Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided released recently and unsurprisingly, I have been spending some time with it. Admittedly, it’s hard to find enough time for it between being sick, playing Legion, replaying the Dragon Age series, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, and Paradox’s oeuvre, but I’ve managed to fit it in here and there. Anyway, my existential crisis over the inexorable progression of time is not the subject of this post. Rather, I want to talk about the presentation of oppression in Mankind Divided. Spoilers for the ending of Human Revolution will of necessity be front and center, so you may wish to stop here if you’ve yet to find out how that game ends.

So, Mankind Divided sees you return to the role of Adam Jensen, and he is as gruff and handsome as ever. What has changed rather dramatically is his status as an augmented person, and indeed that of all augmented people, in the world two years following the events of Human Revolution. Whilst that game presented a fairly shiny vision of the potential of augmentation, MD deals heavily with the fallout of ‘The Incident’, an event at the climax of HR which saw every augmented person on the planet, with only one or two exceptions, forced into an insane berserker rage. The casualties of The Incident are said to be in the millions or, according to one trailer, 50 million. Your very first mission, in addition, is in an abandoned hotel which was under construction with the aid of many industrial augs. The game wastes no time in impressing upon you that there were lasting consequences, and indeed those consequences form the core part of the game’s plot, at least as far as I’ve got.

Of course, I say this as though I wouldn't run a store that says "Elves Only"
Not an uncommon sight in 2029’s Prague.

Once you return home to Adam’s apartment, in Prague, you soon see this in an unabashedly upfront manner. Prague is presented as a place which had previously heavily encouraged augmented employment, development, and The game’s designers had no qualms about making this a central concern of their game, and are not shy about using some fairly heavy-handed means to display it. Augs are subject to constant harassment and surveillance. You live in a ghetto, essentially, and this is evident from the many signs of poverty, the beggers, people suffering from Neuropozyne withdrawal (’Pozy’ being a drug most augs need to prevent rejection; Adam is an apparently unique exception), and heavy police presence. The cops themselves are militarized, with their least heavy units looking like particularly tough SWAT members and only going up from there. They’re also almost completely disinterested in crimes committed against augs and turn a blind eye to anything up to and including someone impersonating a cop in order to run an extortion racket by demanding they buy forged papers at ridiculous costs. And this is the nice place, for augs with papers or sufficient resources to get forgeries; those who can’t or run afoul of the state police get shipped to the REAL ghetto, Golem City, which makes Prague itself look like a haven.

The game does not spare Adam most of these indignities. In fact it is entirely ready to push them into the player’s face. You will be stopped by police who will demand to show your papers. People will whisper “clank” as you walk past. You are expected to ride the subway in segregated aug-only carriages, and doing otherwise will get you look of fear, resentment, and disgust, as well as a stern dressing down from a cop when you exit. You get shit from your colleagues in Task Force 29 (A predecessor of UNATCO) who do respect your abilities, but aren’t that keen on your augmented nature. Alongside commonplace graffiti condemning augs, plenty of stores have signs that say “Naturals Only” or “Augmented Use Rear Entrance”, and you’ll hear customers complain about your presence and ask why the police are letting you go there, at least during daylight hours, should you ignore those. You also on occasion run into a person who will offer an apology for the way augs are being treated, which was genuinely a little touching the first time it happened.

This does not go unanswered, with the Augmented Rights Coalition attempting to push back against this oppression. Inevitably, when terrorist attacks take place, ARC is the prime suspect and it quickly becomes clear that many people responsible for investigating the matter have made up their minds before any evidence is in. So, another parallel to the real world.

One area in which the game succeeds, in my eyes, is in creating a sense of helplessness. You can in principle whip out some guns and start laying waste to these prejudiced assholes, but on the higher difficulties at least (Sidenote: the top difficulty is called “I Never Asked For This”) this is often going to lead to a quick death for you. In order to actually progress through the game you more or less have to suffer these slings and arrows in silence. It’s… effecting. In real life I have nothing that is obvious to a stranger which marks me as an ‘other’, so I have the privilege of passing as a member of the empowered in almost every way; white, male, cis, etc.. Mankind Divided is a surprisingly affecting look at the other side of that, one where even with the fantastic strengths and skills of Adam Jensen, there’s not a lot to be done about the state of the world.

What a shame.
The original DX means their victory is basically foregone.

So the game is not subtle, and it earned some ire by using phrases such as “Mechanical apartheid” and “Aug Lives Matter”. And perhaps the most important failing is that the Aug Incident was real, and wreaked tremendous devastation across the entire world, so the parallels between in-game and real-world minority movements and issues of oppression runs into some problems. But, with that said, the game is not just trying to use current affairs to sell itself. This is a genuine attempt to explore, or at the very least highlight, real issues. The extent to which the game succeeds is entirely up for debate, and I am not trying to herald it as some kind of eye-opening watershed that will change the real world. I don’t propose that the game can really let me know what it’s like to be, say, a young black man in America today. Even if it was perfectly able to do so I always have the luxury of turning it off, after all. Still, it does create at least a facsimile of the sheer frustration that comes from being part of a disfavored minority, and the sense of helplessness that comes from being forced to silently suffer all these indignities.

I have been filling this post with caveats about how important or impactful this might be. As I said, I don’t think this is some kind of world-changing media product. I do, however, think it was made with sincerely good intentions, and if we ever are going to get a meaningful number of games that provoke thought or say things about the world, we need games like Mankind Divided to push and explore how to do that. That is after all at least part of the job of creative works as a whole. Even if limited and imperfect, it’s a step in the right direction, and I do respect that and encourage people to engage with it.

No Man’s Buy

No Man’s Sky is an ambitious game, and that ambition is seductive. It certainly seduced Sony, who after spotting the work in progress by the fairly small outfit Hello Games, began pushing it heavily and providing support in turning into a flagship product for the PlayStation 4 (Though it is on PC as well, and that is the version I played). After some modest delays, it has arrived. And, let’s get this out of the way without prevarication, it’s pretty bad.

