Rexperienced Points

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=41058

I had a pretty good run over at the Escapist. I was a contributor there from 2008 to 2016. I made comics, wrote a weekly column that ran for 265 installments, and posted a few Let’s Plays which I’ve since reposted here on the blog.

Sadly, The Escapist is sorta-dead. Most of the staff is gone and aside from Zero Punctuation there’s not really much new content. While nobody has said so explicitly, I get the impression that the current owners will keep the site up as long as it brings in enough traffic to pay for its own overhead, and there’s no telling how long that will be. It could be years, or the whole place might just vanish the next time the domain registration comes due.

These days I have two problems:

  1. I don’t always have a good topic for my weekly Tuesday column.
  2. I’ve got some good topics in the archives over there, and now that the site is in zombie mode that content doesn’t get much (any) traffic.

So what I’m planning on doing is cribbing from those old columns for new content. I don’t plan on doing a copy / paste job. Most columns were linked to the news of the day, which makes them kind of stale by now. Also, I don’t want to match the content at The Escapist word-for-word, since Google tends to recognize this as bot behavior and lower your page rank accordingly.

But I do plan on taking those old topics, reusing their best points, and rewriting them to make new content. I’m pointing this out now so you don’t worry I’ve gone senile when I start revisiting old ideas.

I already have a couple of old columns picked out that I plan to refurbish over the next few weeks. If you’ve got any favorites you’d like to see me revisit – or just a request that I cover a specific topic – let me know in the comments below.

Overhaulout Part 9: Confréries Sans Frontières

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=41090

Why are the Brotherhood of Steel in this story? Frankly, what good are they?

Here at the halfway marker the player is well stocked with goals, enemies, and resources James was murdered by the Enclave. Project Purity is both stalled and in enemy hands. Before the end of the game the player will need to find the GECK, escape the Enclave’s clutches when captured, and mount an assault to reclaim the monument and purify the wasteland. None of that requires the Brotherhood unless we say it does. Do we really need to introduce a unique location and dozens of NPCs if all we need to say to the player is, “Go find a GECK, it’s in this part of the map somewhere?” Is the idea of fighting through all the Enclave’s soldiers and singlehandedly reclaiming the monument more unrealistic than, say, fighting one’s way alone out of Raven Rock? Or wiping out small armies of Super Mutants? Or any of the other absurd battles the player’s obliged to win without backup? At best you can argue that you need an armed force like the Brotherhood to hold Project Purity after you’ve taken it…but why would you need them to? I mean, in the original draft, why do you need to occupy the monument once you’ve successfully purified all of the water in the wasteland? Isn’t a desperate lone-wolf attack to fix the device, press the button, and who knows if you’ll make it out alive more exciting anyway? Wouldn’t that give your likely sacrifice a greater sense of heft and dramatic inevitability?

In the game as written, the primary effect of the Brotherhood is to dilute the player’s agency and responsibility. They do nothing to justify this and oblige other tremendous expenses on the part of the artists, writers, scripters, and voice actors. But I can’t cut them out; that’s not the kind of lemonade we’re making here. Instead I will ask myself:

What good could the Brotherhood be?The obvious prerequisite to that question is, what are the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 3? They possess these primary characteristics:

  • The Brotherhood is altruistic, noble, and concerned primarily with crusade against evil.
  • The Brotherhood is a source of advanced technology.
    • And power armor training at a roughly level-appropriate interval. Don’t try to tell me the whole faction justifies this one mechanic.
  • The Brotherhood is a military organization with aspects of a government.
    • Which distinguishes them from the Enclave, which is a.) the opposite and b.) for some reason outrageously evil.

Proceeding only from this description, they’re a pretty dubious addition to our story. Assuming the player’s a good guy, this is a story about overthrowing tyrants and handing the Wasteland the means to its own self-empowerment. Now we’re making players pursue that goal through allegiance with a paternal techno-stratocracy? Besides the fact that the Enclave happens to currently be mean and the Brotherhood happens to be led by an infallible saint, what meaningfully differentiates the Enclave from the Brotherhood? Isn’t either one a good or bad administration away from becoming the other? If so, how can you trust them as your allies and ask them to occupy your father’s work with murderous robots and elite armored forces?

This distinction is a crucial one to establish; otherwise we’re on some shaking thematic ground. More than anything else, we need to emphasize the Brotherhood’s nonviolent interests in the Wasteland. Make it clear that their “good fight” against mutants represents the necessary front lines of a scientific aid organization, a sort of Engineers Without Borders that’s forced to pack miniguns. Ideally we should sprinkle some of their public works projects (successful and otherwise) throughout the Wasteland: little fountains or medical droids or power generators or hydroponics facilities that may or may not have been co-opted by scabby raiders. Since these projects are not tools of conquest, we learn that at the very least the Brotherhood is not leveraging all its resources towards self-empowerment, which puts them pretty obviously about the Enclave or just about any other government. It becomes easier to face the idea that we’re leaning on them for help.

Back to tour narrative: the player is taken into the Citadel with all the other project survivors. There’s no lengthy scene with Li and Lyons hashing things out; it’s straight off to a holding cell to be interrogated personally about the Project’s status and the intervention of the Enclave. If the player’s mouthy or uncooperative, no special action is taken, although it’s implied that Dr. Li already talked quite a bit. Eventually the interrogation gives a sense of what the Brotherhood believes: the Enclave are evil scum motivated more by desire for power and control than a sesne of what’s good for humanity. The Wasteland needs another source of clean water. Your father’s project, even if in enemy hands, is the best dog in that fight. Also, it probably sucks.

That’s the important subtle detail: the Brotherhood of Steel, who have not even taken a crack at the monument in all these years, don’t actually know how the purifier is supposed to work and are actually pretty sure it can’t. In other words, they don’t really believe the project can purify all the water in the Wasteland. Why would they? But even if it’s going to end up a glorified de-radifying water cooler, that’s a net good that at the very least should not be in Enclave hands. They tell the player that if they ever discover the proper components to fix it up, they’ll help evict the Enclave, free of charge.

Partially, this restructuring of ideas and faction purpose is to validate our parents as awesome geniuses who can’t even be anticipated, let alone equaled, by the scientists who replace them in the story. Partially this reframing preserves the sense of the player being the one with desire and agency, rather than a pack of wrinkly BoS questgivers who step in smoothly to fill in for James, who is dead[/anchor voice]. Whenever possible, though, conversations with Brotherhood workers should highlight their thematic role: they as a faction symbolize The Helpers. First and foremost they’re not a crack military force or de facto government, but a collection of people who spend their lives trying to make things right for complete strangers. They swap stories not just about duels with killer mutants, but about harvests failed, settlers massacred, injustices suffered, towns laid low by preventable disease. They should agonize about failures and nurse the scars of defeat, physical and emotional. Each is tormented by demons of effort squandered or people not saved. The Brotherhood should represent altruism at its most sincere, personal, and consuming. Among other things, as the final choice between charity and enterprise draws closer, their obvious strain and misery and mixed feelings should lead the player to wonder:

Is this kind of sacrifice really what I want for myself?

NEXT WEEK: LITTLE LAMPL—AW, CRAP

Borderlands Part 17: Dee Ell Cee

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=38086

Borderlands 2 had a lot of DLC. All together, the DLC probably doubles the size of the core game. Some of it is crap, some of it is on par with the rest of Borderlands 2, and one DLC in particular is really good. So before we move on to talking about the Pre-Sequel, let’s talk about this stuff.

These things don’t need or merit much in the way of analysis, so let me do some rapid-fire mini-reviews…

Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep

It`s like if DM of the Rings was a videogame.

