Tag Archives: video games

The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon

Adventures, Morality, and the Outer Worlds

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]

Why is it that adventurers often fall into the “murder hobo” archetype? It’s a facet of the kind of game we are playing: in Dungeons and Dragons, it’s a combat-focused game, so the problems that we get presented are primarily combat problems. Computer role-playing games have a large debt to tabletop RPGs and, perhaps especially, to Dungeons and Dragons. It’s not just that games take their inspiration from role-playing, they take their inspiration from combat-focused role-playing. That’s the reason we have games like the first-person RPGs from Bethesda and now from Obsidian. But there is a big problem here.

The problem is in the “role-playing” aspect. Specifically, it’s in the kind of moral choices we’re expected to make in these games. I’ve just finished my second play-through of Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds. I did enjoy the game but one of the reasons I could enjoy it was that I did not let myself view the moral choices presented as real. This wasn’t how I went into the game, though. I got very frustrated at the morality of the game immediately, and it was from there that I decided the entire structure was the issue. I’ve picked at this problem from the moment it started to needle me and I think that I can finally elaborate on the issue with this type of storytelling.

So here’s the incident that pissed me off: Parvati and Edgewater. In my first playthrough, I was running a more standard hero who picks the good boy options 9 times out of 10. However, you get presented with a choice here: you have to reroute power either to the town (with an oppressive work system) or to the deserters (who escaped from the town). The one you don’t send power to will fail as a community. From what people said, especially Parvati, it seemed like the deserters were doing a decent job. My idea was to divert power to the deserters, then the people of Edgewater would become a community with the deserters. Okay, cool. We go through the dungeon and I’m about to do The Thing that diverts power, then suddenly Parvati’s like “wait a second no actually don’t power off Edgewater”.

First of all, what the fuck? Parvati is pretty solidly pro-deserter all the way up until this point. Never mentions a problem. But okay, fine, she has her say, I send power to the deserters. I go back to Edgewater to get a quest thing and the mayor is like “look, fuck you, I have my guys down there and they’re gonna shoot you if you get the quest thing”. So I’m like well I have to get the quest thing, so fuck you, dude, and I shot him. Parvati is horrified and nearly leaves the party. But I’m just like eh fuck that, so I reloaded the save. I don’t shoot the mayor this time. Instead, I just go down and gun down all his goons. Parvati doesn’t blink an eye.

And it’s at that point that I realized the game just isn’t set up to deal with morality in the way it wants to.

Thinking more about it, though, I realized it’s not a problem with Obsidian or the Bethesda style in particular. It’s actually a problem with how we construct adventures. It’s a problem that’s shared by Dungeons & Dragons as well and, in general, with all adventuring games that try to deal with morality in the usual ham-fisted way.

The basic issue is that it’s just not the player’s fault for being in these shitty situations. When building the adventure, game makers & dungeon masters tend not to take any responsibility for the situation. In the Edgewater situation, I can’t say “okay well I don’t want to power either of you off, can you like call your people and we can get a quest thing ordered, I’ll wait”. More importantly to me, I can’t tell the mayor “why don’t you guys go join the deserters?” (it turns out that the “good deserters” are also basically fascists, which I won’t get into in this time, but suffice to say this is not at all apparent before the climax unless you ask a ton of questions). The game constructed both the situation and the viable options. I can’t interact with the quest in any way other than what I’m given. Yet when a character says “I am going to kill you” and I kill them instead, Parvati is horrified about it and I’m supposed to feel bad?

If Parvati was going to be horrified, why doesn’t she shed a tear about the people down there who are going to be killed? Why doesn’t she try to stop the mayor, or to convince me to go another way? It’s because of the entirely artificial reason that she’s just there to accompany you on the adventure. You’re not supposed to kill the mayor, therefore she reacts badly to it. You’re supposed to kill the new guards, so she gives zero fucks.

Basically, the game pretends it has an all-encompassing morality but does not allow me a full latitude in reacting to situations, then judges me based on the constrained decisions I make. It tells me that I can either be a capital-G Good capital-P Person or an evil villain, an outcome that relies entirely on who I decide to murder. (They lampshade this in the Halcyon Helen DLC but lampshading doesn’t make a problem go away.) It’s utterly ridiculous and, to me, the only honest response is to simply not engage with the game’s nods at morality.

