact all this novelty and ambition came from an indie dev with a dozen people is the commendable bow on top.
It’s just that… the game isn’t for me. Or possibly you.
Everything was great for about two-thirds of the experience. Once you get the controls down, you can wake up from the beginning of the time loop and be orbiting any planet in the solar system within minutes. The impending supernova did grate on my nerves a few times, as it always seemed to occur when I was 90% done exploring a specific location, requiring me to make a return trip to finish up and then suiciding so as not to limit exploration time somewhere else.
As with all videogames though, things escalated from there. Exploration started requiring some gnarly platforming, where failure often resulted in survival… but lost minutes, of which you only ever have 22. So it may as well have been death. Then the game required gnarly platforming AND specific timing. It wasn’t enough to discover where you needed to go for the next clue, you also had to be there at a specific timeframe.
Up to this point, I had been doing everything on my own. But when I encountered a particularly annoying timing puzzle I could not solve after repeated attempts, I was ready to abandon the game. As is often the case, when I broke down and looked up the solution, it was something that should have been obvious. But immediately following that one sequence were many more that would not have been obvious (to me) at all. Still later sequences require you to sit on your hands for 7+ minutes before getting the opportunity to finish navigating a hallway that becomes impossible to complete within 30 seconds of the window of opportunity opening. Who is this fun for?
And that’s the $25 question. Or in my case, $17.80. And the answer is: Not me.
This should not have been much of a surprise. I don’t actually like Adventure/Puzzle games. Or more specifically, I abhor games in which you can come to a hard stopping point and flounder around not even knowing what it is the game is asking you to do. Can’t beat a boss? Gain more levels, or memorize its attacks, or try a different strategy. Can’t get into a locked room? Well, unless there are some movable statues right outside or a monster with the key, then good luck. There could be any number of reasons why the door is locked, up to and including the fact you aren’t supposed to go through the door. And when the solution ends up being “attach a probe to it and then wait FIFTEEN MINUTES for the entire structure to be sucked into a black hole and ejected out into space and then go through a different opening altogether,” I’m not exactly happy at the designer’s cleverness.
Nevertheless, I am glad I played Outer Wilds, if for no other reason than to see for myself as to whether it is a transformative experience. Again: not for me. I can see how it could be for some people though. Maybe. I’m not really sure, actually, because I find it difficult to imagine the sort of person who is capable of working through the entire game without a guide and also receptive to its underlying message. The guides I used didn’t ruin any of the details, but the experience itself gets a bit disjointed when you’re Alt-Tabbing every few minutes.
But if you are a fan of timed, Adventure platforming roguelikes though, you are in for a treat.
As you may have heard, I continue to play Slay the Spire.
I have beaten the “normal” game dozens of times with all three default characters, and have unlocked all the cards and relics. When you defeat everything with all three characters, you can unlock a fourth stage with a super-secret boss, and you also unlock Ascension Mode. Each character has their own Ascension Mode tracker, and defeating the standard final boss will increment the Ascension Mode up one digit, to a maximum of 20. What happens on each level is the following:
- Elites spawn more often.
- Normal enemies are deadlier.
- Elites are deadlier.
- Bosses are deadlier.
- Heal less after Boss battles (75% of missing health)
- Start each run damaged (-10% health)
- Normal enemies are tougher.
- Elites are tougher.
- Bosses are tougher.
- Ascender’s Bane
- Start each run with 1 less potion slot.
- Upgraded cards appear less often. (50% less)
- Bosses drop less gold. (25% less)
- Lower max HP. (-5 for Ironclad, -4 for Silent and Defect)
- Unfavorable events.
- Shops are more costly. (10% more)
- Normal enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
- Elite enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
- Boss enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
- Fight 2 bosses at the end of Act 3.
I have been focusing on playing the Silent, the 2nd character, and achieved Ascension 15.
Also, I am so done with this game.