The obvious comparison and one which has been made almost since NMS was first revealed is to Spore, perhaps the most legendary disappointment in gaming history. This isn’t an entirely fair comparison as, although things were cut and changed in the development of No Man’s Sky, most of those are reasonable things to change in the process of making a game. Not all, the absence of some features has caused much anger (Multiplayer is the big one), but a huge gulf between the game’s promised features and actual ones is not, unlike Spore or Fable, the wellspring of the game’s shortcomings.

The game’s premise is fairly simple: You’re a person with a spacesuit, a crashed spaceship, and a set of tools and blueprints. Using the things that work, you wander around a world to repair the things that don’t. Once completed you take off the same basic idea plays out, briefly in a solar system, then in the broader galaxy. This galaxy is, for reference, astonishingly vast, estimated to contain over 18 quintillion planets (that’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000), which is not just vastly more than any player could explore, but more than the entire human population of seven or so billion could even make a single landing on, if we all worked together. Obviously this is more than could ever be made by hand, so Hello Games developed procedural generation algorithms to place stars and their systems, to create the landscape on these worlds, and to create flora and fauna to populate said worlds.

Shame that's 18 quintillion planets of nothing much!
So big that rounding errors are bigger than most other games. Combined.

This is an impressive feat, make no mistake. That the game world is physically manifested, properly put together, and then populated, is remarkable. It should be stressed that the game’s shortcomings do not come from this side of things, despite the rash of issues players have been having, including me, and the rather poor level of graphical fidelity that is necessary to instantiate the huge worlds you land on. Bugs and graphics are mostly things that can and hopefully will be fixed with time and patching. No, the problems, sadly, stem from something rather deeper and more difficult to fix. Primarily, this might be the widest pool a game has ever presented us with, but it’s also a remarkably shallow one. The procedure throughout the game never really varies; you go to a planet, harvest resources with your laser mining gun thing, and spend those resources on refueling your ship and various tools, and on assembling upgrades you need. You do some poking around to find blueprints for more upgrades, but this is never more involved than either shooting down a Sentinel or poking your head into a tiny outpost and downloading them. Repeat this until you reach the center of the galaxy, however far away that may be. This is all done within the confines of an extremely annoying and restrictive inventory system.

This is all tedious. There is no other way to say it. Collecting resources is tedious. Refueling all your gear as well as your several distinct ship engines is tedious. Not getting the upgrades you want/need is tedious. Inventory management is horrible. An otherwise compelling experience might be able to overcome these issues but, alas, the game quickly proves itself to be tedious in the main as well as in the details. As part of the task of repairing my ship, I had to go find an element deposit to mine. It was about ten minute’s walk away, so I duly set off. Half an hour later I arrived – I had stopped to scan animals, harvest some resources, and had to navigate around a pretty awesome network of caves and sinkholes that ran throughout the landscape. It was genuinely cool and enjoyable. I got there, gathered the stuff, and headed back. And I pretty much walked in a straight line for the needed ten minutes as there was nothing else interesting do. But here’s the insidious problem that became apparent when I went to another planet to begin exploding: There was no new sense of wonder or desire to explore. It was exactly the same thing with a trivially different coat of paint. For example, I had originally thought it really cool and interesting that I found a type of plant from which I could harvest a small amount of platinum, but the new world contained an almost identical plant, just containing zinc instead. As I needed zinc, this was quite useful! And also demonstrative of the fact that for all the scope of the game there’s nothing unique about any of it.

The same pattern repeated itself. Things are visually different and that is all. There are occasional factors such as extreme temperatures or high amounts of radiation but these are just another annoying drain on your suit systems that you have to refuel. The animals have some visual variety, but that is it. None of them actually do anything interesting or unique. The plants, unsurprisingly, are even less interesting, being plants. Now, the planets and systems themselves fare a lot better in this regard. They do combine to create, at the least, unique vistas. It was unquestionably cool to be walking on a planet and seeing another one rising in the sky, knowing that I can hop in my ship and seamlessly fly over to it, land, and explore, with my current location hovering in the new sky. The flipside is that systems are so cramped with planets packed together – necessary for the ‘alien sky’ effect – that they feel downright claustrophobic.

Yeah this is... pretty spot on.
Yeah this is pretty spot on.

But the presence of nice vistas isn’t nearly enough to salvage the game. I have no special insight into the thoughts of the developers, but seems to be thoroughly obvious that the development process was torn between making a game about pure exploration and one which incorporates more traditional gameplay elements. The end result feels like an ugly compromise, and the constant, irritating urging to locate the next mineral you need, to build the next ship part you need, to fabricate a fuel cell and jump to the next system all implies a developer who was not confident the exploration part of the game was enough to compel people by itself. They were right, as it turns out, but their solution only made it a weaker experience. A good game has elements which are in tension with each other and encourage the player to find the most efficient ways to overcome those tensions. This can be as simple as managing limited ammo in a shooter. No Man’s Sky demonstrates what happens when a developer tries and fails to implement such tensions. Everything simply gets in the way of everything else. You want to explore a planet, but you are regularly interrupted by warnings that your life support is draining. So you stop, blast apart some plants or rocks or crystals, replenish your life support, and carry on. You do it again a few minutes later. You want to explore space, but your fuel supplies need regular replenishment. You have to land on planets for at least some of those fuels, or you can sometimes buy them, but you usually make money best by landing and collecting stuff anyway. Again, it strongly suggests Hello Games had little confidence that people would explore the universe on its own merits, and they inserted a host of ‘reasons’ to do so – except those reasons only detract from the experience and make exploration a chore without enlivening it.

The same issue even appears in the way the game tells you you have completed an achievement. I know how trivial that sounds, but bear with me. When you complete an achievement, whether that is walking a certain distance, making your first planetfall, whatever, the game throws it up front and center. Big black bars appear to make it feel cinematic whilst the achievement name and what you did to get it take up much of the view. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as you’re unlikely to be in frantic action too often when this happens, but the game desperately wants to convince you that This Is Big, that You Did A Huge Thing, whereas actually I walked five kilometers and scanned an animal the size of a cat but weighing as much as an adult human.

