Let me turn the question around: why would you cooperate? Tobold is thankful that our real-life ancestors were not as blood-thirsty as the average DayZ player, but I am not even sure whether or not that is true. Recorded history is filled with the conquest of the weaker, and who knows what happened in the darkness of the forest millennia before that?
The problem in gaming, as is often the case, comes down to incentives. Specifically, if there are no extrinsic bonuses for assisting someone in any game, I generally only do so if I happen to be in the mood and it’s easy. For example, I have no problem playing Medic classes in PlanetSide 2 or Battlefield 4 because reviving teammates A) gives me as much XP as a normal kill, and B) the revived character is likely to get me closer to the goal of winning the match/flag/etc (i.e. more XP). Guild Wars 2 also did a pretty good job in incentivising reviving other players along similar lines. Obviously 5-man dungeons and such offer similar carrots.
In the absence of the extrinsic carrot though, a game designer cedes control to the player’s own nebulous intrinsic motivations to govern behavior. Unless you are a particularly extroverted individual looking to make more internet friends, there is really no reason you would ever cooperate without the carrot. If it’s a free-for-all scenario, not killing another player on sight is a huge risk. And even if you are willing to take that gamble and it succeeds, the “reward” is generally limited to what you can accomplish within that play session… unless you go out of your way to befriend them.
What if you don’t want more friends?
For a PvE survival MMO to work, I think constructing the proper incentives for cooperation would be Priority #1, and they would need to be extrinsic incentives. I am not a huge fan of the permadeath ideas Rohan was tossing around, but imagine if permadeath were a possibility, and killing other players (without cause) increased that chance? Let’s say the odds of permadeath were 10% baseline and increased by 25% for each player you killed. Meanwhile, if you healed, revived, traded/interacted with, or perhaps simply were in X radius around another player on your friends list, the baseline permadeath chance dropped to 0%. The “stain” of unjust PvP would not diminish – unless as a result of some penance or whatever – and yet it would give both groups the relevant incentive to do stuff with others.
I do not necessarily think it is wrong for game designers to rely on players to want to make friends to enjoy their game properly, but that ship has long sailed for me. I got my ex-WoW buddies, some IRL friends, and this blog if I want to talk shop with someone; I’m not entirely in the mood for the arduous vetting process and necessary synchronized timing necessary to make new friends. Needing to join a guild or Outfit or whatever to get the “full experience” simply means I won’t ever be getting the full experience in your game.
And if your game offers nothing else, then I won’t be playing it.
Game: Dungeons of Dredmor
Recommended price: $10 (with DLC)
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Turn-ish-Based RPGs, Indie Humor
Dungeons of Dredmor (DoD) is an indie roguelike RPG wrapped in a fluffy layer of humor and genre in-jokes. The goal is simple: navigate your way to the bottom floor of the dungeon and kill Dredmor. Along the way, you will explore rooms, evade traps (a LOT of traps), kill monsters, loot treasure, and level up.
The core of DoD is its extremely interesting combat/exploration system. Essentially, everything is turn-based: for every step or action you take, all enemies make one too. These “turns” occur instantaneously, so you are never waiting on some action on the part of the AI, which makes the action go as fast or slow as you want. This ends up feeling rather amazing, as it avoids the “spacebar fatigue” that accompanies other tactical games. This system ends up putting a premium on actions though, and it’s quite easy to get surrounded and murdered if you’re not careful.
The statistics part of DoD is intentionally obtuse – your six base stats affect 18+ other stats – but the “joke” belies a pretty robust equipment and talent system. When you first roll your character, you can choose seven different categories of talents, which either grant new abilities or a direct increase in stats as you spend skill points. For example, taking the Swords talent will let you get new abilities (not all of which require a sword), and perhaps some bonuses for using swords. There is a pretty huge number of talents though, and it’s entirely possible to pick a combination that simply won’t work. On the other hand, you could pick 6 warrior-ish talents and then grab the one that let’s you shoot fireballs. Armor generally decreases your magic ability, but it’s possible to either craft or come across armor that hurts it less.