This particular Ascension mode design is rather brilliant in a lot of ways. Many games have harder difficulties, including roguelikes, but most of them are not as granular as this. The first “downside” of more Elites, for example, is not technically a downside for someone skilled with the game – each Elite enemy killed will result in a Relic, which can substantially improve the rest of a run. It’s often advised to target as many Elites as possible in the first Stage, to either wash out a weak deck early, or load up on goodies when the risk to your time is low.
Plus, there is the more mundane benefit to the fact that even if you are a super pro player from the start, you still need to play through and beat the game 20 times before you reach the hardest difficulty. Per character! That’s a lot of gameplay. Or grinding, depending.
I lasted way longer than I thought I would at the beginning (Ascension 15, remember), but the fundamental truth is that each time I succeeded, each subsequent game became less fun. By design. Well, presumably I am supposed to become more and more proud of my ability to overcome challenges, but that doesn’t really happen in practice. Especially in Slay the Spire’s case, where after a while things become more and more RNG-based as the margin for success shrinks.
This is probably for the best. I prefer the discrete finality of a rolling credits screen to the ashes of burning out, but an ending is an ending. Now maybe I can move on to something else.
Sense of Pride and Accomplishment
In addition to Hollow Knight, I have been playing a bunch of Dead Cells lately.
Because apparently I hate myself.
Dead Cells is basically a roguelike Metroidvania that has more in common with Rogue Legacy and Binding of Isaac than, say, Hollow Knight. Defeating enemies occasionally gives you a currency (Cells) that you can spend at the end of each level to unlock permanent upgrades and blueprints of items that are then seeded into the item pool of future runs. Of course, that assumes you make it to the end of the level – die before then, and you lose everything you were carrying, and have to start over at the beginning of the game.
Of course, that’s how roguelikes work. It’s expected that you start over a bunch of times. And in this regard, I definitely felt less terrible after a death in Dead Cells than I did in Hollow Knight.
…up until The Hand of the King encounter, that is.
The final boss in Dead Cells is so absurdly more difficult than anything that comes before it. While its attacks are not inherently “unfair” beyond their massive power – they can be dodged just like everything else – most of them will prevent you from utilizing health potions, lest you get hit again mid-swig. Thus, you have very little opportunity to practice learning his moves, and dying here means it’ll take at least ~30 minutes of re-clearing everything else along the way to get another shot.
Well, after 26 hours /played in Dead Cells, I finally killed the last boss.
According to conventional wisdom, I should be feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. I died to this boss at least ten times, re-clearing the entirety of the game to get another chance each time. The fight itself is difficult, and difficult = rewarding. Permadeath confers a sense of risk, and overcoming risk = rewarding. Right?
I feel none of that. And it sorta makes you question the whole “difficulty” edifice.
To be fair, I did not expect to win on the particular run that I did. The items offered on each run are random, and while you can sometimes affect the odds by resetting shop items, the best gear drops from bosses and you don’t have many shots at those. I had strolled up to the final boss several times before with what seemed to be unassailable combos, only to die embarrassing deaths. On the winning run, I made a last minute substitution that basically had no particular synergy with anything – it simply offered an extra 30% damage reduction, which apparently was enough to get me over the finish line.
I have never particularly believed that difficulty was valuable in of itself. But the total emptiness of having beat Dead Cells makes me question why I ever tried to debate anyone on difficulty previously. It is often taken as a given that “log in, collect epix” is bad, and defeating the game on extreme permadeath Ironman mode (or whatever) is good. But I know for a fact that I would have enjoyed Dead Cells more had I beaten the last boss two runs earlier than I did two runs later. And that disappointment and dissatisfaction I felt at losing was not made up by eventually winning.
What makes the situation all the more absurd is that there is a lot more left to Dead Cells. Defeating the last boss unlocks “Boss Cells” which are essentially bonus modifiers you can apply to all enemies and bosses. Defeat the last boss on this new, higher difficulty and you unlock another Boss Cell slot. And so on, up to 4, which is the current limit. Ergo, the last boss could have been easier, and everyone else who craved a harder game could have been more than satisfied with four additional difficulty tiers.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m still just salty from winning when I didn’t expect to, and losing (several times) when I did. Perhaps that was the secret sauce all along – expecting to lose from the start led me to have lower anxiety levels during the fight. Or maybe I had seen the boss’s moves enough to commit them to muscle memory.
