Category Archives: Observations

Violence Against Video Game Characters

With the news that GTA V has been pulled from Target and Walmart in Australia because of how violence against female sex workers is portrayed, I’ve been hearing a very familiar cry on Twitter and in comment sections. “What about men?!” “Why is it okay to kill hundreds of men but as soon as you add a woman it’s a problem?”

First of all, people have complained about violence in video games in general. Many, many, many, times. Protests have been launched, petitions have been written. While Canada doesn’t tend to ban games, a number of games have been banned or refused classification in Australia because of violence. The majority of those were banned for general graphic violence, not specifically violence against women (50 Cent Bulletproof, Dark Sector, The Getaway, Manhunt, Postal 1/2, Reservoir Dogs, Soldier of Fortune). Australia has also banned games due to sexual content or depictions of drug use.

But let’s ignore the above and pretend that only games with violence against women are subject to criticism and bans. Why would this be?

In the latest Call of Duty, you’re at war and you mow down hundreds of enemy forces. It’s hard to tell for sure with full body armor on, but they’re most likely all men.

Tomb Raider - Lara killing a man who is on fire

In the reboot of the Tomb Raider series, Lara goes around an island killing hundreds of men. Only men. There are no women. If you paid attention to the game you’d know that there are no women on the island because they’ve all already been killed (by the men). But again, ignore that, not relevant to how terribly video games treat dudes.

In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (excuse the somewhat dated reference, but it’s the only GTA I’ve played all the way through), Tommy murders hundreds, maybe thousands of people, mostly men, in his quest to become the crime boss of the city. Running over pedestrians (of either sex) and beating up hookers (always female) is not a requirement to taking over the city, but sometimes he enjoys doing it in his free time.

These poor men have it tough in video games. They’re always getting tortured, shot, run over, killed. Why is this okay, but as soon as you murder a woman in a video game, people start crying foul?

Take your average military shooter. You’re likely playing as a male, and you’re most likely shooting other men. If you’re not also shooting women, it’s because there aren’t any in the game. This makes me question why there aren’t any women. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d have no problem with seeing women on the battlefield (maybe I could even play as one in the campaign sometimes?) and having to mow them down along with the men. Equal opportunity senseless killing, that’s all I ask.

In Tomb Raider, the reason Lara kills hundreds of men is because they’re trying to kill her. They’ve kidnapped her friends and if Lara doesn’t kill them, her and her friends will all die. This is how action games work – the player kills aggressors who are trying to kill them.

In GTA and other open world games, you can generally kill anyone you want. However the aggressors in the game, the ones you have to kill, do tend to be males. Would people be upset if the aggressors were females instead? I certainly wouldn’t. I was pleasantly surprised when I played Saint’s Row: The Third and found that the members of my rival gangs were made of both men and women. Women can be bad guys too. It’s okay. Even better, female antagonists can be created that are actual characters with motivations beyond ‘shoot the player’. Rival gang leaders, mercenaries, corrupt law enforcement officers – put a female in one of these roles and I have no problem with having to kill them to progress in the game. The joy I get from having women in these games outside of strip clubs and street corners greatly outweighs any other issues I’d have.

GTA V - sex workers on the corner

The problem with the portrayal of violence against women, and sex workers in particular, in video games is that these characters, scratch that they aren’t characters and that’s part of the problem. These women are not your enemy. They don’t stand in your way to progress, they are no threat to you. They exist, wear skimpy clothing, and flirt to stimulate the player. That’s their purpose. They don’t impact the story. The player has the option to use them and then kill them. They aren’t necessarily rewarded for this behavior, but they probably aren’t punished either. If in Tomb Raider Lara stumbled upon a man on the beach who was offering pony rides and shot him in the face then I’d have a problem. I’d question why the developers put this scenario in the game. Likewise, I’d have an issue if the next GTA portrayed male sex workers who were completely unrelated to the story that a player could use and then kill.

I’m not a proponent of censorship. While Australia banning video games constitutes actual censorship, retail chains in Australia choosing to pull GTAV off their shelves is not. They can choose to sell or not sell whatever they like. What I am an advocate of is developers and consumers being critical of the media they produce and consume. When female sex workers are added to a game to be ogled, groped, or fucked then thrown away, what is it adding to the game? Is it taking away more than it adds? Is it more trouble than it’s worth just to make your game seem gritty?

