I took a risk on Splatoon 2. Multiplayer shooters are not, generally, something I enjoy, and I'd never played the first game. Also, it's a weird concept: squid paintball? This is Nintendo's new franchise?
It turns out, yes, Splatoon is pretty great. It hits that sweet spot between the neon pop aesthetics of Jet Set Radio and the swift lethality of Quake 3, like a golden-age Dreamcast game decanted onto modern hardware (thankfully, without Sega's torture controller). And yet I'm surprised that there doesn't seem to be a lot of discussion of the game's central design mechanic, which is odd (but maybe common now that streaming has taken over from blogging).
Splatoon is not technically a first-person shooter, but it plays much like one. A typical FPS is about navigation and control of space, although the precise application of this depends on a number of other design decisions: switching from respawning power-ups to hero abilities, for example, emphasizes strategic position over an optimal path. Regardless, like many video games, play is less about the literal violence onscreen and more about range, line of sight, and predicting (or manipulating) the opponent's movement. You very much see this in the 2016 Doom reboot, where monster speed is actually quite low, and all the mechanics encourage players to rapidly pinball from one to the next in a chain of glory kills.
What Splatoon does is take all this implicit negotiation over space and make it explicit, by letting players alter the "distance" of the map with ink. All weapons in the game inflict damage, but they also paint the floor and walls with your team's color. Areas belonging to the other team damage you and slow down movement, while you can get a speed boost in your own color by swimming through the ink with the left trigger. In the primary game mode, you don't win by damaging the other team, although that helps. Instead, the winning team is the one that covered more of the stage floor when the timer sounds.
The paint mechanic is simple, but a lot of really interesting strategy falls out of it:
Since players are effectively redefining space within the geometry of the level itself, and because its weapons are still aggressively short-ranged, Splatoon levels are less like the sprawling expanse of a map from Team Fortress 2 (I suspect the most of them would fit neatly in the gap between that game's historic two forts) and more like Gears of War combat bowls. They're relatively open, with long lines of sight and maybe a few chokepoints to force the teams to interact. The question isn't whether you can find the other players, because you almost certainly can. It's whether you can reach them, and what paths you'll take (or create) to get there.
This leads to one of my favorite moments in the game, at the end of the match, when the screen displays a top-down view of the paint-covered map. It pauses there for a moment to build suspense while you eyeball this Pollock-esque splatter and try to figure out which color covers more area, then a pair of tuxedo cats (don't ask) award the game to "good guys" or "bad guys" (your team is always the "good guys"). But beyond the raw score, you can see the history of the game written on that map: this is the place someone got behind our line and painted over one of the less-traveled nooks, that is the stippling of the ink storm we fired off to clear out that sniper position, and over there is the truncated brush stroke where I was chasing someone with the paint roller when the buzzer sounded.
It's been suggested that building a shooter around an oddball mechanic like this is very typical Nintendo: just as they have built consistently profitable business around novel use of less capable (read: cheaper) graphics hardware, they carve out a niche within genres by refusing to compete directly with the standard design conventions. If you want a Halo-like, you have plenty of choices. There are few other terrain-painting shooters to compare (favorably or otherwise) with Splatoon. The closest I could imagine was Magic Carpet — and that's a wildly different game from more than two decades back.
But while this is to some extent true, none of that matters if you can't execute, and Nintendo is very good at execution. The paint mechanic at the core of Splatoon is interesting at a macro strategy level, but what actually makes it successful is that it feels great. Painting every possible surface for your team is a really satisfying thing to do. The art design is bold and colorful (as it would have to be). The music is great, and syncs up perfectly with the timer in the last minute of each match.
This has been a rough year, and the trend isn't upward. Splatoon has, to some extent, become my pomodoro exercise for anxiety: alterating a three-minute round of neon vandalism with a couple minutes checking RSS feeds for our impending doom while the lobby fills back up. The in-game experience is relentlessly upbeat and cheering — even while, apparently, the background fiction is a dark post-apocalyptic story about climate change. Welcome to 2018: even my coping strategies are terrifying.