All that I know for certain is that difficulty, by itself, doesn’t particularly add anything meaningful to a game. In fact, it often can poison an entire experience. I’m not sure how you balance a game such that there are difficult moments without being frustrating, but Dead Cells ultimately did not get it right when it comes to the final boss. Which is a damn shame, because I otherwise had fun.
Ghost of Fun Past
Novelty is a finite resource. The best we can hope for in a game is that it ends before the novelty wears off. Too soon and the game feels like it missed its full potential (which it literal did). Too late, and well… we feel relief when the credits finally roll. Assuming we can bring ourselves to crawl across the finish line at all.
As mentioned previously, I have been playing Hollow Knight. It’s a decently fun game (with some reservations) with amazing music and visuals. It also has an almost tangible sense of novelty that you can feel slipping by, as sand through your fingers. Unfortunately, the last third of the game is the “gritty fingers” part of the experience.
Metroidvanias have a delicate balancing act. The hallmarks of the genre are exploration, boss fights, character progression, and backtracking. Specifically, you explore new areas, fight new bosses, unlock new powers and/or movement abilities, and then go back to previously unreachable areas to unlock new zones. Repeat until done.
The problem is when either the new zone or new power steps become exhausted and the game just continues on. This is what happens in the Hollow Knight. The base game “ended” around hour 15 but it took an additional 10 hours to finish.
Now, technically I unlocked the ability to fight the end boss and achieve an ending before the map and/or powers were totally completed. The issue is that this would have been a Bad Ending, and who the hell wants that? So I continued on, capping my movement abilities, and essentially farming harder versions of bosses I already fought for a currency to unlock the Real Ending(s). And there were technically new areas to explore too… but they weren’t the same.
A lot of games work this way, but the latter half of Hollow Knight basically transforms from what it originally was… into Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls. The White Palace area straight-up abandons any pretext of grounded world-building and populates halls with floating buzzsaws and thrusting spears. I was fine with the platforming aspects earlier in the game, because the thorns and spikes made in-universe sense. But what lumber were these subterranean bugs cutting in the stone palace, exactly?
Why are we going to such extremes to begin with? Bosses and puzzles getting harder over time is Game Design 101. But at a certain point, an ever-higher ceiling turns your living room into an auditorium into a cathedral. The entire purpose of the room changes. In an MMO, the transition is necessary as you move from the solitary leveling game into a daily/weekly set of multiplayer chores in order to keep players subscribed. Single-player games have no such need. It’s certainly disappointing when the final boss is weaker than a prior boss – be it due to greater player skill or character power – but I’m not sure erring on the side of absurdity is much better.
I did end up defeating the “true boss” in the base game a few days ago. It was an incredibly frustrating experience, because each time you fail, you have to defeat the “fake boss” all over again just to get another shot. Rather than satisfaction at finally completing a difficult task, all I felt was relief that my toil was finally over.
Those who enjoy the Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls experience will likely be happy with endgame content, and happier still with all the extended DLC that supposedly ups the ante even further. Anyone else who fell in love with Hollow Knight’s first 15 hours of gameplay, on the other hand, can presumably go fuck themselves.
Impressions: ME:A, Supplemental
A few (dozen) more hours in, and things are humming along.
In these early stages of the game, three abilities do not feel like nearly enough. I came across a website that suggested that Barricade – a Tech power that constructs cover on demand – was the bee’s knees. After a boss-ish encounter that saw me kiting an armored beast around for 5 minutes, I’d suggest it’s more akin to bee’s ass. Energy Drain and Pull were rather ineffectual with Barricade as the wildcard, and it’s too early in the game for my weapons to have much of an impact on anything.