No Man’s Sky deserves credit for the technical achievement it represents. Even with the problems of the PC port it is mind-boggling that such a game could exist at all. There are definitely worthwhile moments to be had, whether jetpacking over a series of sinkholes filled with glowing red plants and crystals, or seeing a unique continent formation on the face of a planet rising in the sky. But the awe wears off in a great hurry and you are left, beneath that veneer, with a game that is trivially shallow in every metric, which has a world for infinite exploration and nothing giving you an impetus to explore it, and gameplay mechanics that both fail to paper over that fact and which themselves are a paramount exercise in tedium and irritating busywork. It is possible that with content patches (or simply cheats that remove the resource side of things entirely) the game will become more than it is right now, but it is hard to recommend to anyone in its current state, and certainly not at the current price.

Thoughts On Fan Games

If you keep up with the relevant scene, you may be aware that a Pokemon fan game, known as Pokemon Uranium, was released a few days ago. Desiring something to tide me over until Pokemon Sun arrives I decided I would give it a try, and I have to say it’s an impressive effort so far (though I’m only a couple of hours in), even if a few tweaks and bug fixes are possibly still needed. In any event it has caused me to think about the phenomenon of fan games and their place in the industry, and I’d be very interested to hear what any of you think about them, or about any particular ones.

Fan games are, if you’re unfamiliar, the equivalent of fanfiction; a game, made by fans, that usually serves to expand or build on a particular game or setting, although some are efforts at precise cloning, perhaps on different hardware. Though they do share similarities with modding in that they are non-professional content, fan games tend to be a level above those in terms of effort required to make them. We can see this demonstrated well by the fact Pokemon Uranium took nine years to reach 1.0; it is simply a vast undertaking for a team of volunteers, no matter how dedicated. They’re also typically limited to the PC scene thanks to the ease of distribution and prohibitively expensive console licensing fees.

Orchynx 4 lief grass/steel sign me up
They have the adorable starters down pat!

They also often run afoul of legal issues. As they are by definition unlicensed products based on existing IPs, it is hardly surprising that the law would be on the side of publishers who wish to stop their release. Even so these decisions can be reversed, fan games can be given some degree of sanction, and in practice any program is essentially impossible to remove from the Internet once it gets out into the wild. As a foremost example, Streets of Rage Remake is a fan game that faithfully recreated the Streets of Rage series into a single game on the PC; it was quashed by SEGA within a week of release. It is also trivial to get a hold of it. These issues have become even more pressing as companies release compatible versions of classics on platforms like Steam, and what was once unlikely to ever influence the bottom line might now be quite validly considered a threat. Still, the legal issues are what they are, and are likely to remain as they are for some time to come. Fans will continue to make games and companies will continue to pursue whatever response they feel best.

It is remarkable how complete and deep some of these fan games are, though, and were I a company I would certainly be interested in looking at some of the creators of these things to see if some talent can be picked up. Streets of Rage Remake was a deeply faithful reproduction of the original series. The Sonic Before/After the Sequel games are so good they stack up against the actual originals. And Pokemon Uranium not only has a considerable number of original pokemon to catch, but also a new type and, most incredibly, integrated online features such as Wonder Trade and GTS, and the proper integration of challenges like the popular Nuzlocke run, to make keeping to the rules easier.

It's not impossible!
Have fan games encouraged the development of professional ones?

To be sure, many of these projects are close to, or even at, the level of quality expected from professional productions. As an expression of gamer fandom and of a desire to expand the universes we play in for others to enjoy as well, it is a wonderful little segment of the industry. In a setting where some games have budgets in the tens of millions it’s amazing that these amateur, homebrew projects come into being at all, let alone see completion in highly enjoyable forms. I am eager to see what the future holds for such games, so please let us know in the comments what your favorite fan games are and which you might be looking forward to.

Early Access Thoughts

Early access. Nothing’s quicker to bring out the jibes and claims that it never works, that early access games are doomed, and that they are all bad survival/Minecraft games anyway. Is this any kind of fair perspective, or might there be other aspects, benefits even, that are going overlooked?

At first there was great promise to early access, tied in as it was with Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general. The latter is a great idea in principle: Breaking the connection between publisher and developer, in favor of a system where prospective consumers can directly fund the games they want to see made, is a notion that holds tremendous appeal. Publishers had become gatekeepers of necessity, because they were the ones with the resources to pay for development and distribute titles. And it has to be said there is success on this front as the Internet has reduced, though by no means eliminated, their power in this regard. It has also helped motivate some publishers to look at crowdfunding not as the main source for a game’s budget, but as a gauge of interest and supplement, with Shenmue III being the prime example.

Early access quickly emerged as a factor of the crowdfunding system. It has merged with the messy arrangement that exists between demo, beta, and which also once had shareware in the mix. The idea is as simple as crowdfunding itself is, for it provides an incentive to buy into the game. This can be done variously, sometimes by giving an access code to anyone who supports the game, sometimes by having different reward tiers that offer increasingly early access to the game in question. When it is linked to different tiers, one can typically expect to pay increasingly large amounts for access earlier in the development cycle.

Giving such broad access to a game still in development was once unthinkable; if you happen to dig up an old demo disc from say the PS1 era, most of the demos will be disclaimed as not representing a final work as they were still in progress at the time the demo was pressed to disc. In fact I can’t bring to mind many games which differed radically from their demos, but it goes to show that at one point getting an early look at a game was for devs, press, and a pretty tight group of testers who typically had to sign an NDA.

And you might end up playtesting this. Not that anyone did.
And you might end up playtesting this. Not that anyone did.