It`s like if DM of the Rings was a videogame.

This is the best DLC I’ve ever played. For any game.

I admit I’m biased. I’m predisposed to enjoy humor built around RPG meta-humor. The premise here is that Lilith, Brick, and Mordecai gather around the table to play Bunkers & Badasses, an alt-universe D&D game run by Tiny Tina. You’re still playing as your character, still running around shooting things with your acid gun, and still pushing the big red murder button on the Borderlands Skinner Box, but now you’re shooting skeletons and dragons in imaginary castles.

You may be asking how Lilith playing D&D can result in your Axton gaining XP and loot. I’m glad you asked. The answer is shut up you’re ruining this for me.

A lot of the humor comes from the tension between the game world and the real world, similar to the jokes in Dorkness Rising, or even that one webcomic I did. The comedy here is stronger and more consistent than in the core game. There’s the in-game story about the party trying to defeat the sorcerer who cursed the land (Tina’s story is extremely arch) and the meta-story about everyone dealing with the loss of Roland and Bloodwing.

The main story is played entirely for laughs. We’re not expected to care about the gameworld-within-the-gameworld. The whole thing is just riffs of tabletop games, with a few jokes about story-driven RPGs, MMOs, and nerd culture thrown in for good measure.

That`s the vault symbol on the die in the foreground. Is that good, or bad? We can see the 1, so it`s not replacing that. And the 20 should be opposite of the 1, so it`s not replacing THAT. How does this work?

That`s the vault symbol on the die in the foreground. Is that good, or bad? We can see the 1, so it`s not replacing that. And the 20 should be opposite of the 1, so it`s not replacing THAT. How does this work?

The meta story is actually kind of heartbreaking. Tiny Tina has borrowed people from the world around her to use as characters in her game, and by doing so we can see them – and even some of the events of Borderlands 2 – through her eyes. Both her perceptions and her GM style are somewhat skewed. She’s in denial about both Roland and Bloodwing, and nobody at the table really knows how to help her cope with this loss.

(One funny detail is that there are slot machines within Tina’s gameworld, and they take eridium from your inventory to play. Which if you think about it means Tina is evidently running some shady pay-to-win thing where she accepts “real-world” currency for in-game rewards. Not cool, Tina. Not cool.)

When the DLC ends we cut back to the real world where the characters are all sitting around the table playing B&B. Maya walks in and says, “Hey guys, that spy just coughed up the access codes to the Hyperion moon base. Anyone feel like blowing up a space station?” This seems to be setting up a story where everyone went to the moon. I wonder if this was the original plan for the next game, and at some point they changed their minds and made it a prequel instead. In the next game we do indeed go to the moon and we visit the Hyperion space station, but we do so with a different slate of characters and it all takes place a few years in the past.

Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage

HI I`M MISTER TORGUE! BUY MY F***ING DLC!

HI I`M MISTER TORGUE! BUY MY F***ING DLC!

Torgue is a musclehead who runs the Torgue corporation, which is one of the in-game weapon manufacturers. The joke with Torgue weapons is that they always deal explosive damage. This DLC is where you finally get to meet the screaming nutjob who only makes exploding guns. You enter a deathmatch tournament against a bunch of colorful characters and uses that to riff on sports, professional wrestling, television, and sports underdog movies.Also, we get to see something new, which is an urban area on Pandora. A whole section of the DLC takes place in a dilapidated city[4] and it feels really different and interesting.

Here’s a dilemma: I love Mr. Torgue, but I hate the gimmick his character is built around. He cusses all the time, but all of his cussing is bleeped out by an implant that was forcibly installed by the board of his company. On one hand, it’s a funny gag and leads to some amusing jokes. On the other hand, I hate having things beeped out.

I don’t mean I “hate censorship”. I mean I actually find the beeping of cuss words to be grating. I can’t listen to songs that have had lyrics muted or beeped. It bugs me when TV shows do it. Cuss or don’t cuss. I’m fine either way. Just don’t beep stuff out. It creates this building frustration in me, like having someone constantly pause a song every few seconds while I’m trying to dance. It makes me want to punch a motherf***er.

Assuming you don’t have this weird hangup about censored words, then I highly recommend it. If you do have this hangup, then I’d still suggest you get it, but turn down the volume to mask out the offensive censorship.

Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt

Interplanetary poaching HO!

Interplanetary poaching HO!

Here is another DLC that leaves me conflicted. On one hand, I love Hammerlock. Having this xeno-zoologist take us on a Victorian-style safari where we go around blowing away huge creatures for the lulz is a hilarious idea that fits right in with Hammerlock’s shtick. A villain pops up, and he turns out to be a lot of fun. Professor Nakayama is a unique goofball of a villain.

On the other hand, this thing is a bit of a slog in terms of mechanics. I dislike the obnoxious hiking over empty space you have to do here. Maybe the designers were trying to capture the feeling of being in the big open wilderness? If that’s the case, then the look is ruined by the sheer cliffs that wall you in on every side. I’m not sure why this game is so shy about letting us see the horizon. It has the border towers to mark the edges of the playable area, and of course you can always make cliffs that drop down rather than tower over us. But Borderlands seems to love its playpen walls, and Big Game Hunt suffers from this more than the rest of the game.

I’m not sure what happened here, but the areas feel off. The cliff walls make the space feel somehow claustrophobic. At the same time, these areas are also too large and it requires entirely too much hiking to get around. I really like the story and the unique freakshow monsters, but whenever I pop in and see that huge stretch of open space I have to cross I find myself thinking, “Meh. Maybe I’ll go do something else.”

Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty

BOOTY. Geddit? Huh? HUH?

BOOTY. Geddit? Huh? HUH?

It has some moments, but this one fell a bit flat for me. The loot at the end comes from a room full of chests rather than a lootsplosion from the boss, which left me feeling pretty cheated.

None of the regular characters show up, and the new characters don’t have the same zing. It might be because they’re all isolated and don’t have anyone to banter with. The environments are monochromatic beige for most of the run time, and you don’t see anything really fun or interesting until near the end.

It’s not bad and Scarlett wrung a laugh out of me a few times with her ridiculously over-telegraphed betrayal, but this DLC didn’t quite have the magic of the others.

The Holiday Shovelware

The Halloween DLC. It`s supposedly played for laughs, but it`s all catchphrases and callbacks with no actual jokes.

The Halloween DLC. It`s supposedly played for laughs, but it`s all catchphrases and callbacks with no actual jokes.

There are additional DLC packs for Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. These are bargain DLC[5] that offer maybe forty minutes to an hour of gameplay. Usually only one of the regular ally characters[6] shows up to read lines, which are heavy on exposition and catchphrases but short on actual jokes. Mechanically they’re pretty dry and the boss fights are boring bullet sponges. The loot is meager and not worth the time.

The DLC packs suffer from an overall lack of polish and balance and I wouldn’t suggest them unless you’ve tried everything else and you’re still hungry for more content.

Well, except for…

Sir Hammerlock vs. the Son of Crawmerax

I`m not going to bury this post in screenshots but trust me, this DLC is really pretty.

I`m not going to bury this post in screenshots but trust me, this DLC is really pretty.

The exception is the tropical island-themed Sir Hammerlock vs. The Son of Crawmerax. For some reason, this thing is a slice of brilliance. The environment is gorgeous. Hammerlock is there, but Lilith, Mordecai, and Brick get some dialog as well. There are a bunch of callbacks to Borderlands 1 DLC and some occasional in-joke fourth wall breaking on the part of the cast. The jokes are often actual jokes and not just recycled catchphrases. There’s even some important character beats in this DLC. We learn that Mordecai is busy training a new bird to replace Bloodwing.

The Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day DLC packs break from the tone of the core game. They’re silly without being funny. They don’t feel like the work of head writer Anthony Burch. But Son of Crawmerax feels like the exception.

Burch likes to do this thing where he’ll go for a really obvious joke or twist, and then telegraph that he knows that you know where the joke is going. It becomes this sort of meta-joke about expectations. He did this in the situation with the totally un-suspicious power core when Angel betrayed everyone in Borderlands 2. He did it in the sidequest No Hard Feelings. He did it again with Pyro Pete in Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage. He built an entire character around this gag with Captain Scarlett in the Pirate DLC. Likewise, Crawmerax has a section where you have to track down a bunch of assassins, only to discover they’re already dead. After the first couple it stops expecting you to be surprised and instead begins poking fun at how everyone knows where this joke is going.

I’m not sure why this particular Holiday DLC is so much better than the others, but the difference in quality in pretty striking. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, the loot is good, the environment is full of variety, and the banter is charming. It’s only three stupid dollars. You might as well get it.

That’s it for Borderlands 2. Next week is Thanksgiving and I plan on goofing off. After Thanksgiving break we’re going to start on the Pre-Sequel.

Doing Batman Right 4: Rogue’s Gallery – Catwoman and The Riddler

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=41085

Over the years I’ve come to believe that you can gauge the quality of an ongoing fictional universe quite accurately by looking at the number of supporting characters it has. If, for example, The Simpsons had mostly been about the actual Simpsons, it wouldn’t have been half the show it was. It needed Chief Wiggum, Mr. Burns, Apu, Milhouse, Skinner, and all the rest to get to that next level.

So it probably won’t surprise you at all to learn that I think Batman’s villains are important, and almost as important to get right as Batman himself. In fact, even the tiniest, most insignificant-seeming error can be utterly catastrophic!

Clockwise from the top, this is Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, and The Scarecrow.

Clockwise from the top, this is Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, and The Scarecrow.

Or maybe I’m exaggerating, but still, you should try to get them right.

I Have a Thing for Catwoman

That’s why I’m doing her first. That, and because everyone is probably expecting The Joker to be first, and I’m trying not to be too predictable.

I also ship Batman and Catwoman, because I’m a boring person who likes doing boring, obvious things, and this one is just too boring and obvious to pass up. To me, Catwoman, in her own way, works as well as a foil as The Joker does. That’s because the Batman-Catwoman relationship is based in mutual envy. Secretly, each finds the other’s lifestyle tempting.

The appeal of her life isn’t hard to figure out. Being Catwoman is probably a fucking blast. She’s a creature of unashamed appetite, quicker and cleverer than just about anyone else, languorously secure in who she is and what she does, and (mostly – see below) untroubled about her own darker side.

I was ten years old when Batman Returns came out. Not complaining at all, but Michelle Pfeiffer`s Catwoman was a very confusing thing for my ten-year old brain to process.

I was ten years old when Batman Returns came out. Not complaining at all, but Michelle Pfeiffer`s Catwoman was a very confusing thing for my ten-year old brain to process.

I don’t see how Batman – and particularly the Bruce Wayne side of Batman, which is never entirely an act – could look at Catwoman without a knot of envy forming somewhere in his stomach. For her part, she sees something in him she envies too: how thoroughly he’s able to indulge his protective side. For Selina Kyle, a protective side is a vulnerability to be avoided, and to see someone like Batman so willingly and thoroughly express one is something she grudgingly admires (and occasionally emulates).

I like coming up with rules for things, so I might as well come up with some “Catwoman rules.”

1. Catwoman is never entirely a villain. This one is pretty obvious and generally followed by all writers, but it’s important enough to list anyway. Catwoman, while often an antagonist, should never quite be a villain. That would cheapen both her character and, through his attraction to her, Batman’s as well.

2. Batman must have a sense of humor. If all Batman ever does is scowl and punch people, Catwoman has no reason to be attracted to him. There has to be something in him that she recognizes and can occasionally draw out. This is the secret to good Batman-Catwoman banter, by the way, and these two characters and banter go together like cream and catnip.

3. Get you a Catwoman who knows how to lounge. Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer could both lounge like pros. Anne Hathaway, while she has many other talents, never quite got this aspect right in my opinion. (She got the “oops” right though. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about.)

It`s surprisingly hard to find pictures of Eartha Kitt`s Catwoman.

It`s surprisingly hard to find pictures of Eartha Kitt`s Catwoman.

4. They must have real criticisms of each other. When it comes down to it, Batman doesn’t like Catwoman’s selfishness. And she doesn’t like his judgmental side, and the fact that Bruce Wayne is a rich brat who could grow up with the luxury of a conscience. There’s a reason there’s so much push and pull to the relationship.

5. Don’t have them hook up unless you really know what you’re doing. Better to err on the side of forever unconsummated. If they do end up together, make it at the very end or something, like the Christopher Nolan movies did.

Final tip: if Batman-Catwoman is too hard or played out, try shipping Robin and Catwoman. Tons of untapped potential there if you ask me.

The Riddler: Still Somehow Underrated

The Riddler, to me, is a case study in how brazenly foregrounding genre conventions can actually work.

Want to show off Batman’s deductive and detective skills? Why not have a villain who obsessive-compulsively leaves elaborate riddles to be solved at every crime scene! Want a dramatic death trap? Why not have a villain who can’t stop himself from designing them, and the more elaborate and impractical the better!

And instead of glossing over these questions, Batman’s collective brain trust wrote them into Edward Nigma/Nygma/Nashton’s backstory. He’s driven to tell the truth (hence the riddles), and also to prove himself smarter than his opponents (hence, again, the riddles).

He`s probably gonna touch something, that rascal.

He`s probably gonna touch something, that rascal.

The Riddler, unlike Catwoman, is an actual villain, but (and this is hardly unusual in Gotham City) a tragic one. His gimmick of leaving clues and riddles is now presented as a compulsion rather than a choice, and not a healthy one either. I personally feel there’s a truly whizbang Riddler story to be told, one that will do for him what The Killing Joke did for The Joker. Someone should hurry up and get on that.

The Riddler-Batman relationship is more one-way than the Catwoman-Batman one. The Riddler wants to prove himself smarter than Batman. What Batman wants is unclear, which may be the missing secret sauce here. There needs to be something in The Riddler that challenges Batman. I don’t mean that challenges his riddle-solving or face-punching abilities. Something that challenges who he is as a person/superhero.

This is a difficult thing to explain, but the Bat-vulnerability that The Riddler is particularly equipped to target, in my opinion, is his arrogance. Batman has a noblesse oblige that is at least partly rooted in the belief that he’s better than everyone else, and succeeds because he deserves to.

What if he failed, though? What if there was a riddle that went forever unsolved, even by Batman, and even by the audience? Shakespeare used something like that trick in Othello. Iago’s final act of villainy was (spoiler alert) denying the audience the satisfaction of knowing his motives. The reader’s craving to understand is an expectation to play against. Just a thought.

I only have one “Riddler rule”:

1. The Riddler must have a bowler hat. Because why on earth, given the choice between a bowler-hatted character and a bowler-hatless one, would you ever pick the latter?

The hardcore Batman fans out there may already know that there are more than two recurring villains. Don’t fret – though I won’t cover the entire Rogue’s Gallery (it’s just too big), there’s more to come next week.

 

This Dumb Industry: Another PC Golden Age?

