What I’m Playing This Week

I have so many games on the go right now, that I set a goal of finishing games I was already playing rather than starting new ones. I totally failed at this, I keep picking up new games.

Mass Effect 3

I’m still slowly plodding through ME3. I’ve been able to continue to stay a total Renegade (though I refuse to just outright kill General Oraka.) Mass Effect 3 is such a puzzling game to me. Every 10 minutes I rediscover some really dumb design decision that bothers me, but it still manages to be immensely playable and enjoyable. The combat is the best of the series, plus there’s all the back story and nostalgia of running into practically every character you ever met in the previous two games.

Mass Effect 3 Omega DLC

I just started doing some of the DLC content, which I never did the first time around. Right now I’m helping Aria take back Omega. This is the DLC I was least excited about, I’m saving the best (Citadel, hopefully) for last.

Long Live the Queen

In Long Live the Queen you play as the Princess Elodie, who is getting ready to be crowned Queen. But can you keep her alive – safe from assassins, magic, and public revolt – until then? LLTQ is a kind of choose your own adventure with surprisingly complex systems. Every turn Elodie has the choice of leveling up 2 of 42 possible skills (things like Royal Demeanor, Archery, or Foreign Intelligence) in order to prepare her for being queen. Elodie’s mood also affects how quickly she learns, so that needs to be managed as well in order to optimize.

When I started playing this game, I felt like an utter failure. Every time an event happened that tested one of these skills I failed because I had chosen to learn something else. It was a bit off-putting. However, after playing through a couple times I learned that I didn’t have to pass every check, and it was better to level a few skills up a lot rather than try to learn everything. It’s a pretty cool game, and I’ve been having fun trying to discover all the different events and endings. I’m stuck trying to find out what really happened to Elodie’s mother though, I really want to get that achievement.

PT

I have a complex relationship with scary games; I love the idea of them, but I’m quite wimpy and find them difficult to play alone. I’ve been wanting to play PT since it was announced, but never even worked up the guts to install it. Until last weekend. I got together with a few friends (including my mom), and a few bottles of wine and we beat the hell out of the Silent Hill demo. It was very disturbing. I really applaud the makers of the game for how they made travelling down the same hallway over and over again such an engaging experience.

I’ll admit that there were a couple times 3 of us screamed in unison (but not my mom, she’s a rock), but we got through it okay and ended up completing the demo a few times. It’s pretty cool how the experience is always a little different. We almost never saw the ghost, and we never got killed in the time that we played.

Alan Wake

Alan Wake

Continuing with the scary games, I’m also playing Alan Wake. This game is spooky, but not too scary – I have no problem playing it alone. I’m on chapter 4 of 5 and  I’m really enjoying it so far. The game is very cinematic and focuses a lot on story, while still having good gameplay. The atmosphere of the game is enhanced by manuscript pages you find lying around (Wake is an author), which can be downright creepy when they start foreshadowing future events.  The pacing so far is fantastic and makes Alan Wake a very entertaining ride. I do tend to stream when I play this, in case anyone hasn’t played and wants to see it.

Wasteland 2

I told myself I wasn’t ready for another sprawling, text-heavy, 60 hour epic after I finished Divinity: Original Sin, but I jumped right into Wasteland 2 after getting it for my birthday anyway. It’s a lot of fun. I love isometric, turn-based combat. I love post-apocalypse stories. I love good writing, easter eggs, and 80s pop culture references (Teddy Ruxpin!). Wasteland 2 has all of these things in abundance. I’ve only put in about 10 hours so far, but it’s a lot of fun. There are some minor annoyances when it comes to using skills, but I’ve overcome them by playing the game on easy. Usually I don’t like to do this, but I don’t want to get frustrated with invisible dice rolls making me fail too many events or having to min/max every character. Easy mode is preferable, and less time-consuming, than save scumming.

Yes, I did pick out the stupidest looking outfit.

Yes, I did pick out the stupidest looking outfit.

The only major complaint I have about Wasteland 2 is the character models, especially during character creation. Holy shit, they are ugly. Tie a porkchop around their necks so the dog will play with them- ugly. I ended up using all pre-made characters in my initial party because I really didn’t want to look at the terrible custom-made character avatars during my game, and I couldn’t bear to give any of them the name Jasyla.

