Monthly Archives: April 2018

Opinion – When Less is More

I’m pretty close to finishing Far Cry 5.  When I write that, I mean that I am pretty close to completing the main story and all of the side missions.  By the time I am done, Farcry 5 will have nothing scripted left to amuse me and the best part of that is, I enjoyed every minute of it.

The mantra of open world games seems to be “more is better”.  More collectibles.  More mindless missions.  Shoot 5 bears.  Retrieve 10 ingots.  Open world titles are chock full of meaningless busy work that, by some alchemy which I cannot fathom, is supposed to add up to a better game.  Far Cry 4 was a fine example of this thinking with tons of things to find, yet no real reason to do so beyond checking a box.  Even worse was Mass Effect: Andromeda which put in so many pointless quests that they obscured the meaningful ones.  Some games are not much more than one giant level with nothing but mindless crap to do.  On the other hand, Far Cry 5 seems to get that less is more.

Far Cry 5 still has collectibles and mindless quests, but it’s smarter with each.  Collectibles exist, but they’re part of single quests that don’t clutter up the map or hang over the player’s head.  Collectibles aren’t tied to a side line story or key to unlocking a super special ability.  They’re merely there for the player that wants a little direction while exploring.  The side quests fulfill a similar role.  Side quests come with a little exposition, end quickly, and aren’t much more demanding than the collectibles.  Meanwhile, the story and broader structure of the game chugs on with its own gravity.

This all works because these bits of busy work augment the main quest rather than serve as the focal point of the game.  When side quests and collectibles are a part of a broader open world with deeper activities, then the smaller quests serve as a nice break.  Players can find lighters or mow down enemies instead of save the world or figure out the next challenge.  With the pressure off being the dominant part of the experience, the little quests can serve their intended role.  When the busy work dominates, then the game itself becomes busy work.  While there are plenty of things to do, none of them are entertaining and the player often bounces from one to the next out of a sense of OCD like obligation rather than out of any feeling of fun.  Players want to clear the map rather than actually perform the activities that would result in that outcome.

And this is why I’m happy about completing Far Cry 5.  My completion isn’t a reflection of my compulsion to clear the map, but rather a demonstration of how I enjoyed the experience in its totality.  I completed the game because it was fun, and that’s how it should be.

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Review – Nintendo Switch

 

I recently bought a Switch and it’s a hoot.  It’s the fulfillment of the dream of every young kid who ever wanted to play their favorite games away from home or adults who find themselves always on the go. This should be an automatic “yes”.  While I want to give the console an unqualified recommendation, I can’t.  The Switch has some serious “fit” issues.  Read through and see if it’s the console for you.

 

Pros

Feel – From the nice heft to the clear screen, the Switch feels like a solid piece of equipment that you’d want to use.  Buttons are responsive and everything is in a logical place.  The dock can feel a little flimsy at times, but this is a solid piece of tech overall.

Portability – The Switch captures the dream of having a legitimate console that is also portable.  The dock is small, lightweight, and fits into any luggage.  The required cables are common, easily acquired, and may already be the hotel room or home of a traveler.  Transitioning from docked to portable is as simple as lifting up the console while the current game being played switches from the TV to console screen.  Everything about the portability is straightforward and user friendly.

Quality of games – Nintendo pumped out some high quality titles for the Switch.  Super Mario Odyssey (played and loved) and Breath of the Wild (Did not play but heard good things) are winners.  The indie scene ported over some of its highlights.  Odds are you can find at least one quality entry into your genre of choice.

 

Cons

eShop – It mystifies me that consoles can’t seem to figure out the basics of online stores.  Even by the low standards of the console market, the Nintendo eShop is pathetic.  The search function is barely capable of taking the player to games they know about, much less ones they don’t.  The store lacks a meaningful rating function which would help differentiate the numerous small titles.  Be prepared to find new games elsewhere.

Controllers – Each unit comes with two controllers and a controller dock.  When the controllers rest on the side of the console, they do a fine job.  When they’re free floating, each one is small, but workable in short bursts.  When they’re in the controller dock, the positioning forces the players’ hands into a carpal tunnel inducing position that gets painful, quickly.  Just buy the pro controller.

Shallow library – Nintendo wisely invited in the indie development community, but that strategy hasn’t yet born major fruit.  The console is home to the same high quality indie games that show up on every system.  As for the AAA developers, new games are slowly rolling off the assembly line with a few older highlights already available.  Finally, the virtual console is both gone and sorely missed.  Older games would absolutely kill on the Switch so it’s a shame they aren’t here.  At this point, the library isn’t developed enough to satisfy a regular gamer.

Multimedia – While every other piece of hardware has a variety of streaming services, the Switch has Hulu and that’s it.  Lining up all the major streaming players seems like an obvious choice for a system designed for portability, but Nintendo remains skittish about including it.  Don’t expect the Switch to act as a media hub.

 

The Nintendo Switch is a piece of hardware that I want to play with.  I actively look for games on the system so I can enjoy its ease of use, solid weight, and delightful portability.  Unfortunately, it’s saddled with major flaws.  The games library is limited and the eShop is complete garbage.  Still, the coming line up looks solid and the potential is enormous.  The Switch isn’t a great choice as the sole console for hardcore gamers who need variety, but everyone else should have a blast.