Many video games are violent, and that’s not ever going to change. While the gender of the people you shoot or fight in games shouldn’t be an issue, it is because males tend to be the aggressors where it’s a matter of kill or be killed, while females are generally not a threat to the player. They get killed to move the story or a quest forward, give a male character a reason to seek revenge, or just because the player feels like killing them. While a couple of the examples aren’t perfect, if you haven’t watched them yet I’d recommend Anita Sarkeesian’s videos on Women as Background directions (part 1, part 2), as they really show how prevalent this issue is in games, especially in AAA titles.

A Few Tips for Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition came out last week and I’ve been playing it. A lot. Pretty much every waking moment, except when I feel bad and temporarily relinquish the TV to my boyfriend so he can play NES. To be honest, the game didn’t quite capture me like Dragon Age Origins did at first, and a lot of that had to do with pacing. The thing is, the game is gigantic and very open world so the player dictates the pace. You could zoom through the story relatively quickly, or you could spend 15 hours exploring every inch of the starting area and wondering if perhaps there are more important things for an Inquisitor to do than pick every Elfroot in Ferelden. Dragon Age is full of pet peeves for me, and it did take some work to get past them and let the huge, detailed world and wonderfully written characters suck me in.

Dragon Age Inquisition box art

Here are some things I wish I had known before playing the game that would have made my starting experience much better. For more tips, see my second post.

Character Creation

  • Choose your class wisely, especially if you want to be able to experience all of the interactions between your companions. I’m playing as a rogue, which was a bad choice for this. In combat, you pretty much will always need a warrior to draw threat (even if they aren’t a shield tank) and a mage who can cast barriers (basically Power Word: Shield) in your party. There’s no healing in this game, besides limited use potions, so barriers are very important. A rogue you can honestly take or leave, and I’m finding being one myself really limits the possible party comps. I’d love to see the interactions between Sera, who’s quite daft, and Cole, the friendly ghost, but they’re both rogues as well, and having a party where 3 of 4 characters are rogues is very hard to work with.
  • That said, rogues have some super fun abilities like Smoke Bombs and Leaping Shot which lets you backflip out of danger, firing a hail of arrows in your wake.
  • When you play as a rogue or warrior you get 2 sub-class options (archer vs. stabby stab, sword & board vs. 2H), but these don’t lock you into anything, it just decides what weapon you start with.
  • I don’t particularly like the look of the character I created. She looked okay on the creation screen, but in-game I’m less impressed. Play through the intro and don’t be afraid to restart if you want to change appearance. Better to do it 15 minutes in than be like me and wish you had done things differently 40 hours in.

Story and characters

  • Leave the Hinterlands. Really. Do it. I wish I had read this article earlier. I probably spent a good 10 hours exploring, closing rifts, and picking up every herb/ore/item I could find. It got boring. It made me think DA:I was a bad game. Hinterlands has been one of the least engaging areas, as it has so much collection to do and pretty much every quest you get comes from a note on a dead body. If you’re like me, uncompleted objectives on your map are an anathema to you, but The Hinterlands isn’t going anywhere. Complete a few objectives, do the quests that will get you access to mounts, but as soon as the game is starting to feel like a slog, go progress the story forward. It’ll make the game much more enjoyable. Also, you’ll get some side quests that send you back to Hinterlands later.
  • Do the first quest in Val Royeaux before you start exploring The Hinterlands too thoroughly. In my game I found Redcliffe in the Northern Hinterlands before I went to Val Royeaux and it resulted in some very immersion-breaking story gaps. Someone in VR is supposed to send you to Redcliffe, and the game doesn’t recognize or adapt to you doing things in the wrong order.
  • Gather all possible companions early so you can get to know and love them, and have a variety of party comps to choose from. You can miss some of them if you wait too long. Here’s how to find each of the extra companions:
    • Sera – Friend of Red Jenny quest triggered when you go to Val Royeaux.
    • Vivienne – The Imperial Enchanter quest given by a mage in Val Royeaux.
    • Iron Bull – The Captain of the Chargers quest is given to you by a messenger outside the Haven chantry, and sends you to The Storm Coast.
    • Blackwall – The Lone Warden quest, given by Leliana which sends you to the Hinterlands.
    • Dorian – Will be found in Redcliffe when you meet with Fiona if you side with the Mages, or will appear automatically at another time if you side with the Templars.
    • Cole – Will be found in The Fade if you side with the Templars, or will appear automatically at another time if you side with the Mages.
  • These are the main quests, so you can pace out how the story will progress. Story quests will have a recommended level range listed when you see them in the War Room:
    • The Wrath of Heaven
    • The Threat Remains
    • Champions of the Just or In Hushed Whispers
    • In Your Heart Shall Burn
    • From the Ashes
    • Here Lies the Abyss
    • Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts
    • What Pride Had Wrought
    • The Final Piece
  • (Minor story spoiler) You can only do one of Champions of the Just or In Hushed Whispers. Do Champions if you want the Templars to join your cause, or Whispers if you want the mages. You can’t have both.
  • I suggest moving the story forward to From the Ashes fairly soon. It was at this point that the story really became interesting, and I began to care about my character and her cause. If you find yourself feeling unengaged while exploring and doing side-quests, doing the story quests up to this point should fix that.

