Video Game Chart Party

I have a bit of a sore throat so I wasn’t up for doing a Diecast. But as a way of giving your your usual dose of content, I thought I’d share a strange meeting I had the other day on the internet…

EXT – The Internet – Night

Shamus is minding his own business, scrolling Reddit and generally wasting time, when Don Data enters. He’s an exaggerated stereotype of Jersey-area Italian-Americans. Maybe he’s played by the late James Gandolfini, but maybe not. It’s hard to tell in this lighting. He looks around, and once he sees the coast is clear he invades Shamus’ personal space.

Don Data:

Hey. You’re that internet guy, right? You do programming and stuff. You know about databases, right?


(Visibly uncomfortable.) Yeah. I mean, sort of. I’m kinda… I more of a graphics…

Don Data:

Yeah, yeah. Close enough. Whatever. Check this out… (Don pulls a DATABASE out of his coat and hands it over.) I figured you might want to have a look at this.


(Eyes the database suspiciously.) I don’t get it. It’s just a list of video games and… what is all this?

Don Data:

(Shrugs.) I heard it was, like, a list of all the Metacritic scores for the last 20 years.


(Raises his eyebrows.) Where did you get this?

Don Data:

(Shrugs again.) I know a guy.


Okay, but where did THAT guy get it?

Don Data: 

It fell off a truck.


A database fell off a truck?

Don Data:

(Chucks him on the shoulder and nods.) Have fun, kid.


Kid? I’m nearly 50… (Shamus looks up from the database to see that Don has vanished.)

So that was a little weird. Anyway, let’s open up this database and have a look.

The first thing to note about this data is that it’s only PC games, and it seems to only include games that scored over 30-ish. That works out to a little over 4,000 games. The data set is pretty small in the… hang on. I’ve got the data, so why don’t I just show you?

So the data is obviously very thin before 2000. This makes sense. Metacritic was launched in 2001. Do try to keep this in mind as we go forward. This sample size isn’t that big to begin with, and it’s microscopic in the 90s.

We always hear people say that reviewers are less critical today than they were 20 years ago. I sort of instinctively lean towards this assumption, but let’s see what the data says. Here is an average of all scores given by critics, by year:

Note that this graph is re-scaled to show the 60-100 range. Still, that’s interesting. Obviously we need to ignore the outliers in the 90s. If I’d had more time to redo these charts I probably would have made a version of the spreadsheet without the pre-2001 data. In any case, we can clearly see a sawtooth pattern there in the middle. That low spot in 2006 is the launch of the PS3 / Xbox 360 generation. We tend to get really horrendous PC ports in the early days of a new console. Plus, this was the dawn of phone-home DRM.

I see things improved until 2011, when it took a dive and we had a few bad years. I’d love to blame that on GFWL, but I honestly have no idea what that is.

So that’s what the critics had to say about PC gaming. Let’s see what the Metacritic user scores look like:

Again, note that the scale starts at 60 here. You can see that users rated games much lower than critics pretty much across the board. That makes sense. Critic reviews are gathered automatically, but user reviews are self-reported, and people generally only bother when they feel strongly about something. For users, the mid aughts low point was in 2005, not 2006.

So let’s see how big the delta is between the critics and users…

This chart is basically the green chart minus the red one. Or, how many points higher are critic scores than user scores? We could see this as an indication of the diverging opinions between the people and the press, but this spike at the end could also be the result of games that didn’t turn on their aggressive monetization systems until after the review scores were set. This pissed people off and led to review bombing. So maybe it’s not a measure of the difference between critics and users, but the difference in quality between launch day, and the day the cash shop opens.

As always, take everything here with a grain of salt. I haven’t spent a lot of time with the data yet and I might be missing something. Also, this was my first time creating a pivot table in Google Sheets and it’s possible I bungled it.

This project needed a little more time, but right now I really need to take a break and drink some tea. And maybe play some games from before 2016.

Rage 2 Part 1: I’m Not Even Angry

Right up front, I admit that this is a terrible idea for a series. Judging by the comments, the audience of this blog typically majors in RPGs with a minor in Dark Souls. In terms of audience priorities, action shooters fall somewhere below “2D side-scrolling pixel art indie games” and random complaints about keyboards

Moreover, this game is fairly new, and my Spider-Man series demonstrated that the audience prefers to read retrospectives about games that are a couple of years old. Even in the wider gaming culture, this game didn’t seem to resonate with people. It vanished shortly after release and nobody had much to say about it. 

So why am I doing a retrospective on a poorly-reviewed game that people don’t care about that my audience cares about even less and would be too new to be of interest even if they were interested? I don’t know. I think this must be self-sabotage on my part. The years of imposter syndrome have taken their toll and now I’m trying to get rid of my audience so I can go back to working fast food.

Actually, I’m probably writing about this for the same reason I wrote about all those other games: I just can’t help myself. Rage 2 is filled with really interesting problems that compel me to look closer. I want to discuss these flaws (and complain about them, obviously) and talk about why they matter. In my Spider-Man series, I said the story was mostly good and occasionally brilliant, but with a couple of moments of perplexing awfulness. Rage 2 is the inverse of this. The story is mostly dross, occasionally awful, but with a few brief moments of perplexing excellence. How can a setup like that not make you a little curious about the development process?

In Case You Missed it

Shoot people and take their stuff in the name of wasteland justice or whatever.
Shoot people and take their stuff in the name of wasteland justice or whatever.

Rage 2 is an open world action shooter from Avalanche Studios. It was released in May 2019 and is a sequel to 2011’s Rage from Id Software. It’s set in a Mad Max style post-apocalypse desert filled with feral mutants and bloodthirsty scavengers. You drive around to find outposts, and then jump out of your car to shoot dudes and collect crap to upgrade your arsenal. You’ve got a technology super-suit that lets you dash, double-jump, and ground-pound like a cross between Mario and Master Chief. 

Different map locations offer different sorts of challenges. Sometimes you just need to shoot everybody. Sometimes you need to destroy a device. Occasionally a location is just a peaceful scavenger hunt. Rarely, a location will be a very mild puzzle where you need to figure out how to enter a building to get some goodies. There’s some car racing and a bit of driving combat in the mix, some arena battles against waves of mutants, and a heaping dose of Ubisoft-style collect-a-thon.

The story doesn’t really gate much  progress[1] so you can engage with it at your own pace. You can plow straight through the story and ignore the side-content for a serious challenge[2] or you can spend hours exploring the entire map and then stroll through the story missions like a munchkin god.

As perverse as it might seem, this series is going to focus on the main story of Rage 2

I’m Just Trying to Help!

This is a lot of neon advertisements for a society that has yet to exceed the population of a stone age tribal village, but whatever. I don't know what they eat, but I love their signage.
This is a lot of neon advertisements for a society that has yet to exceed the population of a stone age tribal village, but whatever. I don't know what they eat, but I love their signage.