Indeed, I have talked about uneven difficulty in games before, and Andromeda seems poised to follow the same patterns. In Divinity: Original Sin, the difficulty was uneven in the early game because enemy CC was powerful while you lacked options towards ending encounters quickly, e.g. by blowing up the team with OP spells. In Andromeda, you can specialize yourself into a corner by not selecting all of the abilities, or perhaps not bringing the right kind of weapons. Andromeda allows you to actually change the three abilities you have in the middle of combat, but that won’t help you if you never spared the Skill points to buy them.
That said, I don’t actually like Andromeda’s swapping Skill system.
While the game goes out of its way to make the process mostly smooth – you can swap Favorite loadouts with a couple clicks – I find the entire process too… metagame-y. Ryder’s ability to switch abilities on the fly is given an in-universe explanation, but that doesn’t prevent the flow of combat from being broken whenever you pause the game to become an entirely different “class.” It’s like… why? I would agree that this is better than being able to paint yourself into an unwinnable corner by choosing the “wrong” abilities, but only barely. Why not allow us to equip more abilities at once?
Ah, right… consoles.
In any event, I will continue chugging right along. I am warming up to the characters a bit more, and going out of my way to complete most of the side-quests in typical Mass Effect style. It is hard to tell how far along in the game I am, but I’m guessing it might be closer to halfway than anything.
I have been play a bit of Divinity: Original Sin and continue to enjoy it. Mostly.
One thing that I strongly dislike in games though, are fuzzy rules. By “fuzzy” I mean that the parameters of the rules are either not consistent or not entirely clear within the game itself. Divinity has tons of them that were at first amusing, but now are a bit grating.
For example, sometimes when you attack a target, they bleed on the ground. Fine, right? Well… environment effects are super important in Divinity. There is a talent that actually heals you when standing in blood, for example. Blood puddles also apparently conduct electricity, as I discovered when two of my melee team members got stunned after a third one shot a Lightning Bolt.
Things get real dumb though when you fight zombies. See, zombies are healed by poison effects. Guess what zombies bleed? Poison. So… yeah, hit zombies enough and they will bleed poison on the ground, which then heals them. I can kinda sorta maybe see the logic, if the designers were using this self-regeneration mechanic as an explanation for zombie resilience. But it’s far more likely that this is just sloppy game mechanics. Especially when you set zombies on fire, then the fire makes the poison explode, which ends up dealing fire and poison damage simultaneously, which sometimes cancels out the fire damage entirely.
Are there benefits to fuzzy rules? Sometimes. The real world is full of strange situations, so carrying over some of that uncertainty can make virtual worlds more realistic. Plus, fuzzy rules are a de facto increase in difficulty – if you’re not certain something is going to work, you have to be more cautious. Weird situations also make for good stories.
That said, I don’t like unclear rules very much. It’s tough to determine whether vague interactions are intentionally designed, or just designer incompetence. And when you end up failing because of said interactions, it’s difficult to know what you should have done differently. Did you lose to a dice roll? Strategic blunder? Not leveling up enough?
Growth requires not just knowing what went wrong, but what can be done to avoid it in the future. If the answer is “nothing,” there really isn’t any growth at all.
I am (Not) Ironman
With my dead 970 graphics card just now reaching the RMA warehouse, I am having to seriously sort through my gaming library for titles that will boot up on a 560ti. WoW runs fine, for example, but 7 Days to Die maybe pushes 20 fps if there isn’t anything going on.
Enter XCOM 2, which I purchased for $12 whole dollars in a recent Humble Monthly Bundle.
I started my first game on “normal” difficulty with Ironman enabled, as I did with the prior title almost four year ago. A few hours later, I abandoned that game and started anew without Ironman.
On the one hand, the decision was easy. XCOM 2 is filled with such crazy amounts of bullshit that I didn’t even feel bad for opening the door to save scumming. The third enemy type you face in the game, a Sectoid, has the ability to Mind Control your units through walls. And create zombie troops from dead bodies. Which is great when your squad consists of only 4 people and you lose one of them to Mind Control off the bat, and that one ends up killing another (who then turns into a zombie). Killing the Sectoid breaks the Mind Control and (re)kills the zombie troops, but that gets a little difficult when one of your guys is Mind Controlled.