There's probably not a better modern space opera than the Mass Effect games, which is what makes its wildly incoherent plot all the more bizarre. Replaying the first title, it's hard to miss that the way that it eventually gets undercut by everything in the third. I can't decide which one looks better in hindsight — Mass Effect 1 is less ambitious (and not nearly as good mechanically), while 3 is ultimately lazier and, I think, more dishonest — but I think it does point out a really interesting problem in the way that Bioware builds their big, tentpole franchises.
Let's recap: in the first chapter, Commander Shepard (that's you) stumbles across a galactic double-agent named Saren while on a rescue mission, and is given carte blanche to hunt the traitor down. Eventually, it's revealed that Saren is working for a giant murderbot right out of central casting, and their plan is to open a gateway that lets all the other murderbots into this universe from whatever pocket dimension they've been hiding in. But surprise! the gateway is actually the ancient space station that galactic civilization picked as its center of government (living in Seattle after that New Yorker article, I know how they feel). Lots of stuff explodes.
By the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around, it would make sense for people to have thought, geez, maybe living on a massive, prehistoric portal to robot doom-town might not be a good idea. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. In fact, during the plot of the final game, not only are people still living on the Citadel, but Shepard finds out that it doubles as the power source for the super-weapon that will wipe out the bad guys. Handy! And by handy, I mean tremendously lazy in a narrative sense.
Truthfully, the overarching plot is the weakest parts of the Mass Effect franchise. The first game is too small to sell "epic scope" — when characters like Wrex die, they haven't been around long enough to feel important, or for many players to even realize they can be saved. The third spends too much time trying to wrap up plot threads instead of actually telling a story.
By contrast, Mass Effect 2 is a heist flick. The beginning is nonsense, as is the ending (the less said about the giant glowing skeleton boss, the better), partly because those are the pieces that connnect to the other storylines. But the middle 95% of the game is brilliant, because it mostly tosses the Reapers and their Robot Death Party out the window. Instead, you wander from planet to planet, assembling your crew and settling their debts so they can join you in the final mission. It's in these smaller stories that the writers can actually explore the universe they've built, with all its weird little corners and rivalries.
At some point, it starts to feel like the quest for spectacle is not helping Mass Effect, or Bioware games, or games in general, in much the same way that the "huge crashing object" finale is the worst part of our society's superhero movie infestation. Maybe it's a broken record to say that we need more AAA games that are more about character and less about saving the city, country, world, or galaxy. It's still true, though, and the best evidence for it is the games themselves.
It seems vaguely ridiculous to spend my days working on a computer, and then come home and write assembly code for an hour or two, much less enjoy it. That's how good TIS-100 is: a deranged simulator for a broken alien computer, it's the kind of game where the solutions are half inspiration, half desperate improvisation.
Here's the idea: the game boots up a fake computer, which immediately fails POST and dumps you into the debugger. Inside, it's made up of chips arranged in a grid, each of which can be programmed with up to 15 instructions in an invented assembly language. In a series of puzzles, you're given a set of inputs and a list of expected output, and it's up to you to write the transformation in the middle.
Complicating matters is the fact that TIS-100 processors are designed to be as eccentric as possible. Nodes have no RAM, just a single addressable register and a second backup register that can be swapped out. They're also severely limited in what they can do, but very good at communicating with each other. So each solution usually involves figuring out how to split up logic and shuffle values between nodes without deadlocking the CPU or writing yourself (literally) into a corner. There's a bunch of tricks you learn very quickly, like using a side node as a spare register or sending bits back and forth to synchronize "threads."
It's not perfect. Once I beat TIS-100, I didn't feel an urge to start back up the way I do for something more "game-like" (say, XCOM or Mass Effect). But it does have the wonderful quality that you can solve most of its puzzles while you're away from the computer, and actually typing them in is a bit of an anticlimax. For all its exaggeration and contrivance, I'm not sure you could get a better simulation of programming than that.
At the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony showed off the fruits of their acquisition of Gaikai, a company that streams video games over the Internet. This is something with which I have a little experience: in 2012, I worked for Big Fish on the now-discontinued Big Fish Unlimited, which did the same thing but for casual games. I was pretty sure that it was doomed then, and I'm pretty sure that similar platforms — including Sony's Playstation Now and OnLive — are doomed now, and for the forseeable future. The reason is simple: streaming just doesn't scale.
