Sundays are for recovering from a few days away. Best start by gathering the week's best (mostly) games writing.
- Naomi Clark writes about a lack of taste in games, and what it does to games and gamers. The media - eg, me - could do more to foster taste.
- Mark Johnson - developer of 4X roguelike Ultima Ratio Regum and oft-cited round these parts - wrote this past week about the problem with the roguelike metagame. Mainly, that unlocks at the end of failed runs distracts players from learning why they failed, and thus stops them from progressing. Which I disagree with, or at least with the implied solutions, but which is interesting.
- Interesting enough that it's worth reading this response at Robot Parking, which delves deeper into different interpretations of roguelikes
- Continuing the roguelike theme, Adam linked me to this from 2011. It's a trove of descriptions of tricks, traps and room designs in a single enormous document. I feel like there is a world out there of similar websites, that perform acts of game design on paper, sometimes for fun and sometimes to aid with pen-and-paper campaigns, and I am just scratching its surface. See also: Goblin Punch.
- Chris Donlan wrote a lovely thing for Eurogamer about gaming's cruellest downgrade.
- Rob Fearon continues to write antidotes to everyone's suffocating passion, not to discourage but to assist those that encouragement often stifles. Does that make sense? Christ.
- Nathan Ditum writes on Kotaku about the difference between Game of Thrones and The Witcher 3. Or, not really. Actually he's writing about The Witcher and Earthsea and their treatment of magic. Splendid.
- Also on The Witcher 3 - and with very mild maybe-spoilers - Keza MacDonald wrote on Kotaku about getting Geralt drunk.
- Joel Goodwin on Electron Dance writes about a phenomenon I recognise and he calls roguerush.
- Also by Joel, this excellently edited video on the Minecraft Industrial Revolution. Ie, the almost irresistible pull players feel to make its beautiful natural worlds into mechanized, stripmined, efficiently exploited wastelands. And how Joel and his wife fought back against that pull.
- I haven't listened to this episode of Daft Souls, but it is a fine podcast and the most recent episode features Joe Skrebels and our own Pip Warr.
- Jerk headcrab.
These are the impoverished gardens that have been grown by the best practices of games as a consumer entertainment industry: put money, time and effort in, get these emotions out. At worst, it stultifies the creation of games into a mechanical exercise, optimizing the efficiency of dopamine production via the stimulation of human brains in the same way that an industrial process would evaluate the quantity of ore extracted and transported from a mine. At best, we can talk about preferences, but we fall short of tastes. Preferences hover in the realm of “what works for you?” Mileage may vary, but you can find an effective treatment, the level of challenge and decision-making stimulus that activates the neural pathways you’re aching for.
Tastes, on the other hand, are less about efficacy on individuals than about aesthetics. Taste isn’t the nutritional content of food or the recommended daily allowance; it’s not the amount of carbs needed to fuel endurance running or the quantity of protein that can be converted into muscle building through exercise; it’s not about filling your belly with calories or your brain with a satiated anti-boredom. It’s about what it fucking tastes like. The encounter of a tongue and a particular flavor, a moment of beauty illuminated by a material as well as the taster’s sum of experiences. Taste changes not only with a mix of molecules or mechanics, but through cultivation and understanding, appreciating a thing for what it is, and perhaps what it intends.
The important point here is this: whereas the player must figure out they are meant to learn – no roguelike says “You died! You should think about how you died. Would you like to play again? Y/N”, and instead it just leaves you to your own devices to figure that out – the unlock is obvious, clear, and explicit. When you’re given an obvious reward, few players are ever going to think about the non-obvious rewards, especially when the obvious rewards appear to enhance their chances of success in the game. I therefore fear that the player comes to learn that their deaths are meaningful insofar as they yield new unlocks, not insofar as they yield new information or understanding or ways to avoid their demise.
Well, Johnson’s assertion is not that we should do away with the current state of the roguelike metagame, but rather that we should examine it closely and see if there are other lessons we can extract, other approaches. It’s something I can wholeheartedly get behind. I think we should extend that to examination to the role of permadeath as an educational and punitive mechanic. If it is “too” punitive, it is because players do not feel equipped to meet the challenges. At this point, it’s worth evaluating how something like combat is handled: are there a lot of commands, a lot of strategies and features? Is your game, like so many other classic roguelikes, a turn-based strategy game wearing the skin of a role-playing game? Are there lessons we can take from user-friendly turn-based strategy games that might help with the onboarding process?
What is easy to forget, though, is that this downgrade - the tradeshow, big reveal downgrade - is actually the second downgrade that most games receive, and it's probably the milder of the two. The first downgrade takes place in secret, and it must be truly heartbreaking for everyone involved. This is the concept art downgrade, the moment that beautiful 2D visions of a new universe are first translated into code and shaders and 3D models and maps, the moment that an idea starts to inch towards its own implementation.
It’s why I’m wary of the “everyone must learn to code” mantra. Nah. You’re alright. “But it’s the future”, says the dude with an interest in preserving a workforce first and foremost rather than having anyone’s best interests at heart. Probably better off learning knitting, we’ll need jumpers as the weather takes its turns for the worst.
In Earthsea, magic is the naming of things. Wizards gain power over objects - creatures, rocks, the sea - by learning their true names. This is a gloriously rich evocation of magic, touching on the idea of innate relationships between us and the world, on the rightness of naming, and the tethering of knowledge to power. The book follows a young wizard called Sparrowhawk whose true name - Ged - must be kept secret from all but his closest friends. Early on he learns a rhyme to herd goats, and compels a falcon to his hand by calling its name. As he comes more fully into his power Ged confronts an old dragon, and by sounding its name - by knowing the dragon - is able to command it not to come East, to the land of people. In saying the name “...it was as if he held the huge being on a fine, thin leash, tightening it on its throat.”
Anyway, so, last night I ended up taking on The Witcher 3's first big dungeon crawl, through some elven ruins (very mild spoilers follow). It was all very dark and spooky, though the enemies I was encountering weren't overly troublesome; mostly amphibious corpse-eating things called Drowners, and goblin creatures that had an irritating habit of turning into mist, but which were fairly easy to dispatch once they became corporeal again. Then came along the first proper boss-like enemy: a golem. This was different. The thing smashed through my special Quen damage shield and walloped me a good few times, knocking my health right down. It was tense, but I made it through, with the able assistance of the sorceress that Geralt brought along for this particular adventure.
Perhaps you’re at home. Perhaps you’re on a train. The location doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you’re enjoying your current favourite rogueish-type-like. You think you’re on top of your game, got all the enemy moves figured out. Yeah, baby, you know what to do.
And then something goes horribly wrong.
You just click, click, click quickly through three moves in one go, as if you’re trying to beat the computer before it gets in a countermove.
Proteus indulges the fable of the “simple life” where we co-exist peacefully with the ecosystem. It asks me to lose myself in the majesty of nature and its joyous, playful manner is beguiling... but the code protects the island above all else. We cannot even take a blade of grass or petal of a flower with us and we leave no footprints behind. Violations of Proteus law are forbidden. Nature is immutable. Nature is God.
I forget what music I was listening to earlier in the week, so take Parts of Speech by Dessa. I first heard this when it was released in 2013 but I think only realised how good it was when Sin Vega linked it to me a few weeks ago. Huh!