As I’ve said before, you don’t need a lot of story to have a good story. You don’t need long cutscenes, a large cast of characters, moral choices, branching dialog, plot twists, or multiple endings. You don’t need player customization, companions, or character classes. Rage 2 is an open world empowerment shooter, and it’s entirely appropriate to build a game like this on top of a premise like: “There’s a bad guy. You don’t like him. Go murder his face off.” Not only is it okay to do that, but it’s possible to take that simple premise and make it really good! I’m a fan of Bulletstorm, and that game is neither complex nor highbrow when it comes to story. It takes a simple idea and executes it in a way that’s in harmony with the gameplay.

This series is going to be less about castigating the developers for mistakes and more about offering constructive criticism.  I want to encourage the Rage franchise to continue its efforts to build some kind of narrative structure to hang the whole thing on. My previous retrospectives were focused on story heavy games, and this time I want to focus on telling a minimalist story that can still deliver some sort of dramatic payload. My criticism here will focus on what this game did wrong, but it could also be used to figure out how to make the next game better.

This also means I’m going to be a little nicer than usual to developer Avalanche Studios. I savaged poor BioWare Montreal for the failings of Mass Effect Andromeda because the Mass Effect series is built on story and developer BioWare Montreal needed to live up to the BioWare legacy. But Rage 2 isn’t a story-based roleplaying game and Avalanche isn’t a studio that sells itself on its storytelling prowess. Both games break a lot of conventional wisdom regarding story, and they both suffer for it. The point of the Andromeda series was to point out that BioWare Montreal had failed spectacularly in their efforts to capture the magic of a BioWare game. My goal with this series is to convince Avalanche Studios that their games would be greatly improved in terms of critical and commercial reception if they were willing to put more thought into the story. 

To put it another way: BioWare Montreal tried and failed. Here I want to convince Avalanche to try. (Once they try, then I can do a more critical narrative analysis.)

The thing is, this game isn’t that bad in terms of mechanics. I’ve certainly seen games with far less interesting gameplay that scored much higher. I think the problem with Rage 2 is that the story didn’t offer any emotional engagement. It’s an open world game that can’t get us to care about the world. 

Pink is not Comedy

I think of PINK as a pastel red. The color above I call magenta. But everyone else calls this pink, so I dunno.
I think of PINK as a pastel red. The color above I call magenta. But everyone else calls this pink, so I dunno.

I need to mention one last thing before we start picking at the story, which is that the project very clearly went through a last-minute tonal shift into attempted / alleged comedy. It reminds me a bit of Borderland‘s 11th hour pivot to action comedy, only this time it didn’t work. The comedy is even expressed in a similar way: A wacky trailer, title card intros for major characters, some silly names, and no actual jokes whatsoever. The main plot is painfully self-serious, and all of the supposed comedy comes from superficial last-minute art assets that were bolted on when the game was basically done. 

The game uses hot pink / magenta as the eye-catch color, the way Tomb Raider games use smears of white chalk and paint to draw attention to climbable objects. The pink is amusing when contrasted with this desperate Mad Max style desert, but it’s not amusing enough to carry the game into the realm of comedy all by itself.

I can't stop laughing at how pink everything is. That's not the color of a desert!
I can't stop laughing at how pink everything is. That's not the color of a desert!

I would seriously love to know if the team had a last-minute change of heart, or if the publisher imposed this on them in response to current trends. Did this idea come from the creative people following their passion, or from marketing people chasing successful trends? 

In any case, comedy is a much better fit for the world of Rage. The setting is too silly to support the anger-filled slaughterfest the first game established. This is a goofy world with outrageous superpowers and a cartoon villain. This setting and premise are a natural set-up for comedy and a terrible starting point for drama. Anthony Burch made a similar point about the outlandish world of Borderlands: Anyone attempting a serious story in this world is going to face an uphill battle, and anyone trying to tell jokes is going to have lots of material to work with.

Next week I’m going to begin stepping through this story and offering my advice to the current / future writers of the series.

A Bunch of Stupid Charts

For the last few months, I’ve been doing this dual-production thing where I publish my columns as a YouTube video and as a blog post. That’s sort of like making a game cross-platform by releasing it as a Steam VR title and an MS-DOS text adventure. The two mediums are so different that there are very few assets you can meaningfully reuse.

(Also, if it’s not obvious already: This post is a bunch of navel gazing. This is going to be really boring. I’ve even got graphs and charts later. I’d tell you not to bother reading this, but we both know that’s not how things work around here.)

Stuff that works well in one medium might not have a good equivalent in the other. My beloved footnotes[1] don’t have a good analogue in the video world. And of course linking to other sites is trivial in text and obnoxious / impossible[2] in a video. Likewise, video footage can convey a lot of information that would take several paragraphs to convey in text. One example is in my column on in-game economies. In the video version, I cut away to some Final Fantasy X for a humorous conversation that lampshades the economic problem I’m talking about. There was no way to capture that joke in the text version except to explain it, so it got left out.

One of the problems I’ve had in writing these things is that I can never get a good sense of how long a video is going to be before I start recording. Some scripts are under 1,000 words. Some exceed 2,500. Some have little cutaways to gameplay footage, and some are non-stop narration. I wanted a way to reliably convert words to time.

If you can't solve a problem, put it in a spreadsheet. You'll still have a problem, but now you also have a spreadsheet and those are cool!
If you can't solve a problem, put it in a spreadsheet. You'll still have a problem, but now you also have a spreadsheet and those are cool!

So I made a spreadsheet and I entered the length of every video (minus credits) and the word length of every script. This gave me a rough “words per minute” estimate to work with. My slowest video was Blizzard’s Folly, where I narrated 179 words per minute. The fastest talking was in Raytracing, where I reached 205 WPM. According to the spreadsheet, I average around 196.

If you’ve ever made a spreadsheet, then you know it’s hard to stop once you’ve started. The temptation is to keep adding data to the chart and see if the magic computer box can convert any of the information into knowledge. So that’s what I did. I got a bit carried away, and ended up fussing with the silly spreadsheet for a whole evening rather than making a post for today. So this chart dump is actually my attempt to cover my sins.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff:

Length of articles / videos in words.
Length of articles / videos in words.

This is the word length of each script. It’s not a trick of the bar graph that three of the videos seem to be the same length. Borderlands 3 and Skinner’s Box happen to be exactly 1,884 words long, and Dumbest Cutscene is 1,885. Note that this is the length of the narration script. The text post might be different due to wording changes / image captions / section headings, and other blog-only conventions.

Also, the above chart contains a spoiler for next week: The next article is about how Bethesda misunderstood the nuances of Fallout. You can see that script is pretty massive compared to the others.

Here on the blog, my favorite article size is somewhere in the 1,500 to 2,500 range. As an article exceeds 3,000, I usually start looking for ways to cut it in half and make a two-parter out of it. It’s been years since an article hit 4k on this site.

However, this video essay stuff is putting new constraints on my workflow. You really don’t want to release a single argument in the form of two 10-minute videos. Blog readers come back to the blog, but video-watchers are fickle people. The YouTube algorithm will not remind them to come back next week. Maybe you could fix this by making the text version a two-parter and the video version a single video, but… nah. That would be annoying.

Length of videos, minus credits.
Length of videos, minus credits.

Here are the lengths of the various videos. Note that the last one is a projection. I haven’t recorded the audio yet so I can’t say for sure how long it’ll be. I’ll finalize the script and record the narration later this week.