Or how about that mission with the Faceless ones? Rescue six civilians… oh wait, one of them morphs into a putty creature with claws and you just ended your turn in melee range. Hey, six damage to your 6 HP dude, that’s convenient. Then you have the snake creatures that can move, then grab a sniper off the top of a train 30 feet away with their tongue, then instantly coil around them, permastunning them and dealing 2 damage per turn. I mean, I suppose I should be grateful there isn’t a chance I could shoot my own coiled guy when I shoot the snake, but I was absolutely expecting that to be a thing. Because fuck you.
None of these things are insurmountable. They just happen to be inane, “gotcha!” bullshit that artificially increases the difficulty of Ironman games. And not even permanently, as once you (the player) know about the existence of these abilities, you can play around them in the future. Which is the point, of course, but I see no reason to structure a game this way while also punishing you long-term for these same blind pitfalls.
On the other hand, after playing a few more hours in non-Ironman mode, I started to wonder about the philosophical ramifications of Save Anywhere.
Fundamentally, a Save Anywhere feature makes eventual success a forgone conclusion. Even in extremely skill-intensive or luck-intensive sections of gameplay, any incremental progress is permanent progress. Some tactical games have RNG protection, e.g. all dice rolls are determined in advance, to dissuade save scumming a 15% chance attack into a critical hit, but that doesn’t prevent you from simply coming in from a different angle or using a different ability.
The other problems with Save Anywhere are the player behavior ramifications. If you can save the game at any time, there is an advantage to doing so, which means there is an incentive to. Tapping F5 is not onerous, but I consider the mental tax of “needing” to remember to do so… well, taxing. It’s not that saving after every attack ruins the game (it does), it’s that I now have to devote constant attention to an out-of-game mechanic. Is there anything worse than thinking you hit Save before turning the corner, but realizing later on that you didn’t, and now you’re stuck with a poor outcome “unnecessarily?” Feels completely different than if the designers make that decision for you.
I feel like there is a middle way, especially in games like XCOM. Specifically: saving inbetween missions. This lets you avert complete disasters like the mission that eventually scuttled my Ironman attempt – a total squad wipe one square from the extraction point – while still disincentivizing save scumming inside each mission. At least then you can weigh the option of losing an elite soldier to some bullshit versus 30-40 minutes of your time.
That Old Difficulty Bugbear
Another MMO difficulty discussion has appeared!
Both Keen and Bhagpuss have posts up, with the former talking about being praised for running his healer over to the tank during aggro, and the latter missing:
Having to look around, pay attention, evaluate the situation, review options, compare current circumstances with previous experience. I miss the need to know, in detail, what tools I have in the box and which ones I need to pull out when. Crucially, I miss having the time to do all that and enjoy it.
This discussion is a bit different than the usual “good ole days” ones though. For one thing, Burning Crusade was relevant up into the end of 2008, and I distinctly remember entire heroic dungeon stratagems revolving around face-pulling with the paladin tank and then hiding in a door corner Consecrating and hoping for the best. Wrath shifted things a year later, of course, but the raids brought them back. Then there was Cataclysm for a minute. A minute too long IMO, but nevermind.
Point being, it’s been less than a decade. And potentially zero difference in coordination required, depending on the content you are doing. I’m not sure what the “Unrest Fireplace” deal is, but if it requires 6+ people with crazy pulls and such, that almost sounds raid-ish. Or Challenge Mode-ish. Sure, it might also be “open-world” content, but let’s be serious: there isn’t much difference.
The Bhagpuss angle is also interesting, as he admits that it isn’t a lack of challenge per se, but rather a changing in what the challenge consists of:
Players and developers alike have come to expect overt, clear signals in the form of ground markers, circles, cones, colors and written or spoken instructions. We’ve gone from improvisational theater to an on-book recital with cue-cards and a prompt.
What Bhagpuss misses is the “local knowledge,” which dictated which mobs were easy and which were not, which guards would protect you, where the safest farming spots were, and so on. And… that’s okay, I guess. It is indeed a challenge type that has been entirely supplanted by modern games with mods and Wikis and crowdsourced and datamined knowledge, often weeks before the content even goes Live.