Early access is usually dressed up in much the same way. Wise developers make clear the game is not to be considered a finished product until it hits 1.0 and official release. Many emphasize that it is access to an alpha and/or beta, and that ideally players are serving as testers who will provide feedback and report bugs. It is also presumed that, if one has to pay more to get earlier access, the monetary investment will make those buyers more, well, invested. They’ll give the game rigorous attention as well as serious thoughts on content and development.

But any early access game that is going along this route runs into immediate problems. First and foremost, someone’s willingness to pay has many factors, not least of which is their simple ability to pay. Perhaps someone is a fanatic of a genre and is willing to pay a lot for early access to a new ARPG (as I was with Grim Dawn, in point of fact). Perhaps someone just has a lot of money and thinks nothing of spending a bit more. None of these things mean that someone is going to be a better or more useful tester or provider of feedback. Still, given the raw deal professional testers used to get, and given the vast array of computer setups that can lead to all kinds of unexpected bugs, it’s hard to consider these problems as too serious either. Anecdotally, early access forums tend to have plenty of threads in the section regarding bugs and active dev involvement in investigating them.

No, the real issues arise not on the technical bug-squashing side of things, but on the design side of things. Buying into a product early also typically gives access to a forum for early access buyers, which is also where the aforementioned bug reports tend to go. The problem is, testing for bugs and genuine imbalance is a very different matter from deciding on what should and should not be in a game, how things should be implemented, and whether the game is on the right course. Buying a game the old-fashioned way is one thing as you pay for what is a finished product, you have reviews with which to judge whether you are interested, and if it fails severely you often have recourse to get your money back, or can at least trade it in for part of the cost.

Early access games work on an entirely different paradigm. Despite the forewarnings, players still expect to be getting something enjoyable for their money, and even if a player approaches such a game in good faith, that does not mean they will actually like it. They might, or they might be underwhelmed, and here is the important point to recognize; if they are underwhelmed or unhappy, even if they do not actively complain on the forums or elsewhere, they are also not going to be talking about it with excitement. Maybe it’ll just be “Yeah I was in the early access, it didn’t really grab me” or maybe it’ll be silence, but either way it’s a problem for developers, who need positive publicity to flourish if they want sales to be significant when the thing actually releases. And when a player encounters bugs or a game that doesn’t function, that is unenjoyable and diminishes enthusiasm no matter how much they might try to keep the caveats of early access in mind. This may be problematic in itself, but a bigger problem still arises for developers who seek too strongly to respond to criticisms and suggestions.

Also, this is a self-portrait whenever I fight a Tracer who knows what she's doing.
Hard to keep your cool when your players all look like this.

Early access buyers feel that they have a stake in something not yet completed, and in turn that means they feel they have a voice on where it should go. If a developer is level-headed that is fine; Grim Dawn and Prison Architect both stuck very well to their original visions and Iron Lore and Introversion (the respective developers) put out games that fairly closely resembled their original ideas. On the other hand failures to deliver are commonplace, and some are quite spectacular – the Ouya being perhaps the prime example, at least until Star Citizen finally collapses and implodes. The Godus debacle did massive harm to Molyneux’s remaining reputation in the industry. Mighty No. 9 was not well received at all, despite the tremendous degree of hype surrounding it. It seems that one of the biggest risks is making unrealistic promises, or piling more and more features on as a game gains the very hype that is needed for success. This is why a planned feature list is essential and why sensible developers provide a list of stretch goals, and remain very coy about going beyond this.

This is not to say there are no success stories. The aforesaid Prison Architect and Grim Dawn sit alongside games like Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun, and FTL, all of which are extremely enjoyable games that delivered on all or almost all of their promises, and met with solid review scores at a minimum. Awareness of the pitfalls will remain vital for developers seeking this means of funding and the expectations that come with it. Still, in the end, a system that has given us games like that must be said to be one that is more beneficial than not, and hopefully standards will develop that help ensure best practice and realistic goals going forward.

Part 3 of A Big-Budget Roguelike?

The concluding entry in Mr. Adequate’s ‘A Big-Budget Roguelike’ series. If you missed them, read Part 1 and Part 2!

This is the fact that roguelikes are traditionally turn-based. This is vastly more consequential that first blush suggests, so much so that I think addressing it one way or another would be among the most important parts of any effort to make a big-budget roguelike. The reason for this is that being turn-based is what dictates the pace of the game, and what makes all those other elements important in turn. You enter a room in a dungeon and see three monsters, two of which you recognize as tough enemies, the third you’ve never seen before. Now you have to stop and think; Can you guess what the third monster can do, and how strong it is? At this point the many options of a roguelike come into play, and being turn-based is at the heart of that. Out of all your skills, spells, and items, which ones will serve you best in this encounter? Wiping out some small-time idiot is simple, but when you come up against a challenge in a roguelike, it is a tense game of tactics, luck, and knowing what you have on hand and how to use it. The fondest memories of pretty much any roguelike player will come from these fights, where you overcome ridiculous odds through the clever use of your tools, and most roguelikes pride themselves on designing encounters which can go from unwinnable to trivial depending on the player’s use of their tools.

Also note that there are a million items as well.
The skills available to just one class.

Going real-time changes that equation. By definition if your players can’t stop and think, your game design has to accommodate that. Imagine trying to play Dark Souls with the number of skills, items, potions, etc., that are present in a game like ToME. It simply isn’t feasible. There are still solutions to this; you could have a turn-based first-person dungeon crawler nonetheless, a game like Legend of Grimrock or Etrian Odyssey, as there is certainly a healthy market. You could do as The Elder Scrolls does, and have real-time combat with the ability to pause, go through all your spells or items, and select them or use them instantly. That gets unwieldy, but may be a sufficient solution. And this all assumes a change from the top-down grid-based perspective anyway, and that may not actually be needed. Instead you could keep that but have very high quality graphics, properly animated sprites, and plentiful effects. I am not entirely convinced of how well that could sell, but it is certainly one angle that would be interesting to see attempted.

