Video Games

REVIEW: Pyre Delivers and Disappoints

Supergiant Games have had a pretty good run so far. Their first two titles, Bastion and Transistor, were met with critical acclaim and instantly created a community around the studio’s work. In some ways Supergiant had become the poster child for the best of the game industry. A small crew with limited resources created two of the most stylistic and unique games in recent memory. Those two games capitalized on the team’s strengths and although they had differences in the details, the broad strokes were largely the same. Very few people had anything but praise for those two games at the time. Instead, another worrying question emerged: Is Supergiant capable of diverting from their established formula?

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Pyre is the third game from Supergiant and the concern for distinguishing itself from the other two titles seems apparent. The core mechanics of Pyre are a huge departure from not only Supergiant Games, but all of the industry’s current trends. These departures make Pyre an intensely unique experience, but Supergiant’s reliance on its signature touchstones make it difficult to shake the feeling that the game could’ve achieved much more.

Like all of Supergiant’s games, Pyre’s gameplay is tightly intertwined with its story. You play as an outcast of the Commonwealth, a society that has outlawed reading. As a reader, you’ve been banished to a redemptive land called the Downside where various outlaws compete in religious rites to win their way back into high society. These rites take the form of a mystic sport similar to Basketball where the objective is to score a ball into the opponent’s goal. Each side has three teammates but only one person can move at a time. There are various attributes that effect each player’s role in the game. For example, a larger character may have a wider presence to block opponents from advancing, but they’ll also be significantly slower. Alternatively, a quick character may be able to sprint across the field with ease but the amount of points they can score will be less than other characters. There are a few difference dynamics in play and it’s best to see gameplay yourself to get a better grip of how a typical match plays out.

The mechanical depth isn’t merely tweaking the values of traits like quickness (how fast you move), presence (how wide of an area you occupy), or glory (how many points you score). New characters tend to be unique races to the world of the Commonwealth. These party members have backstories that fill in the lore of the world and playstyles that expand on the gameplay’s depth. For example, Pamitha is party member from a race of bird people who have allegiance to a nation historically against the Commonwealth. Her great wings allow her to fly over the map with increased mobility. Another character is a talking tree with revolutionary tendencies. His movement is quite slowly but can teleport short distances and leave saplings for defense around the map. These different races also appears as your opponents in the game. Different teams have varying strengths and weaknesses meaning that there’s rarely a strategy that works for all of them. It also helps that Pyre encourages experimentation with your roster by having characters gain “inspiration” when they sit out a match, which allows them to gain twice as much experience when you use them again.

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As the story progresses, Pyre introduces more elements to keep the gameplay fresh and these elements will be familiar to anyone who’s played another of Supergiant’s games. Each teammate can be equipped with a unique item that alters their stats in some meaningful way. These items can be found in the world, purchased at a store or unlocked through a character-specific challenge. Later in the game the player has the option to make each match more challenging by fighting under specific religious constellations that give buffs to the opposing team or debuffs to your own. These additional elements are fine on their own but they contribute to the feeling that Pyre is more of the same. A good sports game doesn’t necessarily need a new twist every 30 minutes to keep the player’s interest. Instead the cascade of gimmicks act as a distraction. In the later matches I focused more on discovering what team/item composition broke the game instead of improving my skills and strategies.

At some point it becomes apparent that the gameplay was intended to be the focus, as made evident by the overbearing amount of dialogue and storytelling. On its own, the writing and world building of Pyre is fantastic. As opposed to Supergiant’s previous games, the player directly interacts with most characters instead of reading about them in description texts. The various personalities come to life with these one-on-one interactions but there is simply way too many of them. For every ten minutes of gameplay there’s an accompanying 30 minutes of talking to party members or advancing the story by pressing X over and over until your input is needed again. Sometimes you’re given options on how to respond to character inquiries or make decisions for the group, but many of these “choices” seem half-baked since none of these choices have a narrative or mechanical consequence. The strangest example of this is when the game prompts the player as if they’re being tasked with deciding the future of the groups’ journey, but there’s only one option. These moments give the impression that Supergiant planned for worthwhile choices, and perhaps branching paths, but chose not to pursue it.

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Narrative choices would have gone a long way to remedy how boring the game becomes when it starts unloading its story on the player. It’s bad enough that Pyre has a very slow start, but it never gets into a groove of leapfrogging between action and story. Eventually I found myself so overwhelmed with party members wanting to talk to me that I skipped through a lot of the tangential dialogue. In the past, Supergiant has woven a lot of its story in its gameplay. Transistor masterfully tied gameplay experimentation with revealing more of the world by tying each individual ability to a backstory of a specific character. In Transistor the more you used an ability, the more story you got. That’s not the relationship in Pyre. Clicking through character text unlocks even more text via the religious book the party keeps with them at all times. I tried my best to read a few pages of this codex but gave up around page 15 (there’s over 50 in total). Supergiant’s past games have had their own worlds with deep backstories, but it was always optional for the player to explore if they wanted to. In Pyre, everything is front and center.