Again, the upcoming video is much longer than the others. It’ll be interesting to see if this has any impact (positive or negative) on viewership.

Number of slides per video.
Number of slides per video.

This chart is a little odd. It’s labeled as the number of “slides” in each video, but it’s more accurately a count of the number of unique files that went into it. This would include screenshots, charts, gameplay footage, and audio. I guess calling this category “assets” would be more accurate[3]. I think the bare minimum number of files to make a video would be 4: The title screen, my narration, some gameplay footage, and the end credits. That would be a very boring video, but that’s the lower limit.

The Dumbest Cutscene one had very few files because it was mostly just me talking over gameplay footage. The Domino Worldbuilding one had a lot because it was long and I had a lot of specific images rather than just letting gameplay footage roll over my narration. The Fallout one is obviously out of control. I hope people don’t get spoiled and demand that level of hand-crafted content in every video, because that’s not sustainable. Still, I’m really enjoying working on this video.

Now for the bad news:

Number of YouTube views per video.
Number of YouTube views per video.

Ugh. That is depressing. For contrast, my old Reset Button videos easily hit the 40k mark on multiple occasions. My video on megatextures – which I don’t think is particularly good by today’s standards – is just shy of half a million views. Now my videos are getting less than a tenth of what they used to.

  1. Maybe the overall quality of YouTube video essays has gone up, and now my content isn’t strong enough to capture people’s attention.
  2. Maybe this new content isn’t very good and I can’t tell because I’m too close to the project to appraise it objectively.
  3. Maybe my content is fine, but the current-day algorithm is burying my channel for reasons that nobody could hope to discern. Maybe it doesn’t like that I have ads turned off. Maybe it doesn’t like that my channel was dormant for years.
  4. Maybe YouTube really hates my ratio of view to subscriptions. I have 14K subscribers left over from the old days when my videos were far more viral. Certainly a large number of those accounts have long since gone dormant. So YouTube sees that a lot of my subscribers aren’t clicking on my content. Maybe if I’d started over with a new channel then YouTube would have thought, “Oh wow. 2K views! This newcomer is off to a great start! I should spread this around!”

I thought I was being punished for lack of engagement, but I did the usual shtick of begging for comments, subs, and thumbs up button, and it didn’t seem to change anything. I appeared on-camera at the end of the Dumbest Cutscene episode to ask for more engagement, and it doesn’t look like it made much of a difference. Or maybe it did. I guess the sample size is too small to draw any real conclusions.

So Why Are We Doing This?

As I’ve said before, the videos are part of my effort to bring in fresh traffic. The age of the gaming blog is long over, and I’m not getting links like I used to. I mean, who would link to me? Most peer sites stopped existing years ago.

Every site has some degree of churn. People change, or they get tired of your content, or they move to a new hobby, and you lose some readers. If I don’t bring in new people to replace the ones I lose, then the site will go into a death spiral.

So the goal here is to create videos that will give me a bump in readers / Patreon supporters / general name recognition. The thing is, I want to do this without sacrificing the output on the blog. If I pivot all the way to YouTube, then I’m no longer a writer, I’m a personality. I prefer writing, so anything that takes me away from the blog is a non-starter. At that point, I might as well give up and get a regular job.

More importantly, pivoting to YouTube is exactly the kind of change in priorities that killed BioWare. They spurred their longtime hard-core fans in pursuit of mass market appeal, and wound up with neither.

So I need to make popular videos. Which means making high-quality videos. Which means spending time on them. But if I spend to much time on them then I’ll hurt the blog. This is… not a fun spot to be in.

Additional notes: I shared the Dumbest Cutscene on the r/HiTMAN subreddit, and I shared the Domino Worldbuilding one on r/MassEffect. If those links gave me a boost, it didn’t rise above the level of noise in our sample.

Then again, I think self-promoting links…

“Hey, I made a thing!”

….aren’t nearly as effective as links from other people…

“Hey, some guy named Shamus made a thing!”

…so this isn’t really a useful metric. Someone on Reddit linked to my Mass Effect retrospective a few years ago, and it created a nice bump in traffic.

As an aside: I’m convinced that despite the widespread corporate obsession with social media, Reddit is the only useful platform if you’re trying to promote something. Facebook is supposedly the big dog in terms of global reach, but given the metrics I’ve seen over the years[4], it’s only good for promoting other Facebook pages. If you want people to know about your non-Facebook content, then Facebook is about as useful as MySpace. I’m seriously wondering if Facebook isn’t actually the social media equivalent of a dead man walking: It’s only popular now because it was popular a few years ago, and the next time there’s an economic contraction and businesses get picky about how they spend their marketing dollars, they’ll realize that the return on investment for Facebook is pathetic. And if that happens, the Facebook bubble would pop.</p>

I could be wrong, but that’s what it looks like from my tiny corner of the internet.

Anyway. The battle to keep this old-school gaming blog relevant continues. Maybe I’ll hemorrhage readers and this place will fold in the next few years, but I’m obstinate and I want to keep this hustle going for as long as I can.

I do enjoy making the videos and Issac enjoys editing them. They’re not really worth it in terms of time investment. They make no money and they bring in almost nothing in the way of traffic. But there’s always the chance that the planets will align and one of them will go viral. Issac and I agreed we should give it a few more months and see if the show grows.

Diecast #287: Endings, AI, and Mailbag

Hosts: Paul, Shamus. Episode edited by Issac.

Show notes:
00:00 Game of Thrones, Marvel, and Star Wars all Ended Last Year

The other thing that changed after Avengers Endgame is I sorta lost interest in the theater. It’s expensive, I have to plan my day around showtimes, I can’t pause, the only food is terrible and massively overpriced. The audio is usually way too high and massively bass boosted so that explosions are painful and dialog can be hard to parse. I can’t turn on subtitles if a character mumbles too much. I can’t rewind if I miss a line of dialog. The seats aren’t as nice as the one I have at home, I’m in a room full of strangers, and sometimes I end up with my view obscured by tall people.

The “big screen experience” is nice, but I don’t think it’s nice enough to offset all those other downsides. I went to the theater for Marvel movies because I couldn’t wait to see them and I didn’t want to spend six months dodging conversations to avoid spoilers. But now I just don’t care that much.

This is the kind of shift you’d expect to happen over time, but for me it was like someone flipped a switch as I exited the theater after Endgame. I can’t imagine anything that would make me go back.

02:21 Ideas for Survive the Hunt

I wrote about this in detail last week. Here’s a sample episode.

16:03 “The Age of A.I.”

Here’s the first episode:

Link (YouTube)

It turns out I was mistaken. I claimed that this DeepFake of Dirty Harry where Clint Eastwood was replaced with Schwarzenegger also used machine learning to replace the voice. But looking at the credits, I see it was just a human impressionist. Still, faking voices is a thing! Here’s a link to a demonstration.

38:44 Mailbag: GDELB

Dear Shamus and Paul,

what are your opinions on Game Developers Essentials Lessons Book, or GDELB for short? If you’re not aware, GDELB is a series (well, it’s 2 videos at the moment, but the creator has confirmed a third one is in the works) that playfully pokes fun at certain mannerisms and habits exhibited by video game essayists such as Joseph Anderson, Mark Brown, and Downward Thrust. They’re crammed full of references, so they can be hard to follow, but it’s amazing to watch if you’re familiar with the source material.