And in the end I might just be barking up the wrong tree here. As I said above this is a hobbyist’s genre. Modern indie stuff has hugely benefited from the possibilities opened up by crowdfunding, and more than one existing roguelike has used it in order to improve. Games like ToME, ADOM, and Cataclysm have expanded gameplay as well as made themselves more attractive, whilst a game like Dungeonmans has helped refine things so that it is more accessible. Games from FTL to Project Zomboid have taken aspects of the genre and made something new. Japanese devs have always taken some parts of Roguelikes and incorporated them into exciting games, with a particular focus on first person, Dragon Quest-inspired dungeon crawlers. All of this makes it hard to predict the future of the genre, as it may inspire a bigger effort from a bigger developer who thinks they see a niche, or it may simply continue being a smaller, constantly remixed genre for those who want to go and find it.

I'm definitely going to resist the siren song of Legion btw.
It wouldn’t be the first time a genre has had an unexpected breakout hit that changes everything!

Either way, though, Procedural Death Labyrinths are in rude health as a genre. There are a wealth of entries that range from the brutally hardcore NetHack to the much more approachable, yet still challenging, Dungeonmans. And as I have said there are also many games that take some aspects of the genre whilst leaving others behind to make new subgenres or gameplay experiences. Despite this I would still love to see a company with real resources take a shot at the genre. Any takers? From Software? Bethesda? Anyone?

Part 2 of a Big-Budget Roguelike?

Part 2 of a multi-part series by Mr. Adequate looking at the possibilities of making a roguelike with a generous budget. Read Part 1 here!

The modern trends in and around the genre imply that the apparent conflict between long roguelikes and short gamer attention spans is not insurmountable. A particular subgroup of the genre has come to be called “Coffeebreak roguelikes”, and they gained this name by being games you could fire up and play for ten or fifteen minutes while taking a coffee break. There are obvious contradictions with some of the points that define the genre, most especially as a coffeebreak roguelike is explicitly one that can be learned with great ease. The difficulty for developers arises in designing a game that distinguishes between difficulty of learning to play, and difficulty of mastering. Chess, for example, has rules that can be explained in a few minutes and can be picked up in a game or two, yet is a game of astonishing depth and ongoing tactical evolution. I would say that the accessible roguelike needs, as a top priority, to make itself approachable, so players can pick it up and know what they are doing and how to do what they want as quickly as possible. Coffeebreak roguelikes are certainly a step in that direction, and in particular games like DooMRL or Dungeonmans are vastly more approachable than some of the old games.

Similarly we have seen roguelikes which make a concerted effort to be more aesthetically appealing to players. Graphics remain basic and actual animations are rare, but it’s hard to think of modern roguelikes which do not have either inbuilt tilesets or easily modded ones. Roguelikes also run into an unusual problem in this regard because their sheer scope makes having a graphical representation for every possible item, monster, and piece of equipment, is difficult to achieve. This wasn’t a problem in the old days when a tyrannical, lordly dragon was represented simply by a ‘D’. Modern games even within the genre are more hesitant about doing that, and those who seek to branch out take pains to meet that challenge, but a complex roguelike with a large budget would have to devote considerable dev resources to the task.

Come on Bethesda, you made Daggerfall, make TES VI this big!
Dwarf Fortress is only part Roguelike but the scope of the map makes the point.

Perhaps that is an inherent contradiction. Perhaps the complexity expected from roguelikes as a genre makes the idea of a complex one in a 3D world and first person perspective simply unworkable. Is there actually a way that, say, the vast array of items and their interactions in NetHack could be done in a modern RPG UI? I’m sure it could. Could it be meaningfully better than the system that we have in NetHack today? That’s a less certain prospect. There is a lot of information to convey in most roguelikes, and the detail demanded the genre means shortcuts such as showing a sword does fire damage by having it be on fire isn’t enough. That would be good, sure, but players want and need the details. Does it do a flat +3 fire damage? Does it do 1d6 fire damage? Yet roguelikes also have a lot of hidden information, quite deliberately, because the process of learning is largely the point. In truth much of the appeal of roguelikes is in not starting with the kind of information players desire. You learn it over time, hard-won knowledge through repeated playthroughs. This weapon is good for this situation. This spell is good for this enemy. Combine X and Y items to make Z potion. True, this is part of most games to some extent, but it is taken to its logical conclusion with the roguelike genre.

In roguelikes as they stand this tension has been resolved mostly in favor of complexity and obscurity, and there is much to commend that approach. Whether it could be applied successfully to a game with more stereotypically large production values is another matter. A bigger budget means that a bigger audience, with higher sales, is needed to break even. There is something of an instinctive assumption that this just doesn’t comport with the kind of gameplay a roguelike has, but there is a shining example of a game that demonstrates quite conclusively that very difficult games can be very popular. That game, or rather series, is Dark Souls, notorious for unforgiving gameplay that takes effort and mastery, as well as learning about different weapons, timings, and what enemies can do. That is not to say the game is a roguelike, as it shares similarities only in that they are RPGs of a form and both are difficult, but rather to highlight that difficulty is not necessarily a bar to success – there is a potential customer base for difficult games of some considerable size.

dark souls dot gif

By the same token, roguelikes have had a surprisingly large effect outside their own genre in recent years, with many games taking inspiration in one way or another to create new experiences. These have been termed “roguelites”, as they typically adopt some aspects of the genre but not others, such as having randomly generated levels and loot but no permadeath. Some games also feature Ironman modes, which can be chosen by players who do seek the thrill of permadeath, but can be left off for those who want a more traditional progression through a game. There are many examples of elements of roguelikes being adopted by other genres or subgenres – perhaps most notable is the randomization of loot, areas, and to some extent enemies which the Diablo series took. From there a whole subgenre of ARPG was built, and that in turn influenced games of all kinds. When you pick up a really powerful purple gun in Borderlands? Ultimately that stems from roguelikes.

