Tuesday, November 24, 2015


In modern English the word "facsimile" is synonymous with "fax," or "copy," but the origin of the word comes from Latin.  "Fac," is the imperative of "facere" (to make), and "simile," means "similar" in English.  So, what does any of this have to do with video games?  Well...I can think of a couple of relevent examples.

Ever heard of a game called Orion: Prelude?  It's often referred to as "The Best Worst Game" on Steam.  Typically it can be found on sale for about $1.  Having played the game for around seven hours I recommend not paying more than that amount for it.  Rather than simply telling you about this FPS, let me ask a few questions:  Do you like Halo?  How does wave-based co-op multiplayer sound?  What would you think if the Covenant were replaced with dinosaurs?  If your answers are "Yes", "Yes", and "Great!" then this game might keep you entertained for around an hour or two.  Otherwise go buy a pack of gum with your hard-earned dollar.  Trust me, You'll get a lot better return on your investment.

Normally when I think of knock-offs I tend to imagine the label "made in China," or possibly Taiwan.  Not so with this title.  Apparently the job of copycat game development  more often than not ends up in the hands of someone living in Russia.  That's not to say I don't like Russian made games - far from it.  I've played more War Thunder and World of Warships than I care to admit (even though one sometimes feels like a doppelganger of the other).  That aside, Bloodbath Kavkaz feels...well, to put it nicely - unnecessary.  The first Hotline Miami had enough convoluted storytelling and gratuitous violence to satisfy a deranged psychopath.  Just in case that wasn't enough for you though, the same developer went on to make a sequel - Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.  It has more of everything to the point that a lot of what made the first game good ended up lost in transition.  More specifically, the expanded level layout and increased number of enemies led to a great deal more frustratingly random player deaths.  It undermined the intensely tactical puzzle solving that made the original game special.  If, for some reason you want more 2-D pixelated gore though there's always Bloodbath Kavkaz...I guess.

Last example, for this blog post is Prey for the Gods.  Get it?  "Prey", not "Pray".  Haha...they so clever.  Ahem.  Anyway...it's a Shadow of the Colossus rip-off, but I can't say much more than that because the game isn't out yet.  For all I know it might actually be good.  Keep in mind I'm not inherently against the idea of a derivative game provided it does something that the originator didn't.  Even if said changes were not wholly successful I'd still be willing to praise the game for attempting to innovate on its respective genre.  Much like a Xerox machine though, if all you're going to do is make a copy then (by definition) the duplicate is guaranteed to be of inferior quality.  So take some pride in your work, struggling game developers.  It's okay to borrow from the masters (after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery).  Just remember to make your own mark on those clones.  Otherwise it's a waste of time and effort.  Doubly so for people that go through all the toil of making something that boarders on copyright infringement.    

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Deep Sea Thoughts

It's my understanding that the word "soma" means "body" in Greek, and in Hinduism is a drink that grants immortality.  In a vague sense both meanings suit the themes of SOMA, the game, quite well.  Consciousness transfer via duplication has been explored in entertainment media numerous times before.  The video game The Swapper, the table-top RPG Eclipse Phase, a bunch of novels by Peter Watts, and movies like The Prestige or The 6th Day (staring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger) are the closest examples I can think of to SOMA in terms of how they approach the concept.  Unlike any of those works though SOMA really plays up the existential dread such that by the time I had finished the game I felt very troubled.

The ARK is suppose to symbolize hope,
but to me it felt like a gravestone
marking the final resting place of humanity
In an attempt to try and ease my mind I visited forums, read wiki entries, and watched a few LP videos, but I still wasn't able to internalize what Frictional was getting at with their newest game.  Eventually I stumbled upon Markiplier's "Lets Play" of SOMA and it was through his end-game commentary that I could contextualize things in a way I could wrap my head around.  I know...kind of surprising that this pink-haired Youtuber with an over-the-top personality would have any meaningful insight, but what can I say aside from don't let appearances deceive you.  He's actually quite observant and quick-witted when he wants to be.  In essence his take on SOMA, and the reason its story is so engaging is the central theme of altruism versus selfishness.  If you have children or work in education, medicine or a similar field then you probably realize that a lot of what you do has little to no personal consequence, but oftentimes is immensely impactful to others.  SOMA takes this aspect of life and amplifies it to the uttermost extreme.

Launching the ARK will provide all those in it with a life of tranquil bliss among the stars for a millennium or more while all those who made it possible gain nothing for their efforts...yet it comes to pass anyway.  
*End Spoilers*  

It's poignant stuff, universal to the human condition, and rarely seen when it comes to video game writing.  For better or worse though SOMA is a video game which means there's more to it than just the story.

