The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for buying things on the internet. Take out your wallet, please, and proceed to the links to the week’s best videogame writing below.

  • Zam recently published an article about the Star Wars roleplaying community in Second Life. I have at least two friends who I could see themselves losing themselves to this, against their better judgement.
  • Everything you see and hear in the video is the product of the Star Wars roleplaying community coming together as a unit: we penned our own script and loaned our real life voices to our characters. The video may seem rough, but it represents the culmination of a year’s worth of collaboration. It was intended to be a preview of where the plot was heading. Many online roleplaying communities have documented their histories in one way or another, but I’d wager we’re one of few to have gone so far as to record it.

    Being at the forefront of a fan-made story campaign like this was not without its pressures. Tasked with the direction of a plot that would end up involving hundreds of players and nearly a year of planning, I had to invest hours of my time on Second Life on a regular basis. At one point, I skipped out on social interactions with friends or missed meals completely, just so I could stay at my computer desk and spend more time pruning the plot. Like a trained actor, I had to be on at all times. Hyacinth rarely had a private moment to herself, which meant I rarely had a moment to myself.

  • At PopMatters, Boen Wang writes on the emptiness of progress, and how momentum can pull you through games.
  • What happens when this obsession with progress bleeds into reality? Consider Habitica, a time management app that turns your life into an RPG. Complete tasks and maintain good habits to earn XP and gold, which can be used to level up your avatar and buy rewards. Fail to meet your standards, and you lose health. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something depressing about an app that explicitly converts the grind of daily existence into the grind of an RPG, as if life were nothing more than a series of progress bars to fill.

  • At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alisha Karabinus writes about virtual hoarding and learning to let go I can easily find myself doing the same, but then I feel bad afterwards.
  • I’m languishing right now in my Metal Gear Solid V game, because I too often use my limited play opportunities to go hunt down materials containers. I don’t need them, or vehicles, or anything else — I am in no danger of running out ever, I think, and could probably sail through to the end of the game on what I have, minus funds for some of the final development projects — but I get so much satisfaction of shipping stolen goods back home via base, and more from opening the menu and looking at the numbers. What do my biological materials actually look like? No idea, but I have tens of thousands. Building something? Oh no, have to go farm up 40,000 more, just so I feel okay about things.

  • Now that individuals are able to make games on their own, following developers’ careers is much more interesting. This post on Electron Dance looks into some of the game makers the site covered in its early days and asks, where are they now?
  • In the beginning, Electron Dance was more of a fan site for Laura Michet and Kent Sutherland’s Second Person Shooter. 2PS was my role model, far more than Rock Paper Shotgun. Being a regular in the comments earned an invite to a 2PS private match of Neptune’s Pride in 2010, a multiplayer 4X game that runs in real-time. A year later, I wrote a much-praised series called The Aspiration about the craziness and crippling mental terror that played out over the four weeks of our match.

  • Over at Eurogamer, Richard Stanton writes a brief history of Platinum, makers of games such as Bayonetta, Vanquish and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
  • All of this may explain why, in recent years, Platinum Games has positioned itself as a standard-bearer for the Japanese industry, adopting the slogan: “Taking on the World as the Representative of Japan.” President and CEO Tatsuya Minami unpacked this, in a post to celebrate 10 years of Platinum Games. “Japan used to lead the worldwide video game industry, but we can’t help but feel that it has lost some of its vitality in recent years. Yet we are using this state of affairs to motivate and inspire ourselves […] We will keep up our fighting stance.”

  • At a recent Videobrains in London, Rami Ismail spoke about three things he learned while making Nuclear Throne. It’s a relatively short video at 15 minutes but each point is an interesting design lesson.
  • Music this week is the scuzzy guitars and quicktalking lyrics of Courtney Barnett’s Pedestrian At Best. I hope that’s a deliberate Time Crisis reference in the second verse.

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    44 Comments

    1. Foxdyebingo says:

      That PopMatters piece is probably the best thing I’ve read all year.

      • Premium User Badge

        Herzog says:

        So what was the other article about? *sad trumpet*

      • cakeisalie says:

        Yeah, it nicely sums up what I’ve been thinking for a while: that behind all the gloss, extensive “content” and hype, many games are a suprisingly shallow and empty experience driven by primarily progress bars and “achievements”. And I increasingly find myself questioning why I continue to play certain games. Work/life is a grind and I use gaming as a means to temporarily escape that grind, but there is an ever increasing overlap between the two.