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=40956

Back in September a reader emailed me asking about my 2008 article The Golden Age of PC Gaming. That article can kind of be summed up in one image:

Yes, the image quality is terrible. Sorry. I made this image in 2008.

Yes, the image quality is terrible. Sorry. I made this image in 2008.

Games started out in the dark ages with simple gameplay and they were were hard to get running[6]. Then we entered this wonderful age where games basically worked and we were getting several legendary titles a year[7]. Then we entered the stupid age of DRM, day-one DLC, buggy launches, and PC titles being dumbed down in pursuit of the console audience. You can’t really draw a hard line between these eras and the whole thing is pretty subjective, but in my own reckoning I’d say the golden age ran from 1998 to 2004. You could probably convince me to move the endpoints a couple of years in either direction, but you get the idea.

I didn’t ask permission to use the reader’s name, so I’ll call them KC. The email KC sent was too long to quote in its entirety, but it boiled down to the question of “Could we be in another PC golden age?” Certainly things are better now than they were in 2008. But are they good enough to qualify as a golden age?

To answer this question, let’s look at a few industry markers and see how things are now and compare it to how things were back in the supposed good old days.

Digital Rights Management

Why make a better padlock when we can just make it EXTRA illegal to open crappy ones?

Why make a better padlock when we can just make it EXTRA illegal to open crappy ones?

Back in the golden age, you could buy a game on disk and it was yours for as long as you could keep it running. Even if the developer, publisher, and distributor all perished in an asteroid strike, your copy of the game would remain yours. This is obviously no longer the case. Today the games are distributed digitally. Even if you buy a disk in a store, it’s very likely linked to some sort of online storefront like Steam or Origin, and if that service succumbs to an asteroid then you lose the ability to install and play your game. These days you’re buying a cardboard box that contains nothing more than a pinky promise that you’ll be allowed to play a game.
Buying digitally generally involves paying the same, and you don’t even get the box. “Games as service” means the distributor can stop serving you and your access to the game will end with no recourse.

So it looks like DRM won, right?

On the other hand, we’re better off now than we were a few years ago. For a stretch in 2008 or so, it really did look like PC gaming was set to embrace a world of increasingly intrusive and anti-consumer policies in an attempt to fight “piracy”. We were looking at the possibility that games would only allow you to install them a few times before you lost access to them forever. A world where gaming without the internet was impossible because games needed permission every time they were launched.

I guess we’ve settled on an uneasy truce with publishers where we’re willing to tolerate the risk of digital platforms in exchange for the convenience of same. Denuvo was paradoxically successful enough to prove its own uselessness. We had a couple of years where a few titles were piracy-proof during their critical sales period, and despite industry claims that “piracy steals 90% of our business”, none of those protected titles enjoyed a ten-fold increase in sales. It turns out that anti-DRM whiners were right all along, and all of the trouble and expense was for no real benefit to anyone. Not even the publishers. Not even in the short term.

Most of the publishers have figured it out. The only company still pushing harder DRM is Ubisoft, and they’ve continued to do so well beyond the point of reason. This year Ubisoft layered one DRM system on top of another and then insisted that the stacked DRM wasn’t to blame for the game’s horrible performance. It’s sort of darkly hilarious that they’re essentially throwing their own programmers under the bus and blaming their product for the slowdowns in order to save the reputation of their DRM. I guess the only thing worse than being an Ubisoft customer is being an Ubisoft developer.

Verdict: DRM is nowhere near golden-age status, but we’re better off than we were 10 years ago.

Quality and Availability

Factorio is a game that no major publisher would EVER greelight, because it`s nothing like things that were already making money.

Factorio is a game that no major publisher would EVER greelight, because it`s nothing like things that were already making money.

GoG now offers an amazing catalog of good old games for low prices and without DRM. The indie revolution has brought us a flood of titles that cater to retro, mainstream, and niche markets. The brown age is over and games have color again. The proliferation of titles has pushed prices downward, which might be bad news for developers but a boon for customers. We have more titles than ever before, in more styles, at lower prices, with effortless availability. While Steam is still a market hegemon, we have more digital storefront competition than ever before.

Verdict: Golden age!

Business Practices

On behalf of the greatest work of genre fiction in the twentieth century, I`d like to invite this game to go fuck itself.

On behalf of the greatest work of genre fiction in the twentieth century, I`d like to invite this game to go fuck itself.

Games for Windows Live is dead. That’s nice. But now Windows is pushing the Windows 10 Store, and I’ll feel better once they give up on it[8].

But Microsoft’s griefing storefront isn’t even the worst thing on my radar right now. No, it’s not Uplay, either. And while I don’t know how I’ll maintain sanity in a world where both Uplay and GFWL 2.0 are competing to see which one is the more prolific source of annoyances and hassle, these digital storefronts[9] aren’t the worst thing about gaming on the PC. Or even just gaming in general. No, my big worry is with microtransactions intruding into game design.

Bad: Key parts of a game are pulled out and put into preorder “bonuses” and day 1 DLC.

Making it worse: You can’t even buy the content directly. Instead you pay for loot boxes for a chance to get the desired content.

Making it MUCH worse: In order to drive sales, the final act of the game is deliberately designed to be tedious and grindy, with loot boxes promising a way to skip the tedium and gameplay mechanics designed to nudge you into engaging with the loot boxes.

Dilbert for Friday April 28, 1995.

Dilbert for Friday April 28, 1995.

Mr. Btongue had that one really good video on BioWare where he talks about “Making money to make games” versus “making games to make money”. This is the clearest demonstration of the latter that I can think of. If your passion is for the games, then you’re not going to want to damage them to make more money. If you’re just in it for the money, then the game is simply a means to an end and you don’t particularly care about the game as an artistic product.

Worse, I don’t even think this is the good kind of greed. This is clumsy, short-sighted greed. How does this work on multiple playthroughs? Will I need to buy more crates for my subsequent trips through the game? How many people will hit that late-game quagmire and simply lose interest? How many of them will skip the next Shadow of [thing] titles because of their disappointment with this one? For an industry so obsessed with sequels, this is a very dangerous thing to do to a cash cow.

Verdict: We’re beyond the “Stupid Age” now. We’ve entered some sort of dystopian nightmare. It’s true that only a few games are doing this now, but I predict all the major publishers will flirt with this idea sooner or later.

Compatibility Headaches

The 90s brought us the full RAINBOW of PC case colors, from infra-taupe to ultrabeige.

The 90s brought us the full RAINBOW of PC case colors, from infra-taupe to ultrabeige.

A couple of years ago I might have proclaimed we were in a compatibility golden age. The upgrade treadmill had slowed down to sane levels, and I think graphics cards were a little less confusing to buy. The nice long lifespan of the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii meant that everyone stopped pushing so hard for new graphics. Gone were the days when you needed to shell out the price of a console for a decent graphics card. Instead you could shop for something around $200 and still enjoy games on high graphics settings. It was a win for everyone.

But now the madness is back. The new console generation launched, then staggered a bit and did a soft secondary launch of more powerful machines. This has kept the graphics engines in upheaval[10]. On top of this, the new Vulkan API is forcing developers to learn to ride a bike all over again. While Vulkan may give us faster and more stable games in the long run, in the short term it’s doing exactly the opposite.

Two years ago Batman: Arkham Knight had a disastrous launch. Assassin’s Creed Unity’s glitches were pretty hilarious, assuming you didn’t personally pay $60 to see them. No Man’s Sky was a deeply flawed game, but on the PC it was deeply flawed and also janky as hell. Mass Effect Andromeda was a mess on all systems, but anecdotes suggest it was more of a mess on the PC. And of course Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a terrible heap of broken technology. Prey wasn’t a disaster, but it did have a handful of slowdowns, glitches, and bugs.