Zuma’s Revenge

Zuma's Revenge - XBox live arcade

Zuma! I loved the original Zuma, and noticed that there was a sequel on XBox Live Arcade the other day (it came out in 2012, I am obviously oblivious), so I snapped that right up. I bought it on Tuesday and finished the last of the 60 levels 2 nights later. Zuma is my perfect mindless puzzle game. Somehow the developers managed to make the process of shooting coloured balls into other coloured balls fresh with the introduction of boss fights at the end of every level, along with coins you can earn by beating target times and scores to level up spirit animals who will boost your abilities a little bit. This sequel did seem to scroll back the difficulty from the original quite a lot though – the only times I ever “lost” a puzzle was when I was trying for achievements.

Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor

More scary games, this one is a psychological survival horror. Even with pixelated graphics this game manages to be quite nerve-wracking because of the setting and the unearthly, hair-raising sound effects. The encounters in Lone Survivor are weird in an almost Lynchian way, so the story has managed to capture my imagination. I’m looking forward to finding out how it all ends, but I don’t think it will be a happy ending.

The Yawhg

The Yawhg

I hadn’t heard of this game until I picked it up as part of a bundle. I really wanted something short to play so I could say I’ve finished something and this fit the bill. The Yawhg is a strange game. It’s kind of like a digital board game or choose your own adventure, but the encounters on each “space” are random, so you don’t always know what you’re going to get. You play between 2-4 characters and the goal, if you can call it that, is to prepare for “the Yawhg” which is going to come and destroy everything. Each character has stats like Mind, Strength and Wealth, which get built up by completing activities. This is an amusing little game that made me laugh out loud a few times as the encounters often entered the realm of the bizarre. Also the soundtrack is tops. I played through a couple times in 40 minutes before deciding I had seen everything. Game complete.


So, what have you been playing this week?

Creepiest Moments in Games

It’s October, and time for all things scary and disturbing. No I’m not talking about GamerGate (ba dum pssh), I’m talking about scary games. I can be pretty wimpy when it comes to on-screen scares, but I’ve still played my share of horror games. The thing that tends to get to me most in horror games is the sounds. I can handle jump scares or gore, but too many scary noises and I’ll likely need to turn it off and take a break.

Here are some of the creepiest moments from games I’ve played.

Silent Hill – Radio

SH was one of the first horror games I ever played. It was the first horror game I quit after barely an hour because I was too creeped out to go on. Watching the beginning of this video, with less than impressive PS1 graphics and wooden voice acting, it may be hard to believe that this game could be really scary, but it was. That radio sound… /shudder. And it wasn’t just an awful sound, it mean that something was coming.

Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly – Laughter

Fatal Frame 2 takes the cake for scariest game I’ve played. Creepy twins, ghosts, a combination of both jump scares and intensely creepy situations. Plus there was a scene with a well, and those have been traumatizing since The Ring. The malevolent, maniacal laugher in this scene was the worst.

Slender – The whole damn thing

This game is intense. I will admit that I’ve never actually played this game myself, but I’ve watched over the shoulders of a couple other people playing it. Well, trying to play it. They both quit before they found all 8 pages. The game environment is very sparse, but that adds to the terror. The worst part is the sound  the game is filled with the sounds of your footsteps, ragged breath, and pumping heart. As you find pages, things get even worse as the camera starts to shake and the creepy sounds go into overdrive.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines – Ocean House Hotel

VtMB isn’t really a horror game (though some of the bugs and character models can be quite horrifying), but it’s definitely filled with creepy moments. The haunted Ocean House Hotel is the scariest part. You’re sent to find something that will exorcise the spirits from the house and you discover the story of a man who went crazy and killed his family (it’s very Shining-like). While you’re going through this, you encounter ghostly apparitions, poltergeists who send objects flying at you, and doors that open on their own.

 Alan Wake – Chapter 1 Nightmare

I just started Alan Wake recently because I figured I should play something scary before Halloween. I’m not finished yet, but so far it’s a lot of fun. It’s very cinematic and no too scary, but the combo of maniacal laughter and being trapped in this scene (about midway through the video) right near the beginning of the game really creeped me out.

 What games creep you out?

The Continually Disappointing and Melodramatic Dead

Warning: This post contains ranting. Also, spoilers! So if you aren’t caught up on The Walking Dead or haven’t watched the season 5 premiere (and you still care), turn back now.