Inventory and other stuff

  • In your inventory, Valuables are the equivalent to junk in the previous DA games. Not sure why they changed this. Put everything you want to sell in here so they can be sold all at once.
  • Another annoying thing about valuables is that the category is applied not just to actual junk, but also to research items that you should be turning in. So drop by the research table before you start selling en-masse. (Thank to @ArielleEJ for this tip)
  • The inventory system is not great, and you will get a ton of crappy gear drops. If you’re playing on normal (or easy) you don’t have to worry too much about gear, I definitely don’t recommend letting it consume too much of your time if it’s something you don’t enjoy. Junk (or ‘valuable’) all the white/common gear, and just focus on the better stuff. Every couple of hours I go back to my home base, see if anything new is an upgrade for anyone and sell everything else. I generally avoid crafting unless someone has weapons that are vastly inferior to the rest of the party.
  • Upgrades are generally worthwhile, but don’t spend too much time on them. Just slap on whatever will fit on your character’s gear. You can also remove upgrades (but not runes) from gear you will be selling.
  • The one piece of gear that does warrant more attention is Varric’s crossbow, Bianca. He’ll have this weapon all game, so you should buy or craft upgrades for it as you can.
  • Though I’m not into scrutinizing the stats on gear, the appearance of the gear is well worth paying attention to. Bioware did some killer work on armor this time around. Leliana’s armor is perfection, and most of the other character’s armor is also both beautiful and functional looking. It’s truly exciting to be a female rogue who does not have bare legs.
  • Inventory is limited, so I highly recommend taking the 2 Tailoring Inquisition perks when you can, which will give you an extra 30 slots. Especially if you’re like me and pick up everything in sight.
  • I think I’ve given myself a repetitive strain injury by constantly pushing L3 to search for hidden items. Unless you’re desperate to find every herb/ore, give your hand a break. Your companions will say something when there is an important hidden item around.
  • The addition of jumping in the game is nice for those who can’t keep still, but it also brings up a lot of Mako-reminiscent, cliff scaling frustrations. I don’t really have tips to avoid this, just a warning. Though mounts are a bit better at climbing things than you are on foot.

Good luck and happy Inquisiting!

Have any tips for me?

Quality vs. Enjoyment

A lot of video games have received unconditional love from me in the past, even when they are peppered with mechanics and design choices that frustrate or puzzle me. It can sometimes be hard to reconcile. How can a game have so many faults, but still be so enjoyable overall?

Take Mass Effect 3 for example. While in many ways (most notably combat) it improved over the first two games in the series, there were also a number of things that bothered me to no end. I’ve been slowly replaying it and often find myself yelling at the TV over poor design.

  • Side quests that are completely lacking in context. Run through the Citadel, and your quest log fills up with 2 dozen fetch quests. Occasionally you overhear people talking about these quests, but you don’t need to stop or listen to them, the quest just appears as if you’ve accepted it. There’s rarely any information offered in the quest log other than what star system the item can be found in. These kinds of quests are terrible for immersion.
  • Related to the issue above, the quest log in general sucks compared to the first two games. A bare minimum of information is offered.
  • There’s no sense of place. Every location is restricted to small, contained areas. You fast travel everywhere.
  • Speaking of fast travel, the Citadel Rapid Travel terminals are still in the game and you can interact with them, but you can’t actually use them. You need to use the elevators instead. (Why the hell can you interact with them when you can’t use them?!)
  • The entire game is fan service. Except the ending. Ba dum pssh.