The biggest crime of the oppressive story is it diminishes your time with playing the game. Pyre is easily the most mechanically dense game from Supergiant, but just as its true potential is revealed the game ends. There is a local versus mode offered in the game, but without any competition or consequence it’s not enough. Had the game included traditional mode available in sports games — such as tournaments, challenges, or online multiplayer — the thirst to play more of the game may have been quenched, but there’s none of that. On the other hand, the narrative is never truly explored either. Pyre’s world has conflicting nations, racial tensions, political plots, unique backstories and complicated relationships but they all have to be condensed into one minute dialogues. It feels like Supergiant finally struck gold and found a concept worthy of spending more time on, but they cut it short. I suppose Supergiant could feel flattered that the biggest critique of their game is that it seemed like it could have been even better, but it also means it’s hard to walk away from the game without feeling disappointed.

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The individual elements of Pyre are fantastic. The clean visual style creates unique vistas for the landscapes of the Downside. Every party member and stage have their own soundtrack that adds a sense of character to the entire world. Political intrigue and individual motives draw the player into the intriguing storyline and the memorable cast give reasons to care about the outcome. Mechanically, this is Supergiant’s best work. Pyre is an easily recommendable game to anyone with an appreciation for video games, but the question that shrouded Pyre’s release is not answered after its completion. Is Supergiant capable of anything else?

4/5

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Uncategorized, Video Games

REVIEW: Stellaris Shows Promise For The Future

For many people, Paradox Development Studio’s games are that nut that refuses to crack. You can go to Twitch or YouTube and find endless videos of people streaming games like Victoria II or Hearts of Iron III and see people entrenched in these amazing stories of warfare and political intrigue, yet playing the games for yourself never seems to turn out that way. Paradox games are infamous for their deep and layered systems that scare new players who get intimidated by so many mechanics without a sufficient tutorial to guide the way. The studio has seen more success with its recent games, Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II, but the steep learning curve critique remained. That’s likely what led to many of the design decisions of their newest game Stellaris, a grand strategy game set in space. Stellaris ditches the overbearing historical baggage of Paradox’s past work and with it goes a lot of the depth of those games, but as a result the studio has succeeded in making their most approachable game yet.

In Stellaris you rule over an intergalactic space empire with ambitions to rule the universe. At the start of the game you select which race you want to play. This is a great way for Paradox to hit you with an immense amount of information that you don’t understand. Each race lists a tremendous amount of information about itself. There are different traits per race, as well as preferred planet types. Each government has different types of elections, in addition to ruling ethics that shape the way their society is formed. There’s also a variance on how each empire’s ships are designed, whether they use warp, hyperlane, or wormhole travel, and if they use kinetic, laser, or missile weapons. All of this is very overbearing so it’s best to just pick a random one and dive in.

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As it turns out, which race your pick first doesn’t actually matter because failing at Stellaris is the most fun you’ll have with the game. Whereas games like Crusader Kings II suffered from frustrating questions like “How does trade work?” Stellaris exclusively deals in questions such as “What’s the best way to stop this robot uprising?” Stellaris’ user interface is easy to grasp, and whatever concepts you don’t understand are easily explained by an advisor who can quickly explain it to you (or you can turn them off). You’re always tackling the challenge of the game, as opposed to struggling to decipher the user interface. Tumbling down the rabbit hole of discovering what each system in Stellaris does is how you’ll spend most of your time with the game. Almost all of your playthroughs will end with you losing or choosing to start over because you know you can do better.

Once you get a handle on the systems, the real marvel of the game starts to shine. For example, when defeating an enemy empire in war, you take their planets. This will grant you a new planet, more resources, and more population… but that population is a completely different race than yours. This newly conquered race doesn’t necessarily want to be conquered by you, so what can you do? Well, lots of things. You can relocate all the new denizens to your current planets and integrate them slowly. Or you could pass an edict on your newly acquired planet and hail it as a “land of opportunity,” which would cause your own race to flock to it and speed up integration. Or you could open the “Factions” panel and bribe the Separatists faction and hope they stop spreading propaganda that seeds unhappiness. Or you could create a vassal state of this new planet and not worry about it. Or you could pass a Xeno Leaders resolution, elect a governor to the planet who’s the same race as those new denizens which would massively increase happiness. Or hey, you could also enslave all of them. Or better yet, why not just “purge,” them all, which is Stellaris’ nice way of saying “commit genocide.” Yes, in Stellaris you can totally be a Space Nazi.

