Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

Dragon Age 2 Analysis: Motivation

November 14, 2018

For this post, I’m going to be referencing Chuck Sonneberg’s videos on Act 2, particularly Parts 4 and 7.

This post, as you could probably guess from the title, is going to reference Chuck’s arguments about not having the motivation to do the quests and work to save Kirkwall in the game. At about the 32nd minute of Part 7, Chuck starts to talk about it, and at 35:50 or so he says that unless you are playing as Hawke, civic-minded do-gooder you don’t have any motivation to complete the quests in Act 2, and he follows that up with a comment ask what is keeping Hawke in Kirkwall with the implication that she should just leave. Now, part of the problem I have with this is that Chuck overstates how bad things are, dismissing your companions as “free-loading assholes” and overstating how bad things are relative to anywhere else you might go. He also insists that you have no importance and no motivation, which I also disagree with. So let me now move on to showing that the game at least tried to give the character personal motivations to try to protect Kirkwall that don’t rely on having specific personal or player-chosen motives, but ones that will work for most characters beyond the exceptionally mercenary character that Chuck was playing as in his videos, at least.

The first thing to note is a key component of the story of Dragon Age 2 that is rare in RPGs: DA2 is clearly meant to be a tragedy. Throughout every act, the game constantly tries to drive home the point that no matter how tough you are or how hard you fight or how nice you are to everyone, you are not going to be able to save everyone all the time. In the intro, one of your siblings and Wesley, Avelline’s husband, die and you can’t do anything about it. You will not be able to save your other sibling if they come along with you to the Dark Roads, nor will you be able to save Varric’s brother or prevent the betrayal in Act 1. You will not be able to stop the Qunari from going on the offensive in Act 2, nor will you be able to save your mother from the murderer. And it all builds to Act 3, where you cannot prevent the conflict between the mages and Templars from boiling over into open war. And this last is the important one, because this conflict breaking out seems to be the entire point of the game: showing how that happens or could happen to set up for DAI. Even the framing device hints at both destiny and tragedy.

Given that, all the character can expect to achieve is to make things better, and better in a way that suits them. They can’t prevent the tragedies from occurring, but they can help or hinder their friends, side with one side or another, and reap the rewards or penalties thereof. At about 10 minutes into Part 4, Chuck talks about Varric’s question about what Hawke wants. The irony is that you can actually achieve all of them, for the most part. If you kill the dragon and say the right things, you can become the sole owner of The Bone Pit, becoming a businessperson. As I was browsing the trophies after my second playthrough, I discovered that my first character had actually become Viscount, presumably through siding with the Templars and/or asking for it, thus achieving the political goal. And my second character saved Bethany through siding with the mages and so fulfilled the goal of protecting her family. Chuck is right to complain that you can’t pursue that goal in the game — it would have been nice to make separate sets of optional quests aimed at each goal — you can indeed actually achieve them, and your actions change the personal outcomes of your companions and even potentially Kirkwall itself.

But what motivation do you have for doing it, other than wanting to help Kirkwall itself? The key theme of the game — or, at least, one of them — is about what it means to have a home. For most of the game, Kirkwall is that home, and the game gives the character plenty of reasons to think of Kirkwall as their home. The character is driven out of their home by the Blight, which is then destroyed by the Dawkspawn. The game makes it clear that the character will not be able to go back there again. In desperation, Hawke and family go to Kirkwall, to return to their mother’s home. On arrival, they are left outside the gate, and the player can suggest moving on, but it is made clear that their mother couldn’t take that. Unless the player is playing a character that hates their mother, this gives reason for them to care about getting into Kirkwall, at least. After making it in, Hawke ends up restoring their family name and regaining their family estate, and settles in to build their new life. A new life, it must be noted, that’s quite a bit better than their old one, as they have wealth, are noted, and have at least some influence. As things build, Hawke still has their mother alive and might have Bethany in the Circle where, despite how harsh it can be, Bethany seems to be content. In Part 7, Chuck is asking what is keeping Hawke there at the end of Act 2, but his Hawke had Bethany in the Circle — knowing that the Qunari did not like mages — and an estate and home to protect, even if her mother was gone at that point.

And that’s the question: how much more motivation does Hawke need to not uproot herself and her family again to start all over again somewhere else? For most of Act 2, the Qunari threat has been simmering for years, the Viscount is trying to keep the peace, and there is hope that if they can just get the Qunari what they’re looking for they’ll go away peacefully. It’s only at the very end that things break out and Hawke is at least portrayed as being confident that she can stop the Qunari from destroying the city. Why would she leave her home at that point?