Ah, The Walking Dead. I never read the graphic novels, but when the television show started back in 2010, I was excited. I love apocalyptic fiction, and it’s not a genre that’s covered often, or well on television. The BBC series Survivors was enjoyable, but only lasted for 12 episodes, and I guess you could call BS:G post-apocalyptic, but that’s about it. The Walking Dead gave us the end of the world and gave us zombies, which hadn’t been quite so overdone as they are now.

The 6-episode first season was well done. The setup was good, personal relationships and conflicts were established. There was a clear goal of getting to the Atlanta CDC to see if there was hope for a cure.

Season 2 starts with some excitement (oh by the way, the CDC stuff from last season? A hopeless waste of time). Sophia is missing! Carl is shot! The apocalypse is clearly no place for children. The group finds a farm which seems safe enough, owned by a vet who moonlights as a doctor and they stay there. For the entire season. Just hanging out on the farm. The story stopped moving forward, and instead each episode centered on personal drama and all the characters yelling at each other without actually communicating.

Season 3 has the survivors camping out in a prison. We get introduced to the Governor, who’s a bit of a caricature of a villain and Michonne, who everyone loves, but her defining character trait at this point is that she has a sword. Rick goes crazy, but he’s such a boring character that nobody cares. A bunch of major characters die, and the survivors return to the prison. Oh, and now there’s a baby. Because that will end well.

Season 4 brought the Governor back, and this time tries to make us sympathize with him. He just wants a family to take care of, he’s not so bad. Oh, wait, he just decapitated a sweet old Hershel, never mind. Once the prison is left behind, things did pick up a bit. The group gets separated, new relationships form, Michonne develops into an actual character. And then there’s Terminus. Everyone starts heading toward this apparent sanctuary. There’s mystery! There’s intrigue! What is Terminus? Is it safe? Who are these people who run it? The season ends with most of the group locked in a shipping container. Apparently no, Terminus is not safe, but Rick and the others are determined to survive.

That brings us to season 5. I’m so mad I can’t even form proper paragraphs.

  • After all the Terminus build-up – who are these people? What are they going to do? Are they cannibals? Within 5 minutes of the season opener, all the questions are answered. Yup, they’re totally cannibals, and they’re going to kill Rick, Bob, Daryl, and Glenn RIGHT NOW.
  • The four merry men are knelt in front of a trough and we watch 4 redshirts get their throats slit like pigs. Then, it’s Glenn’s turn. Oh no! Not Glenn! He’s going to die!
  • Nevermind, we get Carol ex machina, who blows up part of Terminus just in time to save him!
  • Ugh, this whole situation is so dumb and lacks any kind of tension. We know they’re not going to kill off 4 leads in one scene at the very start of a season. Was anyone actually worried? And having them saved right before it’s Glenn’s turn to die is just lazy. Mix it up a bit. If Bob had been first in the kill line, I might be worried for him. But Glenn? Don’t waste my time.
  • So the whole five episode arc leading up to Terminus is just done, boom. Cannibals all dead, Rick and co. are free in the first half of the episode.
  • This episode also features Tyreese. He’s with Judith (Carol has gone off to be a hero), and watching over one of the people from Terminus. This character plot device tells Tyreese he and the baby are going to die because T won’t kill him. Tyreese is a good guy, he just wants everyone to get along, but he gets the message and eventually pounds the guy’s face into the dirt (though I’m kind of skeptical that he actually killed him since he wouldn’t let Carol go in and see the body).
  • Then, a happy ending! Rick and Carl are reunited with Judith! Tyreese is reunited with Sasha! Carol is reunited with Darryl! Beth’s still MIA, but who cares! There are tears of joy, maybe the rest of the season will be one big love-in.
  • We got two flashbacks at the beginning and end of the episode that showed the people running Terminus and how they had been captured and brutalized by others before, so that’s why they turned into butchers themselves. But there’s a pretty big discrepancy between killing your captors and protecting your own, vs. sending out broadcasts and putting up signs drawing people to you so you can capture, kill, and eat them. And they’re all dead now anyway, so the flashback at the end really did nothing. If you want to explore these characters, fine, but this was a really brief and lazy way of doing it.
  • TDW is very subtly trying to show us that our favourite characters are becoming the monsters they were trying to fight. Oh, did I say subtle? I meant they are using a sledgehammer to drive that point across.
  • The action scenes are starting to feel like they’re just showing off how good the make-up and effects departments have gotten at gore. And they are good. But now it just seems like the show is trying to gross us out rather that create horror in any literary way.
  • There are things that make me think I want to continue watching season 5 – another actor from The Wire, Morgan from way back in season 1 – but I also know I’ll continue to be disappointed. They’ll continue meeting and killing new people. Some big thing will get built up this season only to be resolved within an episode once they finally get there. Characters will yell at each other and question if they have become monsters. And on and on and on.

