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Survival Equilibrium

I may have mentioned it before, but I really enjoy Survival games. For the most part.

I am currently playing The Flame in the Flood, which is a Survival roguelike, and not at all a catchy Vance Joy song. The experience was immensely frustrating for my first run, as I felt like I never had enough of any supplies, and was about to uninstall and set the category as Finished in Steam. The second run, which I have been playing for the last five hours or so, has reached that point beyond which eventual victory is all but assured. Nevertheless, I hit up every single location I can, hoarding ever-greater numbers of probably unnecessary supplies for some kind of nightmare scenario. Which kinda makes sense in the vague, post-apocalypse setting.

Hitting that equilibrium moment in Survival games though is bittersweet. It’s like the middle of every Civilization game I have ever played – the game part is over, and now you must go through the motions towards inevitable victory. Ideally, you would want the challenge of the game to match up with the game’s end, and not midway. Some games like 7 Days to Die will try extending the challenge with escalating enemies, but there comes a moment when the escalation outstrips the whole Survival aspect and the underlying game becomes something different entirely, e.g. a shooter.

Then there is the opposite problem, in which the game’s challenge doesn’t ever really end, and part of the reason I added the “for the most part” caveat. I have not played it since its release from Early Access, but I never felt good in The Long Dark. There never seemed to be enough food, or fuel, or supplies. You were always on the precipice. And that’s the goal, right? The precipice is where all the fun is had. But while the surviving part is fun, I feel like there’s an invisible Anxiety Meter that fills up for me, and once it tops off the fun drops to zero.

Plus, sometimes Survival games are bullshit. I frequently found dead bodies in The Long Dark, searched them for candy bars, but could not, you know, take their clothing. I get it, things are simplified and balanced accordingly. Still, it gets a bit annoying when you come across dozens of boarded-up buildings in The Flame in the Flood, but “Old Lumber” is a relatively scarce resource you have to specifically loot from places. Or that Flint is a consumable resource for making a Campfire. Or that nothing could be salvaged from a sprung trap you just made.

Makes me wonder though. Would a more “realistic” Survival game be any fun? Seems like the more realistic it is, the less the game could actually be about Survival. At least, unless you set it out in the straight wilderness. Which kinda brings you back to The Long Dark.

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Star Citizen and “Realism”

I have not really been following the development of Star Citizen beyond knowing that it had a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign. I mean, I know the premise and everything, but the name Chris Roberts holds about as much cachet with me as Raph Koster – both supposedly important dudes who made games I never played. Have they done anything lately? No? Okay then.

One thing that did catch my eye the other day though, was a short Massively article talking about Star Citizen’s “realistic” health and wound system. Feel free to read the source material itself. The basic idea is that the designers wanted to further the immersion by making a “fun” limb-based damage system. Take a lot of damage to an arm, and your arm gets blown off and/or ruined. There are a total of 10 specific areas to damage, with eight of them being arms or legs. The “Damaged” state is between 50% and 1% health, and… let me just quote it:

Damaged – Damaged limbs are useless and the player cannot use them unless they get them patched up in the field or taken to a mobile trauma system (see: Healing). This is the state right after the hurt phase, where the pain is so severe to the player, that no matter what limb is damaged, they will have a hard time being mobile. If one of their legs are damaged, they fall to the ground and crawl.

Now, there is something to be said about how the CoD/Battlefield-style run-and-gun regenerating health paradigm removes a lot of the weight of battle.¹ Take some damage, hide behind a wall, and ~15 seconds later you are good to go. Or perhaps rush into that occupied room with a shotgun and hope you get lucky, knowing you’ll get back to the fight faster than any of the other guys.

On the hand… Jesus Christ, can you imagine the grief potential? Enormous. I don’t care under what circumstances we have come to blows, I’m telling you now: I’m shooting your legs. I’m shooting your legs and then, whether or not I survive, you are spending the remaining time crawling pathetically across the floor to get anywhere. I am doing that because it is the most annoying thing I can possibly imagine. Screw headshots, if you want to invade my ship, you will spend the next 15 minutes crawling your way to the command chair over my dead body.

If you want to find me, I’ll be flying the most handicap inaccessible ship I can find. One with stairs!

That post about limb damage mentioned permadeath, which was the first I heard about it in Star Citizen, so I read that article too. The short version is that permadeath exists for lore reasons, but doesn’t actually matter. Taking a cue from Rogue Legacy, any time your character permanently dies, you simply start playing as whomever you marked as your next-of-kin. Since there are no RPG elements apparently (i.e. Skill Points), the most you lose is some reputation standing and whatever emotional attachment you’ve developed for a character in a permadeath-enabled game. Considering that the limb-damage system specifically talks about how difficult it will be to instantly die – a Ruined head might be jaw or eye damage instead of missing skull – it sounds like this might not be entirely relevant anyway.

I do not want to give the impression that I am not looking forward to Star Citizen, at least as much as anyone can about a game that could radically change at any moment. Space sims are not a genre I spend a lot of time thinking about, but I absolutely loved them in the past. I played Colony Wars for the PS1 way back in the day for an inordinate amount of time. The Zone of Enders series might not technically count as a space sim, but it is the first thing I think about whenever I see videos of Star Citizen dogfighting. I would seriously consider buying EVE: Valkyrie on Day 1, even though I’m not particularly impressed with CCP’s other spinoffs.

But if/when I do pick up Star Citizen, it will be in spite of mechanics such as limb-based damage and permadeath. I do not actually see such things adding anything of value to the game that would not have otherwise already been there. Instead, I foresee a future in which there will be a lot of people crawling around on the floor, hoping that Chris Roberts included a method to commit suicide and still wake up back at their spawn point.

¹ I don’t actually believe that much, if any, weight is removed in these games (or at least in Battlefield). Dying is already a miserable experience even with instant respawns, let alone in the context of not being able to capture an objective or prevent the capturing of your own. Attempts to penalize them further just makes the game harder, but not in a particularly fun way. Otherwise death penalties would all be “invalidate your CD key and force you to repurchase the game.”