It took me awhile to realize that the CURIE
was a semi-submersible similar to the real
life oceanography research ship RP FLIP  
The actual gameplay is mostly light puzzle solving mixed with monster evasion.  Exploration isn't even a major component since the only reason to stray off the established path is to get little side snippets of the story.  As far as puzzles go some are more interesting than others, but basically they're fine.  Monster encounters, on the other hand, are a much more mixed bag.  The aquatic threats feel well implemented and are genuinely terrifying experiences, but the more humanoid dangers (particularly the "proxies") are far more annoying than scary.  I think, in part, this discrepancy in quality has to do with the game's lengthy development cycle (it took over five years to make SOMA).  As old gameplay footage show (here and here) early versions of the game were considerably different than what we got.  Unlike say Bioshock Infinite though the final product is considerably better than what the demo gameplay implied.  That said, it feels like some of the less well refined legacy assets seeped into the release version of game.  Still, I'm inclined to be an optimist in that it could have easily been far worse than what we got.

A paramedic's decisions might not have any
personal repercussions, but for others it
could be the difference between life and death
The developers at Frictional wisely avoided the it-was-all-just-a-dream ending plot twist (or similarly a final image of the Earth showing that it was fine all along).  I'm also glad there's no karma tracker decreeing whether or not the player's conduct throughout the game should grant them a place in the Nirvana/Heaven of the ARK or force them to remain in the Purgatory/Underworld of Pathos-II.  The fact that player decisions don't alter the game (aside from a few lines of dialogue) might bother some people, but I though it was appropriate given the underlying themes of SOMA.  It's also interesting to see the variety of (and in some cases extreme) opinions people have towards characters like Simon, Catherine and the WAU.  That there can be so many supportable viewpoints, is a testament to the quality of the storytelling.  Hands down, this is the best horror game of the year and probably deserves any "Best Story of 2015" awards it wins as well.  Whether or not it should be nominated for game of the year though depends on how much value you place on gameplay.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

It Could Have Been A Game

There's been a reoccurring series on the this blog called "It Should Have Been A Game."  Mostly, it's been about movies which would have been better served had they been presented in another medium, namely video games.  The "should" part of the title implies that the movies themselves were not very good.  However, this time I saw a movie that wasn't particularly bad as is, and as such I've changed the "should" to a "could" to reflect my opinion.  So, what is the movie?  Thor: The Dark World.

It might seem like an odd choice at first but, simply put, this is the best Final Fantasy film adaptation ever made.  Much better than Spirits Within, Asgard has all the science fantasy trappings of pretty much any of the settings found in Final Fantasy 6 onward.  What's more, the back story is all there in the now millennium old Norse texts, particularly "The Edda."  Along with all those ancient tomes, over a half century of Marvel comics have been published on the character.  In essence, The Thor films have their own extensive mythology, as well as recent history, making for fertile ground to tell an epic tale.  Final Fantasy settings, by contrast, tend to feel a bit shallow when it comes to in-fiction history because with each new iteration the world-building has to be done from scratch.

There's also no need for the overused amnesia trope.  Thor, instead relies on a stranger in a strange land (namely a visitor from Midgard) along with efficient narration and exposition on the part of the wise Allfather, Odin.  While only around half of the nine worlds have been explored in any detail in the films, it would be quite easy to spend more time visiting each in...say...a 40 hour RPG, rather than a two hour movie.  Thor's large cast of characters could also get more time to develop and interact, especially if they take the role of party members.  Off the top of my head playable characters could include Thor, Jane Foster, Loki, Sif (no, not Sid), Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral and (too-cool-for-the-group-to-stick-around-very-long) Heimdall.  Named supporting NPCs could include Odin, Frigga, Eir, Tyr, Erik Selvig and Darcy Lewis...plus her intern whose name escapes me at the moment.

When it comes to enemies, we've seen our share of Jotnar and Dark Elves in the film, but little in the way of Dwarfs, Light Elves or the Dead.  There are lots of potential foes that have yet to be debuted because of the limitations of the film medium.  Plus more time could be spent on fleshing out villains like Malekith.  According to actors and the director, a large portion of Thor: The Dark World was cut in post-production because of time constraints and a desire from the studio to change the pacing and tone of the the film.  Part of me wonders if the director's original vision was better suited to a video game.  

