Monthly Archives: November 2014

Submissions and Social Lubrication

It’s officially been a year since I started Mind Decline and it has honestly been wonderful to see the site grow.  Starting from humble origins, MD is now slightly less humble pulling in about 100 views a month.  It’s not much of a platform, but I’d like to share it.  Starting now, MD is accepting submissions.  Read over the Submit to MD! page and send in your article!

To kick it all off, see the below article by Blergosaurus:

Social Lubrication

By Blergosaurus

I do not self-identify as a gamer. On the gaming spectrum (I don’t think it is so much a spectrum as it is two distinct groups of gamers and nongamers that overlap little if at all), I would consider myself something of an ignoramus. I played a little growing up, watched college friends and roommates play for hours, and occasionally helped in Starcraft II. I have a Steam account with two games, both of which I enjoy playing.

I guess I use gaming as a social lubricant. I don’t have anything against gaming, I’m just not interested in pursuing it for my own satisfaction. I am generally aware of big developments in the gaming world through word of mouth, online buzz, or other news stories, which enables me to be part of the dialogue with gamer friends by asking them to expand on what I know already. What little I do know does not come from personal interest in gaming, but from an interest in the individual with whom I’m seeking to interact. It’s like my relationship with football and fantasy leagues: I watch games and learn basic statistics so I can have a conversation with the custodian or a potential employer.

I know when a major game is coming out insofar as it will affect my social interactions with people. I deliberately saw a classmate before Diablo 3 came out because I knew I wouldn’t see him for a few weeks after it did. I couldn’t go out with a roommate Monday or Wednesday nights because his WoW guild met then. An old boyfriend had his custom level featured as a “level of the week” on Little Big Planet, and that’s awesome so of course I played it.

I like knowing things so I can interact with people about a topic they care about; however, I find it intimidating because I am aware of how little I know relative to the amount of knowledge available, and I never feel like I’m asking the right question(s). Thankfully, many acquaintances will dumb things down for me so I can understand what they are saying and how it applies to other ideas. Sometimes it can get frustrating because I can never hope to engage with them on a level that actually interests them. It’s like having a conversation with a child: the speaker may enjoy explaining an idea to the receptive listener, but ultimately isn’t going to get anything out of the conversation himself. I would like to understand more than I currently do, especially for an industry as ubiquitous as gaming. I want to relate to acquaintances on this topic, but don’t know where or how to start.

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Opinion – Pacing or Why I’ll Never Beat the First Dragon Age Again

Too much of a good thing.

With the arrival of Dragon Age: Inquisition, now is a good time to look back at the Dragon Age series. I could ruminate over the amazing world or deep combat systems, but I’d rather talking about the aspect of the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, that nearly killed the whole thing for me: pacing. I don’t see this talked about much, but DA:O’s pacing was some of the worst of any game I’ve seen and certainly the worst to ever come out of the venerable Bioware studio. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first start with what pacing is.

Which, unfortunately, starts with a discussion of design elements. Design elements are a nebulous division of the various parts of a game that makes up the whole. From music, to art, to gameplay, and beyond, games are comprised of these various elements. They can be defined broadly as shown above or in smaller chunks such as by song or an individual level. The level of design element that is appropriate is determined by issue that is currently being addressed. The borders of design elements are often fuzzy as many parts of a game bleed over into others. For example, a discussion of story might also include elements of art, dialogue, and gameplay and even be compared against another design element drawing on those same parts. Really, this is just a way to conceive of games that allows for comparison and a general understand of which part of a game is being talked about.

Pacing is the speed at which a game switches between design elements. Pacing works on a broad level, such as the rate of switching between story and gameplay, or at a more granular level, such as changes in music or art styles. Slow pacing switches through design elements at a low rate whereas fast pacing is constantly changing design elements. For example, many games grant access to weaponry over time. Slow pacing in weaponry would spread the introduction of new weapons over hours of content whereas a faster pace might give them to the player up front. It’s also worth noting that speed, being a relative measure, is largely left up to the user to define. What may be fast for one user is slow for another. Tutorial missions for a new player may go too fast whereas an experienced player may get bored from hearing what they already know. Like so much in games, there is no universal evaluation of the speed of pacing.

Dragon Age: Origins is an example of slow pacing. The player starts off in a town where they gather quests, talk to villagers, and generally flesh out the story and world. Once the player has talked to everyone and acquired all the quests, they head off into a dungeon to explore and fight. This combination of story and combat isn’t unique to DA:O, but the poor implementation is. When the player is investigating the story, that’s largely all they’re doing. There are a few fights, but mostly its dialogue and books. This wouldn’t be a problem except that it goes on for hours. Only after a substantial investment of time does the player then move on to the dungeons….which also take hours. The two design elements, story and combat, aren’t intertwined in any way with the result of overloading the player with one element at a given time.