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There’s a huge amount of options available for each scenario and depending on how you want to rule your empire there’s different approaches to take. These playstyles are encouraged by the various systems in the game. For example, those ethics and governments? If you want to be a Space Nazi, you can select “Fanatic Militarist,” and “Xenophobe,” which will increase your army’s effectiveness, and your tolerance for slavery/purge. In addition to that, you can select the trait “Decadent,” which will reduce your race’s happiness unless they’re ruling over slaves. On the other end of the spectrum, you can also select the ethics “Pacifist,” and “Xenophile,” which will increase the number of embassies you can maintain with other empires, and lower the amount of food your race consumes per population. These ethics directly affect what type of government each empire has, which drastically affects the AI behavior of the various empires you encounter across the stars.

Although these playstyles seem to be encouraged through the mechanics, the victory conditions of the game send a clear message: domination or bust. The only two ways to “win” at Stellaris are by ruling over all the other empires, or by colonizing 40% of the planets in the universe. Both victory conditions are insurmountable, so it may be that “winning” the game isn’t exactly the point (previous Paradox games did not have “victory conditions”), but the game reaches a stand still after a few hours. Once you expand your borders to their limit, and research everything possible, you get to the point where you either have to start blowing people up or start over again. If you rolled as a Military Dictator this might sound awesome, but there are a variety of playstyles that are specifically punished for declaring war or for being in wars at all, even defensive ones.

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Replaying the game will also lose its intrigue after game four or five once you really understand all the systems, and specifically what is more or less effective. Once it dawned on me that the game really prefers you play as a military role, I didn’t see the point in playing the more diplomatic or scientific governments. Stellaris doesn’t have the luxury of a “map” like Europe, but the absence of one leaves Paradox in an awkward position. In Europa Universalis IV, there are well-known challenges, such as playing as Ireland and taking over all of the United Kingdom, or spreading Christianity across the Middle East. These might be obscure for people who never played those games, but they offered reasons to keep going back, and multiple attempts would yield multiple results. Stellaris tries to replicate them through random encounters such as robot uprisings or inter-dimensional invasions, but they don’t occur consistently enough to make every playthrough unique.

Paradox’s reputation for supporting their games after launch may put these concerns to rest. In fact, I was going to add a paragraph about the bugs I experienced while playing the game, including one save game that was stuck since I couldn’t conclude a war, but when I loaded the game today after a patch the bug was fixed. In addition to that small fix, there were small user-interface changes, and this is only a few weeks after release. Paradox continues to support games like Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV multiple years after their release, with DLC and small patches every few months.

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With this in mind, it’s easy to see Stellaris as the base of a game that hasn’t reached its potential yet. As on now, learning the mechanics of Stellaris is certainly enjoyable. It’s easy to summarize in a few paragraphs, but in reality I spent well over 40 hours with the game before I got a grasp on the mechanics. It takes a long time to understand the game and that process of discovery is worth having. If you’re an experienced Paradox veteran who’s looking for the next level, or if painting the map with your own brand of imperial Stormtroopers doesn’t sound appealing, I’d wait until an inevitable expansion is released. On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s wanted to get in on the Paradox bandwagon, but found the previous games too complicated, then Stellaris is a great entry point.

3/5

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Video Games

Impressions: The Witness

The Witness is receiving rave reviews from every outlet that reviews video games right now. Personally, I’m experiencing a lot of frustration because after the first dozen puzzles I find the game impenetrable. This is likely more a commentary on my intelligence than it is on the game’s design, but I made a video of myself trying to solve an early puzzle and maybe you can see for yourself. I’m sure I’ll look at this video later and cringe at my inability to overcome a simple puzzle, but for now it’s completely beyond me.

Just so we’re clear, this isn’t meant to be a “review” of the game. I would never review a game that I’ve only played one tenth of the content. However, I do think it’s fair to say my experience with the game so far would lead me to say I can’t recommend it, because it hasn’t been a very positive experience so far. I won’t say that’s my final opinion on the game, because I intend to spend more time with it, but that’s where I’m at right now. Check out the video for a more nuanced opinion.