To rub salt in the wound, Bitcoin miners have begun gobbling up graphics cards, which greatly inflated prices right when PC gamers really needed to be upgrading their machines. So once again, buying a good card is going to set you back the price of a console.

Verdict: It depends. If you’re into the new AAA stuff then this is as bad as its ever been. But if you’re into retro and indie fare then everything is peaches. I try to cover a bit of both, so this is a pretty mixed bag for me.

General Industry Dysfunction

It ends with you, too.

It ends with you, too.

EA closed Maxis. I don’t know how incompetent you have to be before you can fail to make money with SimCity, but EA found a way. Also they closed down Visceral. Square Enix sold off Hitman developer IO Interactive. Irrational Games was shuttered. THQ kicked the bucket, and we’re not sure if we’ll see another Saints Row.

And yet somehow people keep giving money to David Cage.

Verdict: In general, this is a lot like 2008. Lots of studios are closed for the lack of vision and leadership on behalf of a publisher, and good titles end up vanishing despite their virtues. I don’t think things have gotten worse so much as they failed to get better. And as long as the major publishers don’t understand their products or customers, I don’t expect them to.

Conclusion

I don’t think we’re in another golden age, but I think there’s a lot to like about how things are going now. I think the things that are good (lots of cheap, innovative titles) are going to stay good, and the things that are terrible are just an industry shakeup away from being fixed. I think the upgrade treadmill should calm down soon and we’re probably about to settle into another long console generation. I think Ubisoft will continue to make dumb tedious bullshit I don’t care about so I don’t have to worry about Uplay. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the loot boxes. I assumed this would be another dumb pointless fad, but apparently it’s making a lot of money. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

I don’t think we’re in a Golden Age, but if the next couple of years are nice to us then we might enjoy like, a Silver Age or something.

TV I’m Watching: Mindhunter

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=41000

I just discovered this show last week. It’s a Netflix original series very loosely based on a true story of how the FBI formed a special unit focused on using personality profiling to understand and catch serial killers. It’s set in 1977, and is careful about maintaining the look and feel of the time period[3]. This is a true story in the sense that this unit really existed and this is why it formed, but all of our main characters are fictional. I assume this was done so that we can have personality flaws and interpersonal conflict among the team without slandering anyone in the name of drama.

The show is produced by David Fincher[4], who is most famous for directing the thrillers Seven (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), and Gone Girl (2014), Zodiac (2007) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). He’s only a producer and not a director here, but it feels like he directed it. It has all the hallmarks of his style. It’s a slow-burn thriller TV series with Hollywood-style cinematography.

I started watching the show because I know parts of it were shot here in my hometown of Butler Pennsylvania. I don’t know that this has ever happened before. I watched closely, but I didn’t see many places that were recognizably Butler. A lot of establishing shots are pretty tight on a single house or parking lot, probably because it’s really hard to construct a long shot that isn’t going to contain a bunch of modern anachronisms.

But there was one particular bit that caught my eye. Halfway through the final episode of the first season, we get this shot:

Main Street of Butler, PA... OR IS IT?

Main Street of Butler, PA... OR IS IT?

This shot is looking directly down main street. It pans right, over to the courthouse (the location of the next scene) which you can see in the header image of this post. The blue building you see in the distance is Butler County Ford, which you can see in the the post A Walk Downtown from earlier this year. It’s an impressive shot because they managed to find this location where (nearly) all the buildings can pass for 1977. This Google Streetview location is a pretty close match to the camera position and will let you scout the site yourself. It’s not easy to find angles like this that won’t contain at least one obviously out-of-place element that will ruin the whole thing.

The punchline is that this shot of downtown Butler Pennsylvania pans to the right before bringing up the location title:

WRONG!

WRONG!

You can’t see it in the above image, but they actually had a confederate flag flying over the courthouse, which feels really strange this far north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Just for fun, I want to nitpick this opening shot a bit.

I realize this probably feels a little Cinema Sins-ish, but I`m not really complaining about this shot. I`m just observing.

I realize this probably feels a little Cinema Sins-ish, but I`m not really complaining about this shot. I`m just observing.

A: This is a really big hill. It’s steep even by the standards of Western Pennsylvania. The real Rome Georgia is actually quite flat. Personal trivia: There’s a graveyard halfway up the hill, and my father is buried there.

B: Here’s the big naughty element in the shot. It’s a digital price display on a gas station sign. There’s no way you’d see something like that in 1977. I suppose the technology existed and you could theoretically build one, but it would probably be a display in a science museum. You certainly wouldn’t put it in front of a silly gas station.

C: I didn’t even think of it until I saw this image and started studying it, but street lines were different back then. I don’t remember what they used to look like or when they changed, and I don’t know how to look it up. Now it’s bugging me. The only thing I can say for sure is that the parking spaces would have been different in order to accommodate the much larger and less nimble cars of the day.

D: One thing that always stands out to me in period pieces is how all the cars look pristine and new. In the real 1977, there were still leftovers from the 60s and even the 50s running around. Cars weren’t as well-maintained as they were today, and so it wasn’t uncommon for cars to have dings, dents, rust spots, putty marks, mismatched fenders, cracked windows, and other signs of wear. Then again, this shot is supposedly from Georgia where it’s warm all year, and cars in that climate always look better. Freezing, slush, road salt, and ash are brutal to a car’s body. Obviously the real reason these cars look so good is because these are all classic and restored cars.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the show. These are trivial inconsistencies in a minor shot, and “fixing” them would cost a fortune for almost no benefit. Even once technology gets good enough that we can seamlessly create the exact locations we need, we’ll probably still be using shots like this because it’s cheaper than researching and modeling a city in 3D. The only reason I noticed these issues was because I was watching a TV show and I suddenly saw some buildings that are visible out of my window, and that’s a real attention-getter.

Anyway.

I really like the show. Highly recommended, provided you can stomach stories about a few real serial killers and their crimes.

Overhaulout Part 8: Fixed and Broken

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=41066

The brutal Enclave assault marks a point of critical transition for Fallout 3‘s story. This is the part where James ceases to be the de facto protagonist and passes his mantel of agency and primary story-driving responsibility onto the player. In other words, this is where your story should properly begin.

To pull this off, this scene should accomplish three goals:

  1. Bring closure and resolution to your father’s arc, and by extension your relationship with him
  2. Provide a brand-new motivation for the player (since the old driving force, centered directly around your dad’s choices, has become moot)
  3. Establish the villains for the final stretch

Before we go giddily rewriting, an important question: to what extent does the game’s midpoint, as already written, succeed and fail at these goals?

The James Story

Inarguably, James’ story ends when he sabotages his purifier to kill Colonel Autumn and prevent the Enclave from taking charge. Is that a proper ending to his story as written by Bethesda?

Well, let’s take stock of his decision to kill himself and endanger you so he can without prior communication or forethought sabotage his own life’s work to prevent it from…being finished, and then put to unstoppably altruistic use, by the wrong people? As heroic maneuvers go it’s a shortsighted, brash, incredibly damaging and ill-conceived gesture of self-indulgent pride that directly jeopardizes his workers, friends, and only remaining family. So yes; it’s the perfect ending to his story. This is exactly the sort of boneheaded melodrama that caused dozens of deaths in Vault 101, so it’s actually a completely appropriate note to go out on. The only problem is, the game refuses to acknowledge any of that. Ultimately this ending can’t work because James doesn’t work in general. His character as conceived is not in balance with his choices as written.