But I am trying to get at a larger point. One way to solve this would be to expand the non-combat portions of the game, allow the player to fully engage with the world and think of different solutions. If you wanted to do this, though, you probably shouldn’t play Dungeons & Dragons; there are plenty of other RPG systems which are better equipped to handle the kind of looseness you’d need for this. Some computer games have approached this as well; I haven’t played Vampire the Bloodline: Masquerade but everything I hear about it makes me think that it’s more social than combat focused.

Again, though, I’m not suggesting all games need to broaden out. I’m suggesting that games need to choose. If you are going to ask me to pick any sort of morality I want, you have to allow me to back that up. That means, necessarily, you can’t construct dungeons as the main obstacles. If you’re going to make a combat-focused game, you as the game maker or DM should constrain the narrative so that the players aren’t being expected or even allowed to be paragons of virtue or sons of Sam. Don’t present situations that end up in this kind of schizoid where players shift between being dead-eyed spree killers and goody-two-shoeses, especially not if everyone around them is somehow fine with this.

The clearest example that I have for this idea is actually not social interactions, though. It’s stealth. This particular problem is more apparent in single-player computer RPGs, mostly because party interaction is a minimal part of the active gameplay; in other words, you’re not there with your friends who are reacting to you, at best you’ll have NPCs/bots.

Stealth is an issue for these kinds of games because what they involve is, in essence, not playing the game. In the Outer Worlds, every dungeon is set up as a shooting battle, in other words a combat problem. Whenever you take the stealth “option”, though, you essentially decide to not play that, which leaves you with very little. When you’re in a fight, you are employing spatial awareness, pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and so on. The problem is engaging and exciting and tense. When you’re using stealth, you’re waiting, watching, shuffling around until you finally reach the end and then if you have put enough points in the proper stealth skill, you can just end the entire encounter at once.

Solving the problem with stealth is never as satisfying as powering through with guns in these games. This isn’t because stealth is inherently uninteresting but because the game is not built around stealth. To a large extent, stealth is more about skill checks than strategy, which means there’s little creative thinking you need to do. All you have to do is be able to press the button at the end.

When I shifted from Normal to Hard on the Outer Worlds, there was a point where I was utterly baffled by how tough the combat got. Eventually I learned that the stand-up shoot-from-the-hip style just wasn’t going to cut it. I started to run away more and take pot shots, have less pride and more efficacy, and it presented an interesting challenge. Stealth, on the other hand, mainly tries your patience. There’s little active challenge in it. The goal is usually to find a fairly obvious secret passage and follow that. If you have your Lockpick and Hack skills high, plenty of the challenges just won’t exist.

Great example from the run I just finished. This is a minor spoiler, I suppose, but once you get there you’ll be able to figure this out immediately. When you get up to the final boss, there’s a locked room next to you with a high difficulty. Now, if you just go through and fight, it’s a fairly tough fight because the boss can wipe your party out pretty easy, there’s a bunch of assholes flying around and running interference, and so on. I think it took me five or so tries to beat. However, if you have a high enough Lockpick, you can get through that door I mentioned without going in to face the boss; then, if you have a high enough Hack, you can just sit back and watch the boss be destroyed.

A big, dangerous, somewhat interesting fight or two skill checks under zero pressure. That’s what I mean by “not playing the game”.

Social stuff is almost worse in these games. With stealth you do have the slight tension of watching the notice icons on people you’re trying to sneak past. Social stuff requires absolutely no though, just skill checks. You never have to do things like dress appropriately, say the right things, present gifts, or so on; just have a high level in an appropriate skill and you can say whatever you want, you’ll get through. If you decide that you don’t want to slaughter a group of people and instead talk them down, congratulations: you’re playing even less of the game than if you tried to sneak past.

Every time I got the opportunity to talk somebody down from fighting I did it, but I immediately felt like I was just choosing not to go on a ride at a theme park. I could just fail the check and have the shooty time that the game is clearly built around, or I could pass and not play this part of the game. It’s a fairly ridiculous choice to ask the player who bought the game to make, but the game acts as though this choice is one that’s meaningful in the moment. It’s like buying NBA 2k21 and it gives up a warning: “If you play this game, you’re asserting that you love Mark Cuban and you want to kiss him, but you can pick audience mode too and then it means you don’t love him”. That’s idiotic, I bought NBA 2k21 to play the game, now you’re telling me the only good boy choice is to not play? That’s a choice made outside the game.