So that’s it. I obviously didn’t care for the episode, which is disappointing since the build up in season 4 actually made me excited for this premiere. I think I’m mostly just mad that I keep watching the show when it clearly gives me no joy.

Game Reviews by the Numbers

You visit Gamespot, IGN, or Ploygon and see a game has been reviewed and given a score of 8. But what does that mean? Is 8 a good score? Should I play it? I think an 8 is a very positive score, but others, who feel that big gaming sites work mainly within a 7-10 scale for big budget titles may think an 8 is not all that hot. First, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that big gaming sites only use the 7-10 part of the scale. Take Polygon’s reviews for XBox One titles, there are a number of scores for big budget games in the 4-6 range. Same with Gamespot.

The issue is that everything about a game review is subjective. From what aspects of the game a reviewer chooses to focus on, to how they ultimately score the game, to which games they review in the first place. A rating of 8 can and will mean different things to different people. Despite the dubious worth of a numerical score, most sites use them. I use them when I write reviews as well. Why? I like numbers.  I don’t think people should pay attention to numbers exclusively but if I want to know, quickly, how much a reviewer enjoyed a game, it’s a good place to start.

An argument could also be made to say that numerical scores are more trouble than they’re worth. Look at any average 7-rated gamed review and the comments will undoubtedly be filled with exclamations such as “7!? You’re obviously a shill, this game is a 6 at most” or “Are you fucking kidding me, 7? Ridiculous, this game is a solid 7.5.” Of course, a stronger argument could be made that we just shouldn’t read the comments on big gaming sites.

I’m obviously not a professional reviewer, but I use numbers as a way to cap off my reviews and give people a quick idea of what I thought of a game. I’ve only written 9 reviews here, but I think I’ve done a good job at using most of the 1-10 scale.

The Swapper – 10/10
Remember Me – 9/10
The Last of Us (Remastered) – 9/10
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – 9/10
Revolution 60 – 8/10
Murdered: Soul Suspect – 7/10
The Walking Dead: Season 2 – 6/10
Contrast – 5/10
Moebius: Empire Rising – 4/10

Looking back, I stand by how I’ve scored games. I enjoyed Contrast (5) more than Moebius (4). I enjoyed The Walking Dead S2 (6) more than Contrast. The place where things get a bit tricky is at the top of the ratings. I gave The Swapper, a short indie puzzler a 10, while I gave The Last of Us a 9. These two games are hard to compare, and I’m not really even making the claim that The Swapper is a better game than The Last of Us, but rather that I enjoyed it more. Though The Last of Us has top-notch writing and quality going for it, I enjoyed the 4 hours I spent with The Swapper more than I enjoyed the 12 hours I spent with The Last of Us.

I’d find it difficult to award a 10 to a AAA title, because there’s just so much going on in them, and so many places to find fault. I’m very critical of bad/unnatural feeling controls, and AAA titles are more likely to have complex control schemes. Their stories can be sprawling, with tons of dialogue and voice acting, which is also a place where fault is often found. They’re more likely to rely on tropes that get overused which makes me think the writing is lazy. Gameplay is varied, from conversation systems, to mini-games, to combat, to crafting, and generally some of those systems work better than others. I’m replaying Mass Effect 3 right now, and though I love it, it would be very easy for me to point out 10 things about it that bug me and could be improved, from holding A to run to having to do multiplayer to optimize galactic readiness. So I couldn’t award it a perfect score. On the other end of the spectrum if you took a game like Limbo, there’s very little to complain about there. The art style is simple, yet effective. Gameplay and controls are not complex, but are very well done. There’s no dialogue, the story is simple and the game gets elevated by  fantastically dark atmosphere. The scope of Limbo is small, but it gave me a great gaming experience and I had nothing to complain about. I could give Limbo a 10.