        • welverin says:

          Over the last five plus years I’ve gotten to the point where I just turn the difficulty down right from the start, because the harder a game is the more time I have to put in to get better which becomes a chore and more like work and I enjoy it less.

          I’m also starting to avoid the collection aspects more as time goes on.

      • GWOP says:

        I think you’ll enjoy Black Mirror’s Fifteen Million Merits.

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        gritz says:

        He’s really missing the point about Habitica. You aren’t just offloading all of your motivation to make improve your life onto a system of “loot” and “level up”- Habitica makes no attempt to keep you from gaming those systems however you want. If your goal is simply to level up, there’s literally nothing to stop you from clicking the + button as many times as you want.

        For as long as people have been able to write them, people have found satisfaction in marking things off of to-do lists. It may have a pathology separate from the pure virtue of self-improvement, but it’s surprisingly effective.

      • thelastpointer says:

        That was a horrific article. He sure stopped those evil progress bars by quitting school, living with his parents and playing Need For Speed.

    2. Laurentius says:

      So I wrote some grumpy comments in Firewatch WIT how game critics always put narrative and story aspects of video games on pedestal and as a most important thing in games. Just to read now, that pretentiousness embodiment, Jonathan Blow actually said that as well in his recent reddit AMA:

      “…The real thing that bothered me was not response from players, but from pundits or critics. I felt like they all came from this English-major kind of school of thought and only wanted to talk about the story part of the game as the bit that had meaning, when in fact the game design and other aspects of the presentation are obviously very important. I felt like there were many folks proclaiming “we are the people who are smart and who understand video games, and we will tell you what this game is about!”, but those people had a very poor understanding of the game! The thing that really bothered me was that these people, if loud enough, might permanently damage the way the world sees the game… in the first couple of weeks this seemed pretty likely, but as time has gone on, it hasn’t come to pass. Not too much anyway… ”

      Now that’s a schadenfreude but also sign that it’s really a point that game criticism should look into the mirror.

      • GWOP says:

        Critics put the narrative of a narrative focused game on a pedestal; enrages reader.

        • FhnuZoag says:

          Yeah.

          Reminder that RPS had Rocket League as Game of the Year last year.

      • wu wei says:

        Didn’t Blow previously complain that people spent too much time raving about Braid’s mechanics and not focusing enough on its story?

        (And what, exactly, does one developer’s criticism of critiques of his game have to do with a completely different game?)

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        Thirith says:

        I find few arguments with respect to gaming as tiresome as the ludologist/narrativist one. Either perspective has valid things to add, and some people care more about the one than about the other. I’ve been playing games for over 30 years and many of my favourite experiences were story-heavy; a few were gameplay-/systems-specific. I’d say that any criticism that is focused on denouncing the other side of the debate is likely to end up less interesting and convincing than one that simply does the kind of approach it favours and does it well… and much of the criticism I like best actually manages to address both story/storytelling and gameplay as a unity.

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          Lars Westergren says:

          Great post. I started writing a sarcastic reply re:Blow but you said everything I wanted to say and so much more constructively.

      • gunny1993 says:

        I think it’s quite a complex issue and should really depend on what the game is aiming for; if the game is trying to be a narrative adventure, then that should be the focus of the review. But I also agree that you can’t ignore mechanics as they inform gameplay and change how the story or narrative is viewed by the player.

        I think I can explain it better from another angle, film: If we look at say, Mad Max Fury Road, we have a film that is designed to be a bombastic action film, to review that in the same way as a film with a focus on a narrative such as 12 Angry Men would be obviously silly. But to completely ignore it would be equally silly as narrative is interwoven into action scenes (why is this happening, what is happening etc) So what most film venerable film reveiws do is look both aspects, but not in equal measure, examining how they inform each other and then picture as a whole.

        If we review games without looking at how all the elements work together to achieve a goal, then we do a massive disservice to everyone.

        Imagine if films were reviewed without looking at story, character and cinematography …. then Micheal Bay would be the best director in Hollywood … *shudders*

      • HuvaaKoodia says:

        Problems like these all go away the moment you start considering other forms of interactive digital media:
        – Interactive fiction
        – Interactive simulation
        – Digital puzzle
        – Virtual experience

        Critics would stop fawning over narrative in digital games, if interactive fiction was a vibrant commercially viable medium and label for developers to use.

        Unfortunately these other mediums are not yet recognized by developers and digital distributors. As such everything gets labeled as a game which ends up confusing many things including the critical reception of “non-game” titles.

      • Mario Figueiredo says:

        Unfortunately you will get a lot of negative reactions to that, even when it’s an actual game developer trying to argue for it.

