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Marshmallow Test

I really wish game developers would just let us eat the damn marshmallows already.

If you have never heard of the test before:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University.[1] In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (Wiki)

I have been playing Prey lately, and noticed it does something similar. Over the course of gameplay, you accumulate a number of Neuromods, which are essentially skill points. At the beginning, you can only assign these points in “traditional” skills, such as hacking, increased weapon damage, more inventory space, and so on. A few more hours of gameplay later, you will be able to invest points in “alien” skills, like Kinetic Blast, short-term mind control, flame traps, etc. The game warns you though, that if you start gaining alien skills, the security system (e.g. turrets) in the space station will start registering you as an alien. It might also affect which ending you receive, although I have resisted looking at spoilers for that.

That is basically the marshmallow test. You can either be rewarded with fun new toys now… or you can abstain and be “rewarded” with a better ending later.

Prey is nowhere near the worst offender here. I have also been playing through the DLC of Dishonored off and on, and it’s a thousand times worse. In Dishonored, killing people (instead of knocking them out) increases the “chaos” of the city, which not only leads to a bad ending, it also makes the game harder by spawning swarms of rats that attack you on sight (and are immune to typical assassination skills). Which would be somewhat fine, if it were not for the fact that damn near 95% of the abilities and skills you unlock through gameplay revolve around killing people.

Life is full of delayed gratification. Most of us spend ~40 hours a week doing something we’d prefer not doing, in order to receive money weeks from now to finance the things we actually do want to do. Delaying our already-delayed gratification is some Inception-style nonsense.

Now, I do not necessarily have an issue with the best endings being difficult to achieve, or the existence of Achievements, or even just choice in general. What I have an issue with is a game that gives you a carrot and then beats you with a stick for eating it. The original Deus Ex made you choose between invisibility to humans and invisibility to robots. That’s a good choice! Note how the designers didn’t give you access to invisibility and then tell you there would be dire consequences to using it. That would be dumb.

Do not make your players choose between Fun and No Fun. Because some of them are dumb enough to choose No Fun, even when they hate marshmallows. Save us from ourselves.

Gaming Outlook for 2019

Based on my blog roll, this seems like a Thing To Do, so let’s discuss what’s on the docket this year.

To Be Played

I am currently playing Far Cry 5. While the overall experience is similar to Far Cry 4 (which was similar to Far Cry 3), the exact formula has been broken up a bit. Instead of running around trying to skin Honey Badgers for a larger wallet, for example, most character progression is based around achievements and finding prepper caches. It’s subtle, but it does change my focus a bit. A more detailed impression will need to wait for later.

Other games recently purchased on sale:

  • Final Fantasy XV
  • Dishonored DLC (Knife of Dunwall; Witches of Brigmore)
  • Dishonored 2
  • Prey
  • Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

My Dishonored kick might seem a bit out of nowhere… and it kinda is. My criticism from way back 2012 still hold thus far in the first DLC: the game is almost painfully easy even at the highest difficulty. Well, at least so far on the first level. That’s more a stealth game thing than a Dishonored game thing specifically. Nevertheless, I kept reading praise for the DLC specifically, so I snagged it on sale and here we are.

The rest of that list is basically a rehash of what I had been keeping an eye on since Black Friday.

Might Be Played

I have not booted up Fallout 76 in several weeks now. While it has been trashed up and down the internet – for some legit, and some not so legit reasons – the primary reason for my disconnect might be silly: Rifle schematics. Specifically, my character is focused on Rifles, and the two best kinds of Rifles in the game (Homemade Rifle, Lever-Action Rifle) can only be crafted after snagging their schematics from a vendor’s random inventory. The “correct” way to get them is to check the vendor, and then log off and back on again to be shunted to a new server, and then checking the vendor again. Some people report doing this for hours. No thanks. If that nonsense gets fixed or some new content appears, then I might be back.