I think every reviewer looks for different things in games, and puts greater weight on some aspects than others. As I said, I’m very critical of controls. Smooth, seemless controls will make me look very favourably on a game. I also focus a lot on the narrative. I like games that tell a good story and give me characters I can either relate to feel strongly about. Entertainment value is the most important thing though. If a game is a lot of fun, I can overlook a number of issues. Take Saint’s Row 4 for example, there are some annoying technical things, but the game is so damn fun that I don’t care. Likewise, a game can have strong mechanics and look great, but if it doesn’t keep me engaged, that’s worth very little.

There are some things that I don’t care much about at all. Replayability is one. I like games that complete a story, then end. If I replay a game it depends entirely on how much I enjoyed it. I replay games that change based on decisions (like Dragon Age), and I replay games that will be the exactly same the second time around (like Gabriel Knight). Whether the game has multi-player or something tacked on to extend the experience past the main single player game has no impact on how much I enjoy the game. Also, I generally won’t harp on game length or cost except in extreme situations. $10- $20 for a 4 hour indie game seems totally reasonable to me. The only review where I thought a short game length was a major negative was Murdered: Soul Suspect. Full price ($69.99) for an 8 hour game did seem excessive. Otherwise, I won’t complain about a game being short as long as the cost is somewhat in line. I’m actually more likely to complain when a game’s length drags on past its welcome.

Here’s a general rundown of what the 1-10 scale means to me.

  • 10 – This game is special! I got great enjoyment from this game and found very little to criticize.
  • 9 – Excellent, an amazing gaming experience. Probably a couple faults, but nothing major.
  • 8 – Very good. I enjoyed this game but it didn’t blow my mind.
  • 7 – Good. I’m glad I played this game but it did have one or two major (but not game breaking) problems.
  • 6 – Okay. Game had some major problems. The one time I awarded a 6 it was because the first half of the game was very good, and the last half was poor. Probably still worth playing.
  • 5 – Needs improvement. The game had as many negatives as positives going for it. Probably not worth playing unless you really like the genre.
  • 4 – Poor. While not totally without merit, the game gave more frustration or boredom than enjoyment. Not recommended.
  • 1-3 – Honestly, if a game was looking worse than a 4 I would probably stop playing and not write a review. This would likely be due to game-breaking issues, bad gameplay, or hugely offensive content.

What do you think of game reviews and scores? How much weight do you give them when deciding whether to play a game?

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Review)

Red Creek Valley is a place of duality. It’s home to both great beauty and abject horror. One minute the soft, warm light of the sunset reflects off placid water, instilling a sense of serenity. The next you step into the shadows and are filled with unease. Traps litter the entrance to the valley – are they keeping people in or out? The scenery fools you into thinking you are welcome here, but the darkness within soon makes itself known.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells you right at the beginning that it is a narrative experience that will not hold your hand. It holds to that. As you walk into the Valley you’re not told where you’re going or what to do, just that you need to find Ethan Carter. This is quite refreshing. I’ve become so used to waypoints, detailed maps, hints, and having objectives listed on the side of my screen. Ethan Carter urges you to explore and rewards you for it. The game mechanics also aren’t spelled out, but they’re easy enough to pick up.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter scenery

Ethan Carter is a beautiful game. Every five feet I wanted to stop and take a screenshot but at the same time the screenshots don’t really do it justice, as the combination of visuals, sounds, and music really make the experience. The soundtrack is exquisite, haunting, and often ominous. It adds to the sense of wonder during exploration and keeps you on edge as you anticipate how Red Creek Valley’s secrets will present themselves next.

This game really excels in creating atmosphere. There was a major sense of foreboding any time I needed to leave the beautiful country backdrop and go inside. It didn’t matter if it was a Church or a mine, just seeing a doorway made the hairs on my arms stand up. At one point I stood frozen at the entrance to a crypt, knowing there was something to find down there, but dreading descending into the darkness. Tension is maintained through the whole experience. Even just walking through the lovely environments, listening to the haunting music, I was often startled by sudden narration or other sounds.   It maintains constant eeriness, without getting overwhelming. There is only one sequence in the game where you are in any real danger (though death has very little consequence). On one hand, it seemed a little out of place to have an immediate, rather than psychological threat. But on the other, it did amp up the game’s intensity and added a sense of urgency that was otherwise missing.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter cemetary