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Video Games

Top 10 Games of 2015

Many people believed 2015 would be the next landmark year of gaming. They hoped it could be mentioned within the same breath as 1998, 2004, and 2007. One of those years where the developer and console cycles align and a boatload of quality comes out in the same year. 1998 saw the release of games like Half Life, Ocarina of Time, Stacraft, and others. 2004 had San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid 3, Halo 2, etc. 2007 brought us Mass Effect, BioShock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, among others. Looking at my list, and the other games of 2015… I don’t think it holds up to those years. I think 2015 was the year of surprise. Like: SURPRISE! Games are actually good for some reason. After the absolute bum year that was 2014, the industry has rebounded with gusto. My list itself has a lot of surprises, mostly because it features games and genres that I typically don’t enjoy. Overall I believe 2015 is setting up and even greater year: 2016, but we’ll see how that works out. Before we move onto the future, let’s take one last glance at the past. Here’s my top ten favorite games of 2015:

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10. Massive Chalice

This year was the year of the XCOM clones and my first run in with one was Massive Chalice. Originally slated to be released in 2014, Massive Chalice got pushed back into summer of 2015 and sort of got farted out in a way that made everyone forgot about it. The game is a mix of family name building akin to Game of Thrones, along with “defending of the realm” storytelling, combined with XCOM combat if it focused on melee units. I felt this game could’ve done achieved more if it had taken it self seriously instead of the established goofy tone of Double Fine (which may be why lead designer of Massive Chalice, Brad Muir, has since left the company to work for Valve) but I still enjoyed well over thirty hours with this game.

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9. Invisible Inc.

Hey another XCOM inspired game! This time from Klei, the talented developers behind Mark of the Ninja and Shank, also known as the best games I’ve never finished. A problem I didn’t have with Invisible Inc, but that’s probably because one playthrough only takes 2-3 hours. The game relies on randomized environments and campaign conditions and it’s highly encouraged you play it multiple times as each playthrough unlocks another character or item to alter your play style on the next run. I liked the style and tightness of the world in Invisible Inc and gave it a good 4-5 runs in the middle of the year. Some people have called it the best designed game of the year. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s certainly one of the stand outs from what I played in 2015.

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8. Prison Architect

Prison Architect was the game I eyed almost daily for months. It would announce a new update, or go on sale every few weeks. Each time it seemed more enticing. What might as well be called “Prison Maker Tycoon,” had everything I could want from a builder game, and the developers seemed dedicated to updating their game and not only improving it but adding more content for free on a regular basis. The game finally saw an official release this year after multiple years of Early Access on steam so I didn’t delay to start playing it (if it isn’t clear, I refuse to purchase Early Access games and wait for official release). It turned out to be everything I imagined. The campaign mode gently introduces you to all the mechanics and eases you into your own prison, and there’s even different play styles and “types” of prisons to construct, such as one that values punishment versus one that values rehabilitation. These play styles give you a reason to keep playing after you’ve reached max capacity with your first prison. I’ve had a lot of reason to get cynical about Early Access in 2015, but Prison Architect was a shining example to stay optimistic.

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7. Until Dawn

If there was a “surprise of the year” award, I would undoubtedly give it to Until Dawn. I never would have thought that a horror game, that’s closer to an “interactive drama” than a game, would turn out to be one of my favorites of the year. Until Dawn proved itself a lot smarter than its premise as “a dumb B-movie horror game.” I was genuinely impressed with how the design led me to make decisions that progressed the story down interesting paths. The contributions they made to the Quantic Dream formula such as the personality meters, and relationship statuses gave insight on how I should act in certain scenario. It also helped that the cast they picked for their motion captured characters had the charisma needed to stay memorable long after I had finished the game. Until Dawn could’ve easily ended up as something forgettable, or a cluster of good ideas that never land right, but a series of good decisions led to a really marvelous outcome… just like the game itself.

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6. Ori and the Blind Forest

I’m not that huge of a fan of “Metroidvanias,” so it takes a lot for me to put one on my Top 10 list. The fact that Ori is on this list at all, should be a sign of its quality. Ori’s not just a game that looks pretty and dazzles audiences from thinking rationally, confusing them into giving it praise. Its design is genuinely impressive, on top of being one of the most beautiful experiences of video games. Take this small change for example: In most games there are checkpoints artificially placed in the world, typically before difficult parts of the game. Sometimes players run into frustrating sections when there is no checkpoint at a section they’re stuck at. In Ori, there are very few pre-made checkpoints, because the player can make their own at any time by holding B. This is balanced because making a checkpoint expends “energy” that the player has to collect in the world. Which means instead of artificially choosing which parts of the game the player will need more help with, you can choose where you think you’ll need a few more retries, or you can save all day if you think you’ll need it. It’s just one example, but I think it’s a good example of the developer’s forward thinking led to making Ori one of the most intuitive games I’ve played in years. It might be called “hardcore difficult,” but it never felt that way because it taught the player how to master difficult strategies so well. The rest of Ori’s strengths speak for themselves. The impressive animation, beautiful music, Disney-esque story, and memorable set pieces. If you like this genre at all, Ori and the Blind Forest is perfection.