Let's say you're playing a game by streaming it to yourself from another computer you own, as in Nvidia's Shield or Valve's SteamOS. To do this you need two boxes: one to actually run the game, and one to act as a thin client, providing the display and input support. There are lots of things that can cause problems here — network connectivity, slow hardware, latency — but at the very least you're always going to have enough hardware to run the game, because you own both ends of it. Streaming scales in a linear fashion.
Now pretend you're doing the same thing, but instead of running the host machine yourself, it lives in a remote datacenter. For each person who's playing, the streaming service needs another computer to run the game — the scaling is still linear. You can't cache a game on a cheap edge node like you can a regular file, because it's an interactive program. And there's no benefit to running all those games simultaneously, the way that Google can leverage millions of GMail customers to lower e-mail transmission costs and spam processing algorithms cheaper. No, you're stuck with a simple equation: n players = n servers. And those servers are not cheap: they need hefty graphics cards, local storage, cooling systems, sound cards, etc.
And it gets worse, because those players are not going to obligingly spread their playtime around the clock to keep the load constant. No, they're going to pile in every evening in much higher numbers — much higher — than any other time of the day. League of Legends, a single (albeit very popular) game has had more than 5 million concurrent players. During peak hours, streaming providers will struggle to run enough host boxes. During off hours, all that expensive hardware just sits idle, completely unused.
At first, these problems seem solvable. When you don't have a lot of customers, it's not that bad to add new hosts to compensate for growth. Those earlier players may be more forgiving of wait times, attributing them to growing pains. But consider the endgame: if something like Playstation Now achieves real, widespread success (despite all the other network latency and quality of service issues these services always face), Sony's ultimate scenario is having literally millions of rack-mounted PS4s in datacenters around the country, many of them running at peak capacity for hours on end. That's more servers than Google, Microsoft, and Facebook put together.
But there's only so much you can move to the client when your selling point is "next-gen games without next-gen hardware." In the case of Sony and OnLive, no amount of browser wizardry or Playstation branding is going to solve that fundamental scaling problem. It may be workable for instant demos, or beta previews. But for mainstream gaming, without a miraculous breakthrough in the way games are built and executed, the math just isn't there.
There's a fine line between nonchalance and disregard for the player, and I'm not sure that Aquaria doesn't cross over it. As one of the best games on the Shield right now, I've been playing a lot of it — or, rather, alternating between playing it and looking up clues online. In a way, I respect the sheer amount of content the developers have put together, and the confidence they have in players to discover it, but I could use a little more signposting and, to be honest, a bit more challenge.
For example, the middle section of Aquaria is mostly non-linear: certain areas are locked away until you've beaten a few bosses and taken their abilities, but the order is still mostly flexible. Although it sounds great in theory, in practice this just means you're repeatedly lost and without a real goal. Having enormous maps just makes exacerbates the problem, because it means you'll wander one way across the world only to find out that you're not quite ready yet and need to hunt down another boss somewhere — probably all the way at the other end.
I'm goal-oriented in games, so this kind of ambiguity has always bugged me. The Castlevania titles post-Symphony of the Night suffer from this to some extent, but they usually offered something to do during the trip that made it feel productive--levelling up your character, or offering random weapon drops. Aquaria has a limited cooking system, but it's only really necessary in boss fights and it rarely does anything besides offer healing and specific boosts, so it's not very compelling.
According to an interview with the developers, Aquaria was originally controlled with keyboard and mouse, and they eventually moved it to mouse-only (which came in handy when it was ported to touch devices). Every now and then the original design peeks through, like when certain enemies fire projectiles in a bullet-hell shooter pattern. The Shield's twin-stick controls make this really easy (and fun) to dodge, but since the game was intended for touch, these enemies are relatively rare, and the lengthy travel through the game tends toward the monotonous.
Look, I get that we have entered a brave new world of touch-based control schemes. For the most part, I am in favor of that — I'm always happy to see innovation and experimentation. But playing Aquaria on the Shield makes it clear that there's a lot of tension between physical and touch controls, and it's easy to lose something in the transition from the former to the latter. Aquaria designed around a gamepad (and an un-obstructed screen) could be a much more interesting game. Yes, it would be harder and less accessible — but the existing game leaves us with "easy and tedious," which is arguably a worse crime.