Gameplay is very simple. This is a first person exploration and mystery game. You can walk, run, crouch (though I found only one place I needed to crouch in the game), and examine or pick up objects. I really enjoyed the puzzles. You weren’t given much direction but everything was logical and the solutions made sense. The major puzzles involve solving murders. You examine the scene, which usually involves the body, the weapon, and a few other key elements. Once you’ve examined everything and put things in their rightful places, you can ‘communicate’ with the body of the victim, which sparks a new puzzle. Vignettes will appear around the crime scene and you need to put them in the correct order so you can reconstruct and watch what happened. Every murder you solve tells you a bit more about the story. There are also some non-murder puzzles to solve, and I found these even more compelling. A favourite of mine involved discerning truth from illusion as you explored an abandoned house. As you solve these puzzles you discover things like Newspaper clippings and stories written by Ethan, which flesh out the narrative.

The overall story is well told – this isn’t about simple murder, there are hints of a greater darkness everywhere. The game raises a lot of questions but doesn’t answer them all. I’m okay with this, as some things are best left up to our imaginations. The voice actor for the main protagonist does a solid, if not exceptional job. He conveys the paranormal detective aspect well, but his lines are a little one-note.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter ghosts

In a few ways, Ethan Carter reminded me of Murdered: Soul Suspect. Solving the mysteries and inspecting clues can be similar, and stylistically there some overlaps. However, unlike Murdered, Ethan Carter isn’t confused about what it is. There are no tacked on action sequences. The game promises exploration and mystery solving and that is what it delivers.

I have very few complaints about Ethan Carter. Sometimes parts of the game world felt a little too large – going from one end of the map to the other required a fair bit of travel time. This was a good thing while I was first exploring, but if I needed to backtrack it felt like a bit of a time sink.

My playthrough of Ethan Carter lasted between 4-5 hours. Given the price-point and the story being told, this seemed just about right. I was tense through the whole game, if it lasted any longer it might have been overkill.

Rating: 9/10 – The vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the most attractive and atmospheric games I’ve played. It maintains an amazing amount of tension throughout, without going into full horror game mode. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys exploring and narrative gaming experiences.

Content warning – A couple instances of bigoted language.


I have a copy of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter for Steam to give away. It’s one of the pre-order editions, which includes some bonuses like the soundtrack, wallpapers, a making of album, and a map of Red Creek Valley. If you want a chance to win, just leave a comment and tell me what your favourite mystery story is (from a game, book, movie, whatever). On Friday October 3rd I will randomly choose a winner. 


I’m making video walkthroughs of the game. If you plan to play it, I’d suggest you skip them and play for yourself though (unless you’re stuck, then check them out). Here’s the first one.

Edit (October 3rd) – I have randomly selected a winner, and that winner is Dahakha! Code has been sent. Thanks everyone for entering!

Information Overload

Once upon a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, before the Internet was a big thing, getting help when you were stuck in a game was not easy. The first game I remember getting stuck on was Maniac Mansion. When I got stuck, there wasn’t a lot of help available. Basically I just had to keep trying new things. Sure it was frustrating but, looking back through wistful rose-coloured glasses, it was also kinda nice. I had to figure things out myself.

However, my gaming hobby had barely gotten started before the era of figuring things out yourself started getting eclipsed by the business of game hints. In 1989 Sierra introduced their new hint line – for only $0.75 for the first minute and $0.50 for every additional minute, you could talk to someone who would tell you how to get through their games. I don’t believe I ever called them, but only because I didn’t have a credit card when I was 8. Gaming magazines, like Nintendo Power had sections dedicated to hints and strategies. Prima Games started making strategy guides in 1990, and their guides for challenging games like Myst sold like hotcakes. Hints were on TV too. If you were lucky enough to be a Canadian with access to YTV, Nicholas Picholas would share Turbo Tips with you every week on Video & Arcade Top 10, which premiered in 1991. In 1995 GameFAQs was created, which really got the ball rolling on internet game walkthroughs and guides.

Access to information is great, but when does it become too much? When does it begin to hinder enjoyment of a game rather than enhance it?