Battlefield V is another trashed title, but I have been resisting purchasing it even at a $30 price-point simply because I know what’s going to happen. Specifically, it will probably consume my free-time for a few weeks, and I will eventually awaken from a fugue state, realizing that I had not “accomplished” anything meaningful. I mean, games are games, but there’s a difference (IMO) between seeing the ending credits of three games vs spending that same amount of time seeing the End of Match report of a shooter. I’m not here to just kill time with my gaming anymore.

On Their Way Out

My time with Hearthstone is approaching its end, if it has not already snuck up on me. It’s not so much the mechanics or the meta or the card grinding so much as it is… exhaustion. I have never had a particular desire to compete on the ladder; my goal had been to complete the Dailies and other low-hanging fruit. But that still requires you to put a deck together, research the meta, and otherwise go through the motions. Or I could just turn on Twitch and watch other people play Hearthstone, and experience roughly 85% of the joy that I derive from the game.

On a similar note, WoW is definitely on ice for the foreseeable future.

Detective Vision

About halfway through this already worrying Kotaku article regarding The Witcher 3 is a section on Geralt’s “Witcher Vision”:

Witcher Vision is pretty cool. At any given moment, you can hold down a button to put Geralt’s field of vision into a sort of detective mode. This lets him see footprints, clues, key items, and the like. In practice, sleuthing around various environments—be they houses, dilapidated beach huts, or seemingly inconspicuous forests—isn’t very challenging, but it adds a lot to the feeling of being a Witcher.

All I could do was release a heavy sign and massage my temples.

“Detective vision” and its equivalents has never been good game design in any game I have ever played, for one specific reason: there is hardly any incentive to ever turn it off. Games with detective vision usually have hidden treasures and/or secret doors that are only visible in detective mode. This makes sense in a twisted-logic way, as why have detective vision at all if you can only use it in certain prescribed areas? That is basically “Press B to solve puzzle.” Of course, you don’t want to give players an ability that’s completely useless outside of specific zones either, for the same reason you don’t craft an elaborate cave complex with no treasure chest at the end. That’s just frustrating.

But the end result is that designers hide invisible things throughout the game because they feel they have to, and then the players end up spending the entire game with detective vision active so as to not miss these invisible things. Which means not only is nothing of use being accomplished (the actions cancel each other out), the player ends up spending the entire game in a sepia-colored wasteland devoid of all detail or immersion.

This was my screen 99% of the time.

The bad guys may as well not even have character models.

Case in point: Batman Arkham Asylum. Played and beat it a few months ago, but I couldn’t even really tell you how the game looked, because I was in X-Ray vision nearly the whole damn time. Case in point: Dishonored. The Dark Vision spell is an early upgrade that trivializes even the highest difficulty, no-kill runs. Beautiful game environments reduced to sepia-colored vomit for the whole rest of the game. Hell, I didn’t even like the scan mechanic all the way back in the first Metroid Prime game for these same reasons. I just ran around trying to scan every damn thing, just in case.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

I honestly see no good solutions for this design issue. Even if you limit the player when they’re using detective vision (e.g. not letting them attack, or perhaps even move) that doesn’t stop players from feeling like they need to be utilizing it at every opportunity. Only allowing detective vision to be useable when there is something to detect is kinda asinine; why bother including it at all?

None of the solutions feel particularly good. One might think that the “search pulse” ability featured in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the original Witcher games, and many others might be better, but… I spend the whole damn game spamming those keys already. Same deal with the Battlefield series and PlanetSide 2, in spamming Q to spot enemies that I don’t actually see, but could be out there somewhere near my crosshairs. Sometimes it saves your life; there’s no reason not to.

This might well be one of those scenarios in which the “old school” solution of just making hidden things hard to find is best. At the same time, I don’t necessarily want to go back to the days of having to tab out and hit GameFAQs when I can’t find the pixels the designers wanted me to click on either. If I had to choose though, I would rather miss hidden treasure because I was too immersed in the game environment than miss it because I took a break from the otherwise permanent Instagram filters.

The Stealth Dilemma

As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.

Surprisingly brutal.

Surprisingly brutal.

So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?

Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.

Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.

As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.

There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.

The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.

Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.

And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?

It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.