To be fair, Act 3, at least in my mind, drops the ball a bit on this by having Meredith be completely in charge of the secular authority at the start of this. This gives one side of the conflict what seems like complete control. Neither the nobles nor the Chantry should be able to tolerate that situation, but that she’s been in charge for I think years suggests that there isn’t going to be a peaceful solution to this conflict. I think it would have worked a lot better to have a young and inexperienced Viscount in charge, someone placed there because everyone though that he would be their puppet, and the quests in Act 3 focus around you helping him out, either by steering him wisely or steering him towards your own view. Then something could happen, Meredith could take over, this would anger the nobles, and events could proceed as a progression, with hope being frustrated at every turn until everything does explode.

But, even then, is that enough to encourage you to abandon your home and start over somewhere else? How much better was anywhere in DAO, with rebellions, evil spirit attacks, brigands, darkspawn, and other threats? Is anywhere else any less of a criminal cesspool or a powder keg? After all, the game makes it clear that the mage/Templar conflict explodes in most if not all other Circles as well; you happen to notice it in Kirkwall and it’s arguably the first one that instigates the others, but that was a conflict that was simmering for ages, all across Ferelden and other places.

The game gives you reasons to think that Kirkwall is your home, and builds up the idea of having a home and your responsibilities to it. Avelline, in Act 3, can be offered a chance to go back to Ferelden and refuses on the basis of her responsibilities to Kirkwall. Fenris gets a few conversations about his now having to find a home and build a life again. Merrill gets that as well in the Alienage. And even Hawke is asked on a number of occasions whether she considers Kirkwall or Ferelden to be her home. Sure, you can answer that you don’t consider it to be your home, which will weaken the motivation, but abandoning your family is still not something that most Hawke’s are willing to do.

So, ultimately, I feel that after playing and paying attention to the game that the game provides enough motivation for the player to stay, especially considering that things aren’t really bad enough for Hawke to abandon her estate, her family, and her friends, most of which are actually fairly reasonable if flawed (except for Anders. He’s just a jerk). But this only holds if, for most of the game, you think that you might be able to make a difference … even if, at the end, you actually can’t. That ties into importance and that’s what I’ll talk about next time.


Final (For Now) Thoughts on Cultist Simulator

November 7, 2018

“Cultist Simulator” is a much deeper game than it originally seems.

The original set-up makes it seem like a more reactive game: “events” pop-up and you get cards from solving them, and so what you need to do is put cards into the new events as soon as possible to keep things going, get rewards, and so on. That everything is timed — including cooldowns for cards — suggests that this is how it works. But it isn’t really a reactive game because what cards you assign to those events really matter. For example, if you put your health into your work, you get money, but if you put your reason into your work, you get a promotion that will help you get more money which can keep you alive. And if you put other things there, you might be able to advance the plot. And sometimes you get an event there that you need to counter with a specific card to get a specific effect within a set time limit. You had better not have had that card assigned somewhere else or more pointless when that comes around.

To its credit, the game does give you at least a few aids for dealing with this. First, you can pause the game to consider your move, and even plunk cards into events to see what they’d give you. Second, when you click on a card it shows you all the places that card can currently be used. So, the ideal strategy for someone learning the game is to pause the game at every interesting event and click on cards to see where they can go, and then plunk all the cards in all events to see what that would give you, and then pick the one that seems to give you the most benefit, which you can read from the flavour text while, then, enjoying the flavour text, and then unpausing and letting things run when you’re happy with what you’ve done.

This sounds like it might make for an interesting game. Unfortunately, it’s a gameplay that I really, really don’t have the time or energy to deal with right now. So I’m going to put Cultist Simulator off for a while, and pick up something else. I don’t know what yet, and I might end up having to wait until I get the Persona Dancing games in December. But it’s more an issue with me than with Cultist Simulator itself.

So, I finished my DA2 replay …

October 24, 2018

… so expect a detailed discussion of the game in line with what I’ve talked about before in the next couple of weeks. Here, I’m going to talk about a couple of minor thing I noted while playing it.

I found that I really, really enjoyed the game this time around despite being relatively unimpressed with it the last time around. I think that part of it was that replaying it after watching Chuck’s very negative comments and reminding myself of my rather blah view of the game I didn’t expect that much from it, and so was pleasantly surprised. I also think that part of it was because I was trying to experience the plot in detail, I paid far more attention to it and so was able to notice a few things that I didn’t notice the first time around, and so was more involved in the plot and the game, which I think is important for DA2. I also think that playing it after playing DAO’s ending sequence three times in a row gave me an appreciation for what it did itself and less of an impression that DAO was, say, less grindy a game. But whatever the reason, I really enjoyed myself this time out.

I also found that DA2, for all its faults, really did manage to do emotional and personally emotional scenes really well, while DAO didn’t seem to have very many OF those sorts of scenes at all. The scene where your mother died is heartbreaking, and can play into the entire third act. And while Carver’s and Wesley’s deaths can seem like they rely on assumed empathy, they are crafted well, it is clear that the people involved care about them — your mother and sister for the former, Aveline for the latter — and their deaths are used later to drive the plot and add emotional weight. Like it or not, the game really is far more personal than DAO was, and that allows for various scenes to have much more weight.