Now, I do want to give a few hold-ups here. I’m not saying that stealth games or social games are not good or not fun. I’m saying that D&D and computer RPGs are mostly not made as stealth or social games, they are made as combat games. I’m also not saying that games can’t critique the kind of experiences we’re engaging in when we play a shooty or a fighty. Critique is an important part of artistic expression and you can do that without act as though the player is at the root

My point is two-fold. First, if you’re going to treat me as though I have total moral agency and could be a shining holy man or a dirty dirty dawg depending on my decisions alone, you have to allow me to interact with situations more fully. If you allow me to do that, you need to make those parts of the game actually interesting. This means a game with either a huge scope or uniformly pretty simplified mechanics, and I understand that. It actually leads into my second point.

This second point is that if you are going to present a combat-focused game, you should structure the storyline around that specifically, rather than pretending as though the whole spectrum of moral agency is open to the player. In TOW, for instance, you could have been locked in as a criminal or a military person, someone who would be expected to “get their hands dirty”. As you work for Phineas, you should either have to keep that quiet or have people judging you for working with a terrorist. People shouldn’t receive you like a savior (the way they do in game), they should treat you like a dispensable butcher (the way combat forces often are by their employers). The idea that you could be seen by Edgewater as a savior & good person after turning off their power and killing a bunch of people is ludicrous. Should you be forced to make that choice? Sure. Should people react to you as if you could have been pure? Absolutely not.

If Parvati would be horrified about Reed, she should be horrified on at least 70% of the missions. The game isn’t equipped to handle this kind of moral agency. The game realizes this, that’s why Parvati doesn’t follow through on our morality. Instead of trying to hammer these big questions into a very narrow frame, lean into what the frame gives you and ask the questions that arise out of that.

Not every game has to present us with the possibility of being the best or the worst. Sometimes, we can just ask tough questions and give tough answers in a tough world as tough-minded people.

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]
Darkest Dungeon

What’s So Great About Darkest Dungeon?

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]

I’m going to ramble a bit about games and game design now.

I really enjoy Darkest Dungeon. Despite how tough it is, I think it provides an excellent strategic challenge that really focuses on management skills over tactical ability. Actually executing the plan is extremely important but your success is mostly going to be determined by how well you’ve prepared. So many things can go wrong in a Darkest Dungeon run that your only real chance is to give yourself as wide a safety net as possible.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not good at games. Darkest Dungeon is an extremely frustrating game to play because of how often even the best laid plans seem to go wrong. It should be the kind of game that totally turns me off because of how often I fail, at least given by my general track record with getting stuck in games. Yet I come back to it. Why?

Of course, I’m very interested in strategy games and I tend to spend more time on them than others. Darkest Dungeon also has a great atmosphere that seems to always reward. But also I think there’s something more fundamental going on.

A lot of my like for the game has to do with exactly how Darkest Dungeon achieves its difficulty.

I’ve written before about games like Darksiders which are very superficially difficult. This applies to a lot of action games I’ve played. In Darksiders, jumping between ledges etc feels incredibly clunky; the game feels like it wants you to just stand there and fire out combos but it constantly forces you to do a bunch of other stuff. For contrast, Shadow of Mordor and Space Marine are two of my favorite action games. Not difficult at all to play and you can coast through them pretty easily. This is because the game actually gives you all the tools to do what it wants you to do and it doesn’t try to make you do more. So in Space Marine, you never get an awkward sequence where you need to lock on enemies or platform. In Shadow of Mordor, you do a bunch of running and jumping and it all feels fluid because the game intends you to do that.

This is a problem I’ve always had with Half-Life 2 as well. I’m fine at the shooting parts, but the game is really not meant for the hard run-and-gun which you’re constantly forced to do: you don’t have any running roll or charge attack, can’t melee with guns, no strong defense, etc. It’s not built for the platforming which it throws throughout. Sure, you can get through the stuff, but my frustration came from the fact that you really work against the game’s set-up to achieve it. Half-Life 2, in my mind, controls like a game where you are spending 95% of your time shooting and never having to awkwardly control boats.