As for wrapping up the player’s relationship with James, there were two ways to approach that from a writing perspective. The first path is the painful and tragic: the player never really gets a chance to square things with James. In this version the Enclave takes away something the player probably wanted, which was closure with their father, and comes off as an even bigger and more loathsome jerky-jerk. The other path is that of the conscientious writer: wrap everything up so the act break is maximally tidy and the players go away satisfied.

I don’t really care for the game-as-written’s compromise between these two poles, which seems to be: the player’s relationship is resolved if they’ve made ethical choices (“I love you, son/daughter. I am proud. Let us hug.”) and unresolved and open-ended if they’ve made inconveniently barbaric ones (“You nuked a city? Let’s…uh, talk about that after I’m dead, I guess.”), which seems suspiciously like a concession towards keeping the story on rails when James is a saint and the player’s a cartoon supervillain. Whichever route you end up on, it’s hard to shake the sense of “This conversation doesn’t matter” permeating the dialogue.

Let’s cut straight to the rewrite. One way or another (either after helping with repairs or returning from the last unhappy argument for a final showdown), the player will end up speaking to father. Your father will be…not apologetic for what he’s dragged you through, exactly. He doesn’t seem ready to be that honest with himself yet. Instead he has a kind of confession, only a little defiant, even somewhat regretful: he can only ever do what he feels is right. Sometimes those choices hurt. Sometimes they means making sacrifices, or putting people in danger.

But he wisheshe wishes you didn’t have to get hurt.

He’s making progress in Project Purity. He still thinks he’ll need the GECK, sooner or later, but he’s almost got the project back to where it was. He’ll keep working on it. He understands if you don’t share his vision. He understands if you’d rather go home to Vault 101, and he’s sorry that you never can. What he wants is for you to be by his side while he finishes this project to help the wasteland forever.

But first, there’s something that belongs to you. In a maintenance tunnel that was previously locked is the grave of Catherine, your mother. He left a ring of hers there: a piece of silver twisted to look like flowing water. He’d been in too much pain to keep it when she passed, but in the long years since he’s regretted not passing it on to you. Now he’d like you to have it, and to remember who she was and what she stood for.

The player retrieves the ring. Vertibirds creep over the horizon. By the time the player arrives, the scene is in full swing:

The colonel confronts your father inside the booth, soldiers at either shoulder. James, was it? Very good that he dropped by. The cameras they’d installed showed everything. The purifier’s not finished, you say? Oh, no problem at all…it doesn’t have to be finished. The important part is that the primary and secondary reactors, the ones your father warned you were dangerous, have already been set up. Just one premature push of the “start” button will permanently soil the Potomac, force settlements across the Wasteland to deal with the Enclave for water, smooth the way for a peaceful occupation.

All James needs to do to accept a position as chief engineer in this new world order is…press the button. Rest assured, the position is unbelievably comfortable.

Your father’s voice shakes. At first he manages to speak evenly:

“Here we are again. Again. I’ve never met you, ah, colonel? But you know, I know you. Ever since the first toothless wasteland thug took my work, I’ve known you. I’ve harnessed the thing that’s rotting the guts of children, and I’ve beaten it into a miracle, but that’s no use to people like you, is it? You don’t want the miracles, you just want the plagues, the rains of frogs, the death of the firstborns! Is that what you want from me? You want a fucking weapon? (Dr. Li yells to him through the glass) You want me to push this fucking button? Well! Let’s push the fucking button!

He slams his fist down on the console. The generator crackles, bursts—the booth glows green. The colonel collapses in an instant. Your father staggers, clearly ill, looks at you.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and dies.

Brand-New Motivation

So what is the player’s motivation for the second half of Fallout 3?

I want you to take a moment and decide for yourself what it is in the game as written. Be earnest; engage the game in good faith. Think about what happens in this act break and what you’re supposed to feel afterwards.

Now. Did you answer that the player’s motivation is to:

  1. Restore the purifier and cleanse the Wasteland, or:
  2. Avenge your father?

Tricky, isn’t it?

The second one seems like the much stronger emotional drive. You’ve just been through a massacre that among other targets, claimed the father you haven’t had much time to reconnect with. Avenging your father seems like the obvious drive.

At the same time…the man who killed your father is apparently dead. The man who planned the operation, the President, hasn’t really been explicitly connected to what happened yet and ultimately barely will be. Besides, your first act isn’t to declare war on the Enclave, it’s to try to fix the purifier…the one your father just irradiated, and that the Enclave also wants to fix…? And this is leaving aside the elephant in the room, which is that not all players are going to give a shit about dad or are even given a reason to (“He was just gonna lecture me for blowing up Megaton anyway, so whatever”). So revenge doesn’t really qualify as the main motivation.

So what about restoring the purifier? That works, but honestly—and laying aside the myriad reasons this goal doesn’t actually make sense as written—it’s not really emotionally sold to the player. The player watched dad die dramatically, but it wasn’t of thirst. The purifier only matters in an abstract sense, or if the player feels particularly motivated to finish dad’s great work while at the same time not closely examining the logistics of fixing it vs. keeping it out of enemy hands.

In the rewrite, we’re going to break this into two stages. While the emotional rawness is still in place, we’ll give the player the same temporary motivation the original draft does: survive. The player needs to escape the assault and get to safety.

Then the second stage will begin. Dr. Li will exposit where the project currently stands: it’s badly, badly broken. The main generator and secondary generators were both whammied but good. Dr. Li mourns your father, and has some angry words to say about his rash sacrifice, but she has to admit he’s done a thorough job of sabotaging the purifier: at this point only GECK-level technology will fix the thing to the point where it can purify the Potomac OR poison it like the Enclave wanted to. In other words, it’s stable: stably worthless to either party.

Of course, as long as you could find a GECK…it could be very, very useful.

New motivation: opportunity.

NEXT WEEK: #3, ESTABLISHING THE VILLAINS

Borderlands Part 16: Endgame

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=38082

It’s a pretty intense moment when Angel dies, Roland dies, Jack recovers the vault key, and Lilith is captured. It feels like it’s supposed to be the crisis moment in the plot, except it’s kind of early in the story for that. We have a lot of hours of psycho-shooting between now and the conclusion, and a lot of it feels pretty unimportant compared to what just happened. If this was a movie, we’d be entering the finale right now while emotions are hot. Instead we get caught up in a couple more door-opening exercises.

You need to reach the Info Stockade to find out where the vault is. Which means you need to blow open a pipe in the Boneyard so you can crawl through it. But to get there you need to lower a Hyperion bridge. Which means you need to get some explosives. Which means you need to get you Sawtooth Cauldron and steal some from the local bandits. Which means you need to reach their storage platform. Which means you need to get the elevator working. Which means you need to kill a local bandit boss. Which means… you get the idea.

I`m sure fighting this skyscraper robot is somehow related to killing Jack, but right now I`ve lost track of why. Fun trivia: That little shelter on the left is where the original vault hunters stepped off the bus back in Borderlands 1.
I'm sure fighting this skyscraper robot is somehow related to killing Jack, but right now I've lost track of why. Fun trivia: That little shelter on the left is where the original vault hunters stepped off the bus back in Borderlands 1.

It feels like Luke just took off in an X-Wing for the Death Star mission, but the director decided to cut away so we could spend a half dozen scenes with C3P0 and Mon Mothma. It’s not that this stuff isn’t fun, it’s that it feels like this is a bad spot in the game to pad things out. This isn’t just a problem with Borderlands 2, it’s a problem a lot of games have. If we go right from the crisis point of the plot into the finale, then we end up with the player being locked into the endgame almost as soon as they enter the third act. If you do this, the final stretch of the game can feel a little too linear, restrictive, and heavy on cutscenes. If we instead drop back into normal gameplay, then the story loses momentum because you can’t sustain that emotional high note for hours at a time, and certainly not across multiple play sessions.