I had decided that I was going to try to romance Merrill in this game, after romancing Isabella in the previous one. Playing as a rogue, I therefore didn’t keep Isabella in my party very much, and so she deserted me in the second act. But the odd thing was that I had the hardest time making friends with Merrill, so much so that I was tempted to try to go full Rivalry with her. But that wasn’t working so well, either. Then I did her specific mission, ended up killing her Keeper and an entire village of Dalish Elves, which improved her opinion of me. A quick flirt with her, and we were in a romance and she moved in with me. As a friend of mine commented when I mentioned it to him “I guess nothing woos a girl’s heart like a little massacre…?”. She also seemed to change her outfit at the same time to a white one that I quite liked.

I liked the companions a lot this time around … except for Anders. One of the best things about them is that if you are good enough friends with them they tend to be pretty reasonable. The first time around, I chose to side with the Templars, and Merrill disagreed. I was able to convince her to go along because there was going to be a violent response and at least with me running it it would be organized and at least potentially merciful. This time, I sided with the mages, which upset Fenris and had him go to side with the Templars. But in the end I convinced him that he had to support the freedom for mages that he wanted for himself, and he stood with me. Avelline was not happy with defying the Templars, but sided with me anyway. So, in general, the companions were reasonable … and their conversations were often quite entertaining.

Except for Anders. I think I killed him both times, but this time he talked about being a martyr for others to follow and I almost regretted the decision, but decided, in the end, that him and Justice together produced a combination of fanaticism and power that couldn’t be allowed to go free, and what he had done didn’t deserve any mercy … especially since he refused to trust me with his plan but tried to guilt and manipulate me into helping him with it. He was too unscrupulous to be allowed to manipulate others that way.

Again, look for my comments aiming at Chuck Sonnenberg’s analysis of the game starting after next week.

Very, very, very early thoughts on “Cultist Simulator”

October 17, 2018

So, I decided to buy “Cultist Simulator”. While my initial impression of it after reading the description didn’t interest me, I heard later about how the game did good things with narrative and flavour text, and finally read comments on GOG about how the game has things happen and follows the narrative even if you play the game properly — one comment talked about the cultist dying from getting sick not for any real reason other than that sometimes you get sick — and thought that this might be a game that implements my view on there not being bad ends or loss states, but only ends and decided it’d be worth a try just to see. And it would give me something else to talk about on the blog, which is never a bad thing.

Anyway, I bought it, downloaded it, and started playing it just to see what it was like. And I felt overwhelmed with all of the actions and was just placing cards on areas as soon as I could, and mostly was doing that at random and plunking in anything that would work. And then the game crashed. Or, rather, it seems to have made my graphics driver crash. But despite that seeming like a bad thing, it actually improved my view of it, because when I restarted it everything seemed to be frozen when I loaded my save. Was the game screwed up or corrupted? And then I finally noticed that … the game was paused. Which led to another revelation: you can pause the game! I realized, then, that instead of letting it run in real-time what I needed to do was pretty much pause it anytime anything happened. That would let me read the flavour text of the “cards” to get the feel of the narrative that it was building and let me see what each slot on the table was asking for and what each card did so that I wasn’t just trying out everything and seeing what worked, but was instead actually learning how the game worked. This would allow me to not be overwhelmed while still not actually having to fully understand the game to — hopefully — enjoy it.

Given that, this is a game that I need to sit down and spend time analyzing and working with. However, I already have a game that I’m doing that with.. So it’ll have to wait for a couple of weeks at least. But I do think I’ll give the “perma-pause” strategy a try and see if I enjoy the game, and more importantly the semi-random narrative that it can generated.

Why DA2 is more addictive than DAO

October 10, 2018

So, I’m playing DA2 right after finishing some stories in DAO, and it turns out that DA2 has an addictive quality to it that DAO never had, meaning that it’s often hard to stop playing DA2 for the day, whereas it was usually much easier to do that for DAO. And the reason is because of the quest structure.

DAO was built around stories that took place in specific areas, with some backtracking occurring when later quests told you to go back to certain areas. Lothering is the prime example of this because once you leave Lothering the village is destroyed and you can’t go back there to finish up any quests that you didn’t finish. This fosters a playstyle where you follow a story thread to an area, do the story, do all of the sidequests you can along the way, finish the story, and then leave. Thus, you are encouraged to finish an entire full area while doing its story, and to not leave that area until you finish everything you can. Which also means that once you finish an area, it always seems like a good time to stop for the day.