        Games critics are the only type of critics that have been increasingly removing any technical aspects from their analysis and moving ever further into subjective analysis. As art critics, like they so much pretend to be, serving games as an artistic expression, they just suck. I get more technical analysis from a painting critic, a music critic or a film critic, than I will ever get from the vast majority of the game media.

        I’ve been arguing against this form of making game analysis and criticism for a while. But I don’t think it will go away. The way of New Games Journalism has taken over and solidified. And this is what you get when you want to read game reviews or criticism.

        • GWOP says:

          I’m curious, which recent RPS review did you find lacking in its criticism of game mechanics? XCOM 2? Deserts of Kharak? Dragon’s Dogma?

          • thaquoth says:

            Funny how this simple challenge never yields an answer, doesn’t it?

            I feel like there is a major case of confirmation bias going on here.

            Case in point: Firewatch. Absolutely narrative focused game gets praised for doing that thing that it does really well. And that is a problem why?

            Meanwhile Rocket League is GOTY.

            • Laurentius says:

              No one is saying that games without narrative are ignored or aren’t receiving recognition. It’s that narrative part is trumping other aspects or video games. You want examples, fine! Witcher3 here on RPS, like including Blood Baron quest is elevating the game and indication how game excels, see Alec Meer piece about it. I am not saying that quest was bad, it’s really cool that game engage such topics but I don’t understand why this trump and completely remove other aspects of game design that are simply regressive and game is in many aspect less interactive that cRPG from 20 years ago. Or that RPS constantly bitches that in CoD games, you follow NPCs and wait till they open doors, where in fact that same mechanic is often used in many narrative driven games and no one is batting the eyelid.

            • Nogo says:

              It’s pretty simple really, interactive narrative design is one of the more interesting challenges in game design.

              There’s not a large body of interactive narratives to drawn on, so it’s interesting and a bit exciting to see serious efforts into relatively new territory.

      • Unsheep says:

        Media and critics of today place a heavy focus on Art and short-lived gimmicks in games. This is bad for the industry as it encourages games that look pretty but don’t offer much content or gameplay, as well as games that only have short-lived value.

        Playing a game just for ‘fun’ has become an abstraction today, and is only justifiable when its a mass-market phenomenon like Rocket League.

        The root of the problem is that game reviewers and critics have very similar gaming backgrounds and go through the same kind of training or process before becoming reviewers and critics. In other words they are more or less trained to think in a certain way. The corporate culture in these places is very similar as well, compounding these effects.

        And what happens when you ask a group of like-minded people to review something ?! the answer is that you get very similar opinions.

        That is what Western gaming media is like today, a private club of like-minded individuals hell bent on ensuring that their vision of gaming is the only one that matters, the only voice that developers and publishers should listen to.

      • Urthman says:

        Game critics do not always put narrative and story aspects of video games on pedestal as a most important thing in games. Most games aren’t narrative driven. You’re focusing on a tiny subset of games and games criticism and then getting mad because you’ve somehow convinced yourself that tiny subset is all there is. Open your eyes.

        • Unsheep says:

          I disagree. My impression of game journalists and game critics is that their first priority is always the quality of the graphics and the artistry of the visual design. After this comes story and narration. The actual gameplay has their lowest priority, unless it comes with a prominent gimmick.

          • GWOP says:

            If that was the truth, 2015 would have belonged Order 1886 and no one would have ever heard of the likes of Minecraft and Rocket League.

    3. Blackcompany says:

      The Pop Matters article has a point. That is sort of a depressing view of real life. To me as well.

      But what if it works. What if using something like that, makes is easier for people of a certain mentality or personality type to keep their goals in focus? To get things done. What if our depressing purview is another’s successful motivator?

      Speaking of depressing, though, do you know what’s depressing to me? That RPG has become synonymous with progress bars, level ups and tons of useless inventory clutter. Oh, and crap crafting systems used as an excuse to turn rewards into pieces of rewards you can use to make something later.

      Growing up, RPG was all about playing a role for me. You chose a character, with a background story. Built around it. At one point I played a Bard/Assassin hybrid in a D&D campaign. Story was, he was a king’s bard; he went where the king went, entertaining at other courts and such. Because of this, he was trained as a spy and assassin, and had skills most bards would not. Until the king died and his corrupt son, who the bard would not serve, tried to have him thrown in his jail; he fled, and had a price on his head in his own lands.