DoD is definitely a roguelike (although you can turn off permadeath at character creation) and thus contains certain abilities/scenarios in which you are likely to die pretty quickly, if not arbitrarily. This is… dangerous, for lack of a better word, in a game where you can spend 22 hours on a single character exploring every room of each level (which you may want to do to stay ahead of the curve). Indeed, in the titular Dredmor encounter, I about died within three moves before I “cheesed” the rest of the encounter via judicious use of invisible mushrooms and the all-powerful ability to close doors.
At the end of the day, I spent 28 hours in Dungeons of Dredmor and could see myself replaying it again with another character setup, or perhaps after picking up the two DLC. It’s a fun game, perhaps a more cerebral version of Binding of Isaac, but where Binding of Isaac and FTL come out ahead is giving more focused gameplay with their permadeath. Had I lost my 20+ hour character, I probably would have quit altogether right there. Luckily for me, I didn’t, but I’d be lying if I said I did not make three backup copies of my savegame. So if this game sounds fun to you, I recommend turning off permadeath until you wrap your mind around the game’s many idiosyncrasies.
I think I’m done with Don’t Starve. For real this time.
Thrush’s comment from yesterday sort of gave shape to the amorphous feeling in my mind:
I hate doing things twice. If I go for a walk I go in a loop because I don’t want to see the same scenery twice (weird I know). […] I just can’t get into the roguelike genre for this reason. Once I’ve done 2 hours of work, I don’t want to start from scratch again.
That’s what I was getting at yesterday, even though I couldn’t nail the words down. While my displeasure at what amounts to recycled content is not quite as “extreme” – I have/had plenty of alts in WoW – each subsequent Don’t Starve Adventure Mode attempt generated more bile than the last. It is not about the dying; each death was a novel experience I learned from and won’t happen again. It is not even about the lost progress, really. No, what really pushed me over the edge was the rote, mechanical early game.
Wake up, grab Diving Rod, and then spend the next hour of game time picking shit up off the ground, desperately trying to find a piece of gold ore to build a Science Machine to unlock basic items like the Spear, backpack, and Crock Pot. Subsequent worlds in Adventure Mode are almost always different though, because you retain knowledge of past schematics and are able to bring in four items (and stacks thereof) from before. You might not be able to bring a backpack with you, but you’ll be able to whip one right up after gathering some grass and sticks.
If it’s your first world… well, better start praying for gold.
So, basically, I’m fine with permadeath and roguelikes if they don’t ask you to do the same shit in the same sequence with no possible variation every goddamn time. Or if they do, at least minimize the time spent in what amounts to an unskippable tutorial.
I did start a new Survival Mode map with a different character in the hopes that a new set of pros/cons would liven things up a bit. Then I realized that even a custom map with abundant food and no enemies would require hours (!) of otherwise meaningless exploration trying to find Maxwell’s Door before I could even start again. While I appreciate the commitment to the game’s harsh internal logic, I no longer have time for this shit. By which I mean I’m bored.
Time to play something else.
Do you know the worst part about a roguelike? You can’t even rage-quit! “Oh, I just died? Well… fine! I’ll just delete my saves and… oh.”
The roguelike genre is one I had avoided for years, rebuffed by the mere word “permadeath.” Is that supposed to be an appealing characteristic? It’s like, I don’t need to know anything more about scrotum piercing to understand, at a fundamental level, that it’s just not for me. And so I happily carried on in my non-permadeath gaming, leaving behind the empty husks of my peers who had just lost their 60+ hour Diablo 2 Hardcore characters.
The problem I am having though, is with all these roguelikes that choose to, well, bend the (unwritten) rules. For me, it started with Dungeons of Dredmor. After dying a few times getting a feel for the game, I went full optimize-the-fun-out-of-the-game mode. Explored every floor, room by room, while collecting and refining every resource. It was pretty clear that I had vaulted over the difficulty curve and would be coasting my way to the very end. That’s the point of permadeath though, right? To encourage conservative play?