DA2, on the other hand, doesn’t have those really big areas with their own self-contained story. For the most part, Kirkwall itself is roughly equivalent to one of those big areas, and the story always runs through Kirkwall and its environs. But Kirkwall is divided into a number of small areas, and there are more of these small areas than there were in any big area in DAO, and that’s even if you don’t take into account the fact that all of the city areas are duplicated at night and that there’s an outskirts to play with. Quests pop up in these areas at times and also move from area to area as you go along and resolve them. And since there’s a rough Act structure to the story, if you start the final story quests for that Act it’s like Lothering all over again; you simply cannot go back to finish quests that you started in the previous act. Thus, this structure fosters a playstyle where you start with an overall area — Kirkwall Day, Kirkwall Night, or Kirkwall Outskirts — and complete all of the Companion and non-story quests there, move on to the next area, repeat until all areas are clear of quests that don’t directly relate to the main story, do the next main story mission, see what non-story quests pop up, rinse and repeat until only the last main story quests are left, finish them, and finish the Act. Thus, the only natural stopping point is after an Act (and even there the game tends to dump you back into the middle of the action after the time jump so there are still things you can do and that the game encourages you to get on right away). But Acts are longer than most DAO areas, so you might not be able to play one through in one sitting, and the game structure gets you into a pattern where you start forgetting about time because it becomes so habitual to just hop to the next area and clear all of its quests until there aren’t any more to clear, and it’s only when you are pointedly reminded of the time or run out of quests that you realize that you’ve been playing quite a bit longer than you intended.

I really, really like DA2’s quest structure, and wish more games would do something like it rather than the “Run around looking for all the quests in a big area” thing that most do. DAI returned to DAO’s structure, but with bigger areas as they were trying to simulate the open world structure of Elder Scrolls games, and all it did was force me to grind out each area completely for fear that if I didn’t I wouldn’t have enough XP to do well at the next area. DA2 had that as well — there were a couple of shady quests that I skipped but worried that doing so would mean that I couldn’t get enough money to move on, although at the time of at least one of them I unknowingly already had enough money to move on (and the quest giver taunted Varric that I looked like someone who spent money rather than saved it [grin]) — but the quests were shorter and moved you along to different areas enough that it felt less grindy; I wasn’t doing all of them just so that I could move on to the next area safely, but to clean all of that up so that I could directly advance the story. Unfortunately, it seems to be the sort of thing that you can only justify with limited resources, because if you have the resources to build bigger areas more people will enjoy those, and it’s hard to see how to fit this sort of thing into those sorts of areas without turning it into DAI.

Still, it does mean that I play it a bit longer than I’d like to unless I have a specific appointment to push me to stop. I can’t say whether that’s good or bad [grin].

Dragon Age: Origins: Issues with Secondary Antagonists …

October 3, 2018

So, over the past couple of weeks I’ve now played the end sequence of Dragon Age: Origins three times, finishing off all of my characters (except my very first character, a human mage, which I redid — even keeping the same name, although accidentally — as my last character). Since I always leave Orzammar for last, that also meant that I replayed at least parts of that storyline for at least two different characters. I’ve now played as a City Elf, Dwarf Noble, Dalish Elf, and Human Mage. With the last character, I also made Loghain a Grey Warden and ended up losing Alistair, which I didn’t do for any of my other characters. And that story really drove home something for me about the secondary antagonists in this game, which I think is best exemplified by Prince Bhelen … and the fact that I never chose him to be king with any of my characters and can’t really see how any of them could do that.

Bhelen is an antagonist in the Dwarven Noble introductory story. He’s the one who essentially sets the Dwarven Noble up and gets him assigned to execution. Harrowmount, in contrast, supports the Dwarven Noble and I believe is the one who gets the sentence commuted to being left in the Deep Roads, which at least gives a chance of survival (and Duncan rescues him, leading to the start of the main quest). So it’s pretty obvious that for almost all characters there is no reason for them to side with Bhelen, as what he did was unforgivable. However, those events are also hinted at in Orzammar, along with some other things that suggest that Bhelen is not to be trusted. If you actually investigate which of the two would make the better leader, you can’t help but discover that Bhelen is treacherous and Harrowmount is trustworthy if a bit staid and conservative. Given this, it’s really hard to not simply support Harrowmount because no matter whether he’s the best king for the Dwarfs, he can at least be counted on to keep his word, whereas it’s far too easy to believe that when you put out the call for Bhelen to keep his word and support the Grey Wardens against the Blight if he decides that that isn’t in his interest he’ll simply refuse to do so. Everything we know about his character suggests this. Harrowmount may not have the best policies, but he’s honest and definitely seems more concerned about the good of Orzammar than about his own self-interest. About the only character that might support Bhelen is the Dwarven Commoner, as their sister is Bhelen’s wife, which gives the Commoner a reason to believe Bhelen is trustworthy and that he might be more likely to support his family (which the Dwarven Noble storyline flat-out refutes).