Review: Dishonored

Game: Dishonored
Recommended price: $20
Metacritic Score: 91
Completion Time: 18-20 hours
Buy If You Like: First-person Tenchu or Assassin’s Creed, sneaky Bioshock

Style over substance.

I have been hearing Metacritic, er, criticism for years now without really understanding what all the fuss was about. It is a useful tool, and I include it in my game reviews as a sort of “by they way, this is what other people are saying” disclaimer. But now? I understand why people complain. I have no idea how Dishonored got a 91 Metacritic score. It is a good game and probably worth your time depending on purchase price. But is it better than (or even comparable to) Fallout: New Vegas (84), F.E.A.R. (88), Deus Ex (90), or Fallout 3 (90)? Lord no.

Before getting into what Dishonored is not, let us begin with what it is.

Dishonored is a first-person stealth action game set in the highly stylized, steampunk (or whale-oil-punk) city of Dunwall. You play as Corvo, a counter-assassin of sorts, as he struggles with being framed for the murder of the Empress he swore to protect. Through the course of gameplay, Corvo is granted supernatural powers like the ability to teleport short distances, stop time, or possess animals/people. The game is roughly divided into “missions,” which can consist of multiple areas and be completed/traversed in several ways. Within each area, there is usually a side-quest or two that can be completed for additional rewards, along with a smattering of extra upgrade components hidden around the map.

Blink onto hanging speaker, Sleep Dart guard on balcony, Blink over and enter via 2nd floor.

One of the most vaunted and critically acclaimed features of Dishonored is the ability to overcome challenges multiple ways. This is, for the most part, accurate. The mission goal may be to assassinate a certain individual, and the game will overlay the location of said individual on your UI, and… that’s it. If you want to stroll in the front door with a blood trail, tripping every alarm along the way, you can do that. If you want to Blink your way from rooftop to rooftop, hop in through a window, and switch the target’s wine glass with one that he poisoned (or mix them to poison both), you can do that. If you want to body-hop your way inside by possessing rats, fish, and guards, all so that you can render the target unconscious and remove them from power in a nonlethal manner, you can do that too. Or whatever combination you choose.

The problem I have with the extraordinary hyping of this gameplay feature is twofold. First, the game is incredibly easy. Almost trivially so. After the first 2-3 hours, I decided that I needed to restart on the highest difficulty setting. So I did… and further decided on a 100% nonlethal route for my first playthrough. Less than twenty hours later, Mission Accomplished.

People have different skill levels, of course, but most of the supernatural powers you get (all six of them) are pretty ridiculous. The default power is Blink, a short-range teleport that effectively has unlimited uses provided you wait 4-5 seconds between them. Blink is definitely a lot of fun to use, but once you upgrade it to level 2 (increasing it’s range) the game is basically over – there are no “puzzles” that cannot be solved by simply finding higher ground, going through windows, etc. Indeed, on more than one occasion I accidentally bypassed damn near the entire level and all of the security inbetween by Blinking between buildings.

The very next power that the game strongly suggests you unlock is Dark Vision, which allows you to not only see enemies through walls, but also their cone of vision; like Blink, Dark Vision is a super-cheap spell that you can effectively chain infinitely. Other stealth games, if they offer this sort power at all, make it expensive or difficult to use precisely because of how difficulty-destroying it is. Dishonored lets you peek through keyholes or lean around corners while remaining hidden… but it’s moot considering you can see everyone all the time with a touch of a button. Perhaps the worst part of Dark Vision though, is how it destroys the visuals and ambiance of a very stylish game with its sepia-tone washout effect and dark whispers; once upgraded, it even highlights cash and other items, meaning you can go through an entire level with it on and miss nothing… except all of the artwork and nuance. Dishonored without Dark Vision is a 100% better game, but you shouldn’t feel like you need to handicap yourself by not taking it to have fun.