Darkest Dungeon is much more like Shadow of Mordor than Half-Life 2 or Darksiders. That is to say, it presents you with a goal, gives you all the tools to reach that goal, and then makes that goal actually difficult to achieve. The result is that when I fail, the sense I have is that I need to learn better how to cope with the situation, how to use my tools to succeed.

This isn’t actually different than how I play other games. I get stuck, maybe I ragequit, but on the first or second time I’ll typically try and figure out what I did wrong and go back to it. The issue with a game like Darksiders is that knowing what to do isn’t the difficult part, it’s being able to marshal the controls to do what they don’t want to do. If I keep dying at an enemy that I’m supposed to lock on to, even though the lock on is awful — it is impossibly slow, the camera movement is slow, in every other situation you use it only on enemies which are not moving, but this particular enemy is very fast — my feeling is that the game is not made to purpose, not that I personally haven’t figured out what to do.

Again, sure, one might say that I just need to practice, but that’s against my philosophy in playing games. I’m perfectly fine with practicing in order to make increase my playing skill but I find simply sitting down and learning patterns tedious. That’s what these games require you do: in order for you to win, rather than you just using all the skills you were given to defeat a challenge, you have to perform the operations in an exact order which you can only learn by going through it and being beaten. That has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with repetition. And, in the end, especially when you’re hampered by un-fit controls, your success comes down to one thing: luck.

Luck, or the RNG, is one thing that people bash Darkest Dungeon for. It’s also a common complaint against X-COM, another favorite game of mine. I’m not going to tell you that I’ve never had a problem with randomness in the game. I’ve tried short Cove jaunts which got ruined in the third battle: numbers 1 and 2 were 4 ranks of Groupers while battle number 3 included a Sea Maggot that gave two of my people diseases.

Is that ‘fair’? Maybe not. But the game is built around that sort of thing happening. That’s one of the hazards of going out on the adventure and one of the things you’re specifically supposed to deal with. Have you got a diseased person? Send em to the Sanitarium. Stressed people? Book em in the Tavern or the Abbey. So wacked out you can’t even use them? Fire them, look on the Stage Coach for replacements. You’re supposed to do all that and the game doesn’t try to stop you from it, it encourages you.

In the Tiamat battle in Darksiders, the luck you rely on is whether or not your dodge left your camera in a close enough position to swing around and lock on. No, if you miss it you won’t die, but you might be stuck around there for another minute or so waiting for your next chance. When that might happen again. And you’re supposed to kill this boss by doing exactly this, so the fact that the controls feel clunky isn’t showing that you’re doing it wrong, the controls are just… clunky.

In Half-Life 2, the luck you rely on is whether you’re in the exact right spot to make a jump, because your character can’t jump that far and has no ledge-hanging or other techniques to make the best of a bad fall. This is common in games designed for platforming — like Guacamelee which gives you a double jump, Mario games which typically have a very long jump (and a double), or Assassins’ Creed & Shadow of Mordor which let you hang — but HL2 forces you to rely on the most minor tricks of positioning. Luck.

In effect, the test I use to decide if a game is worth it is very simple: after I get frustrated and look the answer up, does the game lose its appeal? Because, ultimately, even if I do beat the game on my own, once I do that the game will lose a large part of its pull. This is definitely my experience even with games I’ve beat and loved in that first go-through, like Bioshock Infinite. What I liked about it was the atmosphere and the twists, but now that I know them, I’m left with a fairly lackluster game that’s just built on throwing a bunch of enemies at you. Deus Ex: Human Evolution is much the same in that respect, even though I hate that game. I dislike stealth games in general and this one felt very constrained in its approach. Once I figure out what to do, actually executing it is not that interesting because I don’t find the game fun to play through.

With Darkest Dungeon, knowing how everything works will help you a lot but you cannot necessarily prevent everything from happening. Being prepared and actually pushing the plan through are two different experiences entirely.

And sure, you could argue that I’m just into strategy games over action, but Space Marine and Bully are yearly replays for me and I fully expect that Shadow of Mordor will join them. On the other hand, I don’t really get into Civilization (even though my issue with that is not the same as what I’m talking about in that article), and my criticisms of the Total War series pretty much echo what I’ve said here. The Total War endgames are basically not the same challenge that they give you up until that point, but once you know what it is you can pretty effectively thwart it every time. It’s not a matter of skill, they just wanted to make it ‘difficult’.