Let’s talk about World of Warcraft for a bit. When I first started playing World of Warcraft, one of the coolest things about it was the amount of exploration I could do. Everything was new to me. Every zone had new things to look at, and every quest (whose text I needed to read in order to know where to go) told a new story. There were little surprises, like treasure chests you could find scattered about. Sure, they rarely had anything exciting in them but just finding them and anticipating the contents as you opened them was exciting. Doing dungeons or killing a rare I stumbled upon and having a blue piece of loot for me was unexpected and rewarding. One of my favourite early memories from the game was finding and completing the questline that eventually rewarded me with the Sprite Darter Hatchlings. The quest-giver was quite hidden, so it felt like a secret. Not everyone had one, so it felt special.

If you asked me to name a time something unexpected or surprising happened to me in WoW over the last few expansions, I’d be hard pressed to think of one. What happened? Information overload happened. The Sprite Darter Hatchling questline (if it still existed) could never stay hidden, you’d see a big yellow exclamation point on your map as you came near it. Getting stuck on a quest became near impossible as your map would highlight the area you needed to go. Reading the quest text and actually knowing what was happening in the story became a thing of the past for me, since it was no longer required.

Mods were created that gave you information in-game that you’d otherwise not have access to. With AtlasLoot Enhanced, I could see the loot table of every boss I fought. Good drops were no longer an unexpected delight, because I knew where they all came from. Bad drops became infinitely more disappointing because I knew when they came at the expense of a drop I really wanted. Rare mobs stopped being interesting as soon as I downloaded RareSpawn Overlay so I could see where every one of them spawned and NPC Scan which would blast noise at me as soon as one was in range so I didn’t even need to pay attention to the game. Mists of Pandaria introduced treasures and BoA items you could find around the map. These were fun, until I realized it was much more efficient to check the Wowhead guide and see a map which pinpointed every single one, or download TomTom and be navigated right to them.

Further than just information about objects, there’s also a ton of information available about how to play your character. IcyVeins will tell you how to spec and ability priorities. Mods like SpellFlash will tell you what spell to cast next. Even the default UI will make your spell icons flash when an ability is ready to use. Raid healing was always my favourite thing because it required some decision-making and quick reactions on my part, but even those requirements are reduced by DBM counting down every major ability I need to know about or GTFO screaming when I stand in bad things.

Looking up the information or installing an addon is so much more efficient than trying to figure things out or find things yourself. But it is not more fun. Sure, you could just not use addons, not use Wowhead, but that’s a lot like telling someone who complained about content nerfs to just turn off the Dragon Soul buff. Technically possible, but not bloody likely. Why should you handicap yourself?

For a game with such a huge, beautiful world there’s actually very little to discover in WoW that you can’t find in a database first. Exploration can seem like a waste of time. With PTRs, Betas, and datamining, it’s even possible to learn everything there is to know about a new content patch or expansion – every item, achievement, cinematic, quest – before it’s even released.

Of course, WoW is not the only game that can be ruined by having too much information easily accessible. With all the walkthroughs, FAQs and video guides available, it’s possible to ruin almost any game. Information is good and sometimes a game will really stump me so I’m happy it’s there. However, there’s a thin line between access to info that prevents me from banging my head against a wall for too long, and having so much information available that I never have to actually think for myself.  I played a puzzler called The Bridge a couple of weeks ago and I really enjoyed it. At first. The puzzles were all based on gravity, sometimes momentum, and solving them in the first few levels made me feel accomplished, especially as they got more challenging. But then came a puzzle that I played around with for a good 10 minutes and I couldn’t figure out how to solve it. So I looked up a video, got the solution and went on my way. The next puzzle that stumped me I only tried for a couple of minutes. I mean, I had already found a cool video guide that had all the answers, doesn’t hurt to take another peek, right? By the end of the game I was sitting at my computer, right hand on the keyboard, left hand holding my iPhone as a video walked me through the solutions to all of the last puzzles. This is not fun. This is not gaming. I want to think, want to have to try, but all the answers are right there. Looking up the answers is so fast and easy.

I lack self-control when it comes to spoilers, though the pervasive presence of guides makes me think I’m not the only one. Once I’ve looked up a solution, it becomes very hard not to do it again for that game. Soon I’m not even enjoying the game, I’m just following a set of directions from point A to point B.

When it comes to availability of this information there’s no going back, but it does make me miss the days when finding that information was just a little bit harder and thinking for yourself felt more encouraged.