Here is the first episode of GDELB.

Also, the channel I was trying to remember is zefrank.

44:30 Shake Hands with Beef

Hi Diecast,

I just learned about beef, a new gamedev-oriented language developed by one of the co-founders of PopCap games. (HackerNews discussion thread)

I don’t do much programming anymore, but I was wondering what you think about how this compares to Jai?

Keep up the ranting,

53:50 Mailbag: Best run of AGDQ?

Dear Diecast,

Shamus always mentions watching GamesDoneQuick each time it’s on. Usually I don’t have time to really get invested in the events due to time differences and schedule. This year is different and I’ve been trying to watch the speedruns that really interest me like the Fallout Anthology run, Ocarina of Time (NoSource) Manifold Garden and GTA:San Andreas.

So, the $1,000,000 question: What has been your favourite run this ADGQ?

All the best and Happy New Year,

This was my favorite, but I’d like to hear everyone else’s.

56:23 Mailbag: Tie-in Games

Dear diecasters,
It occurred to me that the amount of (horrible) tie-in games being released sank quite a bit in the last years.
Any idea why that is the case?
Furthermore do you know of any tie-in games, which were okay or fun?

For clarification: I would define a tie-in game as a game that was created and released to coincide with the release of a movie or somesuch. This does not include games which are part of a universe but are their own thing.

Greetings from Austria,

1:02:52 Mailbag: What is this Genre?

Dear Diecast,

Do you happen to know what the genre of games that includes Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Mount & Blade is called? I’m talking about games where the player is turned loose in a world full of competing factions and left to make his way as best he can by fighting or trading. I don’t know what to call them and it’s bothering me. Is there a commonly agreed upon name for the genre? I need to know how to tag them in my games library. I’m calling them “Other” at the moment it looks a little pathetic. (See attached screenshot.) Help!



1:06:41 Mailbag: CP2077 Delay


You’ve probably already heard about another CP2077 delay (is it a fourth delay? Not sure). Do either of you have a bad feeling about the game or you’re confident that CD Projekt Red will prevail with the style? After reading about GlassDoor leaks from former members, and pondering on the long development cycle (from 2012 no less) with three or so restarts, I can’t help but expect Frankenstein of a game, not unlike Thi4f. And that’s a very painful comparison for me. And I can’t really find examples of games with 8 years of development, that turned out good and/or playable (Duke Nukem Forever, STALKER, Mass Effect Andromeda and such).

Best regards, DeadlyDark

Achilles and the Grognard: Biowarification

Achilles: I finally put my finger on something about how this game feels.

The Grognard: How’s that?

Achilles: This game feels more familiar. Like it’s part of a genre I recognize, instead of something from before my time.

The Grognard: Is there anything specific that makes you feel that?

Achilles: Well, for one thing, I can finally bang some of these people.

Sometimes, Aerie starts sashaying her hips at you after just a couple hours of gameplay.
Sometimes, Aerie starts sashaying her hips at you after just a couple hours of gameplay.

The Grognard: A Bioware signature. Of all developers, I feel they’re the ones to most effectively monetize the horniness of your average consumer. As far as I know, these were pretty much the first examples of involved NPC romances. So, who are you going with? Aerie? Jaheira? Viconia, even?

Achilles: I don’t have to choose yet. I’m keeping my options open. Top Hat Guy is still bitter that he never got to shoot his shot with Dynaheir in the last game. And then there are all these new people too.

The Grognard: New people?

Achilles: Like Neera, Dorn, and Rasaad. These extremely conspicuous ones. I haven’t mentioned them yet, but I’m going to take a wild guess: these are the companions added in the “enhanced edition” version of the game.

The Grognard: They are. They’re characters designed in a later era – more involved quests, more dialogue, and more voice acting. The last of those is particularly noticeable. You don’t seem to care for these new characters, though.

Neera - wild mage and unfortunate object of desire for the Red Wizards of Thay.
Neera - wild mage and unfortunate object of desire for the Red Wizards of Thay.

Achilles: They’re not bad or anything. They’d work fine in their own game. They just stick out here. Look, you’re going to be proud of me: only two games in, and I’ve already generated my own, home-grown, old-fart, stick-in-the-mud opinion about RPGs and how they used to be better.

The Grognard: I knew this day would come. Let the hate and anger flow through you. They will make you strong.

Achilles: They’re all voice-acted now, right? I mean, fully voice-acted dialogue is expected nowadays.

The Grognard: For the most part, yes.

Achilles: Honestly, if I were a writer, I’m not sure I’d want that. You’d think it would just make my job harder. Now the company has to factor in the expense of getting actors into a studio into their bottom line, and you just know they’re going to chisel that out of the writing budget. Plus, late rewrites are out. Writing “just for fun” dialogue is out. And stuff like that, if I had to guess, is part of where the magic happens.

From the first game. Periodically one-off NPCs will wander up to you and start talking in what I call 'Forgotten Realms-ese,' which is reliably entertaining to read.
From the first game. Periodically one-off NPCs will wander up to you and start talking in what I call 'Forgotten Realms-ese,' which is reliably entertaining to read.

The Grognard: My friend, you have wandered directly onto the saddle of one of my favorite hobby-horses. Fully voiced dialogue is the development pipeline equivalent of a trap build. The budgeting equivalent of a low-INT wizard. I wish it wasn’t the industry standard.

Achilles: Now you’ve gone and gone too far. It’s not always bad. Think of characters like Garrus, or Mordin [1]. The way those guys talked, the way they performed their lines, added something to the characters.

The Grognard: True – yes, voice actors can add to a character. But they don’t need to be fully voiced to do it. Think of David Warner as Jon Irenicus. Not fully voiced, but memorable. Admit it, you can hear his voice in your head right now.

Achilles: So what would you do instead? Have developers go back to the old way, and have their lunches eaten by teams who realize it’s not 2006 anymore?

The Grognard: Honestly? I wouldn’t mind. I’ve never been able to muster up that much investment in whether games make money or not. As far as I’m concerned, for a developer to make money is a means to an end, not an end in itself. My favorite RPGs recently have included the Pillars of Eternity series, which is not exactly some AAA powerhouse, and Disco Elysium, maybe the most interesting RPG in years.

Link (YouTube)

The Grognard: Watch how much “unnecessary” dialogue is in that bit of gameplay. Then remember that “unnecessary” dialogue is usually anything but – it creates vibe, atmosphere, themes, character development, and foreshadowing. The things that lurk underneath a setting and make it seem real. How often is a game prepared to ramble the way that one does?

Achilles: Yeah, but making games takes money, and the more money you make the more money they’ll give you on the next go-round. This avant-garde stuff is like a luxury item. Be glad it’s there, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

The Grognard: Are we sure of that? I can’t tell with Disco Elysium because Steam doesn’t release sales numbers, but if I had to guess I would guess that it made back its money and then some.