There are three major results: familiarity, loss, and frustration. With familiarity, the player engages on a design element so much that the element is robbed of its ability to surprise and shock. The player has dealt with an element so often that they have a preprogrammed response that is designed to get to the next element and not explore content. No doubt many players have skipped through dialogue just to get the quests and start dungeon crawling. The second result is the loss of what little intertwining of design elements that does occur. I can recall fighting my way through the dungeon called Deep Roads and reading little scraps of paper relating to quests I had picked up a couple hours earlier. DA:O, having not addressed those quests between when I grabbed them and that moment, expected me to recall the backstory. Not happening. It’s hard to support a detailed story when I’m playing a section so focused on combat that it can’t be bothered to drop hints and reminders until the quest’s resolution. Finally, frustration is a very real result of DA:O’s poor pacing. When I was talking, I wanted to be fighting. When I fought, I wanted to be talking. By focusing so heavily on one design element at a time, the game prevented me from deciding my own pacing and letting me determine if I wanted to fight or read. I was continually forced to play the content I was tired of rather than the content I wanted.

Dragon Age: Origins is not a bad game. There’s a great deal to recommend it, but it screwed up the pacing. I’ve tried going back to the game, but I can’t get past the feeling that I am playing two separate games that aren’t good enough on their own. That’s a shame, because DA:O does just about everything else right.

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Review – Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Conquering planet 32b.

Sorry guys. If you’re going to make a Civilization in space, you’re going to get compared to the classic, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.  It’s just going to happen.  And it sucks.  Alpha Centauri is a true classic.  Not the wimpy kind of classic that “was really good for its time”, but a genuine, still awesome, game that hasn’t been surpassed.  Seriously, go get it here if you haven’t played it.  Yes, it’s unfair to be compared against the greatest, but even without Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth (BE) is a bad game.

The basic game plays like any other Civilization entry. The player starts with one city which forms the heart of a global empire.  Players build more cities, research technologies, culturally advance towards bonus giving virtues, and conquer their way to victory.  It’s a tried and true formal that still largely works.  On top of the old engine, BE adds ideologies.  The player chooses technologies and quests that pushes them down three paths representing their engagement with the alien world they’ve landed on.  Harmony embraces the world, Purity shuns it in favor of emulating Earth, and Supremacy seeks domination through technological integration.  Advancing down an ideological path provides key bonuses and upgrades units while adding neat artistic touches to factions.  In addition to ideologies, BE also has quests that direct the player to complete tasks for bonuses.  The quests do triple duty as a tutorial, measurement of victory and a storyteller.  They provide optional and welcome structure in a very open genre.  They also represent all that is wrong with Beyond Earth.

Mouse over the five victory quests and you’ll notice that four of them don’t actually involve interacting with the other players.  They’re all variants on “research technology, build a thing, and wait a number of turns to win.”  The best and obvious route to victory is often to expand quickly, placate the opponents, and watch the numbers go up.  A smarter AI would notice the player’s snooze towards victory, but this cutthroat bunch remains totally clueless as your giant victory phallus reaches towards the sky.  You can practical hear the snoring as your game winning space tower or Earth gateway go up.

“But wait!” you cry. What about the fifth victory condition?  What about Domination where the player conquers their opponent’s capital?  Good question!  Let me introduce you to health, the replacement for Civilization 5’s happiness.  When the player conquers a city, it lowers the faction’s health.  A low health value tacks on crippling empire wide penalties that ensure you’ll regret abandoning your friend, the “End Turn” button.  Ultimately, the player can research technologies to mitigate the health problem, but it effectively means the early game is forced pacifism.  Even better, the AI is brain dead when considering peace offers.  It does a straight calculation based on army values.  If the player has a bigger army, the AI offers cities to end hostilities.  Don’t bother with the barbarity of actual warfare!  Be civilized about it by declaring war, building a large army, enjoying a nationwide tea time, and negotiating for half their empire 15 turns later.  Factions regularly offered me cities to end wars that I hadn’t fire a shot in.  Oh fun.

I admit, I could deal with the lackluster gameplay if there were a little more to the flavor of the game. Alpha Centauri did this beautifully by creating factions with unique traits and back stories that both guided gameplay and contributed to the development of an organic story with every playthrough.  Not so in Beyond Earth.  Faction choices only provide minor bonuses and their mythos contributes little to the story of the game.  In fact, choices in BE mean very little.  Implemented intelligently, these decisions could have help craft a unique world with each game.  Instead, BE throws tons of tiny decisions at the player that seem to have little effect and require little thought.  It’s hard to really feel involved when the choices are minor increase to stat A or minor increase to stat B.  Even the victory quests feel limp as they are buried under several menus and provide little in the way of exposition.  No part of this world feels realized.