Regardless of the answer to that question, the fact remains that I was on hour 22 of my roguelike save. To me, that is starting to border on obscene. I feel like the roguelike structure works perfectly for games that can conceivably be won within a few hours or a single (marathon) session. Anything longer is simply suspect – what useful purpose does permadeath serve then? I have 52 hours /played on FTL and 27 hours on Binding of Isaac, both of which can be finished within 2-3 hours. Permadeath in this scenario, and procedurally-generated encounters generally, thus increase the play-time of an otherwise short game. But if you are already spending 20+ hours on a single life only to die in some asinine way… well, what’s the point of trying again?
If you can’t tell, I’m writing this post because I’m pissed at dying in Don’t Starve. I made it all the way to the final world in Adventure Mode, which I could not even start until I found the doorway on Day 30+ in Survival Mode. You have no idea how close to the end I was. I had collected all four Things and was on my way to the Wooden Thing to assemble them. The last world is exceedingly harsh though, and my sanity was leaking out at a precipitous rate (it didn’t help that I was traversing a swamp). I stopped to pick a Blue Mushroom in the hopes of regaining just enough sanity to push me over the finish line.
Alas, a tentacle I couldn’t even see spawned and spanked me twice. Dead. I resurrected at my Meat Effigy in total darkness, and was one-shot a few seconds later. Dead again. Spawned back at the Adventure Door portal, and would have to go through everything all over again.
…except I don’t think I am. I have 35 hours into Don’t Starve, and was relishing the thought of being “done” with the game once Adventure Mode was beaten. “Done” in the sense of achieving sufficient mental satisfaction to allow me to move on to another game. Now? I just feel so goddamn empty. Dying to the last boss in Binding of Isaac feels terrible, but you are only really out an hour or so. Same with FTL. With Don’t Starve, I just saw 7-10 hours of my life evaporate into the ether. While that is technically how all leisurely pursuits end, I don’t usually end a gaming session feeling, well, like an empty husk.
It’s not really Don’t Starve’s fault – if the game were easier, even a tiny bit, it wouldn’t be the same game on a fundamental level. I like that a harsh game like this exists, as it pushes you into uncomfortable scenarios in which inaction is punished. I just don’t know if I want to be playing “long-form” roguelikes like this anymore. Permadeath is fine in the proper contexts, and said context is always in short games, IMO. Putting roguelike qualities into a game that simultaneously demands X amount of investment just strikes me as cruel and unusual. Some people like that sort of thing, sure. But I doubt that the end reward for our valiant efforts will be sweet enough to cover the acrid, bitter bile that is seeing so many hours go up in smoke.
Fake Edit: I tried again anyway. Died a few times, tried some more. Got the insanely difficult “forever winter” stage as my first level, but persisted anyway. Somehow made it even farther. Got to the 4th stage, and was feeling pretty good about myself. Run into a field of killer bees looking for a Thing, and died. Now at 48 hours /played. FML.
Game: A Valley Without Wind
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 54
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Metroidvania action platformers, infinitely long games
A Valley Without Wind (hereafter AVWW) is a procedurally-generated action-platformer in the Metroidvania style. The premise is that some unknown cataclysm has rent time and space, placing enemies like robotic mechs into Ice Age biomes. As a “glyph bearer,” your job is to scavenge materials from bombed out buildings, complete missions, and then take out the continent’s Overlord after killing off his/her/it’s lieutenants.
If all this sounds… strangely disjointed, that is because it is. The entire game comes across as more complicated (or simply arcane) than it has any reason to be. Basically, you jump around and kill enemies with ranged spells. The spells you have access to come from “spellgems” that you can either craft from materials you scavenge or earn via Missions. You also have several slots for enhancements, which are items you equip that have randomly-determined stats and abilities. For example, you might have a Foot enhancement that let’s you double-jump and have +20 mana, or Pants that eliminates all falling damage and gives +20 Haste.