Unfortunately, the game tries to present this as a choice between a good king whose ideas are outdated and so bad for the Dwarves vs someone more shady who at least has the proper ideas. The problem is that Bhelen is so shady that we can’t trust anything about him. His best idea is about breaking down the caste system, but we can be sure that he’ll maintain it if it benefits him. He is certainly willing to appeal to tradition when it suits him, like appealing to the fact that he’s the last remaining son of the previous king and so should, by rights, be made king. Even if the game presents it as working out better to make him king, pretty much no character can trust that he’ll do anything he says he’ll do, and so even if you think that his policies are the right ones you can’t really trust that he’ll actually do it. So, if you want to be sure of help against the Blight, you’ll choose Harrowmount. If you want to support the better person, you’ll support Harrowmount. If you want to do what’s best for the Dwarves, you’ll probably still support Harrowmount because he’s at least honest, will do what he says he’ll do, and cares about Orzammar first and foremost. The conflict is weakened because as an antagonist Bhelen is just way too evil to carry the shades of grey required to make that conflict really work.

The same thing applies to Loghain. It would be a great redemption tale to take that secondary antagonist — and the more visible one for most of the game — and turn him into a Grey Warden who gets sacrificed to end the Blight. Loghain certainly has enough heroism in his background to make that work. But Loghain isn’t just someone who made a tough choice that resulted in some deaths. He deliberately turned his back in the battle and left his king to die, when he could easily have simply refused to go along with the plan if he really thought it would be that disastrous. He trucks with assassins and slavers and shows little remorse or even rationalizations for doing so. At the Landsmeet, if you confront him with the slavery operations being run in the Alienage he insists that he did what was necessary but never actually explains what he needed that for, and what they were giving him. The game seems to want to present him as someone who was driven to extreme ends by the conflict, but never actually establishes that those ends were necessary. Thus, we are more likely to see him as evil rather than as merely misguided, and thus are uninterested in seeing him redeem himself. Alistair actually has a good point in saying that that sort of redemption is too good for someone who has done what Loghain has done, even if he pushes the point far too far to be rational.

And that’s the problem here. The game fell into the trap of making us want to oppose the antagonists — or, in Loghain’s case, to be able to defeat him through public opinion — by making their deeds so reprehensible that all characters — even the most pragmatic — want to oppose them and/or have no choice but to do so. But if you do that it’s very hard to make workable storylines using them that are more grey in nature. Loghain is a perfect character for a grey storyline where he always had Ferelden’s best interests at heart but through paranoia and fear did the wrong things, but his actions go far beyond that into evil or at least insane territory. And Bhelen’s policies would work to provide an interesting contrast in a character that we really believed cared about Orzammar, which we don’t do for Bhelen. They made the characters too strong of antagonists to make the “Well, it’s not as clearcut as it seems” twist work at all, especially since we need to buy that while we’re still supposed to be hating them. We simply can’t shift emotional gears that quickly when we’ve been buried in just how evil both of them actually are.

At the end of the day, the game tries to place redeeming qualities in characters that they’ve spent a lot of time removing all redeeming qualities from. It can’t pull that off, and so both storylines are greatly weakened by that, in at least most playthroughs.

Some General Thoughts and a Longer Dragon Age 2 Discussion

September 26, 2018

So, there was a bad storm out here recently, and I lost power for an extended period of time. Not being able to do most of my regular pass-times I instead did a little light reading: “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (I took a short break to read the entire comic series “Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man” at one point). This, of course, worked out really well for my general reading, as I went from about 600 pages before the weekend to sitting at over 1000 today, when the book was going slowly not because it was a bad book but because it is a rather heavy book — in both content and actual size, since I’m reading a hardcover version of it — and so I can only get through a relatively small number of pages in an evening. But now I’m almost finished, and then that just leaves “Guns, Germs and Steel” out of my list of historical books and then that list will be finished! Right now, after that I’m planning to turn to fiction and read my collection of Ben Bova books, and instead of going on to philosophy after that I’m thinking about going through some serious literature for a while. But that’s in the future, and the X-Wing books will have to go in there somewhere.

Of course, being without power didn’t do wonders for my watching DVDs. However, I had just finished watching Dynasty — I’ll put up my final thoughts on that Monday — and have started watching Wonder Woman. Yes, I’ve comitted to finishing it this time. I’m working my way through She-Ra, and can’t wait to finish that one, for reasons that I’ll expound on at length when I talk about the series as a whole. So that’s still going along.

If you’ve been following my list of video games, you’ll note that I’ve put the Persona games on hold and started playing Dragon Age: Origins again. So far, I’ve finished my Dwarf Noble playthrough and am now working on finishing my Dalish Elf (she’s an archer, which is a bit of a different playstyle for me. I think I might need to start bringing along two warriors instead of having only one — Alistair — and then bringing along Leiliana). But you also might have noticed that after that I mentioned Dragon Age 2 and talk about it being an “Analysis run”. What’s all that about? Well, at work I was listening to a lot of Chuck Sonnenberg’s old video game reviews while working, and that included his Dragon Age 2 run. The first time I had watched it, I had disagreed with some of his conclusions in Act 2 and Act 3, but at the the time didn’t really go into it because some of them were things that I kinda griped about in my own thoughts on the game. I think, though, that it might be worth taking a look at them again and replaying the game with that in mind.