Mass Effect went for the “locked in” approach. The moment you arrived on Virmire, you were basically riding a railroad to the endgame[4]. In an ideal world, I suppose you’d be free to make a beeline for the endgame but also free to do sidequest stuff if you were looking for more gameplay. Obviously that approach doesn’t work for all stories and genres.

The point is that sooner or later the designer has to choose between their gameplay and their story. Borderlands 2 favored gameplay. That was probably the right move, but it still sucks the life out of the story.

The Final Push

Evidently while you were off doing sidequests, Mordecai and Brick stole a barge and spent hours covering it in elaborate anti-Jack graffiti.

Evidently while you were off doing sidequests, Mordecai and Brick stole a barge and spent hours covering it in elaborate anti-Jack graffiti.

Eventually we find out where the vault is. As it turns out, that’s also where Handsome Jack, Lilith, and the vault key are. So not only does everyone have really solid motivations pushing them into the final confrontation, all of the plot elements are forcing this showdown to take place at the vault. Once we reach the last area, we have a bunch of dialog from all the main characters to re-ignite the emotional energy that fizzled out over the last couple of hours of plot-door shenanigans.

This is the final push through hyperion forces. On one hand, Mordecai and Brick need to take part in this fight so their characters don’t seem lame and inert. On the other hand, we don’t actually want a couple of NPC’s running around, blocking our shots, jumping in front of our rocket launcher, kill-stealing tough foes after we’ve done 95% of the work to bring them down, and otherwise getting in the way as so many NPC companions do.

So instead the writer has the two of them “helping” by showing up in a flying barge and clearing obstacles for us. It keeps them involved from a story sense without making a mess of the gameplay. Good companion AI is hard, and far too many developers have tried and failed to hit that “Alyx Vance” sweet spot of “helpful but not in the way”.

That said, if there’s one thing I’d love companions to do in this game it would be reviving the player.

Fight For Your Life

No, it`s fine Brick. Just go on without me. You can be the main character now.

No, it`s fine Brick. Just go on without me. You can be the main character now.

In the Borderlands series, when you run out of hitpoints you go into “Fight for Your Life” mode, where your character goes down on one knee. You can’t use your special ability. You can’t use grenades. Your view slowly lists to one side, messing up your aim. Your movement speed is reduced to a frustrating crawl. But if you can get a kill in these conditions then you’ll get a “Second Wind” and recover with partial health and shields.

It’s a really good system for making sure that running out of HP has consequences while avoiding the abrupt killjoy of respawning and running back to the battle. When you’re in a multiplayer game, your companions will come over and revive you while you’re in Fight for Your Life. Or maybe they’ll leave you to fend for yourself while they vacuum up all the loot. I guess it depends on the kinds of people you play with.

Like lousy multiplayer buddies, the NPC companions won’t revive you. Even worse, they tend to inadvertently make things harder for you. You’ll be on the ground, desperately trying to get a kill to revive yourself. The timer is ticking down and you only have a few short seconds left before you die and get sent back to the respawn station. You’ve managed to focus-fire this one foe down and you just need to land one or two more shots to get a Second Wind. Suddenly your NPC “buddy” will come and stand right in front of the guy you’re trying to kill. Or maybe they’ll kill the target themselves.

I understand that making good companion AI is hard[5], but this is still a real killjoy. It feels like your allies are griefing you. It seems like having them come over and revive you shouldn’t be too difficult, and it would turn them into an asset rather than a liability. I realize it might be a little overpowered to have an immortal NPC as your resurrection buddy, but these sections are usually really short and I think “slightly OP” is better than building unintentional resentment between the player and their supposed friend.

Barring that, it would really help if the AI would deliberately switch targets to avoid killing foes while the player is in Fight For Your Life.

The Warrior

COME OUT TO PLAY-AY!

COME OUT TO PLAY-AY!

The story has built up “The Warrior” as this horrible doomsday weapon that will let Jack control all of Pandora and wipe all of his foes off the map. Since meeting Roland it’s been clear that our ultimate goal is to prevent Jack from controlling the Warrior.

So it’s a little odd that our quest ultimately fails, but we win anyway. It turns out that the Warrior isn’t a world-shattering weapon, but a reasonably tough foe for a lone level 30 character.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: To kill the final boss you have to shoot the weak spot on its chest. I’d complain, but the Warrior is basically a dragon and fighting non-Skyrim dragons is cool.

The fight does keep you moving around. The fight takes place in a lava ruin and sometimes the lava rises and forces you to high ground. The Warrior dives into the lava, climbs the structures, breathes fire, and attacks from different angles.

Hit The Road, Jack

This looks a lot more brutal than just shooting him myself.

This looks a lot more brutal than just shooting him myself.

Once the Warrior is dead, you can settle up with Jack. He’s “dying” in the sense that he’s too weak to fight you, and the game is just waiting for you to come over and deliver the killing blow. I’m always glad when games realize that when it comes to offing the bad guy, I’d rather make it happen in gameplay than watch it happen in a cutscene. Yes, I know gameplay doesn’t have the same cinematic pacing, dramatic camera angles, and perfectly timed musical cues, but it feels good to deliver that final blow, and it feels frustrating to have the game designer grab the controller out of your hands so they can show you a movie they made about how the bad guy should die.

However, if you decide you don’t want to kill Jack, you can choose to let Lilith kill him for you. This sounds like the horrendous kill-stealing bullshit Reaver pulls at the end of Fable 2, but there’s an important distinction here:

  1. Lilith is your friend, not an invulnerable infuriating GMPC that’s been antagonizing you since they showed up. (Seriously, screw Reaver.)
  2. Jack killed Lilith’s boyfriend and then tortured her. Compared to the player, Lilith has lost more, and suffered more. If they’ve connected with Lilith then they might actually feel like they want her to have the satisfaction of revenge.
  3. It’s a choice you get to make on your own. You can shoot Jack, or press the activate button on Lilith to let her do it. She’s not going to jump in and and steal the kill from the player because they were listening to the dialog.
  4. Even if you let Lilith kill him, you’re the one to press the activate key to make it happen, and the game doesn’t take control away from you.

I like giving Lilith the last hit. It feels like an appropriate way to end the game.

Holy Crap, It’s full of Stars!

We found another piece of Darth Revan`s starmap!

We found another piece of Darth Revan`s starmap!

Once Jack is gone, Mordecai and Brick show up to reveal they made it through their bullshit just fine. Once everyone has celebrated a bit, they gather around the vault key for the big reveal: A huge star map appears, showing countless vaults across the border worlds. Rather than limit the entire setting to Pandora, it seems the developers want to take us to other planets.

I love that the writer is thinking ahead like this. Even though this is a “silly comedy” game where the story supposedly “doesn’t matter”, the writer is thinking ahead, making plans, and doing a little worldbuilding. They’re setting up the next game without ending this one on an annoying cliffhanger. This story wraps up nicely, but gives us a hint of new adventures to think about.

Without this worldbuilding, the next game would have to clumsily explain, “Yep, we somehow know there’s another vault out there but we don’t know where it is, so let’s do the same plot all over again.”