On the other hand… if you had time to improv, was the content really that difficult?
And what does it say about the difficulty itself, if it were dependent on the slow accretion of experience? I do not consider trial and error particularly challenging. Nor memory games, for that matter. Which really just leaves… execution. The eponymous Raid Dance. I don’t know any people who are seriously thrilled about a difficulty that revolves around playing voidzone Guitar Hero for 12 full minutes, but a challenge that can be defeated via YouTube isn’t much of a challenge either, IMO.
There really isn’t one answer here. Everyone wants content tailored to their skill level, which means we all end up wanting different things. I will say though that many MMOs actually do have what Keen and Bhagpuss are probably looking for, in at least token amounts. If you want an entire game revolving around that though, sorry, you are going to have to stick with the niche titles. Because for however many amazing experiences you had, twenty other people died for what seemed like no reason, their group fell apart, and they lost hours of their life.
These days, you will know why you failed: you stood in the fire.
Roll Them Boulders
Posted by Azuriel
My blog roll is filled with WoW Classic posts, and I am loathe to add another one to the pile. But it was interesting to me scrolling through them, as there was a lot of words surrounding the sort of meta experience, but not so much the moment-to-moment or even the “but… why?” piece.
It was not until SynCaine tried to explain the difference between Easy and “easy” that I realized what WoW Classic is all about:
WoW Classic is Something To Do. Which is not to be confused with “something to do.”
Before I get into that though, I just have to laugh. “It only seems easy, because of all the work you have to put in.” Ehh… no. WoW Classic is easy. That rules exist at all does not make it any less easy. Pulling only one or two mobs at a time is the equivalent of Paint By Numbers – the hardest part is not becoming distracted by all the other things you plan on doing later while actually doing the thing you clearly don’t need to pay close attention to do. Notice how nowhere in the description of Classic combat is any hint of “engaging gameplay.” Methodical, sure. Engaging, no.
Sort of like rolling a boulder up a hill.
But that is the thing: it is Something To Do. I miss that. The other day I logged onto Guild Wars 2, walked around a capital city a bit, then logged off. There was nothing compelling to do. My characters are all max level, Ascended gear already farmed, literally nothing else than to grind out Legendaries or achievements or gold to buy Cash Shop clothes.
Meanwhile, gaining a level in Classic is also a chore, but a real one, like washing dishes. It isn’t as though there are more challenges between the start and finish, but more… stuff. Steps. Drag anchors. It takes more generic units of Time. Because of that extra time spent not engaged in anything, the cognitive dissonance is thus stronger and you end up feeling better about your life after completing the task as a defensive mechanism. It becomes Something To Do rather than something you did. More important. Certainly more meaningful than watching an episode of Big Bang Theory or scrolling past page 18 of Reddit.
It seems as though I’m making fun of people having fun in Classic, but I do in fact miss Something To Do. Yesterday I was playing Moonlighter, which is a game where you kill monsters in a dungeon at night and then sell the items during the day, so you can buy better items to do it all over again. Sound familiar? I was racking up some nice coin in the game and then… just stopped. Nobody cares, least of all me. I still had three dungeons to go before the end of the game, but I already saw myself at the end of it, with nothing to show for it but this shoehorned paragraph in a post about a totally different game.
Of course, that’s the other Classic secret sauce right there: timeliness. Leveling in Classic is Something To Do that is also exciting, as though it were a new MMO launch. I have pointed this out before, but Dark Age of Camelot is still a thing you can play in 2019. Same with Ultima Online. My blog roll isn’t filled with posts about those games though, because Classic is fresh and shiny and a game many millions of people have played. Just look at all the MMO posts from people who had otherwise stopped playing MMOs until literally last week. Amazing how that works.
I don’t think many of them will be able to Go Home Again, but if they are as starved as I am for Something To Do, maybe they will set up a tent in the empty lot. At least for a few weeks.
Posted in Commentary, WoW
Tags: Difficulty, Grind, Something To Do, WoW Classic, You Can't Go Home Again