Or how about the Twin Peaks-inspired Deadly Premonition? This game is a cult classic which people tend to either love or hate. I just finished this game after starting it more than 2 years ago, because I could only take the game (specifically the combat) in small doses.

  • Poorly designed combat. Tank controls, an awkward control scheme for aiming, not being able to aim and move at the same time, bullet sponge enemies.
  • The worst final boss fight ever. Long range shooting is awful.
  • Everything is so slow. When you examine something or try unsuccessfully to pick up some ammo but can’t because your inventory is full the text appears, one letter at a time, at a glacially slow pace. You can hold down a button to speed it up, but it’s still slow. A lot of the time as you’re smashing buttons trying to make it go faster you accidentally examine the damn thing again.
  • Lack of inventory space, and irritating inventory management.
  • Cliche “serial killer murdering women” story.

Wasteland 2 was just released a few months ago, but is an old-school isometric RPG in pretty much every way. In trying to hold on to the Fallout 1/2 aesthetic and feel, it makes a number of design decisions which just don’t appeal to modern gamer sensibilities.

  • Terrible inventory system.
  • Weapons that jam, effectively wasting a whole turn in combat.
  • Antiquated skill system. Try to pick a lock or brute force a door and you’re shown the % chance you have of doing it successfully. A lot of time is spent repeating these actions when you fail and if you critically fail, the item you’re working on just breaks and you can’t access it anymore.
  • No ability to respec your party’s skills (unless you hack the save file, which I did a lot), meaning if a party member leaves or dies you might be left with no one who can pick up that skill at a high enough level to be useful.
  • Ugly character models. If you want to make your own characters rather than use the pre-made ones, the character portraits are also hideous.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a game I call one of my favourites of all time, despite it having a host of problems.

  • Bugs! So many bugs. From minor annoyances like graphical clipping, to crashes, to game breaking issues at certain points of the story.
  • Character designs look nice in close-up, but watching your character move in 3rd person view just looks wrong.
  • While the beginning locations of the game are wonderfully detailed and rich, as you get towards the end it seems like the quality drops off.

Then there are point and click adventure games. All of them. Well, maybe that’s unfair. Let’s say 90% of them. Convoluted solutions to simple problems are a mainstay of the genre. Almost every adventure game I’ve played has had that moment (or many of them) where I have no clue what to do and furiously try to combine each item in my inventory with the others, or with the environment. Or painstakingly move the mouse cursor over every pixel, trying to see if I’ve missed an object. Often the solutions to puzzles are things no logical human being would ever think of. Like combining an inflatable duck with a bandaid, a metal clamp, and a rope to retrieve a key from the subway tracks. Or throwing a pie to ward off a  yeti, as opposed to using a weapon or magic. It’s like they were designed to sell hint guides (when those were still a thing).

It might seem like I’m writing this post just to rant. There may be a little truth in that, but overall it’s about how many problematic elements I’m willing and able to overlook in games because the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

Mass Effect 3 saying goodbye to Garrus

Mass Effect 3 may have many frustrating design decisions but I still love it because, well, feelings. I’m attached to Commander Shepard, Garrus, Joker, EDI, and the rest of my crew. I love seeing them interact with each other, I love running into characters from previous games, and watching the story come to an end is both heartbreaking and satisfying. Plus I love being a renegade and punching out anyone I can.

Deadly Premonition talking to Zack

Deadly Premonition is certainly not top quality at a technical level, but it pays homage to one of my favourite shows in an oddly sweet fashion and features so many quirkily lovable characters that it’s hard to resist. What’s the frustration of one 8-minute long quicktime event compared to the strange joy of listening to the hero talk to his other personality about attending punk concerts as a teenager?