I'm starting to think that in our rush to embrace casual, touch experiences (in no small part because of the rise of touch-only devices), we may be making assumptions about the audience that aren't true — such as the idea that it's the buttons themselves that were scary — and it's not always a net positive for game design. At its heart, Aquaria is a "core" game, not a casual game: it's just too big, and the bosses are too rough, for this to be in the same genre as Angry Birds or whatever. Compare this to Cave Story (its obvious inspiration), a game that was free to cram a ridiculous amount of non-linear content into its setting because its traditional platforming gameploy was so solid.
There is a disturbing tendency for many people to insist that there must be a winner and a loser in any choice. In the last two weeks, every tech site on the planet decided that the loser was Nintendo: why don't they just close up shop and make iPhone games? I think it's a silly idea — anyone measuring Nintendo's success now against their performance with the Wii is grading them on the wrong end of a ridiculous curve — and Aquaria only makes me feel stronger about that. For all that smartphone gaming brings us, there are some experiences that are just going to be better with buttons and real gaming hardware. As long as that's the case, consoles are in no danger of extinction.
During one of those 24-hour colds, when I curl up under every blanket in the house and just wait for the fever to break, I often lose track of reality. It's not like I hallucinate. But, drifting in and out of consciousness with my body temperature far above normal, the line blurs between dreaming and my rational mind, which means I find myself thinking quite seriously about things that are either entirely absurd, or which never actually happened. It's the closest I get to doing drugs.
It may just be that I was playing it after recovering from a cold during the holidays, but Hotline Miami often feels like it comes from a similar place (fever or drugs, take your pick). Although it pays homage to Drive with its setting, violence, and a selection of trippy electronic dance tunes, Hotline adds a gloss of unreality: heavy filtering (including a subtle screen tilt), an increasingly unreliable narrator, and an astonishing sound design. The darker half of the soundtrack leans heavily on synth drones, distorted bass, and indistinct vocal echoes, walking a line precisely between captivating and terrifying.
So it is atmospheric. But in the wake of Newtown it is difficult to talk about Hotline Miami without talking about violence, since it is also a game about brutal, sickening violence. Dressed up in a retro 16-bit facade, the blood and gore is made more abstract, and thus more palatable, but that's a bit of a cheat, isn't it? The NRA recently blamed video games for school shootings, drawing on such contemporary examples as Mortal Kombat and Natural Born Killers, and while that's obviously laughable (and more than a little disgusting) it's hard to take the moral high ground when a prospective game of the year for many people involves beating anonymous mobsters to death with a crowbar.
Part of the problem is that Hotline Miami is and isn't about those things. Someone playing the game isn't sitting at a computer plotting murder--they're primarily thinking about navigating space, line of sight, and the AI's predictable response. Most violent video games are only superficially violent: mechanically they're just button presses and spatial awareness. That's not an excuse, but it does explain why gamers get so huffy about the accusations of immorality. It also begs the question: if these games aren't actually about death and destruction, then why all the trappings?
In the case of Hotline Miami, there's a studied juvenile quality to the whole affair. It's the interactive version of some smart-but-disengaged stoner's doodling on their high school chemistry notebook. It's gross because its influences are gross, and because gross things are fun to draw, and because chemistry is boring, dude. This accounts for some of the feverishness as well, since it taps into the same powerful imaginative impulse that we have as kids and mostly lose when we have to start paying our own rent.
It's not a bad thing for Hotline Miami to draw on those influences, or for it to be ultra-violent. There's a place for ugly, childish things in our cultural stew: I don't think you get Death Proof without Saw or Dead Alive. I like the game. But it bothers me a little that its violence is so unremarkable, and that it wants to use self-awareness as an excuse or an explanation. Using excess to criticize gaming culture was old with Splatterhouse (another up-to-the-minute reference from the NRA, there). So since we don't have a lot of variety in video game narratives, maybe we should stop letting "bloodthirsty" pass for "profound."
Why is it all capitalized? That's what I want to know. XCOM isn't an acronym for something--presumably it stands for Extraterrestrial Combat (or Command?)--so shouldn't it be XCom? I guess that doesn't look as good on the posters. Maybe they should add an exclamation point. (Or a dash, according to the purists. Luckily, having never played the original, I'm not really interested in purity.)