Missions are one of the few things that give direction and meaning to AVWW, but after a while they too seem irrelevant. Essentially, Missions are a guaranteed way to acquire some particular thing, like a Spellgem. Missions themselves come in different types, such as Falling (character floats down long shaft avoiding enemies/spikes), Boss towers, Perfection (must restart if hit by any enemy), Rescue missions for additional survivors, and so on.
The problem is that not only is everything procedurally-generated, e.g. infinite in scale, there is not any real sense of progression. The “world” levels up after you kill an enemy lieutenant, but all that really means is that you need to re-craft all your Spellgems to the higher level to match the increase in monster HP. Finding stash rooms in buildings feels fun at first, but then you start to realize that the actual number of materials you need for any one thing is tiny. Alternatively, maybe you are missing just a single resource type and are forced to delve into dozens of buildings in order to find one inside.
But the biggest buzzkill for me was how absurdly limited the spell selection was. Once I found the most useful spell (and one backup of a different element type), every other spell was practically useless, which meant getting mats for them was useless, which meant pushing back the wind from new terrain squares (e.g. unlocking them) was useless, which meant farming the building to push back the wind from the lieutenants to access the Overlord and end the pain was useless tedious.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting things going on in AVWW. The hybrid roguelike feature that is permadeath-but-you-keep-all-items made enemies feel threatening without punishing exploration, for example. Of course, the designers then made the decision that your avatar is a faceless nobody you have no attachment to, and the survivors are essentially reduced to extra lives with slightly (very slightly) different base stats. The granularity of the difficulty is extremely nuanced, allowing you to increase mob strength, platforming difficulty, or “citybuilding” complexity all independently.
At the end of the day though, I just did not feel particularly compelled by A Valley Without Wind. There is a vague sense of progression – defeating the lieutenants and then face the Overlord – but that never really trickled-down to the individual levels you were navigating. When the game comes right out and tells you to not bother exploring every nook and cranny for items (since the world is infinite), it makes you start wondering why you are looking for anything in the first place.
Game: A Valley Without Wind 2
Recommended price: none
Metacritic Score: 68
Completion Time: n/a
Buy If You Like: Throwing money away, poorly implemented games
There are very few games which I simply give up on. Of those games that I abandon, it is usually due to either frustrating game design or simple boredom. When it comes to A Valley Without Wind 2, it joins that sorry company with the distinction of having both qualities.
If you have played the original A Valley Without Wind, the first thing you should know is that the “sequel” has really nothing to do with its (much better) predecessor. The formula has changed. Radically. The premise is that after infiltrating the inner circle of the Overlord Demonaica and being gifted with an Oblivion Stone (aka the Glyphs of the first game), you reveal your true intentions to fight the Overlord’s power. You do so by… running away.
Basically, you order members of the resistance to move around the overland map in a turn-based manner, constructing farms and scavenging scrap to build other structures while you unlock more of the map by destroying rain machines (evil versions of the Windmills). Each resistance member can move once a turn, and they will not actually perform any actions until the end of the following turn. The turns themselves are advanced only when you enter into one of the rain machine maps and destroy it. Before doing so, you are free to explore any of the maps to look for Perks or… no, that’s it.
If this sounds nothing like the Metroidvania of the first game, that is because it isn’t. At all. In fact, the platforming aspects of AVWW2 has taken a thousand steps backwards. You cannot aim with the mouse any more, meaning that you are firing spells in just (usually) the cardinal directions. Instead of your own custom spells, you have to choose one of five “classes,” which have a total of four spells that do not necessarily even cover a wide range of situations. On top of that, spells have a sort of “priority” system where your projectiles are almost always destroyed by enemy projectiles, unless you have some specific spell with a high priority in your repertoire. This might sound tactical, but it’s really not. All it means is that you jerk clumsily around the screen, spamming your spells in a few directions while plowing into a screen full of enemy projectiles.