Roguelites now encompass games such as The Binding of Isaac, FTL, Rogue Legacy, and Risk of Rain, all of which draw some but not all elements of the genre in, and often mix them with others. It’s probably not fair to actually use the roguelite label as one of definition, in fact, because it’s more about games of other types that have adopted parts of roguelikes, rather than it being a subgenre of roguelikes. Still, things such as permadeath, randomly generated levels, random loot, and more are far from unknown to players who have never even heard of Rogue. It’s a different fact, and one which knits all those disparate mechanics together, that in my eyes really makes a roguelike.

Tune in next time to find out what this central element is in the third and final part of the series, now available right here!

Part 1 of A Big-Budget Roguelike?

In this multi-part series, Mr. Adequate takes a look at the roguelike genre and asks; what if someone with money made one?

Roguelikes. A genre steeped in misty and foreboding lore, a place where the truly hardcore dwell and where mastery of a single game can easily take years or even more. This is the genre of archaic acronyms like ToME and ADOM, inscrutable graphics that have until recently almost always been ASCII and nothing but, and most of all brutally unforgiving gameplay, which the fans of course love and relish. But why has the genre stayed in this niche? Where is the ‘big budget’ roguelike, or if not triple-A at least a medium level game with enough funding for animation and better UIs?

In order to explore this question, we need to know what we mean by the term roguelike, and my argument will also hinge on a look at the influences the genre has had on others, which is surprisingly varied. Roguelikes, as you may discern from the name, are games which are like Rogue. Released all the way back in 1980, before even Pike and I were born, Rogue wasn’t actually the first entry in the genre but was by far the most successful of the early contenders, and as this was an era when genre names were deeply unoriginal (remember “Doom-Clone”?) that was the name that stuck. Unlike the transition from Doom-clone to First Person Shooter, Roguelikes have never attained a more generic genre name, and so we still refer to a game that is now 36 years old to describe them. That said, note that the term “Procedural Death Labyrinths” or PDLs does exist even if it lacks much currency. For a good discussion of the genre’s name take a look at Tanya X. Short’s article on Gamasutra about the matter.

The monster actually looks like he's real sleepy tbh, not that scary.
Get ready to git gud.

Once Rogue arrived, the genre started to gain traction and staples of the genre such as NetHack, Angband, and Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADoM) would drop through the 80s and 90s. These games shared certain qualities that made them obvious descendants of Rogue and which codified the genre, among which were;

– Dungeon crawling as the primary thing you are doing

– Built on a core of RPG elements, which is to say stats, levels, etc.

– Turn-based combat

– A typically vast array of skills, items, equipment, monsters, and so on

– Procedurally or randomly generated levels

– Very basic aesthetically, with ASCII graphics and sometimes no sound or music at all

– Permadeath, so if you die, you’re dead and that character is gone forever; you often have to reroll the world as well

Still, the genre has always had some flux in it and that has colored efforts to pin down exactly what a roguelike is. Even the most well-meaning and intelligent efforts such as the Berlin Interpretation run into controversy, especially due to the influence the genre is now having outside of the core canon of games that are almost universally agreed to fit into the genre.

Roguelikes developed in a unique situation that led to this rather uncommon combination of features. A large influence on their evolution was the university culture of the 80s, where the computer and still young Internet created a potent and hitherto unseen space for sharing ideas and information. The terminal computers of the day were not exactly powerhouses and this led to extremely compact programs when people started to make games. The genre can perhaps be thought of as a collection of preset rules which interact to create the procedural elements – those rules can be programmed far more efficiently than a comparable number of levels. This also explains the spartan aesthetic elements and ASCII graphics, as anything more was prohibitive in both computing demands and Internet capacity.

Now imagine learning what the symbols for 400+ monsters are.
So this is basically what it looked like as a genre.

This created a culture of hobbyists, who were making these games because they enjoyed tinkering, to improve their skills, or to experiment with gameplay mechanics. In turn this meant a very open culture developed where the games were almost all freeware, where source code was shared, and where forks were actively encouraged. Indeed most of the older extant roguelikes trace their lineage to a different version of themselves. For instance, Rogue was cloned as a game called Hack, and further development on Hack is what morphed it into the seminal NetHack.

The upshot of this was in turn to make a genre that was dedicated to its vision, with developers dedicated to their games, and players dedicated to mastery. Roguelikes are uncommon in that they are explicitly very, very hard games most of the time, and many can take years of play to even complete once, nevermind to actually master. This is a point of great pride for essentially everyone in the community. The level of complexity in a game is often held up as a virtue and, when you really get to grips with something and discover the tremendously improbable ways you can combine skills and items to achieve victory, it’s easy to see why. The downside is that accessibility has suffered and until recently has been a low priority for developers. Just getting to grips with the basics of playing the game, the equivalent of learning to jump, fire a gun, and throw a grenade in Halo, can be daunting. In my experience this is not something that engenders much elitism among roguelike players, rather the attitude is “Yes, it’s a pain to learn, but it’s so worth it!” but nonetheless for a new player approaching the genre can be deeply intimidating.

Yadda yadda Matrix joke.
This is the most thrilling zombie attack ever, I swear.

Here, perhaps, we see the first true obstacle to the creation of a big-budget roguelike, as most gamers today are thought to want fairly short adventures of something between, say, eight and twenty hours. Those who want longer games still have their genres and some do very well (Consider Pillars of Eternity’s success for a prime example), but aside from the occasional Skyrim it’s just not what players as a whole are looking for. There’s almost certainly truth to this view, as only a small subset of people who play games really have the time or inclination to invest dozens of hours into games with any regularity, even though we probably all have the rare one that sucks us in far beyond what we expected.

Next time, we’ll look at trends in modern roguelikes and roguelites for some ideas of how a big-budget roguelike might stumble, and what it might do to bring in the masses.
Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here!

The Tale of The Time I Found a Weird Arcade In Another Dimension

So a couple years back Mister Adequate and myself visited a little arcade that was in the back of a dinky bagel shop.  So far so normal, right?