Achilles: There’s money and there’s money. It’s an indie game. In a perfect world, maybe indie games have AAA budgets, but that’s not the world we live in so far.

The Grognard: But the world we live in now is designed by people who overestimate their own ability to predict what will and won’t make money, and who give undue importance to profitability. I want to show you something:

In the southeast corner of the theatre map in the slums.
In the southeast corner of the theatre map in the slums.

The Grognard: This is a backroom of a theatre company, where they store props. You can see that there’s a tiny little ship, and a tiny little castle, and other props that you might use when putting on a play.

Achilles: So?

The Grognard: There’s no quest here. There are no NPCs or mobs here. It’s just a back room, with nothing in it. And yet they put so much care into the art, art which I believe is unique and not seen anywhere else in the game. Once upon a time, they made games like this, and they were not only profitable, they were hits – ones that commercial reputations were built from.

Achilles: You’re taking too much credit away from modern games. There are bits of soul in them too, like Elcor Hamlet or Krogan Macbeth. Fully voiced, too! It’s not impossible.

The Grognard: Not impossible, no, but harder. To me, the goal of the business end of game development is to support the creative end, not the other way round.

Achilles: Look, I see where you’re coming from. I just wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Grognard: You have no way of stopping me! This Biowarification of games contains the seeds of our doom!

Achilles: Look, I just worry about you, okay? Anyway, next time we’ll talk about the game’s combat, some of the best in the genre.

Dénouement 2019 Part 5: The Best Stuff

The usual disclaimer applies: Don’t read too much into the order of these games. I tried to sort them from best to extra-best, but such ordering is inherently arbitrary. Don’t hold me to this. Maybe five years from now I’ll still be talking about and playing the #5 game, and I’ll have forgotten the #1. I do what I can, but putting games into a specific order is silly.

Anyway, let’s get on with it…

#3 Satisfactory

Explore strange new worlds. Seek out new life. COVER EVERYTHING IN CONCRETE AND BUILD A FACTORY ON IT.
Explore strange new worlds. Seek out new life. COVER EVERYTHING IN CONCRETE AND BUILD A FACTORY ON IT.

If we were to order games by how much time they ate up[1] then Satisfactory would easily claim my top spot. You might remember that Factorio took my #1 spot back in 2016. This game scratched that same itch, and it scratched it for weeks before I finally lost interest.

Like Factorio, you build machines to harvest raw materials and use conveyors to carry those materials to machines where they are made into more machines that you can then use to expand your nature-devouring industrial complex. The difference is that Satisfactory is played from a first-person perspective. Here you’re trading a bit of raw complexity for more immersion. Satisfactory isn’t nearly as deep as Factorio, but there’s something to be said for having the freedom to climb a tower and look out over your vast industrial crime with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

I see you in the background, trees. Don't worry. You'll get yours soon.
I see you in the background, trees. Don't worry. You'll get yours soon.

The game is still in Early Access and right now the balance and progression are a bit odd[2], the controls need more polish[3], and the building interface is a bit wonky[4].  If you were obsessed with Factorio then you probably own this already. If not, then you should probably give this one a little more time. It’s good now, but it’ll probably be a lot better in a few months.

#2 Control

A high-security containment cell for... a dentist's chair? I'll bet there's a case file around here that explains this.
A high-security containment cell for... a dentist's chair? I'll bet there's a case file around here that explains this.

The SCP Foundation[5] is fictional government organization focused on protecting the world from paranormal threats. It’s basically the FBI, but for ghosts, telekinesis, dimensional rifts, haunted items, Old Gods, demonic spooks, and other assorted supernatural troublemakers.

The community maintains the SCP Foundation through a wiki featuring short fiction pieces presented as agency case files.

A lot of people rolled their eyes at Control, saying, “Pfft. It’s just SCP Foundation, The Video Game. It’s not an original idea.”

I just don’t get this line of thinking. We’ve had an uncountable number of games about soldiers, mercenaries, space marines, ex-cops, and adventurers. This is the first game where we get to play as the Spook Police, and the fact that the premise comes from another medium doesn’t reduce the novelty of this game.

I gotta say, the possessed people that levitated and chanted together were really creepy.
I gotta say, the possessed people that levitated and chanted together were really creepy.

Maybe you’re wondering what this game is doing so high on my end-of-year list. Didn’t I spend three weeks bitching about it earlier this year? It’s true that the combat got on my nerves, the self-unbalancing difficulty was obnoxious, and the constant firefights got in the way of the cool haunted house atmosphere. This would have been a better game if the combat had been less frequent, but it was still a really good game.

The environment designs were spectacular, the worldbuilding was top notch, and Dr. Caspar Darling’s expositional videos were made of pure charm.

#1 Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order EA™

The proper title ought to be STAR Fallen Order WARS.
The proper title ought to be STAR Fallen Order WARS.

To talk about this game, we need to talk about Dark Souls.

I love the idea of Dark Souls. I love the atmosphere. I love the way it tells a story through the world. I love perfectible combat systems based on timing and pattern recognition. I love games where foes seem insurmountable at first and gradually become trivial not because you leveled up and got a better gun, but because you mastered the game’s systems. I love the environments, the isolation, and the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, I can’t stand the harsh punishments the game deals out when you fail. It’s harsh enough to be a complete deal breaker for me.

I hate when you die to a new foe and you have to traverse several minutes of traps and trash mobs to get back to where you were so you can have another go at them. It makes my blood boil. It’s bad for my health, bad for the people who live with me who don’t like the shouting, and bad for my budget because controllers are expensive. Yes, I’m aware that it feels really good to master a foe and ace a fight that used to give you so much trouble. I love that feeling too, which is why I love Batman so much. The problem isn’t the task itself, it’s the impediment to practicing.

Yes. This is EXACTLY what a Star Wars game should look like. Only Star Wars can make a trash planet look this cool.
Yes. This is EXACTLY what a Star Wars game should look like. Only Star Wars can make a trash planet look this cool.

In the past I’ve described it as trying to learn to play the piano, except when you flub a note you have to go outside and dribble a basketball for two minutes. This slows down the learning process. The punishment for failure is that the game designer will devour a couple of minutes of your actual life before they allow you to tackle the task again. Worse, that extra gap between attempts makes it more likely I’ll repeat the same mistakes. When I mess up, I want to try again as quickly as possible. This time penalty isn’t just frustrating to me, it’s offensive.

Yes, yes. I know. It’s all part of the tone. It’s built into the lore of the world. It’s a required part of the experience. This is how the game designer wants you to feel. It’s all about perseverance. And so on. I’ve heard it all before. And fine. Those things are all probably true. But I still hate it and it still makes me miserable. I’m not saying Dark Souls needs to be changed to suit my tastes, I’m just telling you why I can’t play the damn thing.

Star Wars Colon Jedi Colon Fallen Order EA Trademark Symbol manages to keep things just barely within my tolerance for punishment. There were a few moments in this game that really set me off and resulted in a lot of shouting and teeth-grinding. In particular, it really sucked during my first play-through when I’d run into the randomly-spawning boss mercenaries, get steamrolled, and realized I had an epic ten-minute hike back to where I died, only to discover the bosses were gone and I couldn’t do the fight again.