 

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Opinion – Archetypes and the Need for Change

I complain a lot about the rigid archtypes found in Japanese anime and games.  I complain even more when I’m watching or playing said anime and games.  I am playing the Switch JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  I am about to complain.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A plucky young boy with a heart of gold meets a submissive, buxom women who enlists him and his friends in a quest against a nefarious gang of super warriors up to no good.  That should sound familiar, if only because it’s the plot of any number of JRPGs and pretty much every Tales of… game.  I have often wondered why plenty of games reuse the same archetypes with the same boring stories resulting in the same boring outcomes.  I now realize how the two are linked.  Rigid archetypes force the same type of story.

Story elements can be ranked along a scale of dynamism with most elements central to the plot changing while less important elements are held constant to avoid overwhelming the reader.  The characters may grow as they face challenges, but the first town they visited will likely get no further attention once the plot moves on.  The player is meant to invest in the characters as they change and not worry overmuch about extraneous details.  The end result is a story that continually provides new ideas and experiences.  The end result is a story that is more interesting.

JRPG’s such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 hold central plot elements rigid resulting in a static and predictable story development.  Elements that cannot grow continually perform the same actions as a result of a variety of stimuli.  Rex, the hero, will always charge into a fight against all odds because his character is a static version of brave and noble.  Rex will likely fight tens of times for the story and yet will have the same reaction each time because he cannot change.  As a result, the player has a good idea of how each encounter will go and most conflicts resolved as soon as an enemy steps on screen.

Even worse is the fact that Rex’s static nature warps the story around him.  Since Rex must be BRAVE and NOBLE, the story has to accommodate that, resulting in implausible scenarios to continually reward these traits.  When Rex faces an empire’s best warrior, he has to win to continue to validate the BRAVE and NOBLE elements of his character.  To fail to reward Rex’s traits would cause the reader to question their value and the developer would either have to allow Rex to adapt or face a questioning audience who wonders why he won’t.  Rather than surmount that challenge, the developers take the easy way and create scenarios where being BRAVE and NOBLE is the solution.  XC2 twists its story and world to ensure Rex retains his static nature rather than have him respond to it.

As a result, XC2 retells the same story that countless other games have told.  By holding key elements still, XC2 lacks enough material to do anything new or interesting.  The setting varies and the names change, but XC2 must follow the well-worn pattern of its predecessors because there aren’t enough mutable elements to allow for the difference.  The end result is a boring outcome that is all too familiar to any JPRG fan or player of Japanese video games in general.

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Opinion – Super Mario Odyssey Does Difficulty Right

I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES.  Six year old me was delighted by the bright colors, the neat challenges, and the whole newness of it all.  To the shock of no one, a young child playing his first video game wasn’t very good at it.  I’d constantly play, getting a little further each time until I ran into one level that I just couldn’t beat.

And that was it.

Game over.

SMB’s approach to difficulty was static and linear.  The game gave the player no options to modulate the challenge (static) and forced the player to face each challenge in a specific order (warp pipes excluded).  This mean that, when players faced a level they couldn’t surmount, it was game over.  The rest of the game’s content was locked behind a challenge the player would never beat.  SMB had nothing left for them.

Some games still operate to this way and to good effect.  Plenty of players love to test their mettle against a seemingly impossible challenge until they finally figure it out.  The challenge is the point rather than the obstacle to fun.  Other games use linear modeling to lay out sequential story beats or achieve a particular thematic progression.  It’s worth noting that these games generally have lower difficulty curves to ensure most players can get to the end.

Both styles have their virtues, but neither fits the Mario games particularly well.  Mario is historically family friendly making the hardcore approach contrary to the fun and accessible ethos of the series.  Alternatively, dumbing down the challenge would rob Mario of its entire reason for being.  More than any other series on the market, Mario sets its focus on pure fun through game mechanics.  The fun comes from figuring out a puzzle, executing a tough jump, or beating a boss. Making the puzzle easier, the jump shorter, or the boss slower reduces the feeling of accomplishment.  The challenge for Nintendo is always trying to include enough difficulty to make the player feel like they’ve overcome a real hurdle, but not to the point where it becomes frustrating or simplistic.  Given the wide variety of player skills, this seemed like an impossible task.

At least, until Super Mario Odyssey.

The genius of SMO’s difficulty is that it effectively allows the player to set the difficulty by choosing which challenges they want to face.  Players must collect a certain amount of “Power Moons” on each level, but which Power Moons are largely left up to them.  SMO’s level contain a plethora of levels to complete ranging from the dead simple (butt stomp this hill) to the fiendishly complex (jump from rotating platform to rotating platform while dodging enemies).  Low skill players can pick up the simple Power Moons while their more skilled counterparts can grab the more challenging ones.  Even better, the hard levels can get even harder by putting additional collectables in even harder to reach places giving the more committed players something to reach for.  One game can meet all needs without sacrificing any part of their audience.

And that is the true genius of SMO.  Nintendo has finally figured out how to appeal to a broader audience without alienating another chunk.  As an added bonus, SMO is now a game that can grow with its players giving new challenges that 9 year old me or his 12 year old successor would have loved.  Well done.

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