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This Peeve of Mine: Blind Choices

It is amazing how many games you can work through when you aren’t playing an MMO. For example, I cleared through Metro: Last Light, StarCraft 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper, Wolfenstein: the New Order, and am currently plowing through This War of Mine. All in the last two weeks. Granted, many of those all had completion times below ten hours, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising, but nevermind.

While I am not entirely done with This War of Mine yet, I did want to talk about it a bit. Specifically, about how the game has one of my least favorite “features”: blind choices. Or maybe “blind choices” is not entirely the correct term, but rather (unintentional?) obfuscation.

I first complained about blind choices nearly four year ago:

Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforeseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforeseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The game I was referring to at the time was the original Witcher, when the game asked me which quest reward I wanted to choose. While the game didn’t hide the the rewards themselves, the relative utility of each choice was very much in question. A book about vampires, your own hut, or the Wreath of immortelles? I chose the latter because italics, and it allowed me to easily bypass a long, involved quest.

Despite having chose the one with the most overall utility, I did not feel particularly clever because the choice itself had no real meaning. Do we praise the stopped clock for being right twice a day? Avoiding a designer trap only highlights the fact that the designers included a designer trap in their game in the first place, which automatically lowers my view of the overall design. It’s a cheap gimmick – one that is overcome only with knowledge that a player obtains after the choice is made. “Giving players the choice to fail” really just means the designers were unable to give players two or more good (or bad) options to choose between.

This concept get a bit murky when it comes to the roguelike genre though. Many roguelikes specifically include things like colored potions that have randomized effects on each playthrough. Sometimes you can minimize the mayhem such potions can cause, by being at full health and in a safe place before sampling the rainbow of colors you have collected. Such testing technically involves risk assessment and valuing the odds, which are pretty high-brow player skills. I was fine with The Bind of Isaac’s random pill effects, for example, largely because everything else about that game was so random it almost didn’t matter. When you could find out early which pills did what though? It sets you way ahead of the curve.

This War of Mine is more or less a roguelike. While the loot you can scavenge is random, it is also random which “scenario” you might encounter when going to a new location. This is generally fine. Roguelikes need randomness to maintain replayability in what otherwise would be short playthroughs. What I found less fine was when I realized that you didn’t need a lockpick to open locked doors, you simply needed a crowbar. That “makes sense” in a sort of logical way, but not always in a game logic way, especially not in a game that also features vegetables that grow to maturity in four days under a heat lamp.

Should the crowbar’s in-game description mention it opens locked doors? I would say yes. There is still a meaningful choice between crafting a lockpick over a crowbar (specifically the amount of noise it generates) when you know the full depth of information about the two. At the same time… well, Minecraft certainly doesn’t give you all the information you might need for a successful¹ run. I haven’t played it in a while, but the last time I did, I knew there was no way I would have ever guessed the correct configuration of materials necessary to craft a bow or shears.

Examining my discomfort in more detail, I suppose it comes down to wasting resources when outside knowledge is readily available. I had no problem playing Don’t Starve for hours and hours despite dying and losing all progress to the most mundane of causes. Murder Bees are serious business, after all. But chasing down the mats to build a blowgun and darts in what ended up being a nigh-useless tool? That pisses me off. I will happily fail in service to muscle memory, even if I lose progress along the way. I will not, however, be so keen to fail because I didn’t read the Wiki first.

There is a distinction between the two that I can feel, even if I cannot enunciate it clearly.

¹ With what constitutes success in Minecraft being left undefined.

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.

Review: The Witcher 2

Game: The Witcher 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~36 hours
Buy If You Like: The Witcher, atmospheric and political fantasy gobbledegook

The atmosphere is almost - almost - enough to carry the entire game.

The atmosphere is almost – almost – enough to carry the entire game.

The Witcher 2 (TW2) is a sequel to the original, fairly ground-breaking game following the travails of Geralt of Rivia. Geralt’s profession is a Witcher, a human who has mutated his own genes in order to more effectively fight the monsters that spontaneously appeared in the world many years ago. After the events in the original game, Geralt was playing bodyguard to a king only to see his charge assassinated in his presence and then framed for the crime. TW2 takes place immediately following those events, and the wider ramifications and intrigue surrounding a recent batch of regicide.