This is not even getting into the fact that the random loot and equipment strategy of the first game has been cut off at the knees neck. You have exactly one “equipment” slot, with no inventory; if you pick something else up, it replaces whatever you had equipped. The equipment also degrades as you take damage, so it will eventually break on its own. While the equipment you find is still random, there is no strategy or even thought required. “Is this better than what I have/an empty slot?” If yes, equip. If no, skip. The only customization you have is choosing which Perks to use, which basically amounts to 1 of 4 different Perks per level. Do you want +10% jumping height or +1 Heart (even the HP has been dumbed down)? Then again, considering that the platforming aspect is practically nonexistent, the Perks don’t really matter.
The funny thing (in a sad way) about all this was that the turn-based part of the game seemed sorta passably fun. Monsters would periodically come out of the Overlord’s tower, and you have to position your resistance members intelligently to intercept them without getting overwhelmed (each deals damage equal to their HP to one another), while also not leaving valuable structures open to destruction. Plus, around Turn 14, the Overlord himself was going to come out and destroy everything in his path. From there, you had a few things you could do while on the run, and the race against time angle was kinda compelling too. The problem was that the platforming aspects necessary to advance the turns and beat the overall game were so comically bad.
Ultimately, I am not even sure who A Valley Without Wind 2 was even made for. Metroidvania fans of the original will encounter perhaps the worst, most boring platformer ever made. Strategy gamers might have some fun, up until they are forced to play the worst, most boring platformer ever made to advance the turns. And… that’s it, the entire audience. The game simply fails at everything it was trying to do, when all they had to do was do what they did the first time around. I am not sure what the designers were thinking when they made this game, but whatever it was, it didn’t work.
The night after the prior post, I made it to my first Don’t Starve winter.
The snow birds should have been a sign I was getting close, but they were a warning left unheeded as I wasted several days gathering the materials to build a bee box (for harvesting honey, of course). Bees don’t come out in winter though, and my crops were thinning out. Moves needed made.
Having found and “killed” a lureplant, I decided that I needed to set it up in a more tactically advantageous way. A lureplant is essentially a fleshy bulb plant surrounded by a field of eyeball plants with teeth. Par for the course in a game where Nightmare Fuel is a literal item needed to craft magic items. The surrounding eyeball plants can’t grow on rocky terrain though, so you can build a safe walkway to the bulb and harvest the meat and other materials that the eyeballs “eat.” The problem is that this world randomly has an incredible lack of rocks.
But, dammit, winter is coming.
I made the ~1.5 day trek out to the one location I knew had rocks, while nervously glancing at the freezing ice starting to cover my screen. Torches do nothing to assuage my growing frostbite, so I periodically set fire to bushes and trees near the road. Once I get to the rocks, I realize that I can’t actually dig up the terrain here – the difference must be rock vs rocky. What does “rocky” look like? Oh, shit, that’s a Tallbird that is attacking my walking treasure chest! Oh… but it has left its nest undefended with its beautiful, succulent egg…
Pro tip #1: a Tallbird will one-shot you without armor.
Pro tip #2: resurrecting at a touchstone, practically naked in the dead of winter, with all your items in a pile around a Tallbird nest, is not actually all that useful. Especially when a pack of Hounds just happens to spawn not 20 seconds later.
Pro tip #3: Life is full of emptiness and disappointment and despair.
I started another two games after that, abandoning the first when my initial 10 minute search for gold was fruitless. The second game though… hey, I might be getting somewhere. Bees? Fuck bees. I got two smoking racks, a bird cage to transform monster meat into eggs, and have 8+ traps on top of the rabbit holes in a nearby field. I’ll look to survive this first winter, erm, first before upgrading my base with bees. Maybe dig up a few more berry bushes and plant them closer, although the fish in nearby ponds are more than enough to keep me sustained.
And that’s when I found it. Maxwell’s Door. Adventure Mode, aka Challenge Mode, aka a purpose greater than mere survival.
I’m coming for you, Max. You thought you could leave me to die in your hellish wilderness realm? I got news for you, boy: it’s you who are trapped in here with me.
Not for long though. Not. For. Long.