Beyond Earth is a failed attempt at updating Alpha Centauri. All of the basic elements were pulled from the earlier game without the commitment to a strong identity.  Instead, BE comes off as a halfhearted attempt at recreating a classic without understanding what made it great.  Don’t buy this game.

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Review – Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius – PC – Steam Review #3

Apparently we needed more skevy shots of underage women. Thanks Sunrider!

I’ve never played a visual novel before largely because the genre has never seemed all that interesting. The basic idea of a visual novel is to read a story interspersed with minor gameplay elements, which seems to deny the benefits that the video game format offers.  Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius adequately shows the appeal of the visual novel.  It uses solid writing, a space opera setting, and anime tropes to bring together an engaging story about a captain of defeated planet and his motely crew of underage girls.

I did mention anime tropes, right?

The story centers around Kyato Shields, the newly anointed captain of the experimental ship Sunrider, who fights back against the evil PACT empire after it conquerors his home planet of Cera. Joining Kyato is a group of teen girls who pilot ryders, the game’s mechs, and who serve as the games cast as the story develops.  The girl’s personalities, the mech fighting, and the whole feel of the game is that of a quality Japanese anime.  Strong writing helps elevate the story beyond the usual clichés, but it’s the tough decisions that add weight to what could have been another staid space opera.  Sunrider repeatedly asks the player to make painful choices between lofty principles and practical reality.  One of the long running plot lines involves an ambitious admiral whose willingness to sacrifice lives and freedoms force the player to think about how much those things are worth.  In one situation, the admiral proposes destroying a highly populated space station to prevent the annihilation of his fleet and a potential war losing blow.  The decisions the game poses are tough and the situations surrounding them feels believable and natural.

Sadly, those decisions don’t mean much. Sunrider isn’t Mass Effect and the choices you make don’t seem to matter.  The game has a linear plot that doesn’t permit much player input and regularly justifies even the most naïve choices as the right ones.  The decisions are still emotional affairs, but the knowledge that they don’t effect the world takes out much of their weight.  The story is also undermined by the creepy sexualization of the underage female costars.  The Sunrider is positively teeming with girls dressed in school outfits (military issue, I’m sure), crushing over the dashing Captain Shields.  The game goes further with gratuitous skin shots, an unnecessary shower scene, and dialogue boxes framed across teen crotch.  I get that anime does this kind of thing, but it undermines the rest of the narrative.  It’s hard to get invested in Captain Shields’ struggle to deal with the weight of the war when he discusses his woes with a 15 year old sub wearing an ass high skirt.  It’s uncomfortable and unwelcome.

As one should expect from a visual novel, the gameplay is simplistic. The player controls the Sunrider and its ryders in grid based battles against enemy fleets.  Each ship and ryder has a limited number of action points that it can use to either move or shoot.  The Sunrider also has access to special attacks that use Command Points which are earned at the end of battles.  The whole system feels clunky and explains very little of its weakly implemented nuance.  Fights aren’t well designed and rely solely on regular waves of enemies arriving with no variance in battle conditions.  On the whole, the fights can convey a sense of fleet combat grandeur, but too often become mired in the weaknesses of the system.  In one particularly frustrating example, waves of action point stealing support units showed up and effectively prevented me from doing anything during the several turns before I died.  The same units nullified long range weapons and hung out in the back of the fleet leaving me without an effective response. More time spent balancing the fights would have helped alleviate much of the frustration.

Your enjoyment of Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius largely depends on your love of anime space operas. Sunrider does a good job replicating the feel of Japanese anime and its free price makes it an auto include in fan’s libraries.  If you’re not as invested on the anime world, the game is of more limited value.  The dialogue is generally good and it’s probably worth checking out if you’ve ever had any interest in visual novels.  Just cover the screen during the crotch shots.

As for my evaluation of Steam, Sunrider represents the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Undoubtedly, I would never have run across this game without the assistance of Steam’s new system.  Sunrider, and its predecessors Grim Dawn and Xenonauts, are outside my usual information streams.  That being said, I didn’t truly enjoy any of these games and all of them felt like second or third tier copies of better ideas.  This all goes to support my previous conclusion which was that Steam’s update definitely increases the discoverability of the genres I like, but can’t make up for bad games.  Hopefully, Steam’s update will allow customers to access previously unknown developers and therefore accord those developers greater resources to improve their games.  We’ll see.

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