As it turns out this arcade was anything but normal.  The room itself had a weird feeling to it, as if it wasn’t quite of this world but was trying its hardest to blend in.  The games themselves were proof that this wasn’t your average arcade.

For starters, there was a Pac-Man machine with a maze that wasn’t anything like a normal Pac-Man maze.  Also, when you won, it said “Linear Elect” instead of Game Over.  I actually took a picture of it because it was so weird.


There was also a game called “Kickman” which neither I nor Mister Adequate have ever heard of before in our entire lives.  Now not to brag or anything but we kind of know a lot about video games.  It’s why we’re writing this blog, after all.  But “Kickman”?  It was brand new to us.  Wikipedia says it exists, but I’m dubious.  I’m pretty sure the wikipedia page was spawned into existence by whatever otherworldly power is behind that strange arcade.

Finally, there was a Frogger machine that refused to accept regular quarters.  Presumably because it only accepts quarters from its own native dimension – wherever that is.

I think the only normal game in the building was Donkey Kong.  Probably because Nintendo hardware is impervious to things like damage and black holes and time continuums.

So there you have it.  The strange tale of the arcade from an alternate universe.  I wonder what other sorts of games await us beyond our own world?

Brexit Simulator 2016

By now you have almost certainly heard that, in an historic referendum, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Whilst markets and quite possibly nations crumble, an interesting idea occurred to me. Where is the game about this?

Well, of course, there’s unlikely to be a game about this issue specifically because it has only just happened, and it was not the outcome which was expected at that. No, what I am really getting at is where are the games about a topic like this. There are a lot of games, primarily in the simulation/strategy/management tent, which focus on some kind of aggressive acquisition of objectives. Be it land, money, resources, there’s plenty of games out there if you want to relive the campaigns of generals from Alexander to Napoleon. But what if you’d rather a game where you choose between playing Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Wilson, or Orlando, in an effort to get the best deal possible after the war is over?

When I found this file it was called "clemmie.jpg" and I ain't changing that.
Preorder bonus is early 20th century statesman’s facial hair.

In games, conflict is rarely boring. You are thrust into the action whether as a foot soldier or high-level commander, and charged with anything from assaulting Caen to stopping an armored breakthrough with limited resources to crossing the Rubicon. And these are often mightily enjoyable experiences when you’re in the safety of your own home. On occasion a game takes a look at the costs of war too, whether through the strikingly austere presentation of DEFCON or by directly putting you in the shoes of a civilian, as in This War Of Mine. Yet the end of war is never treated with the same kind of detail. In some games such as those from Paradox there is often a nod to the complexities thereof, for instance by making wars require explicit casus belli, but even this is not the norm. Generally peace is achieved through extracting resources, territory, or both, and nothing more is said on the matter.

Moreover this is far from the only kind of non-conflict topic which could be examined in a game. As I said, what about a game where you have to negotiate a country’s exit from (or indeed accession to) the EU? Whatever one thinks of that decision nobody denies that leaving will be a vastly complicated and lengthy procedure, with an extraordinary number of issues that have to be settled before the exit can actually take place. Or what about a constituent part of the UK, where you play as for instance Scotland trying to negotiate independence from the UK and EU membership at the same time?

There were some historical inaccuracies, yes, but "English get tae fuck" remains a powerful rallying cry.
Every man dies. Not every man truly spergs.

These do have the potential to be dry topics. One of my classes in university was on the EU, and much of it was indeed quite a dry and thick topic. However, our final exam was not a written one but rather a role-playing exercise where we formed groups of delegates from EU member nations, and the EU itself, to try and resolve a policy issue that was put to us. This was stressful due to being an exam, but it was also a lively back-and-forth affair of trying to set out our position, suss out everyone else’s, and of giving and getting compromises until everyone went away annoyed but ultimately willing to commit to the deal.

There are a vast number of examples where peaceful negotiations, peace treaties, and so forth could be used as a model for such a game and I am just providing a couple of particularly salient examples to make my case. The next question, if that basic idea is accepted, is how could such a game be made? In truth I am quite a bit less certain about this than that it should be tried. It would not be a totally new genre – games such as Democracy 3 and Shadow President provide at least an outline to start from – but it would nonetheless be something that needs to be developed largely from scratch, without the convenient genre conventions (and occasional crutches) that typically provide the framework for both designers and players to rely on.

What about a city builder where you deal with a large army invading as the civil administrator?
It’s not like genres haven’t been invented before though.

We can draw some outlines though. First is to establish what constitutes win, and lose, conditions. I suspect it would be best to focus on a particular situation, such as Brexit or Versailles, rather than to have a one-size-fits-all approach with multiple scenarios. That sounds limiting, and I do believe some element of randomness should be present (e.g. a Versailles game should involve a possibility for the US to be absent, or Imperial Russia to still be present with no Brest-Litovsk having taken place, or so forth). How to define victories and losses in such a game would be the real problem, in no small part because such things were hotly contested in real life. My proposition would be that the country or interest you represent would have some semi-random objectives it wishes to achieve, and your job is to do that. Post-game, you would ideally be shown the longer-term consequences of these choices, but I’m not sure that it would be good to e.g. be France at Versailles, get everything Maréchal Foch wanted, and then see that twenty years later your success as a player led to WW2. Failure states, conversely, could encompass a whole array of things, from simply not getting everything you wanted to reigniting the war.

Gameplay itself could meanwhile take quite a variety of forms. The two which most immediately spring to mind are either dialog trees and responses, something like L.A. Noire perhaps, or by making some sort of card game in the style of Fate of the World or the diplomacy side of Star Ruler 2. These are obviously fairly at odds in how they approach matters and the former would seem to be much more difficult to implement well than the latter. Regardless it would be a venture into untested waters, and in the absence of glamor I expect such games would be exclusively the domain of indie devs. If any do want to give it a shot, you’ve certainly got one potential customer who would be deeply interested in taking a look!