I’ll outline the two main issues here, but will revisit them and go into more detail on them later. The first is that in I think Act 2 — I’ll look it up more specifically when I directly address it — Chuck comments that Dragon Age 2 was the canary in the coal mine for Bioware. What he means by that is that DA2 was the first game where there was a huge discrepancy between professional review scores and player review scores, with professional reviews rating it so much higher than the players did. This was only exacerbated in Mass Effect 3. While I think he’s right about that, I don’t think that it was the canary in the coal mine for, at least, the issues that led to it. I think that honour belongs to Mass Effect 2, because as outlined in Shamus Young’s massive treatise on the Mass Effect games Mass Effect 2 was the game that moved away from giving you interesting choices and having those choices matter and instead towards railroading the character into doing what the writer wanted, which in that case was work for Cerberus. Chuck laments that choice was an illusion in DA2 but at least there that your actions couldn’t prevent the times to come was itself an important part of the story, as it seems to me that DA2 definitely aimed at being far more of a tragedy than the first game was, and in a tragedy no matter what you do you won’t be able to stop the tragedy from happening, either because it is inevitable no matter what you do or else because the reactions of the characters in the story will always be ones that lead to it due to their natures. They’re just not capable of doing the things they need to do to prevent it because those things are so anathema to their own personalities and who they think they are and how they think the world should work, and thus they create their own downfall due to who they are as people.

But Mass Effect 2 was not a tragedy. The player is not forced into working with Cerberus due to their own character, and in fact their own character likely would forestall them from actually doing it. Nothing in the characterization from Mass Effect suggests that the Council would ignore the Reaper problem after one attacks them on their doorstep, that the Alliance would simply abandon their colonies that are under Collector attack, that Cerberus is interested in them, is trustworthy enough to work with, or is even competent enough to make a difference here, or that Shepard would even consider working for them and not returning to the Council anyway. ME2 derails the plot and characters to make this fit, but covers it up with cool characters that you want to play with. DA2, instead, builds the railroading into the story but doesn’t have the interesting characters to make that more palatable.

Which leads to the second issue. In Act 3, I believe, Chuck comments that given all that’s happened in DA2 he can’t understand why Hawke doesn’t just leave, and that he/she only stays because they’re railroaded into it. Shamus, on the other hand, remarks that there is no reason for Shepard to work with Cerberus at all and only stays with them because the game won’t let them quit. The thing is, I think that unless you’re a character that is mercenary to the point where even Isabella would look at you funny, DA2 actually is careful to give almost all characters plenty of reasons to want to stay. First, Hawke for almost all of the game has family that they care about in Kirkwall, from your surviving sibling to your mother. Even in Chuck’s playthrough, Hawke isn’t likely to leave as long as Bethany is still in the Kirkwall Chantry. Second, even if your family is all dead — as mine was in my playthrough — you have friends that can’t leave as easily. Avelline, for example, is captain of the guard, while Varric still has some contacts there. I’d mention Anders’ seeming attachment to the place, but does anyone consider him a friend in that game [grin]? Third, you have a family estate and history there that you’ve recently reclaimed. That’s a reason to stick it out there instead of simply giving up that thing that you did so much work to get back, and that was very important to your mother. Fourth, it wasn’t that long ago that you had to uproot yourself and begin a new life elsewhere. Now that Kirkwall is finally feeling like a home again, Hawke might not be anxious to pack everything up and start over again. And, finally, Kirkwall’s not even all that bad compared to the rest of Thedas. What we have are unstable situations and one really disastrous event — the end of Act 2 with the Qunari — in the number of years you’ve been there. Ferelden, where you came from, had a civil war in the middle of a Blight. And a lot of the simmering issues in Kirkwall are simmering elsewhere as well. Hawke has some power and authority here and so is likely to think that at least they can make a difference here, which isn’t possible elsewhere. So almost all characters can find some reason to stay and try to make Kirkwall work rather than moving on.

Compare that with ME2. The main issue is disappearing colonists that no one seems to care about and that Shepard really has no reason to care that much about either. Cerberus is at best a small-time organization from the first game, and at worst is at best incompetent and at worst evil. Joining Cerberus actually causes Shepard to have less authority — because no one trusts Cerberus and so are reluctant to help someone working with them — than they would if they went back to the Council or the Alliance. Moreover, the Reapers are the bigger threat and one that Shepard should be more interested in pursuing. Yes, the two plots tie into each other, but no one seems to know that at that point in the game. ME2 doesn’t really give you any reason to think that working with Cerberus is going to in any way help you achieve any of your goals.