Perhaps best of all though is that fact that Thor doesn't feature any of the J-Pop garbage or Harajuku fashion trends that seem to have consumed the double digit sequels of Final Fantasy.  I'm not saying Thor doesn't have it's own brand of craziness, but at least the women of Asgard are wearing clothes that could be considered functional for leisure, battle or other day-to-day activities.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

31st Century Combat

Let me guess...from left to right:
Griffon, Atlas, Locust and a Catapult?
The video game Kickstarter for Battletech has ended with the developers getting about eleven times their minimum funding goal.  It's not hard to see why considering the universe of Battletech is (in 2015 terms) an interactive version of "Game of Thrones" meets "Pacific Rim."  To boot the chosen in-game era, 3025, has a lot of "Mad Max" style post-apocalyptic trappings.  At first glance space feudalism might seem silly, but the concept isn't really all that far fetched.  In the context of a series of long and devastating interstellar wars, that have left pretty much all infrastructure (including production, transportation and even communication) in utter ruin, it stands to reason that individual planets would regress back to local rulers that control what vital resources remain.  As far as I'm concerned the original setting of Battletech is fine, it's the mechanics of the game it's attached to that have me worried.

If you're not familiar with the history of the Battletech franchise, it's basically a collection of board games and paperback novels, as well as video games running the gambit from RPG and RTS to more recently mech piloting sims.  At the core of all of it though is a three decade old hex grid war game designed for mech on mech combat.  The system is quite detailed and requires a lot of bookkeeping for each mech in addition to a hefty amount of dice rolling.  Just to give you an example, firing off a rack of missiles at a target necessitates a to-hit roll, and assuming that is successful, another roll to determine the number of missiles that actually do damage.  After that individual hit location rolls for each missile have to be calculated by comparing roll results to the proper table depending on the target's facing (front, back, left side, etc.).  In total you're looking at anywhere from one to twenty-four dice rolls (on top of multiple charts and stat sheets for consultation) just to determine the effect of one weapon system.  Keep in mind a large mech might have a half-dozen of these or more.  Obviously, all this gets increasingly unwieldy the more and bigger the mechs are up to the point that the entire thing collapses under it's own weight when the numbers of units reach into the double digits.  Of course a video could streamline all this, moving most of the number crunching under the hood, so to speak.  However, there are some fundamental issues with the Battletech ruleset that really need to be addressed in order to make the game enjoyable in the 21st century.

The Whiff Factor is bound 
to lead to a lot of player
To illustrate what I mean, let's take a look at your average mechwarrior, who has a gunnery skill of 4.  He's not a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, but he isn't a war-hardened veteran either.  Assume he's in a mech and he's up against someone else who's also in one.  Now suppose he charges at this onrushing opponent on flat open terrain and opens fire at close range (90 meters) with some medium lasers (a common weapon for mechs).  Short range adds four to the gunnery skill making the target number 8.  He also has to apply another +2 for running and another +2 because his target moved between five and six hexes toward him.  So, the actual to-hit number is 12.  Since all roles are made using two six-sided dice, there's only one chance in thirty-six of hitting (less than 3 percent!).  This is worse than World War 1 naval gunnery.  I'm not engaging in hyperbole here; notoriously inaccurate dreadnought fire control scored hits roughly 5 percent of the time at distances a hundred times greater.  Even under more ideal circumstances the majority of a mech's attacks still miss.  The problem is aggravated by the fact that battlemechs don't have much in the way of ammo reserves.  A real life M1A2 abrams tank can keep its main gun in continuous action for 7 minutes.  Most battlemechs armed with a similar weapon are lucky if they have enough to last 2.  Logistical concerns aside, autocannons have always been too heavy (averaging twice the weight of their energy equivalents) and too dangerous (ammunition explosions will ruin your day) to be worthwhile.

For better or worse, Battletech has kept
backward compatibility with all
 earlier versions of the game despite
 its long history
The setting of Battletech has always been about using what you got rather than what you want.  Understandable, but this leads me to wonder how salvage will be implemented.  Will it be the some kind of generic point system or will there actually be long inventory lists of spare parts taken from fallen mechs?  I've always though of mechs as being fairly universal in terms of components.  Otherwise how would anyone keep them working after centuries of use (and abuse)?  What about aerospace fighters and dropships though?  Will infantry or vehicles play an important role?  There are so many things that need to be rewritten, overhauled or scraped altogether.  I think ditching the tech-bloat of other eras along with the Clans (seriously, the setting already had a huge variety of factions to begin with) is step in the right direction, but there's a lot more that needs work.  The development team has already gone on record saying that their crowdfunded turn-based video game will have a system true to the spirit of Battletech, but not necessarily the same in terms of mechanics.  That sound vaguely encouraging although I wonder how the old guard will react.  The devil is in the details, as they say.    Still, I wish the developers all the best, and should their game turn out great I'll definitely pick up a copy sooner rather than later.  If not then I guess it's just more mecha blues.