Wasteland 2 ET cartridges buried in the desert

Wasteland 2 may have used some stale mechanics, but that doesn’t overshadow the detail and love that went into it. The annoyances didn’t prevent me from spending 50 hours in the game, and enjoying most of them. For every annoying dice roll fail there’s some great little detail that brought a smile to my face, from finding Teddy Ruxpin dolls to the hidden cache of Atari ET cartridges. Choices mattered in the game, and being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland meant a lot of times where were no right or wrong decisions, just different shades of gray.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines dialogue with Jeanette

VtM:B may have been riddled with bugs on release. It may have once broken my save file right at the end of the game so I couldn’t finish the game. However, it’s also one of the most darkly atmospheric games I’ve played, with a deep backstory drawing from the World of Darkness RPG, and a collection of great characters. Though I’ve only beaten the game once, since the quality does dip a little near the end, I’ve played through the Santa Monica section more times than I can count and playing as a Malkavian makes a great game experience even better. I’m not the only one who loves this game. Ten years after its release, fans are still making and releasing patches to iron out all those bugs.

Quest for Glory 4. Hero in front of the monastery

And adventure games? Well, they may be frustrating and highly illogical, but not enough to stop me from replaying my favourites like Quest for Glory, The Longest Journey, or Gabriel Knight every few years.

So, does a game need to be of “good” quality in order to be enjoyable? Clearly not. I can overlook quite a lot of issues in games and still find the overall product most satisfying. Pull at my heartstrings, give me a great story and atmosphere, unique and interesting characters, or just amazingly fun gameplay and I can overlook a lot of negatives.

Of course it’s not just technical or mechanical issues that can detract from games. Another question I ask myself a lot as I play games is how problematic portrayals of characters – generally female characters – impacts my enjoyment of those games. This will be a topic for another time though. As soon as I finish Saint’s Row: The Third I’m going to have a lot to process and talk about. It’s something to think about.

My History with Kickstarter

Some great games have been funded though Kickstarter – Dragonfall Returns, Wasteland 2, FTL. However, many games that get funded don’t actually get released, draw out the delivery timelines significantly, or under-deliver. I’ve seen a number of people on Twitter who seem hesitant to back new games because they had been burned before. I have yet to be burned (that sound you hear is me knocking on wood, because most of the games haven’t been delivered yet). I thought it would be interesting to take a look at all the games I’ve backed, whether they’ve delivered, and how the whole Kickstarter experience has been. As of right now, I have backed 7 games.

Tex Murphy – Project Fedora

Project Fedora KickstarterDate of backing: May 2012
Estimated delivery date: July/August 2013
Actual delivery date: May 2014

Project Fedora is the game that got me into Kickstarter. I love the Tex Murphy adventure games. Love them. From the first time I saw that big box for Under a Killing Moon in Radio Shack with real, live actors on it when I was 11, I’ve been hooked on this series. After Overseer, it seemed like Tex Murphy would be no more, since the software company was sold to Microsoft and they are evil. Then came this kickstarter. I needed to help make this game happen, and pledged a much larger amount of cash than I have for any game since. The devs estimated a 12-14 months development cycle for the game which would put the estimated release date sometime in summer of 2013. The game, Tesla Effect, was actually released in May of 2014, about 10 months after the estimated delivery date. The lateness didn’t both me too much, since there was a ton of communication from the devs, and backers were given frequent updates and peeks at the game as it was being made. I’ve received 78 project updates.

When it released, I was happy. The game delivered what was promised. The quality was a bit uneven – for the whole first half of the game I had a goofy smile plastered onto my face, while some of the second half was a bit of a slog – but overall it was a game I enjoyed and was happy to have supported. It hit me right in the nostalgia feels and for the most part, it was a good game in its own right as well.

The only negative thing I have to say about this project was that almost 6 months after the game was released, I still don’t have my physical backer rewards. I did get all the digital rewards though, many way before the game was released.

Jane Jenson’s Pinkerton Road

Date of backing: May 2012
Estimated delivery date: March 2013
Actual delivery date: April 2014

After signing up with KS for Project Fedora, I found Jane Jenson‘s project. She made another of my favourite adventure series, Gabriel Knight. So of course I had to back this as well, but for a smaller amount that was just enough to get a copy of of one of the two new games the studio would be making: Moebius or a mystery project (which ended up being a GK1 remake). I received 70 project updates total.

Moebius was released in April 2014, a year after the estimated delivery date, and The GK remake came out in October 2014. I wasn’t too disappointed with getting the game late, but I was disappointed with the game itself. It was not good. The quality of Moebius, and the brief looks I’ve gotten at the completely unnecessary GK remake make it likely I won’t support another Pinkerton Road project (unless they switch to a completely new engine at some point). However, I did get what I paid for in the end.