There aren't a lot of games where I finish them and immediately start a new session. Mass Effect 2 was probably the last example--I did two straight playthroughs, and possibly started a third, just because the basic mechanics were so solid and enjoyable. XCOM might be just as catchy, even though I didn't expect it to be. Here are three things that surprised me the first time through:
I didn't think I'd get so attached to my squad. People talk about doing this in the old X-COM, being genuinely upset when a soldier bit the dust, and I just figured those people were crazy. But about half-way through the game, letting Col. Zahara "Werewolf" Mabuza die just stopped being acceptable. The nicknames must have a lot to do with it. I knew every nickname on my squad, especially the ones that got funnier as they got more panic-prone ("Padre," indeed).
XCOM gets a lot of mileage out of only a few maps. I think I saw in an interview that there's only 30 or so maps in XCOM, which is not a lot considering the hundreds of encounters in a typical game. Partly, the maps are just well-designed: just starting out in a different space and direction is enough to make many of the UFO capture maps completely disorienting. But they're also partially-randomized, meaning that you never entirely develop a single cover strategy for each map. Add in the day/night filters, and it feels like a lot more content than it actually is.
Everything is short. Six soldiers means that you're doing with a turn in roughly 60 seconds. A mission in XCOM takes, at most, 30 minutes. Between missions, you pick your research tasks and your engineering projects and then you hit the big "GO FAST" button in Mission Control and see how far you get before the next invasion. Sometimes a movie plays--they're all skippable, as are all the little interstitial animations (launching a fighter, landing the SkyRanger, etc). Everything in the game is made with the understanding that you Should Not Wait, a convenient side effect of which is that it's compulsively playable.
It's not a particularly profound game. It's not even particularly well-made--bugs pop up all over. Even with the tutorial, I restarted the game twice trying to figure out how to keep everything balanced, which is pretty hardcore. But it's so consistently fun that those problems don't halt the experience. I never really got the Halo philosophy of "30 seconds of fun" because I find Halo to be a boring, frat-boy knockoff of better shooters, but XCOM pulls it off.
When I bought a new computer a little while back, I figured it would be a chance to play some of the Steam/GOG.com games that I bought while they were on sale, knowing that my laptop couldn't handle them. And in one or two cases, it is. But for the most part, I spent last week's small amount of gaming time buried back in a trio of titles from Blendo--a one-man shop that's becoming my favorite indie developer.
Blendo (AKA Brendon Chung) is best known right now for Thirty Flights of Loving, sequel to his absurdist spy short Gravity Bone. It's a funny, cinematic little nugget of first-person narrative. It's also about seven minutes long. I'm not sure it was worth the $5 asking price, but Chung's definitely playing with some ideas here that are worth rewarding.
Besides, he had my good will starting from my first minutes playing Flotilla last year. This was a game that I'd wanted, but somehow had not been able to find: full 3D space tactics within a randomly-generated campaign. The missions themselves are tense, slow-moving affairs set to classical piano pieces, while the overworld screens are Blendo's typically jazzy blend of surrealism (rastafarian pirate cats, defanged space yeti, and wandering Greek goddesses appear along your journey) and procedural storytelling (decisions along the way are assembled into an illustrated ship's log). The combination of the two should be dissonant, but instead the funny bits serve as a nice break between the tense turn-by-turn bits.
And then there's Atom Zombie Smasher, which is the most unbalanced and most compelling of the three. It's basically a tower defense game, which means I should hate it, and yet somehow I really don't. It's ridiculously unfair--sometimes you get an overwhelming mix of units for a stage, and sometimes you just get barricades and mines, meaning that I tend to win or lose the whole game depending on which two units are randomly assigned in the first stages--and yet tremendously addictive. Maybe that's just the surf guitar talking.
Ultimately, I think what charms the most about these is that they almost remind me of board games in their approach to design and replayability. Even though they're radically different genres, Blendo's stuff shares a common sensibility in the way that they construct stories out of small vignettes and procedural generation. Each takes, at most, an evening to play completely through, and yet there's plenty of detail and reward for digging in. They continue to surprise players outside of all proportion to their actual size. There aren't a lot of people making games in this space--it's all either bite-sized casual fare or sprawling epics. Chung's genius is making the former feel, if only for a little while, like the latter.