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5. Fallout 4

Man, can the world decide what it thinks about Fallout 4? I feel there are two camps and people keep jumping between them. Either Fallout 4 is a good game or Fallout 4 is too similar to Bethesda’s previous work and therefore a disappointment. I have not played the maximum amount of hours (I’m hovering around 27-30 hours right now) but my opinion right now is that Fallout 4 is pretty good. I think it’s leagues better than Skyrim, and any comparison before that is hard to quantify because Fallout 3 was a long time ago (seven years!). One thing remains true: the great thing about Bethesda’s game design is that they put a focus on the writing of the games.

One of the reasons I didn’t like Skyrim is because the quests were uninspired. I remember finishing the Thieves Guild quest line and being told that was “the best part of the game.” I was unimpressed, so I turned it off. I was already disappointed with what I had seen and if I had just passed the “best part,” why bother? In Oblivion, I was always surprised, every quest added something to the world or filled in some personality to the town or faction I was working within or for. Even if I had passed the best part of that game (The Dark Brotherhood) the other quests had something to offer. I feel that way with Fallout 4. I’ve had some five star quests, some four star quests, some three star quests, but they’ve all been really enjoyable and have helped fill out the world. That’s what Bethesda games are supposed to be about. I can see the criticisms that Bethesda didn’t evolve the mechanics enough, or that the base building doesn’t actually do anything, but for my money, and for what I wanted Fallout 4 to be, I got what I wanted. No one makes a game like Bethesda can, and until that changes, I can never call one of their games “disappointing.”

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4. Cities Skylines

Praise the publisher Paradox for sheparding the developer Colossal Order to release Cities: Skylines and saving the genre of city builders. After the disaster of Sim City I think everyone was ready to call it quits on ever seeing that franchise revived. Out of nowhere came this little game and in no time I found myself lost in thirty hours and down several metropolises. The best praise I can give Cities: Skylines is it’s so easily streamlined, you wonder how anyone could’ve gotten it wrong. Just a few weeks ago I loaded Cities: Skylines up again, after not playing it for months, and all the concepts and tools came back to me within minutes, it was simple. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Cities, and who knows, maybe it’ll inspire other developers to make a competitor that’s worth a damn.

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3. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Talk about a surprise. For anyone who knows me, I have a begrudging relationship with Metal Gear. I’ve played every game in the series and I don’t think I’ve liked a single one of them. That changed this year with The Phantom Pain. Phantom Pain practically dropped the “Metal Gearness” of the series, which is to say there’s far less hour long cut scenes and way more emergent gameplay. Granted, there’s still plenty of insane characters and bizarre cut scenes, but it all takes a back seat to the action. For once I can say that Metal Gear is the game I turn on when I just want to screw around in a world and see what happens. My appreciation for the depth of Phantom Pain’s mechanics really expanded in the second half of the game, when specific missions strip away your loadout preferences and you have to rely on strict stealth, or start with no weapons at all. These missions made me play the game in different ways I had never tried before. These latter parts of the game really opened my eyes to the depth of the systems at play in The Phantom Pain. I still don’t like the story, and I’m pretty sure I skipped past a lot of the cut scenes, but for once they made a game I actually really enjoyed.

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2. SOMA

Up until now Frictional has only made games that I’ve aspired to play but never actually do. Penumbra and Amnesia have really high praise in my circle of friends but the controls and the early moments of those games do a good job of convincing me to “nope” out of there real quick. SOMA was different. SOMA had a far different set up than the previous games, and the sci-fi backdrop intrigued me more than their dungeon horrors of the past. There were still times in SOMA where I wanted to hit escape, quit out of the game and never play it again, but I stuck with it. The groundwork laid in the first hour hinted at questions that I had to have answered. What was going on? What happened to my character? How am I going to get back? The rest of the game does not disappoint. Since finishing SOMA I’ve been relentlessly pleading others to finish the game so I can discuss the ending. I’ve even started asking non-gamers about tangential topics just so I can have some form of conversation. It’s a game that’s plagued my mind in more ways than one, the way a true horror should. I may have some reservations on “getting lost” every now and then, but I can’t deny how completely SOMA has taken hold of my life since completing it. For that reason I have to acknowledge it as one of the best experiences I’ve had this year.

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1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

When Witcher 3 came out, there was a lot of praise. I heard my trusted sources talk about it and they said they liked it. At one point someone said “some people are calling this one of the best games of all time,” to which someone responded, “I feel like those are the same people who said that about Witcher 2.” I remembered that I played Witcher 2. Twice. Both playthroughs are sitting at the 12 hour mark, just after the first encounter with the main villain. After that fight I lost all interest in ever playing it again. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I remember when Witcher 2 came out there was high praise when it was released, then it dimmed, then as the year went on people forgot about it. By the end of the year Witcher 2 was not remembered as “one of the best of all time.” I decided after hearing this conversation that Witcher 3 would go the same way. But, it hasn’t.