When we look deeper at DA2, we can see that the motivations were actually there, while when we look deeper at ME2 we can see that the shallow motivations it gives make no sense. DA2 might have failed to make the emotional connection, but from a plot and characterization standpoint we can see that it did the work to add the things to the story that we could then use to drive us forward. However, deciding that is the point of the “Analysis run”: to play the game with this in mind and see if it does or doesn’t work and what the game itself actually does here. It’ll take a while for me to get there — I do want to finish the DAO stories first, and then pick one to start from — but that’s the goal, at any rate.

Would you believe … it got worse?

September 7, 2018

So, I mused a couple of weeks ago about how while some things were working well with my new schedule, video games had been mostly a disaster, and that I was switching to P3P with the FeMC to try to break out of my gaming slump. And then in the next couple of weekends I played the game … once. For about an hour or so. And that included a long weekend where I only played one game over the entire long weekend … and that was Dragon Age: Origins. Okay, I also briefly played Pinball Arcade, and set up a Mass Effect themed Master of Orion 2 game and played it for an hour.

I like playing games. I want to play games. So why wasn’t I playing games?

Part of the issue is that while I like Persona 3, I don’t care for the dungeons. I find the dungeons boring and disconnected from the story and better parts of the game. I also had come up on exam time which greatly limits the S-links you can do, so that wasn’t really thrilling me either. And I also noted that I had a lot of games to play (I had purchased a few new games from GOG that looked interesting). And I also watched Chuck Sonnenburg’s Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 reviews — as noise while working — and was reminded that I wanted to finish off my existing characters and do Dragon Age 2 at least once again, and so got an urge to, well, do that. This got in my head when I was trying to decide what to play, making me indecisive and hesitant about what to play, until I finally decided to just go ahead and play DAO on the last day of the long weekend just to play something. And while I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure it’s what I want to do.

This weekend I’m busy, and so probably won’t play any game at all. After that, I need to decide what to do. I might end up waiting until I go on vacation and thus have time to fix my two problems, that of projects and of video games. It doesn’t help that both of them fit best into the same three available timeslots, which always makes me feel like I have to choose between them. That’s something that doesn’t really happen when I’m on vacation and separating them out might be something to think about over the next few weeks.

The AAA Conundrum …

September 5, 2018

So, while I may have mentioned this before — I’m too lazy to go and look it up — one of the issues that I have with the Hearts of Iron games is that I’m afraid of the combat in it, especially in HOI2 where people say that successful combat relies more on positioning than it does on overall strength. The fear is that I would arrange the political and diplomatic situations more successfully — Germany recruits from disaffected Soviet areas, Britain and France engage Germany early, the Soviet Union is less unprepared for the sudden end of the alliance with Germany, and so on — and then fritter away the interesting alt-history that that might have produced by being incapable of winning the military conflict due to a lack of skill. I’m interested in the alt-history and political aspects of the game, but am not really interested in a detailed military situation. Something like what’s in Axis and Allies would work perfectly well for me. And yet, I suspect that there are a number of fans of the game who want the military simulation aspects heightened, to be more of a challenge and more detailed and involved than it already is. If they downgraded that for me, then it would annoy those fans, but if they enhance it to cater to those fans then it will only put more and more fans like me off the game.

This is, of course, a known issue, and generally leads to niche market games that explore one or two of those aspects in detail while more general audience games merely focus on doing it well enough, relying on the niche market to satisfy the niche itch while letting them enjoy the more complete but more shallow games for what they themselves bring, and also being able to appeal more to the mainstream. However, there is an issue with AAA quality games. The graphics and production demands of AAA games means that they are, by necessity, very expensive to make. In order to make a profit, they have to grab as much of the market as they possibly can. This means that they need to be able to appeal broadly to pretty much the entire market and don’t want to have sales siphoned away by niche games. This leads them to try to be everything to everyone, and to provide all the aspects that the genre generally provides at niche-level depth, so that those players who want the complete experience can get it from that game and those who want one of the aspects can get it from that game as well. They don’t really succeed, of course, and often they seem to try to be shallow, but there is pressure for them to provide deeper systems for any aspect their audience is interested in because that’s how they’ll increase or maintain their sales and freeze out competition from AAA or niche competitors.

You can’t make a niche AAA quality game. There’s no way to get an audience big enough to have that turn a profit. But what do you do when you have multiple niche gamers all playing your game and demanding an increase in the niche they like and less prominence for the niches they don’t? If you keep them all equally prominent, then players might get turned off by those other aspects and stop buying your games. So you can give players a way to turn those aspects off or at the very least to ignore them … but then you will likely end up spending a lot of money on aspects of your game that most of your audience are completely ignoring. In fact, at the extremes you will end up with every aspect of your game, individually, only being truly explored by a small minority of your players, but being unable to reduce the effort you put into each aspect because it will cost you sales that you need to make a profit.