This final reveal is brilliant because it gives the next writer[6] lots of room. All we know is that “there are vaults on other planets”. If the next team wants to make a game about one new planet with one new vault against one new rival, they can do that. If they want to scale the next game up and have a world-hopping adventure where we open four vaults on four planets, they can do that. If they want to add more of a meta-story with the aliens, they’re free to do that. If the next story needs us to already know the exact location of a vault, we can say this starmap gave us that. If the next story is going to be another hunt for secrets, then we can say the starmap identified vault planets but not exact locations. This ending liberates the next writer instead of constraining them.

As a bonus, this reveal feels cool and makes for a great visual payoff.

After the finale, it`s clear that Lilith has replaced Roland as the leader of the original vault hunters. I wonder if that group will grow to include Athena and the Borderlands 2 characters once Borderlands 3 rolls around.

After the finale, it`s clear that Lilith has replaced Roland as the leader of the original vault hunters. I wonder if that group will grow to include Athena and the Borderlands 2 characters once Borderlands 3 rolls around.

I know I keep coming back to this, but just compare this ending to the end of Mass Effect 2, when the writer ran the plot into a wall with no setup for the next game, and then burned their bridges in the DLC. The story-focused Mass Effect 2 really needed to get this right, and they whiffed. Meanwhile, hardly anyone would have complained if Borderlands 2 had half-assed this, but the writer nailed it anyway.

I hope this contrast is useful to the development teams currently planning to make sequels until the sun burns out. You don’t have to make a sequel if you don’t want to. You can make all your games self-contained stories like the old Final Fantasy titles. You can make brand-new IP if you want. You can reboot your world if you want. But if you’re going to make sequels forever and you insist on connecting them with an ongoing story, then you need to plan ahead with your writing.

And to the writers of the Assassins Creed series: We’re mostly talking about you. See me after class.

Conclusion

I think Borderlands 2 is the best in the series so far. Aside from a little Flanderization around the edges it manages to respect the returning characters while making room for the new. It nails the tone, dumps the awkward mechanics, polishes the gameplay, delivers on the humor, and moves the story of the Borderlands universe forward instead of trapping the next writer into giving us yet another vault on Pandora.

Next time we’re going to talk about some of the Borderlands 2 DLC. After that, we’re moving on to the Pre-Sequel.

Doing Batman Right 3: Doing Batman Wrong

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=41036

Last week I covered my core “Batman rules”: The more Jim Gordon the better, Gotham is fallen, and Batman is a reluctant hero. But these are just mine. The fandom in general seems to have settled on a different set of rules, ones that I don’t necessarily hate or anything but don’t exactly love either. I’ll call these my “suspicious Batman rules.”

Suspicious Batman Rule #1: Batman can defeat anyone with _____ amount of prep time.

I get the appeal of this. On paper, the superpowerless Batman is the underdog against virtually everyone in the DC Universe. And one of the most satisfying things you can do in fiction is have the underdog win, through ingenuity, grit, and in Bruce Wayne’s case, a nearly unlimited budget.

The movie wasn`t great, but they sure got the bat suit right.

The movie wasn`t great, but they sure got the bat suit right.

So the occasional bat-whooping of one of those hoity-toity actual superheroes (or supervillains) can be fun to read. But it’s something to be indulged in moderation. Batman is a creature of Gotham, and Gotham is in the DC Universe but, to me at least, not of it. So often it even seems to exist in a different time than everywhere else, some sort of relaxed, flexible pastiche of modern day and the prohibition era.

For this reason I’m always suspicious of any kind of Batman crossover. I know enough about the comics industry to know that crossovers are a staple of their financial diet. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. The ones I do like don’t feature fighting as a centerpiece, but debates between Batman and his contemporaries about how to be a superhero properly. Green Lantern and Batman had a particularly good one in one of the “All Star” comics.

I didn`t read Dark Knight Returns for a long time, because I thought the whole Batman and Superman fighting thing was dumb. Now that I`ve read it, I admit it`s pretty good, though still not my favorite.

I didn`t read Dark Knight Returns for a long time, because I thought the whole Batman and Superman fighting thing was dumb. Now that I`ve read it, I admit it`s pretty good, though still not my favorite.

Suspicious Batman Rule #2: Batman never kills people.

Writing that might make it sound like I think Batman should kill people, which I don’t. But I don’t particularly care for the no-killing rule as the character’s strictly-defined moral event horizon. For one thing, it seems to suggest that for Batman to beat people within an inch of their lives is perfectly fine, so long as he doesn’t finish them off. For another, it recenters the moral core of the character around the no-killing theme rather than the vigilante theme, which is the one I prefer.

It’s also a product of the medium moreso than the character itself, and I might as well link Shamus’ thing again so long as we’re talking about this.

The sidekick of the no-killing rule is the no-gun rule. Like above, I don’t think that Batman should carry a gun. But that’s just because he’s a superhero, and if you give a superhero a gun you basically have to turn them into one of the “gun ones,” like Cable or the Punisher. But one of my favorite bits of Batman trivia is that very early incarnations of the character actually did carry a gun, and were basically pulpy detective-types that wore spandex and a cape instead of a trenchcoat.

Also, there`s no place to put a gun without ruining the silhouette.

Also, there`s no place to put a gun without ruining the silhouette.

So basically the no-gun rule is like the no-killing rule: an effect rather than a cause. It shouldn’t be overemphasized thematically.

Suspicious Batman Rule #3: Joker Joker Joker OMG Joker

When I was a kid watching the Adam West show, if you’d asked me to name the “highest ranked” Batman villain, I would’ve said the Riddler, because on that particular show he was the most commonly used one. There might’ve even been a brief period when Bane occupied the number one spot, having been the foe to have most thoroughly defeated Batman.

But nowadays the Joker is pretty well understood to be number one with a bullet. That’s partly because there have been so many good ones: Jack Nicholson’s is now underrated, Mark Hamill’s has always been underrated, and Heath Ledger’s is (correctly) rated very highly. Then there’s Alan Moore, who made the character about as thoroughly his own as it’s possible to do.

As good as the others were, when I read Joker dialogue, it`s Mark Hamill I hear in my head.

As good as the others were, when I read Joker dialogue, it`s Mark Hamill I hear in my head.

This has the side effect of reinforcing Suspicious Batman Rule #2, since many think that the Joker’s main goal is to get Batman to kill him, thus breaking the no-killing rule. This is another thing I don’t quite buy into. Better to have the Joker’s motives always remain murky, rather than nailing him down to a specific endgame.

Either way, while the Joker may be first among equals in the rogue’s gallery, I don’t particularly like elevating him to such high status at the expense of the others.

Suspicious Batman Rule #4: Batman is a big meany no-good poopy head.

Batman can certainly work as a dark, troubling character. Some of the very best stories have basically asked the audience, “just how nasty can this guy get before you stop rooting for him?” The Bruce Wayne side of the character has a rich vein of patrician arrogance, which the best writers have, at various times, mined for high-quality ore. There’s also potential in the contrast between young, idealistic Batman (say, Batman: Year One, which is my personal favorite comic) and older, cynical Batman (say, The Dark Knight Returns).

But you won’t, at this point, be surprised to hear me advocate for variety in all things caped and crusading. Of course, the Adam West Batman was a boy scout through and through, but you don’t have to go that far. The animated series in particular often hit a memorable note: that beneath the suit and the scowl, Batman is a big softy at heart. Finding the nobility in the character has a bonus side effect: it makes the sight of a cynical, cruel Batman that much more unsettling by comparison.

So, those are my four “Suspicious Batman Rules,” the ones the character tends to follow now that I don’t particularly like. Next week we’ll get into the rogue’s gallery, and why they’re so important to the Bat-universe.