I am going to be completely honest here at the beginning by saying that I finished playing TW2 only grudgingly, and after several months-long breaks inbetween. The game features a decently robust journaling system that will allow you to read up on what you are supposed to be doing and the general lore of the entire game world, but the litany of nonsense fantasy pronouns and references to the original game events (and the books they are predicated on) is truly unending. While I am willing to admit that the breaks I took inbetween playing certainly contributed to my general confusion, I do not absolve the game from what I feel was a profound lack of engagement. “Why was I doing this again?” “So I’m fighting this guy, but it’s important I don’t kill him, because I want this valley to become independent, so that… err?”

One of the major strengths of the first Witcher was its creation of what felt like a distinctly authentic atmosphere. Most fantasy games have a sort of whitewashed, Disney quality to them at odds with the historical reality of peasantry who bathed infrequently, had access to few paved roads, and a general unconcern with hygiene. The Witcher felt dirty, gritty, and real. I am happy to report TW2 continues in that praise-worthy tradition. Hovels look like hovels, trolls like like trolls, and you can practically smell the NPCs through the screen. The casual race discrimination (in terms of humans vs nonhumans) and ease in which people’s lives are upended or destroyed feels correct in a way practically unique to the genre.

Layered on top of this “fantasy realism” are the most banal, discordant, gamey quests and mechanics that I’ve ever seen.

Good ole meta-humor.

Good ole meta-humor.

We are talking about completely shameless fetch quests, kill 20 monster quests, and boomerang quests that shatter any sense of immersion in the fictional world. In fact, by the end, I hated the game world for its perfectly realistic twisted pathways and obstacles, as I was forced to circumvent them dozens of times as I did quests A, B, and C in sequence. And can I talk about the map for a second here? Literally the worst, most useless map in any videogame I have ever played. Shit made no sense, and zooming out gives you a view of the overworld that had zero to do with anything given how you were actually trapped in small zones around the one main location of the Chapter.

The combat in the first Witcher was not particularly deep or complicated. Combat in TW2 has actually devolved to the point where I was feeling nostalgic for the timed button pressed of the original as a measure of skill. All you do here is left-click for a quick attack and right-click for a strong attack. You can block, cast a Sign, roll-Dodge, or use an item too, but combat never felt integrated into the game world at all. Maybe the devs were intentionally trying to ensure you didn’t feel like a badass playing as a Witcher. Well… mission accomplished.

By far the worst aspect of the game though (map aside), is the direction that they took potions. See, potions are an important part of the game’s fiction; Witchers mutate themselves almost solely so they can brew potions that let them regenerate health, have extra power, and so on. In the first game, you could drink potions at any time, but could only meditate (e.g. sleep off the toxic potion side-effects) at certain locations. Which was dumb. However, TW2 decided to let you meditate almost anywhere, but you must be meditating before you can drink a potion. When can you not meditate? In combat, near combat, or somewhere where combat is implied to be occurring. The issue is that your abilities are balanced around potion use but potions only last for 10 real-time minutes. So you spend the entire goddamn game quicksaving every 30-seconds because getting into combat without having potions up is suicide, but you can’t exactly be running around with potions up the whole time, especially when you are exploring.

Only in The Witcher series...

Only in The Witcher series…

I am belaboring the utter travesty of the combat system because I’m at a point in my life where this shit just doesn’t fly any more. I used to suffer through all kinds of JRPG combat systems for the fruit that was their (quirky) plots. You can’t really even say that TW2 would have been a better Adventure game though, because the physicality of fighting is important to understanding the world Geralt and friends inhabit. You can’t cut-scene every battle, after all.

Ultimately, I think what killed The Witcher 2 for me was the simple fact that the rest of the gaming world continued moving. Yeah, this is a game that came out in 2011, so a certain amount of slack should be given. But… I can’t. If you have played Skyrim, for example, coming into this game will be physically painful – you will chafe at not being able to hop off the wall where you want, not being able to attack when you want, not being able to go where you want, not being able to drink goddamn potions when you want. All of which is a real shame, because The Witcher 2 features a wide array of morally grey choices that actually change large portions of the game, rather than being “mere” emotional placebos.

But, you know what? I kinda want to have fun when I’m playing video games and The Witcher 2 offered me the opposite of that. I’m keeping an eye on The Witcher 3 because I enjoy the game world they have created and the choices you can make inside of it, but I am oh so wary. And oh so tired of poorly implemented game features/design.