      The character was unique and the DM loved him and allowed me to play him. As long as I stuck to the character. When you’re playing a character who can flip back and forth between passionate story teller and ice cold killer its a hard thing to do at times, but it was a challenge I enjoyed.

      Modern RPG Games have lost this. Now its all just progress bars and loot. I understand that video games are necessarily more limited in their ability to allow you to play a role, but Fallout: New Vegas gave it a pretty good go, allowing you to side with almost any faction = no matter how pure or how vile they seemed. Its my opinion that we need more role playing and less progress bar in the modern RPG.

      • welverin says:

        The RPG thing gets me as well, people have latched onto the wrong aspect for what defines an RPG. that’s always been the case however.

        • malkav11 says:

          It’s the part that videogames can deliver in a satisfying way – one that, IMHO, they do much better than the same mechanics in tabletop play. They aren’t ever going to offer the sort of creative free-form storytelling that a tabletop RPG can because that necessarily requires an intelligent agent or agents responding to and supporting the narrative that you are creating. Put a person in that role and the game becomes restrictive and compromises the experience (I don’t understand why people were so gaga about Sleep is Death, for example, because it limits your narrative palette so much and while the art of tabletop RPG design is constraining your storytelling in interesting ways, I’m not sure SiD had anything much to say in that regard.). Put a computer in that role and you get a railroad with perhaps a few branching paths, at least until someone develops true AI.

          But it’s dead good at tactical combat and loot grinding and such.

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        zinzan says:

        ABSO-bloody-LUTELY This.

        I love RPG’s (played them since very early 80’s) and have waited too many years for them to come to PC as ROLE-PLAYING games. I loved New Vegas for it’s ability to let you play an alignment/viewpoint but many strategy games such as the Tropicos, CIV series and CKII are better Role playing experiences than any so-called cRPG’s.

      • cakeisalie says:

        Totally agree. That was the big fail of Fallout 4 for me, it doesn’t really let you role play – your character development is too contrained by the central narrative, limited dialogue options (which are rarely meaningful), and a dumbed down progression system. Essentially it’s an open world shooter with lot’s of progress bars. And it’s not even a particularly good shooter.

        • onodera says:

          Fallout 4 is more of a JRPG, which is a misnomer, in my opinion. “Kill random monsters, upgrade your characters and equipment, follow the plot and do sidequests” is not an RPG.

        • Cinek says:

          People should stop using Fallout 4 as a point of reference to any RPG or genre as such.

        • Thurgret says:

          I don’t have a horse in this race, but, you know, I’m not aware of Fallout 4 being marketed as an RPG, just as an ‘open world game’. The RPG tag was nevertheless applied by Fallout fans.

      • JonWood says:

        To an extent I think if that’s the sort of game you want to play you have to impose constraints on yourself. Until recently I’d never really got into an Eldar Scrolls game, but this time round I started a game of Skyrim with a character defined for myself, and relevant constraints.

        No lugging around tons of gear. (And therefore no endless inventory shuffling)

        No random looting. I’m an honourable character, and I don’t go rummaging through peoples burial urns in the hope of finding a few quid.

        No lock picking. I never learnt, and so don’t know how. That ones closed off one side quest to me already, but I’m OK with that.

        I use an axe, and a shield. Those are my weapons. Good bye carefully studying weapons at every shop comparing them.

        Those constraints have let me focus on the character and the world, and stop worrying I’m missing things. I’d love to see more RPGs which intentionally don’t make everything possible for every character.

        • Det. Bullock says:

          Yep, I know that sometimes in pen & paper RPGs some limits are due to the players themselves roleplaying rather than limitations imposed by the master but already the third Elder Scrolls had a way to make *everything* possible for *every* character that makes it feel more like “fantasy GTA” rather than a RPG.

          • Rizlar says:

            Yet you have people in the above comments suggesting that freedom is the very definition of a good role-playing vehicle, that constraints are what ruins it.

            Not that I agree with that. But at least in a very open game you can choose to roleplay. Basically everything JonWood said.

            • Josh W says:

              This is not actually a contradiction; if the game responds to your choices about what kind of character you have, and what kind of character you want.

              The crucial problem is this; just trying to do something is not sufficient cause to determine the sort of character a player wants to have, and participation is the only clue the game uses to determine these things.

              Skyrim and similar games fall away in front of you. They assume that because you are trying this thing or that thing, it’s what you want your character to be. They make it easy for your character to become recognised as a hero, as the king of every bar, castle and subgroup of the game.

              Push in a direction, follow the quest markers presented, and suddenly you’re (in the classic example) the head of the mage guild knowing barely any magic.