Whew. I can feel the adrenaline rising up just thinking about it.

This isn't concept art. This is a real screenshot. The visual design in this game is amazing.
This isn't concept art. This is a real screenshot. The visual design in this game is amazing.

The first playthrough was really frustrating, but once I got the timing down I really loved playing the game. It felt really good when I met up with the requisite masked Sith nemesis on my second playthrough. The first time I fought her, she wiped the floor with me a half dozen times before I beat her. In the second game, she barely touched my health bar and I cleaned her clock.

(And then a cutscene negated my skill and I lost the fight anyway by writer fiat, because demanding combat and fixed character-driven narratives are fundamentally incompatible. But I’ll talk more about that in my inevitable retrospective.)

The more I played this game, the more I liked it. The story wasn’t anything special, but it was a nice sampler from the big box of established Star Wars tropes.

I realize this all sounds mostly negative, and maybe you’re wondering why I gave this game my top spot. The thing is:

  1. I’ve been waiting since 2011 for something else to scratch that Batman itch of perfectible combat.
  2. I’ve been waiting since 2002 or 2003-ish for a decent Star Wars game.

It’s been a long wait, and finally one game managed to fulfill both of those needs. I’m willing to overlook a lot of other problems with Fallen Order because it delivers on these two key ingredients.

I had to stop myself from starting a third playthrough because I needed to get started on this end-of-year writeup. Sure, the protagonist is muted. The story plays things comically safe. The ending whiffs on pathos and instead goes for cheap fanservice. The level design is obnoxious. The comic relief character is only mildly amusing. But still.

She might not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts. 

Since we’re wrapping up the decade[6], allow me to award the first-ever Twenty Sided…

Game of the Decade: Minecraft

I think I'm finally burned out on this game. Oh wait there's a new modpack that I've never tried before.
I think I'm finally burned out on this game. Oh wait there's a new modpack that I've never tried before.

I began the decade playing minecraft, and I ended the decade playing Minecraft. I played vanilla Minecraft. I played modded Minecraft. I played popular mods like Technic, Feed the Beast, and Skyblocks, and I played various obscure modpacks. I played modpacks I made myself. I played the original Java Edition. I played the ultra-fast but mod-proof Bedrock Edition.

I built castles, houses, vast underground chambers, sprawling factories, villages, and cities. I lived on the surface, I lived deep underground, I lived as a nomad, and I lived on mountaintops. I tried magic mods, industrial mods, RPG mods, survival mods, farming / cooking mods, and mods where you create and explore your own dimensions like the characters in the Myst series.

I didn't give a Game of the Decade for the aughts, but I guess it would have to be World of Warcraft. That game caused a shift in the industry that we're still feeling today. The amount of money wasted on misbegotten WoW clones is appalling.
I didn't give a Game of the Decade for the aughts, but I guess it would have to be World of Warcraft. That game caused a shift in the industry that we're still feeling today. The amount of money wasted on misbegotten WoW clones is appalling.

I played with texture packs, special shaders, and even with raytracing. I played in creative mode, I played in survival mode, and I played in mods where you play in survival long enough to earn all the powers of creative mode.

I played alone, I played on a LAN with my kids, and I played on a public server with the Twenty Sided community.

And yet, in all that time I barely scratched the surface of all the things you can do in Minecraft. I played only a fraction of the mods. I never tried adventure mode. I never did any PvP. I never tried any of the various absurdist challenge modes. In fact – and I’m not making this upI’ve never personally beaten the game.  I’ve never visited The End dimension, never fought the dragon, never saw the closing credits.

Minecraft isn’t just a good video game, it’s THE video game. For me it has supplanted Pong / Pac-Man as the universally recognizable symbol of the hobby.

Looking Forward…

So that’s it for 2019. Here are the games I’m looking forward to in 2020. These thoughts aren’t important now. I’m just writing these things here so I can refer back to them in 11 months.

Cyberpunk 2077

The anticipation is sky high on this one. The game is still months away and already everyone is expecting that this will be their GOTY. I’m predicting that once this thing hits the shelves, we’ll get a kind of Skyrim-style backlash where people who aren’t playing the game will get sick to death of hearing about it.

Can CD Projekt RED live up to this hype? I don’t know, but I’m more than willing to give them $60 to find out.

Flight Simulator 2020

A flight simulator that will use real-world satellite data to populate the surface of the earth? Sign me up.

Then again, this is Microsoft we’re talking about. Their efforts in the PC gaming scene have been so bad that incompetence seems like an insufficient explanation. I want to believe that they’re sabotaging PC gaming on purpose for some reason, because I just can’t believe that anyone could be this horrendously terrible.

I guess we’ll find out.

Watch Dogs Legion

I know I’m usually pretty hard on Ubisoft for Uplay and their idiotic devotion to DRM. I dislike the way their open-world collect-a-thon design will take 4 hours of good content and smear it out over 20 hours of gameworld. I hate the way they keep dancing around the edge of political topics for cheap headlines but refusing to actually DO anything with those ideas, thereby making their worlds feel sort of empty and gutless. Like… I don’t particularly need you to take a stance on a controversial topic, but if you’ve got the audacity to bring up something inflammatory during my gaming funtimes, then you don’t get to cravenly slink away and pretend like you never said anything. Piss or get off the pot, you annoying soulless troll.

But damn it  – Legion looks really interesting. It’s an open world game where you form a resistance group to smash the state or whatever and something something Brexit. The hook is that there is no main character. You can recruit random civilians off the streets, and any of them can die in the line of duty. Build your own goon squad! Play as an unassuming rebel granny assassin!

I don’t want to wait for reviews. I need to see this for myself.

System Shock Remake

Supposedly this will come out this year, more than two years past the original promised delivery date. It’s been a long road for this game. The demo released in December did not inspire confidence. It looks right. It feels right. But can they get the content done and polished before they ship it? I have no idea.

Kerbal Space Program 2

Will this have the same magic as the original? It’s made by a different team, and there’s no guarantee a new team will be able to recapture the gleeful fun of rapid unscheduled disassembly. Still, the promise of new Kerbal content is really exciting. I’m looking forward to putting these hapless green bastards into space again.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2

And now I feel bad for giving the Jedi game a hard time about its multi-part name. I saw the preview for this at E3 2019, and it looked really good.

The Firmament

The Firmament is a new game from the Cyan, of Myst fame. Their most recent game was Obduction, which I loved until the merciless loading screens drove me away. Even so, I’m always on board for what this team is doing.

Doom Eternal

Wait, wasn’t this supposed to come out this year? Oh, it was delayed to March 2020? Well, I hope the game has really strong initial sales, because it arrives about three weeks before Cyberpunk 2077. Once Cyberpunk hits the shelves, I expect the world is going to stop caring about Doom. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the last Doom game. But the first few months of 2020 are going to be completely and utterly gonzo crazy, and a lot of games are going to be fighting for second place on the sales charts. I’m pretty sure Bloodlines 2 was delayed specifically because it was scheduled for March, and there’s just too much stuff coming out at that point. Same goes for Watch Dogs Legion, which was also scheduled for March 2020.