Between Blink, Dark Vision, and how absurdly easy it is to kill/incapacitate guards, I only used Bend Time or Possession out of a sense of guilt for having “skipped” the rest of the game.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

The second reason I do not understand the hype is how most games do this sort of thing anyway. If I am playing Metal Gear Solid, the game asks me to get to a certain location and then sets me loose. Whether I get there by avoiding all the guards, or shooting all the guards via sniper rifle, or going through the vents, or using a cardboard box, or whatever, is irrelevant. Dishonored is really no different. It doesn’t matter whether you got into the building through the window or by possessing a rat, just like it doesn’t matter in MGS, or Deus Ex, or Tenchu, or any of the other hundred games released since 1998 that feature more than one path. This sort of thing is par of the course. If the critics are referring to your ability to take out “bosses” in a nonlethal manner as being groundbreaking… um, again, 1998 called and just filed an injunction.

All of this is not to say that I did not have a good time in Dishonored. The story is fairly predictable, the setting is bit all over the place, but the game is good at pulling you in two different directions when it comes to whether you should simply murder your target or show “mercy” (where mercy sometimes ends up as fates worse than death). And again, I had a fun time in the game sneaking around and feeling like the biggest badass in the place. I just do not have any notion that Dishonored, mechanically, was the one delivering that fun experience versus me reliving the joys of MGS, Tenchu, and Deus Ex.

Maybe that distinction is immaterial to you. Maybe it is enough that an off-brand experience is so similar to one you enjoyed in the past. In which case, by all means, have fun. I just do not see how Dishonored deserves a 91 for emulating actually groundbreaking games wholesale, minus their difficulty and nuance. I’m thinking it is an 81 at most. Which is still great!

Dishonored: First Impressions

For some reason, I am definitely getting more of a Singularity vibe than necessarily a Bioshock vibe. It might simply be I am beyond the saturation phase of Unreal engine games:

Is this… better or worse than Half-Life 2? I can’t tell anymore.

I got about 3-4 hours of gameplay in yesterday evening, and am a bit past the point where you can start picking up various powers. Blink is pretty cool, although I was initially let down by my inability to Blink through objects. The other power I purchased was a sort of Life-sense ability that I am inclined to believe is stupid-OP. In fact, I feel pretty OP from the get-go, to be honest. In games like Deus Ex: HR, the downside to “stealth” kills were that they weren’t actually stealthy at all. That is not a problem in Dishonored: enemies are stabbed through the neck and die in under 3 seconds, perfectly silent (as far as I can tell).

In fact, given Blink, the Life-sense skill, instant stealth kills, and the verticalness of the beginning areas thus far, Dishonored feels more like a first-person Tenchu game than anything else. That comparison really hit home when I finished the first area and saw this screen:

I don’t remember sucking that bad during the level.

The Tenchu series is one of my favorite of all time, so it is not a bad analogy.

The main problem I have at such an early stage is the notion that we have another seemingly binary Bioshock situation between good/evil. As in, there are apparently two different endings, and if you go only halfway, you might be stuck with the “evil” one. Which is fine… in a game where it feels more like a legitimate choice. Bioshock, for example, just asked you not to kill the Little Sisters; DE:HR had scores of nonlethal maneuvers and/or weapons, and I think the nonlethal option was the default takedown when you pressed the button. Conversely, Dishonored has your sword attack bound to left-click, and you need to hold down the Ctrl button for a few seconds to knock someone out instead.

It’s fine for the pacifist play-style to be more challenging upfront. A brand new game just loses some of its luster when I am immediately confronted with a screen like this:

But… but… killing is so fuuuuun~

Killing is quick, easy, and fun in Dishonored. Dropping down from a 3-story building onto one guard, Blinking behind another with blade flashing, and taking out a third with a crossbow bolt before the first guy stops bleeding feels like I’m playing Ninja Assassin: the Game. It seems a bit too easy at times, but I imagine that is the point when I am on the first real mission and playing on Normal (there are two higher difficulties); later levels are probably more intricate. Tenchu was mainly as difficult as it was when you cared about getting Grandmaster, at least before those ridiculous “one alarm = failure” missions.

That said, I might start over before going further. If I go the nonlethal route, I should probably go all the way. And if I am going to kill ALL the things, I am probably going to need to bump the difficulty up a few notches.