I would love to hear what you think about this possibility. Have I missed any obvious ways it might be implemented? Any problems you can foresee? Are there in fact such games in existence, which I am unaware of? Please leave your comments!

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dragon Age

Dragon Age is a series I didn’t get into until very recently, for several reasons.  One of the reasons was a simple lack of time to play every video game I want to play.  Another reason was “I dunno, I’m not really a Bioware person.”  And, finally, there was the “I know I’m going to get obsessed with it if I play it, so I’m not going to play it” reason.  Hey, at least I can say I know myself well, right?

So a few months back I gave in, due largely to Mister Adequate’s insistence as he’d recently played through the games and recommended them.  So I bought them, rubbed my hands together, and went on a marathon.  I played all three – Origins, 2, and Inquisition, as well as nearly all of the DLC – in order.  And I came out of the experience a broken creature, sniffling and teary-eyed because this stupid game series had put me through the wringer more than anything in recent memory.  (Except maybe Undertale, which had me sobbing because a couple of pixels told me I was their friend, but that’s a story for a different blog post.)

Anyways.  The tale of how Dragon Age ruined my life.

Before Dragon Age, this gigantic art print most certainly was not hanging on my wall.
Before Dragon Age, this gigantic art print was most certainly NOT hanging on my wall.

I figure most of you reading this have probably heard of this series, if not played it.  So I won’t go into huge detail about what it is.  A quick overview, though, just in case: it’s a party-based CRPG – a spiritual successor to games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale – but modernized for a new generation.  It’s made by Bioware, which means it’s full of choices and romance and a pretty thick story.  The lore is excellent and done in a way that it falls smack in the middle of Saturday Morning 80s Cartoon (Warcraft) and Complicated Ethereal Tangle Where Everything and Nothing is Canon (The Elder Scrolls).  But while all of these things were well done, where this series truly shines is the characters.

47810_screenshots_20160624181631_1Do you see all these losers?

They’re my best friends in the world and I love them dearly.

The Dragon Age Setting aka Thedas (yes Bioware we all see what you did there) is a dark fantasy world inspired by, among other things, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  But whereas I eventually quit watching Game of Thrones because it was just so dark and dreary all the time– oh look, another one of your favorite characters bit the dust in a horrible fashion, hooray!– Dragon Age actually manages to shine a beam of hope through its dark world.  And that hope is largely generated by the companions you meet, who offer moments both humorous and tender.  So while death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints (and it takes and it takes and it takes)… well, we keep living anyway, and you’re not alone.  And let me tell you what, in today’s world, that’s an incredibly comforting reminder.

So moving on.  If you laugh in the face of the idea of falling in love with a bunch of polygons on your monitor, I’ve got news for you buddy: Alistair is adorkable, Zevran needs your help remembering his worth, Leliana wants to talk to you about shoes and Shale is a giant robot made of rocks.  Also you get a dog.

Thank you for the Snapchat, Bioware.
Thank you for the Snapchat, Bioware.

Ohhh and we’re not done yet.  Hold on to your hats because it’s time for Dragon Age 2 which is all about friendship with a bunch of losers who only ever exist to make your life a living hell, and yet you love them anyway because… why?

Oh. Got it!
Oh. Got it!

You’ve got Varric, the Ultimate Bro (using bro in a good way here – he’s your buddy, your wingman), Aveline, the Mom Friend, Merrill, who is as clueless as she is adorable, Isabela the sweet-talkin’ pirate, Fenris the broody (“I’m not brooding!”) anime elf featuring Gideon Emery’s smooth movie trailer voice, and Anders, the healer who likes cats and FREEDOM and more cats.

…granted, that doesn’t mention the parts where Merrill is really into blood magic and trying to fix a Very Evil Broken Mirror, Isabela conveniently being the reason why a bunch of Baddies won’t leave the city, Fenris’ penchant for drinking and ripping peoples’ hearts from their chests, and Anders sharing his mind with a demon and blowing things up.

But, I mean, they’re family, right?  And families are weird and dysfunctional.  And that’s not even getting started on your actual in-game family.

Thank you, Incorrect Dragon Age.
Thank you, Incorrect Dragon Age and Arrested Development.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the newest and fanciest one, and features many new and wonderful friends such as a Spirit of Compassion who doesn’t want to hurt anyone but is mysteriously very good at stabbing people, and an unwashed apostate hobo elf whose head looks like an egg and who speaks in iambic pentameter half the time.  He also [redacted] and [DATA EXPUNGED] and romance him at your own peril because YOU WILL REGRET IT and end up buying plushies of him that you then sob over.

…not that I did that or anything.

I like my Egg. He's squishy.
I like my Egg. He’s squishy.

And I most definitely did not dedicate a Spotify playlist to him. Nnnnope.  Not me.

Ok, maybe I did.
Ok, maybe I did.

The point is that Dragon Age does for characters what The Elder Scrolls did for a world.  Morrowind throws you into a strange and alien land and over the course of the game you come to care about it, and that’s your motivation for beating the Big Bad.  With Dragon Age, you’re thrown into strange circumstances with a bunch of strange companions, and you care for them so much that they’re your motivation for beating the Big Bads.

Ultimately, this series is comfort food of the best kind: the kind we need right now.  2016 has not been particularly kind to us.  A lot of scary and tumultuous things are happening in the world right now.  It’s rough when every day you dread checking the latest news headlines or reading the trending topics on Twitter or Facebook.  It makes you wonder where the bright spots are.  What, in this strange, chaotic world, is worth it?

The world of Dragon Age is not kind to its inhabitants and yet its inhabitants are still plucky and still your friends.  They need you, and you need them.  And they’re not perfect, but they make you smile.  Or cry.  Or laugh.  Or all three.  And maybe, just maybe, it’s nice to have the reminder that there are people who are worth fighting for.  Both in a video game and in real life.

And frankly if there are video games that can remind you of that, then those are video games worth playing.

I highly recommend booping your Egg on the nose.
I highly recommend booping your Egg on the nose.

[disgusted noise]