Half-Life: Alyx

I don’t have a VR headset so I’m not going to get to play this, but I’ll be glad to see Valve return to their roots. Even if I don’t play it personally, I’ll feel good if the game gets good reviews.

See You Again in 11 Months!

That’s what I’m looking forward to in 2020. At the end of the year I’ll come back to this list and we’ll see how it all turned out.

Here’s hoping 2020 is better than 2019.

Domino Worldbuilding and the Brilliance of Mass Effect

If you’ve spent any time reading my work or watching my videos, then you know I tend to be kind of negative. So I want to change things up this week by talking about something I love. The problem is that I don’t really have a good word for this thing. So I’m going to do what all pretentious and self-important critics do, and make up my own term. And then I’ll explain what it means, why I love it, and why I think the first Mass Effect game is one of the most interesting fictional worlds I’ve ever visited.

To explain what makes Mass Effect so interesting to me, let’s talk about how other game worlds are developed. Different writers have different approaches to creating their fictional worlds, but the overwhelming majority of them are built in a needs-first kind of way.

Link (YouTube)

The writer thinks to themselves, “I need the hero to go on a quest for a magic sword to defeat the bad guy who lives in a hellish wasteland.” They start with that premise as the base and they only add details when they need to.

Then a self-important critic like me will come along and start asking annoying questions like:

  • Why do the bad guys want to take over the world?
  • How do they obtain supplies in a lifeless wasteland?
  • Why are the heroes the only people doing something about them?
  • Where did the sword come from?

“Don’t worry about it”, the author tells you. “The bad guy is just evil. He doesn’t need supplies because he has magic. The good guys have to do the fighting because of destiny or something. The sword was made by the gods or whatever. Stop over-thinking it. We’re here for an adventure, not to learn a bunch of made-up history and geography.”

And that’s fine. It’s totally reasonable to make a world that focuses on characters and leaves all the background details vague. In fact, if you’re making something like a movie or a TV show then you’re probably dealing with some severe time constraints. You can’t burn ten whole minutes of screen time explaining the history of the world to the audience. I mean, sometimes you can get away with it, but it definitely goes against modern movie making sensibilities. You usually need to introduce the characters and cut to the action as quickly as possible.

In The Fifth Element, we don’t need to worry about what makes Fhloston Paradise such a unique planet. We don’t need to know about its economics, or leadership. The screenwriter doesn’t tell us how the planet was settled or who lives there. The filmmaker shows us some really obvious Polynesiann imagery when we arrive and the audience immediately gets the idea, “Oh okay. This planet is space-Hawaii. I get it.”

This is a perfectly valid way to tell stories, but for me it’s not the most interesting way to build a world.

A World of Consequences

If your story has a flashback, that scene would be connected by, 'Hang on, I forgot to mention...'
If your story has a flashback, that scene would be connected by, 'Hang on, I forgot to mention...'

On YouTube you can find a talk from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone where they explain how they construct their stories. The first advice they give is to avoid writing stories where scenes or plot points would be connected by the words “and then”. Instead, your story beats should be connected by the words “and therefore”. That makes each scene a consequence of the previous scene. The other option is to have the points connected by the word “however”, which takes the audience through an unexpected turn.

Parker and Stone were talking about how to construct a story, but their advice could just as easily be applied to coming up with a setting and building worlds. That’s what backstory is. It’s the story that took place before your story.

And with that, I want to tell you about the backstory of…

Mass Effect

I really loved Kirahee before he was Flanderized into the line-holding guy.
I really loved Kirahee before he was Flanderized into the line-holding guy.

There’s this race of tadpole looking dudes called the Salarians. They’re really smart but they don’t live very long, which means they’re really good at coming up with brilliant short term solutions to serious problems.

There are these huge machines called mass effect relays. At this point in the story, nobody knows who built them or how they work. Their origins are part of the ongoing mystery of the setting. These relays allow instant travel all around the galaxy. The thing is, relays are initially deactivated. You can turn it on to connect your current location to a new, unknown star system somewhere else in the galaxy, but there’s no way to turn it off again. It’s like opening a door you’ll never be able to close. The Salarians are inventive and naturally curious, so they fly around the galaxy opening up relays to see what’s on the other side.

Therefore, they stumble on the home planet of beings called the Rachni. The Rachni are space bugs that communicate through some form of telepathy, so there’s no way for the Rachni and Salarians to talk to each other. It’s not even clear that the Rachni understand or care that Salarians represent an intelligent species. Therefore the Rachni pour through the now-open relay and begin spreading through the rest of the galaxy, wiping out anyone they find.

The galaxy fights back, but the Rachni are like space cockroaches. It’s really hard to kill them, and even if you do there’s always more.

However, there’s another race that the Salarians have discovered in their exploring. These guys are called the Krogan. Their homeworld is a hellhole filled with building-sized apex predators. The Krogan have thus evolved to be really tough and aggressive. Their females lay 1,000 eggs in a single clutch, they grow up quickly, they have super tough skin, they’re really strong, and they’re not afraid of anything. They have some industrial technology, but they’re not a spacefaring species. Their technology development has stagnated due to their constant infighting.

An invasive species of near-invincible space-turtles will fix everything!
An invasive species of near-invincible space-turtles will fix everything!

Therefore, the Salarians give the Krogans some spaceships and zap guns in exchange for help with the Rachni. The Krogan love this job, since this is a chance to enjoy war on a grander scale than ever before. [Therefore] They wipe out the Rachni, and [therefore] as a reward for saving the galaxy, the Council races grant them some planets to colonize.

[therefore] After the war ends, the Council makes a new rule: Nobody is allowed to open new mass effect relays, just in case there’s another Rachni-like species hiding behind one of these doors.

So we have peace, right? It seems like we ought to have peace at this point, however… the Krogan are prolific breeders. Outside of the horrific conditions of their homeworld, there’s nothing keeping their numbers in check. Therefore their population explodes. Pretty soon they run out of space to live. They’re overcrowded and they’re pretty much born with itchy trigger fingers, so war is inevitable. [therefore] They attack the other races to claim more space.

Once again, the Salarians solve today’s problems by creating tomorrow’s problems. They come up with the Genophage – a disease that will infect the Krogan and inhibit their ability to breed. They want to use it as a deterrent. They figure maybe they can threaten the Krogan into backing down.

No caption required.
No caption required.

However, one of the other Council races isn’t nearly so shy about using biological weapons on a planetary scale. The Turians are militaristic and disciplined. They also have a strong bureaucratic streak. They’re less interested in haggling for peace and more interested in gaining the upper hand in a military sense.

So [therefore] the Turians use the weapon, Krogan birth rates fall, and the war sputters out as attrition finally takes its toll on the Krogan population.

Things are peaceful until Humanity shows up. Humans build their first spacefaring ships and begin exploring the mass relay network with no idea of who they’re going to encounter. They don’t know anything about the Council or the law prohibiting opening new relays. Therefore they’re not shy about opening the first relay they find. The Turians find the Humans in the middle of opening a new relay and decide to stop them. A battle ensues. Humans do really well considering their status as newcomers, but they’re totally outmatched by the superior technology, fleets, and experience of the Turians. Eventually the misunderstanding is cleared up and humanity joins the galactic community, but [therefore] the battle leaves a lot of hard feelings all around.