The sound design, as usual for Nintendo, is instantly recognizable. It makes this kind of phased, dopplered hissing sound, a parody of "something going very fast." You can hear it coming up from behind a few seconds before it hits, or when it passes someone else in splitscreen mode. The latter is the really frustrating scenario: you know you're going to be knocked out of the race--the only question is, when?
The blue shell is the reason I can't play Mario Kart anymore. Belle and I started playing on the Wii again a couple of weeks ago, and for the most part I enjoy it. The boosts are toned down so that snaking can't be abused like the DS version, the tracks are decent with few outright stinkers, and I like the addition of motorcycles (even if they're unplayable with the Classic Controller). In multiplayer, I could care less: if I get knocked out and lose to Belle, it's all in good fun. But then I tried unlocking new characters in the grand prix mode, and the blue shell completely ruins that.
The thing about Mario Kart is that it's balanced via progressive taxation. Everybody in the race gets items, but the better you're doing (right at that moment) the worse those items generally are. If you're in the lead, you only get items that let you maintain that lead (but not increase it), like banana peels or fake item boxes. If you're in the back of the pack, you get items that let you jump up in line, like the star or bullet. And the game heavily incentivizes using those items quickly instead of hoarding them--a number of the other power-ups will cause you to lose anything you're holding when they hit you. It's actually an extremely clever set of interlocking mechanics, all designed to keep races unpredictable.
But the blue shell breaks that pattern. It doesn't give you a boost (even implicitly, by punishing everyone else, the way that the lightning does). In fact, if you're in the back of the pack, it probably doesn't help you at all--the second and third place racers are just going to shuffle up in position. Using a blue shell in Mario Kart has one goal, and one goal only: to ruin the third lap for the best racer on the track. It's subsidized griefing.
Worst. Power-up. Ever.
This is not a post about Mass Effect 3's ending. Of course, the ending is fine. No, it doesn't account for the whole of player choice during the last five minutes--but you get plenty of choice and repurcussion for previous choice during the entire rest of the game (I brought the same Shepherd through all three). No, the final reveal doesn't make a lot of sense--neither did the endings for BSG or Lost or every William Gibson novel ever written, but nobody started petitions to force the creators to change those. It says a lot that after years of trying to get games recognized as art, huge swathes of the community still seem to be blissfully unaware of what that would actually mean: artists don't have to alter their work just to fulfill your expectations.
Ahem. Not a post about the ending.
Although it would serve everyone right, I think, if Bioware's upcoming patch just removed the treacly "stargazer" narration from the end.
I think the progressive side of the gaming blog community tends to spend a lot of time calling out the many, many ways that developers screw things up, via sexism and racism and all the other various -isms. This is a good thing--public shaming can and does have an effect on the industry. But lately I've wanted, as a counterpart, to give credit where credit is due when things go right. And for all its issues, I do think Mass Effect 3 gave me a pleasant surprise when it came to its take on LGBT rights.
The game contains a number of same-sex couples, but the moment that really stuck out for me comes early on, when Commander Shepherd drops in on the ship's shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez, to find him replaying a recording by his now-deceased husband. The dialog doesn't make a big deal out of that--it's not a "More You Know" teaching moment. It's just a guy who's torn up because a loved one was killed. I like to think that it only underscores the in-game banality of gay marriage that Bioware then makes Cortez a romance option, for people who really enjoy playing as "creepy rebound Shepherd."
The usual suspects have, of course, chimed in, and it's genuinely heartwarming to see that EA isn't taking their demands seriously here or elsewhere. Although, to be fair, when the demands include people using headlines like "rebel fleet surrenders to gay empire," they're not exactly struggling against the eloquence of history's greatest activists here.
There are still plenty of other deeply problematic nits I could pick with ME3: the weird and uncomfortable "sexy robot" character, the lingering shots of Miranda's leather pants, or female Shepherd's anatomically-correct armor plate, to pick a few. The Asari still seem like they were imported from one of the Star Trek episodes where Will Riker makes out with Aliens of Low Self Esteem. But progress doesn't come all at once, and I'm glad to see that neither Bioware nor its parent company is rolling over the moment they get hit with some criticism.
Now, if they can just grow a backbone when it comes to the
ending parts of
the game that this post is not about.