I didn’t write this to try and convince anybody they’re right or wrong to like Darkest Dungeon, or any other game I talked about. I do think core game design, especially the design of challenges and controls, is very often overlooked. Total War and Half-Life 2 got it wrong. Darkest Dungeon and Space Marine got it very right.

image not captured by me

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]
Mass Effect screenshot

Mass Effect’s Many Distractions

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]

Storytelling in video games is one of the biggest challenges in front of a game developer. A gripping story gives shape and meaning to the obstacles of each stage. What makes video games unique is the participation of the reader, the viewer, the gamer. In a traditional storytelling mode like prose fiction or cinema, we as the audience are just observers in the action. Because we-as-the-audience are actually playing in a video game, we want to feel that our actions have an effect on the story. The Mass Effect series is one of the most ambitious tries at melding storytelling with participation. Yet even in Mass Effect, we’re still mostly observing the plot. False choices abound in the game and, goody-goody or violent bully, the conduct of main character Shepard is pretty much the same. It proves that there are still real conceptual boundaries to how we think about stories being told.

The first Mass Effect game is much different than the later two but they are all in the same genre: pause-and-cover-based shooters with fantasy powers. That basic game gets expanded upon by the roleplaying aspects of the other parts: world-roaming gives new tools and powers to use as well as promising interesting encounters with planted characters, and the cutscenes give the bulk of the story context. The first game’s system of equipment and skill training was simplified in Mass Effect 2 as that game focused on the shooting gallery aspects, downplaying the original long pauses for power usage and its more explorable spaces.

The story being told is an epic science fantasy about humanity and its non-human allies facing down an existential threat from the unfathomable past. Regardless of the method they take to get there, the Mass Effect games deliver that story in a very polished way. That doesn’t mean that the player is involved in the story. Just like in a less-epic action game, the role of the player is primarily to kill the baddies. If the baddies are killed, the story advances. If they aren’t, the story stalls; usually, the player is given enough chances to eventually get the story going again. Mass Effect presents the player with a lot of choices that ultimately have very little effect on the story. The fate of the Council from the first to the second game is a key example: what should be a monumental event has no effect on the situation that unfolds beyond changing a few lines of dialogue. The chances of the Alliance are not significantly better or worse given your decision. You don’t even gain the promise of allegiance or not due to it. As players of Mass Effect we are ultimately just observers being kept happy with a few trinkets.

Mass Effect does provide engaging trinkets to keep our attention. Borrowing from sports games like Madden and the NBA2K series, Mass Effect allows not only player character creation but porting from one game to the next, giving the impression of continuing the same story. Its planetary exploration parts differed from game to game but were interesting diversions. The ability to buy useless items was a nice touch, a way to further personalize the experience (though I don’t believe these items transferred from game to game). Not only this, the Mass Effect games are fairly tight and the action bits reward some attention to the less-action tasks, helping to link everything together. The fact remains that they are trinkets. The problem with trinkets is that they’re a distraction.

I believe that there is a way to more directly marry the gameplay experience with storytelling, so that playing the game can advance the story in significant ways other than the simple success equals advancement equation. Of course, direct game experience is not the only way to tell a great story. As I’ve said, traditional stories have been told for a long time with we-as-the-audience serving as observers only. If that’s the mode that Mass Effect wants to pursue then they should dispense with the false choices like the paragon/renegade system which very rarely has an effect on what you do and never a major one. The story of the games would be much clearer and more exciting without the distractions of trying to be rude enough to get your evil points or laboriously spinning globes and reading mountains for resources. I don’t believe that Mass Effect is particularly well-suited to direct gameplay driving the story; its focus on action combat and insistence on an exposition-heavy story stand too much at odds for them to complement each other. Still, if the idea is to give the player some choice, make at least a few significant. In Mass Effect 2, the ability to remain with Cerberus or rejoin the Alliance would have been a major choice that could have in effect created two unique branching paths with different missions and approaches, even different endgames. Then, at least, a decision made can really alter how the story turns out.

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]