After hearing continuous praise for the game throughout the year, and seeing mainstream praise from outlets like The Game Awards and GameSpot, I decided I needed to play Witcher 3. I bought the game sometime last week and I’m now thirty hours into Witcher 3. Every moment away from the game I’m constantly thinking about it. This is my acknowledgement that I haven’t finished the game, but it didn’t feel right awarding my #2 or #3 pick with the top spot. Witcher 3 feels like it earns it placement for a variety of reasons.

One of the stand out differences of Witcher 3 is a fundamental approach of how the game chooses to spend the player’s time. In games like Fallout, or even Metal Gear’s side ops, the quests amount to errands. “Go pick up some stuff for me.” Maybe there’s a dialog wrapped around it, but there’s not a lot to it. All of Witcher 3’s quests are exactly that, involving, story intertwined, quests. Every interaction Geralt has with someone in the world feels like it matters. I feel like I’m in the world of the Witcher, instead of just logging more hours into my playtime of a game. I feel like I am becoming Geralt, and the actions I want to perform are generally allowed in the game world.

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Pictured: An enemy who’s buddy shot him in the back of the head.

I’m also far more impressed with the combat system this time around. The mix of swordplay and spells continues to be cool. You’re practically a Jedi with things like a pseudo “force push” or a fire spell, but even just the randomness of the fights themselves lead to humorous results. A common arrangement of foes is a sword enemy, a shield enemy, and a bowman in the back. In one encounter I force-pushed the shield opponent to the ground. The sword opponent approached me, then suddenly his health dropped to near-zero, because his bowman buddy had shot him in the back of the head. This emergent randomness can happen all the time. Every fight becomes a question of “what’s going to happen this time?” I love finding out the answer every time. There isn’t a single fight that becomes a slog or “alright let’s do this now.” It’s always fun, it’s always uncovering what the game’s engine will allow next. Even the tougher enemies are always a fight for survival without being brutally difficult.

And the world building is better now than any previous game in the series. I can attest to the fact that the first few hours of any Witcher game had always felt like an encyclopedia of foreign terms being dumped out of characters’ mouths as they referred to characters and conflicts from lands I’ve never heard of before. This game has a personal scope. It expands into grander conflict the further you dig into your own personal story. As you meet each new character that’s completely different from the one you met before, you suddenly realize you’ve met nothing but characters you’ve never seen before, and realize how unique this world of the Witcher really is.

When every quest feels like it’s important, every fight feels like a fight to the death, when digging into the world is rewarded with deep character backstories and a unique world, it’s hard not to be in awe at the game. I understand this game has been patched several times since launch and maybe at release it was in a completely (more embarrassing state) than it is now, but the game as it is now, is a bewildering force of quality. Any moment before now I could’ve told you that the previous Witcher games were overrated, but this time around they really did it. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my game of the year.

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Video Games

Never Underestimate a Friendly Face: Amnesia, SOMA, and Loneliness

Horror games are fundamentally different than any other type of horror. A horror novel might keep your attention as you read it then disturb you later in your day-to-day. A horror film might give you wild thrills for an evening, but when it’s daylight you might forget about it. Horror games differ because they intend to be horrifying, but if they’re too successful then the player simply stops playing them. After all, we can only handle so much (alternatively, our sadism only goes so far).

For me, Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was a horror game that was too successful at horror. As much as I love Lovecraftian themes, which Amnesia is strongly reminiscent of, the mood was so incredibly depressing I found the sense of dread inescapable. Despite the countless stories I’ve read such as The Dunwich Horror or At the Mountains of Madness, something was missing from Amnesia that pressed me to continue on. I’ve always chalked this up to a character flaw in myself. I’m pretty green when it comes to horror games, so maybe it just “wasn’t for me.” But I’ve found since Amnesia’s release, and even more so since Frictional’s new game SOMA’s release, that there was a little more going on than just my cowardly tendencies.

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Whole lot of nothing.

There are a lot of logical reasons why you would stop playing a game if it wasn’t mechanically sound, but an overbearing sense of loneliness is an abstract reason why some player stop playing games, and it’s not unique to the horror genre. A Reddit thread in /r/truegaming about loneliness in games mentions a few different games: Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, Metroid Prime, Half Life, etc. What these games all have in common, and what they have in common with Amnesia, is that they lack world interaction. Whether it’s NPCs, or any meaningful cut scenes, these games hinge on plopping players into a world and leaving them there. Games like Dark Souls and Half Life have some NPCs but very rarely are they actually helpful, and they usually only have one line of dialog which contributes to a sense of lifelessness in the world. Still, those few NPCs might be considered salvation compared to Shadow of the Colossus and Metroid Prime which are devoid of any interactable characters at all.