All of that – everything I just told you – is just the backstory to Mass Effect. That’s what happens before the start of the game. What I love about it is that this is a series of consequences. All of that stuff happened for a reason. Galactic history was shaped by both the technology used and the personalities of the races involved, and each event was a consequence of the things before it.

I call this style of worldbuilding…

Domino Worldbuilding

Next we get to fight about which games use this type of worldbuilding and which don't. WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE, HUH SHAMUS?
Next we get to fight about which games use this type of worldbuilding and which don't. WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE, HUH SHAMUS?

Looking back, you can see that a lot of it was sort of inevitable. The Salarians were bound to run into the Rachni eventually, and that would lead inevitably to war, which would lead to the prohibition against opening new relays, which led to the violent first contact between Humans and Turians.

People made mistakes, sure. But everyone involved made decisions that were understandable based on who they were and what they knew at the time. Nobody had to be cartoonishly evil or painfully stupid to make this story happen. Yes, the Krogan and Rachni were incredibly destructive, but their actions are still understandable from a species and character standpoint. And just to be clear, sometimes it’s fine to have cartoon evil bad guys and idiotic blunders in your story. It depends on the tone of the story you’re trying to tell. I just really appreciate it when the storyteller takes the high road and makes something more nuanced.

More importantly, this history isn’t just background flavor. This stuff is all directly related to the events of the game. Your crewmate Ashley is dealing with some family-name guilt for how her grandfather acted during the first contact war with the Turians. Your buddy Wrex is wise enough to see that his people are dying out due to the Genophage and he’s trying to come up with a way to change that. Kaiden was deeply affected by the prejudice and abuse that humanity suffered at the hands of the Turians. The start of the game deals with an attack on a Human colony, which is part of Humanity’s ongoing struggle to expand geographically and politically and carve out their own place in the galaxy. Everyone is a product of the environment they grew up in, and everyone’s thinking – good or bad – is shaped by the events of the past. You don’t need to sit through all that exposition and read all those codex entries if you don’t care, but those details are there if you want them and that additional understanding can make the world richer and more interesting.

Yes, those are the Protheans in the upper left. Yes, I know the Mass Effect 3 writer claimed otherwise. The two games disagree, and I'm siding with Mass Effect 1.
Yes, those are the Protheans in the upper left. Yes, I know the Mass Effect 3 writer claimed otherwise. The two games disagree, and I'm siding with Mass Effect 1.

And despite all this depth, I actually skipped over a ton of details. I left out the important histories of the Protheans and the Asari. I also skipped over the stories of the Volus, Elcor, Quarians, Hanar, and Geth. There’s so much here and it’s all really good, but I think you get the idea.

The setting of Mass Effect is a masterwork of worldbuilding. It’s inventive, incredibly ambitious, beautifully detailed, and filled with interesting moral conundrums that resist simplistic good / evil binary analysis and instead forces you to really think about the people involved. This gives the setting an incredible level of verisimilitude. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, and we don’t get nearly enough of this sort of thing in video games.

So why does this matter? What makes Domino Worldbuilding better than just leaving things vague? As it happens, I have a numbered list that will answer that question:

A Numbered List

5. Because I really like it.
5. Because I really like it.

First off…

1. Games can (and should) have more details than movies.

We often compare games to movies because both are visual mediums, but in terms of plot density and story length, games are actually a lot closer to books.

Even short linear shooters take somewhere in the ballpark of five hours to finish. This means the shortest AAA games are longer than even the longest Hollywood blockbusters. And those are just shooters! Your average RPG is probably something in the neighborhood of 40 hours long. That’s enough time to watch the extended editions of all three Lord of the Rings movies, back-to-back… three times in a row. And you’ll still have enough time left over for the double-feature of Avengers Infinity War and Avengers Endgame. Plus a random episode of Star Trek!

Since Games are so much longer than movies, the writer isn’t under such severe time pressure. Sure, they can do everything the brute-force way and turn the game into a movie with lots of cutscenes, but the author also has a lot of other tools to communicate setting details to the player. There are player-directed expositional dialogs, ambient NPC chatter, radio chatter exposition, and lore items like books, codex entries, and datapads.

The point is that there are lots of ways to passively communicate setting or plot details to the player and plenty of time to do it in.

2. It’s useful for avoiding plot holes.

The audience is going to spend more time thinking about and questioning your world. You know how some movies make sense at first, but then after the movie is over you’re getting something out of the fridge and you suddenly think, “Hang on, if Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s a real space ranger and not a toy, then why does he act like a toy when humans are around?” This phenomenon is called Fridge Logic because it doesn’t hurt the movie while you’re watching it. It doesn’t bother you until later.

The problem is that in games, players spend a lot more time with your story. You usually don’t plow through an entire game in one sitting. They’re going to take breaks to eat and sleep and maybe go to some sort of job. Which means there are a lot more chances for the player to reflect and discover a fault that would have gone unnoticed in a two-hour movie.

Making your setting a series of consequences will force you to think things out ahead of time, which makes it less likely that you’ll create confusion or immersion-breaking inconsistencies.

3. It makes things easier on future teams.

We live in a world where endless sequels are the norm. Maybe you’re fine with that or maybe that bothers you, but that’s how the entertainment business works these days. Any halfway successful game is going to have a sequel, whether it needs one or not.

More importantly, why hasn't anyone come up with a coherent meta-narrative in the 13 years since the original game?!
More importantly, why hasn't anyone come up with a coherent meta-narrative in the 13 years since the original game?!

Since sequels are inevitable, it would be really smart if the initial designer would create some sort of framework. Putting in the effort to establish a coherent setting makes the world more interesting now, and it also makes things easier when another writer takes over later. If you can establish a clear set of events, characters, rules, and get a firm grasp of the tone, then it can act as a guide for future writers so the setting doesn’t immediately fall apart into a meandering pile of retcons and plot holes with no coherent theme. It means the story can feel intentional instead of feeling like a disjointed mess because nothing was planned out and the team had to make things up as they went[1].

4. Makes the setting more real.

The most important reason to use a domino approach to building your world is because it gives the setting a sense of verisimilitude. It feels more real.

In our world, Hitler didn’t rise to power because the story of planet Earth needed a bad guy. He rose to power because of the many interactions and consequences that preceded him. We’re used to living in a complex world, and having a similar level of complexity in our fictional worlds can make it easier for us to immerse ourselves in them.

So that’s what made the first Mass Effect game special. I don’t know why more games aren’t designed this way. Now that so many franchises are embracing the 40-hour open world collect-a-thon grindfest template, it would be really nice if we could spend some of that time discovering a rich world with a complex and well-thought-out history.

Barring that, it would be great if some of our gameworlds could be a little less lazy, boring, or aggressively stupid.

EDIT: In the video and the text above, I had “lazy” refer to Fallout 4 and “aggressively stupid” refer to Rage 2. This is 100% backwards. Rage 2 is a lazy world with little effort put into the setting. Fallout 4 is a big pile drooling nonsense that conflicts with itself, other Fallout games, and common sense.