And the sad thing is that, in general, I think that most niche gamers aren’t all that concerned about things like graphical fidelity or nebulous “production values”. Even if the graphics weren’t all that great, I’d still probably enjoy a game that produced great alt-history moments through politicking and diplomacy. For the most part, niche gamers are more concerned with how those things support the aspects that they enjoy as opposed to having to have them be the best possible. But those who want the best possible graphics and production values are, themselves, a niche. And thus, are a market that AAA games need to appeal to. Which forces them to spend more money than they need to on all aspects of a game, which forces then to include all of them, which forces cost increases, and so on and so forth. It’s a trap that it is difficult to escape.

Update on Elsinore …

August 10, 2018

So I was reading through my archives at one point and was reminded of Elsinore, and since my impression at the time was that the game was almost finished or at least readily playable and since that was over two years ago I figured I’d take a look and see what was happening with it. And the latest update is that almost two and a half years later … the game is finally maybe getting ready for release. They have a Steam page, for example. And their latest Kickstarter update says that they’re working on issues discovered in Beta! So, if you were anxiously awaiting this game, you might actually get it.

Unfortunately, from the original Kickstarter page, the original delivery date was supposed to be April 2016 … or around the time that I posted about it and when Carolyn Petit talked about it. Given that it’s almost two and a half years later, they were no where near a proper release at that point.

And the things they talk about in the update, despite having two more years to work on it, aren’t all that promising either:

While we’re still making steady progress, a release date is still pending as we take time to clean up a big pile of bugs and content issues.

Most of the things we’re working on are back-end housekeeping-y tasks, and don’t make exciting bullet points (hence the relative silence) but here are recent updates we have, many of which involve responding to feedback you gave us during the beta:

Better Tutorials
There are a lot of features to help players manage the simulation of Elsinore, and previously we were just kind of… throwing them at you. Well, no more!

We are have some helpful pointers when each of those feature are introduced to tell you what each of these features do, and some tips and tricks to navigate the game effectively. We kept them brief, too – so they shouldn’t slow down game-play at all!

Furry Friends!
The last of our in-game backer rewards is now actually in-game and functional! All of your cats and great dane-ified dogs will now show up at various locations in the castle!

Two pets show up every loop, so the fact that they happened to be in the same place in this screenshot is actually very, very unlikely.

Why do only two pets show up each time?

Um. Well.

Our lore answer is animals can perceive the time loop and therefore are not bound by it! The real answer is that having 20 cats and dogs running around was very distracting.

A Real Options Menu
By far the most exciting pre-launch task is creating a real options menu. This one is underway. Right now, you only have one option – how fast do you want your text to scroll? Val and Connor learned from Socrates Jones that people care very, very deeply about this.

Obviously, a lot more important things will be put here before release. Graphics and sound options, mainly – if any of you have any strong opinions on what should be here, let us know!

And that’s it for now!
I mean, it’s not really it.There is a bunch of other stuff currently in progress that we’re hoping to get in, but don’t want to trumpet too loudly – we are at the point where we will drop new features if they push us back too far.

We’re hoping to do one more big backer build update before release – we talked about doing them more often, but each update comes with a risk of breaking your save files (Actually, making that less likely is ANOTHER of the big things we’ve been working on. But that only works going forward…)

So, they are dealing with a huge pile of bugs and content issues, which is delaying the release. And that was at the beginning of July, and they’ve said nothing else there since. Also, they needed to add real tutorials – the claim is “better” but the hint is that the tutorials were non-existent — to explain their mechanics. They finally added a backer reward of including dogs and cats in the game — I, uh, really have to wonder how many backers found that to be a clinching reward — but noted that they couldn’t actually put them in the way they originally intended to. Okay, that one might be something left to the end and discovered during beta, fine. They also have to actually add a number of configuration options to the game … which they call updates to the “menu” while admitting that the options weren’t in the game. And they’re even asking what should be in there! That’s … not something you should be doing when you’re claiming to be releasing soon.

So, almost two and a half years later, they are finally prepping for release with a host of bugs and content issues and major standard functionality completely missing. Yeah, that’s … not good. It would also be interesting to see if most of the bugs and content issues are the result of the complex interactions that I thought they’d have a hard time getting a handle on or if it’s more the result of bad or rushed coding. I suspect that it’s a little bit of both.

It will be interesting to see how much longer it takes for the game to be released — to be fair to them, that could be as early as tomorrow — and what state it’s in when it is released. The hope is that the beta testing is indeed finding the issues with it that I noted in my post and so it might not be a disaster at the end of the day. The longer cycle after beta would seem promising if you’re a fan of the game, but I’m not sure that we can trust their assessment of the game given how they talked about it two years ago and that it took them two years longer than they expected to get the game out, and did a beta already in 2016.

At this point, if it comes out on GOG, I almost have to buy it and see how it turned out, out of morbid curiosity and, well, an attempt to be fair to the game. I don’t buy anything from Steam, though, so if it stays only there then I won’t be able to.