These games also happen to be relatively difficult. While a game like Dark Souls might be infamous for its difficulty, anyone who’s played Shadow of the Colossus or Half Life will remember failing quite a few times. Games are meant to be challenging, but in some of these worlds there’s literally nowhere safe. Knowing that once you start the game you’re constantly in danger can be grating on your psyche, even if it is “just a game.”

Speaking from personal experience, I tend to finish almost every game I play, but Metroid Prime and Half Life are on the short list of games I’ve never finished. Unlike other games where I might have gotten stuck and couldn’t continue, these games I put down at some point and couldn’t bring myself to continue. Something about going back to that world was unappealing. It was like I had an allergy to them and didn’t know it, it just didn’t feel good. Again, at the young age that I played these games I told myself they just “weren’t for me,” but as I’ve read other people’s experiences, it seems this sense of hopelessness is not uncommon. I had the same experience with Amnesia. I liked the game. I thought it was well made. I admired the developer. I wanted to play their game, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I barely made it two hours.

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Please talk to me…

So what’s different about SOMA? Well, a lot.

Amnesia’s opening scene is the player walking down dark stone corridors and immediately being introduced to the insanity mechanic, which explains if your sanity drops too low it’s game over. It’s dark, tense, and you expect something to pop out at you the entire time. If that’s not bad enough, you’re informed by the narrator that something is “following you,” and it isn’t made clear if that something is literally following you in a mechanical sense and you should keep moving, or if that’s just something in the story that will come up from time to time. Amnesia’s introduction is stress, death, and darkness.

SOMA’s introduction by comparison is leisurely paced and full of intrigue. The player starts in the main character’s apartment where they are free to do whatever they like and get familiar with the world and the controls at their own pace. After that the player rides the subway where they’re surrounded by other NPCs. This subway ride shows that the game has the capability of showing other humans to them and they won’t be totally alone, unlike Amnesia. The player also takes a phonecall while on the subway which has a few jokes. From there, the big events of SOMA take place, but it only takes another thirty minutes of play for the player to meet an important main character to give them the objective of meeting up in person and giving them a purpose.

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Things are looking up!

All while this is happening, the player is never in any significant danger. The first enemy of the game is introduced directly after the first contact with another main character. From there the game ramps up its horror, but at that point, the player has made a connection to someone in the world, and is already engaged. They have a purpose, they have someone to latch onto, and things don’t feel so hopeless, for the time being…

SOMA’s design choice to show players why they’ll want to persevere on instead on introducing them to the unique horror concepts convinces them to tough it out when things start getting freaky. This design choice is echoed in other horror related games. Although they’re not strictly classified as “horror,” games like Resident Evil 4 and BioShock introduce the player to a radio buddy before they show them a horde of Las Plagas or a Big Daddy. This choice might seem counterintuitive since most games want to show you what’s unique about their mechanics as quickly as possible, but since horror deals in causing misery to the player, the analogy to use might be like a torturer giddy to show you all their new tools. There’s probably a BDSM joke in here somewhere but I can’t think of it.

I haven’t finished SOMA, but I’m pretty confident I’ll see it through to the end because it’s got my hooks in me. I’m invested in the story and that investment has gotten me through a few different times I’ve wanted to “NOPE” out of the game, hit exit, uninstall, and never play it again. That’s my cowardly tendencies talking, but what’s there is so compelling, I want to see it through. But I would’ve never known what was there if I didn’t have the motivation of a friendly face reminding me I wasn’t alone.

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Video Games

Follow Me and This Concept Will Lead You: Until Dawn’s Variety of Personalities and Outcomes

This article contains Spoilers for Until Dawn, however Until Dawn is largely dictated by Player Choice and all of the spoilers mentioned are only the type of spoilers that specifically happened to me.

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There’s a concept in character writing that when you create a solid character you should be able to know what they would do in any situation without thinking about it. Think of a character. They’re in a rush to meet someone very important. They knock on a door where this person is supposed to be and there’s no answer. What next? Do they knock again? Do they crack a joke to themselves? Do they break in? Do they pick the lock? Depending on who you picked there’s probably an obvious answer that’s true to that character. Following what that character would do will continue their story, which might not lead them to the best outcome, but it will at least lead them to a conclusion that’s satisfying for their tale.

For example, maybe a reckless character will bang the door down and find himself arrested for breaking and entering. Their reckless habits have caught up to them. Or a sly thinker will peak through the window and see armed guards on the other side and decide to run away. Their cunning has saved them yet again. Either of these outcomes offer meaningful insight on the character, but you wouldn’t have a brittle-boned character try to break the door down and then die at the doormat. I don’t think anyone would want to tell the story of a brittle-boned character who died to a door.