              So why does this kind of accommodation feel hollow? It’s not because it gives you what you want, it’s because it over-reads the first shrugging steps into a quest chain as a commitment to another grand destiny to stick on top of the existing ones.

              Of course, you don’t actually have to be the king of everything to want to be involved in other people’s concerns, you might just be the local lord helping to solve problems, or some trouble-fixing heavy (and the fact that you primarily solve the problems by going in there and hitting things reinforces this), and stacking all of those other identity markers diminishes the ones you have and want to believe in.

              This occurs because the game doesn’t give you any mechanisms to represent your priorities or investments. There’s no scope to pick destinies you want to level towards out of character, or any similar mechanisms built more coherently into play.

              For example, suppose you are playing a computer RPG, and your character is asked a question by some NPC, about who you are and what your intentions are.

              Then you have conversation options as normal, but with the option to mark them as true or false. The interesting thing about this is it allows you to explain to the game when your character is giving information that you at that moment think is a reasonable reflection of your character’s actual opinions.

              Then there’s something there to react to, and the game can react like a human GM that knows the sorts of things you want, allowing opportunities that match to or challenge that self-image, while not emphasising other elements.

              There are other games that have done similar things by asking you to pick memories, or just asking questions in a context where only truthful answers are assumed to be correct, but I think there’s a lot of flexibility there for still having the freedom to play a conman if you want to.

              And if you pick truth for everything, and have a wild and incoherent character concept, then the game can open all the doors and let you wear as many hats as you like.

              Sometimes people deride these kinds of flexible games for their wish fulfilment, but part of the problem is that although they want to be helpful, they have no system for determining what it is you wish would happen.

            • Josh W says:

              Oh yeah, also, I’m talking about this like it’s something that games don’t do, obviously, there are lots of games out there that do exactly this.

      • GWOP says:

        It’s not just the factions – New Vegas’ best side quests accounted for your skillset as well.

        link to youtu.be

    4. JP says:

      Re: Courtney Barnett’s Pedestrian at Best, the previous track on the album mentions SimCity so maybe? Either way great song.

      • Windows98 says:

        Yeah, after that, the Time Crisis reference is definitely deliberate.

    5. Monggerel says:

      I was going to say that actually collecting resources in MGSV instead of just hacking the game with CheatEngine sounds horrible, and that grinding is for chumps, but then I realised I’ve played Minecraft for some hundred hours.

    6. MithrilWomble says:

      As for RPGs becoming progress bars and loot gathering, it clearly provides a bigger dopamine hit to more people than role playing. It’s more difficult to brag about how well you played your chaotic neutral thief to your friend than it is to proclaim your level or how awesome your Death Sword is.

      The Pop Matters writer should have stuck with Engineering. Life is a grind, no matter what you do. It’s why angst was invented.

    7. Unsheep says:

      A crucial point that Eurogamer and Western gaming media are completely missing is that many, if not most, of the Japanese developers that are popular in the West are not actually targeting the Japanese consumers, instead they make games for a Western audience. For all purposes they might as well be Western developers simply located in Japan.

      So while developers Platinum may be popular in the West, they may not be in Japan.

      The games that Japanese developers make for the Japanese consumers are the more hardcore JRPGs, anime-based games and high-niche games. These developers are quite successful in Japan, especially if they can turn them into mobile games, but not elsewhere.

    8. Butts says:

      Regarding the hoarding article, especially the author’s quote about “languishing” and Graham’s comment about feeling bad after pretend hoarding…I don’t get it. It’s a game. Play how you want. Hoard if you’re gonna hoard. Who cares?

      Sure, everyone’s time for gaming is limited. But MGSV isn’t a job, has no deadline, and is something you never even need to finish. If you boot up the game and the only thing you want to do is collect some supply boxes, then go collect every box the game has. What does it matter if you never get to the final mission? She said herself gathering materials is satisfying, so what’s they worry about languishing? The ending will always be there.

      And if you want to hoard every item a game, never using nor disposing of them…why not? It’s not like they’re taking up real space. Virtual hoarding lacks essentially all of the dangers of real hoarding. No one has ever been crushed by a falling pile of imaginary digital items. Sure, maybe you spend extra time organizing your fake things. Technically, you could probably finish most games without most of the things you find in them. But so what? There’s no need to guilt yourself over the fact that every game you play isn’t a minimum item run.

      Maybe because I’m not a games critic, and not paying my rent Writing Seriously About Games, it’s easier for me to take this position, but games are meant to be fun. Just play them whichever way you like best.