Role Playing Game

RPGs are one of my favourite genres of video games, but what exactly is a role-playing game?

A role-playing game is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting.

That’s not a very comprehensive description, as it could apply to almost any game. Though I control the character Mario in the fictional setting of the Mushroom Kingdom, I’d never call Super Mario Bros a role-playing game. Ultimately, this whole post is about semantics, but I’m interested in how people define this particular genre and what games the RPG moniker it gets applied to.

The first game that really made me question the meaning of RPG was Borderlands, a game that billed itself as a role-playing shooter. The game had a number of mechanics in common with the more traditional role-playing games such as choice of class, a talent tree, and power increases through gear and gaining stats as you level. But for me, nothing about Borderlands made me feel like I was playing a role. Whether I played as Mordechai the hunter, or Lilith the siren, the game never felt any different beyond basic combat mechanics. A talent tree does not an RPG make.

Talent tree for Mordechai in Borderlands

Character building is a huge part of RPGs, and can fall into one of two categories. The first, which I’ll call mechanical character building, happens by gaining experience through quests or combat, which increases your level, which in turn increases your character’s stats or gives you more abilities. Mechanical character building is what makes you feel like your character is getting more powerful. The second type, which I’ll call narrative character building happens by making decisions that affect your character in different ways. Rather than levelling until you get 18 Strength, you’re making decisions that develop your character’s personality, how other characters react to you, maybe even the game world. Without this second type of character building I’m reluctant to classify a game as an RPG.

Druid talent trees

World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, but I have honestly never considered that an accurate classification. I know that many people play WoW as an RPG – they create backstories for their characters, give them a personality, and maybe even speak to others in-game in character, but this really comes from their own creativity and imagination. Blizzard developed a lot of lore that people can pull their character stories from, but if you take just the actual game content, there’s really not a lot of character building. As someone who does not RP in-game and is not interested in creating my own stories about my character, my Night Elf Druid is really no different from any of a million other Night Elf Druids. Or Tauren Warriors, for that matter. They don’t talk. They don’t have a personality. They don’t make decisions any deeper than do this quest or don’t do this quest. None of the adventures I have in-game effect the larger world, or the story of the game. We can kill the game’s antagonist on Monday only to have him come back on Tuesday. Choosing to be Resto vs Feral or taking Nature’s Vigil over Heart of the Wild make me feel like I’m developing a stat sheet, not a character. For me, the character building in WoW was 100% mechanical.

Planescape Torment conversation options

Another related, somewhat overlapping component of RPGs is choice and decision-making. You can choose your companions in games like Baldur’s Gate. You can choose to join the Dustmen faction, the Anarchists, or the Sensates (or all of them) in Planescape: Torment. You can choose who will rule the kingdom in Dragon Age. All of these decisions affect the game experience in some way, from making different sidequests available to changing the ending.

FF7 Golden Pagoda

Thinking about RPGs from a decision-making and effect point of view makes me think again about JRPGs. Take Final Fantasy 7 for example. There’s actually very little decision-making in this game. In terms of mechanical character development, you don’t even build your character you really just choose weapons and materia to use. Cloud is Cloud and nothing you do changes his story. You can choose to do certain optional content – recruit Yuffie and Vincent, fight the Weapons, breed chocobos – but again, that doesn’t really impact your character or the narrative. The only part of the game that really provides you with something different based on your decisions is who you go on a date with at the Gold Saucer. Final Fantasy or Shadow Hearts, two series I love, don’t really let me develop a character. The protagonists are written in one way and I’m just along for the ride.

The Walking Dead decisions

So what about games that allow you to make decisions and do a lot of narrative character building, but have no mechanical character building? The Walking Dead is full of choices to make and allows you to shape Lee’s personality, but there is no levelling or gearing up. You don’t get stronger, you just develop the story and cultivate relationships with your companions. Is this an RPG? I personally feel that this kind of decision heavy game provides a much more immersive role-playing experience than something that allows me to adjust 100 different stats, traits, and abilities on a character sheet. But that’s just my opinion.

To me, what makes an RPG is decision-making and character building. Without the ability to have input into the character’s development and choices, I really don’t feel like I’m playing a role. The subgenre of the game – it could be a shooter, or turn-based strategy, or action – doesn’t matter, so much as being able to have an effect on events in the game.