Unless you were a video game developer, the creators of Until Dawn. While there are no brittle-boned characters in the cast of their survival horror that they’ve dubbed an “interactive drama,” (which I prefer to “it’s like Heavy Rain”) there’s the potential of an unsatisfying end to the various characters who can die within the tale being told. Unlike other interactive dramas, Until Dawn gives the cast defined characteristics, literally. At any moment during the game you can pull up a menu that shows each characters scaling on traits like “Funny,” “Brave,” “Charitable,” and etc. Player actions can affect where the trait scaling will go, but the game has an indicator marking where each character started in case you forget over the course of the game that the character you turned into a brave hero started as a cowardly jokester. This personality matrix being thrown into the mix of player choice adds a method to the madness of decision making.

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Character traits are specifically outlined in the pause screen.

Unlike other games that present a choice, Until Dawn doesn’t offer many situations where the player has to think “what would I do?” Because the choices are varying degrees of bad ideas. After all, this is a game that’s meant to mimic teenagers from slasher films who routinely make bad decisions. There’s also the fact that certain choices do not necessarily reflect the outcome. For example, running to safety over trying to save someone may result in a character making a noise and antagonizing a monster which causes their death. Choosing safety in this instance has caused their death, but how would the player know that? With the personalities in mind, the player can at least make decisions that are true to the character they are playing at the time. For example, a brave character would typically make brave decisions. They would choose to investigate a sound rather than stay safe, or run after their love interest instead of running to safety.

For the majority of the Until Dawn, Supermassive Games guided players by the Dungeons & Dragons motto “play your character.” If you were a brave character, doing brave things was routinely the best thing to do. If you were a self-centered coward, being self-centered and cowardly was the best thing to do. Straying from your character’s true self ended in bad results. For example, one couple in the game consists of the charitable Matt and the self-centered Emily. I played as Emily and found a flare gun. I was prompted with the decision to give it to Matt, or to keep it to myself. I really hated Emily, so I wanted to deprive her of all resources and I really liked Matt so I wanted to give them all to him. So I gave the gun to Matt. This resulted in a string of events that ended with Matt using the gun too soon, and when he needed it later he didn’t have it, so he died. So the character I liked ended up dead, yet Emily persevered on. Maybe if she had acted more true to her character, and kept the gun to herself, both of them would’ve lived?

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Sometimes character deaths are indirectly caused by other actions.

This twist on player choices made Until Dawn immensely satisfying where other interactive dramas were frustrating. Nothing is more frustrating than being presented with a choice with no viewable pros and cons, and then getting the bad option by luck. It appeared that Supermassive had found a way to give the player a bread crumb trail, or at least gave them a satisfying conclusion to all the character arcs, even if they don’t make it. For example, another one of my characters ended up dying due to a failed quick time event, but he was the plucky kid trying to impress the girl, so it made some tragic sense.

However, in the second half of the game Until Dawn loses its consistency. Another character, Ashley, is known for her curiosity. There are various times in the game where Ashley has the decision to investigate or to stay safe and feeding into her curiosity is rewarded every time. She’ll find a clue, or catch the sight of something important, but the last time she’s offered to investigate something it ends it her death. In fact the details of her death open up the possibility that other people can die as well, so in a way her curiosity has effectively screwed the entire group. I felt this was an unfair end to Ashley’s story since there’s no real way to investigate further if what she’s looking into is deadly. Once you press on her curiosity, she’s already dead. It reminds me of those frustrating choices in other interactive dramas where the only way it could’ve been prevented is from already knowing the choice before you make it. Unlike other character deaths, Ashley’s doesn’t come across as a significant character flaw, like a plucky hero failing to save the day, it felt like when you wish you had held your finger on the previous page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

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Player choice remains problematic in Until Dawn.

After Ashley’s death, which was toward the end of the game, I found myself running into a variety of unsatisfying conclusions. One character, who was devoid of personality, failed to find a clue, which caused the death of another character. Another character turned out alive who I hadn’t seen for well over five or six chapters, but made no contribution to the actual story. Then there was a showdown at the lodge itself but seemed like I had missed a lot. Obviously I didn’t get the best ending, and I had clearly missed a lot of the clues, but it seemed like Supermassive was close to providing satisfying conclusions for every character even if you fail, but that quickly fell apart once the second half of the game rolled around. The clumsy conclusion made me wonder if the intelligence of the first and second act were just by accident. Maybe the story was written to have a “right way,” and the other choices were just novelties, like all other choices in games, and I had just gotten lucky with following my characters’ personalities as guidance.

With that in mind, I still immensely enjoyed Until Dawn. The fact that I played it all in two sittings should be proof of its quality. I wrote this as a critique and it should be read like one, not a negative review of the game. Even with this critique in mind, it’s easily one of the more interesting games from 2015. Unfortunately, I wonder if the real genius of the personality + choice design was on purpose or just a happy accident that happens to work but wasn’t intended. I look forward to finding out in Supermassive’s future work.

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