The Curse of Shadow House

Date of backing: June 2012
Estimated delivery date: October 2012
Actual delivery date: August 2013

Curse of Shadow House is an adventure game for mobile devices. I don’t play a lot of mobile games, but I found this project somehow and was in a generous mood so I decided to help fund it. This was a much smaller project than the other two I had backed and the person running it did a really good job with it. The goal was only $8000, and the total funding was a bit over $9k. Some of the physical rewards offered were quite amazing – art prints, handmade necklaces, and journals. I seriously don’t know how this guy made a game and spent all this time/effort/money on physical rewards and shipping with only $9000. He also sent personal messages to every backer to say thank you. Which was very nice.

I got my iTunes code for the game 9 months after the estimated delivery date. The game is decent, it’s a dark adventure games with lots of puzzles. I’m going to admit that I got stuck at some point and haven’t finished it yet though. Over the course of the project I received 47 backer updates. The only iffy part is that this was billed as a trilogy of games, which backers would get all 3 of, and I haven’t heard much about the next two games.

Hero U – Rogue to Redemption

Date of backing: November 2012
Estimated delivery date: October 2013
Actual delivery date: ??

Hero U is another adventure game (noticing a pattern?), this one by the creators of another favourite series – Quest for Glory. Now we’re getting into the games I’m still waiting on. Throughout the process I’ve been getting regular and very detailed back updates (58 so far). There have been a lot of art samples and a lot of discussion of what is going into the design and story of the game. The game is currently 13 months past the estimated delivery date.

The last update did give some solid numbers though. The developers say they have completed: 100% of the design, 85% of the art, 50% of the programming, and have just started the writing. The new tentative delivery date is summer 2015, so the game is in all likelihood going to be delivered 2 years late. I am a bit disappointed with the time frame of this project. I’m no development expert, but considering the scope of the game, 2.5 years for development and delivery seems a bit long, and I’ve reach the point of impatience.

Kona

Date of backing: September 2014
Estimated delivery date: April 2015
Actual delivery date: ??

Kona is an episodic survival adventure game, from a small studio in Quebec. I really like exploration games when they’re well done, and though the though of exploring in the cold, Canadian winter makes me shiver, I really like the concept for this game. I’ve received 16 backer updates so far. It seems like the devs are dealing with financial stuff at this point, which makes me think the April date for episode 1 is a bit of a pipe dream. It is good that they still seem to be raising money though.

Fallen: A2P Protocol

Date of backing: September 2014
Estimated delivery date: March 2015
Actual delivery date: ??

Fallen is a turn-based tactical RPG that’s a cross between Fallout and XCOM. Again, I feel like having a delivery date only 6 months after the project was funded is quite optimistic, though it looks like they’ve already made a playable build. It looks good, though I’m still skeptical about the date.

Something that does not give me warm, fuzzy feelings is that since the project was successfully funded on September 6th, I’ve only received one backer update, and that was more than a month ago. Lack of communication does set off some warning bells.

The Black Glove

The Black Glove is being made by a number of the devs that worked on Bioshock, and you can really tell that by the art and trailers that have been released.  The game looks amazing, right up my alley – the atmosphere and eeriness of Bioshock without the shooting. However, the game is only 27% funded with 7 days left to go. Unless a miracle happens, this may be the first thing I’ve backed that doesn’t get funded. And that makes me sad, because it looks great.


Seven obviously isn’t a huge sample size, but here are some things I’ve learned about backing games on Kickstarter:

  • Take estimated delivery dates with a grain of salt. Or a whole tablespoon of it. Sometimes the estimated delivery date next to the pledge level is not for the actual delivery of the game, but when to start expecting the other rewards. For example, Project Fedora gave me a date of Dec 2012, but that was for digital rewards. In the FAQ section of the project they said they expected a 12-14 month delivery cycle. So it’s tricky to know what you should be expecting when. But even if the date is for the game itself, count on it being late.
  • I’m starting to get wary of episodic games, or projects that promise multiple games. I’m generally pretty confident that the first game/episode will be delivered, but budgeting time and money for multiple releases is harder to pull off. For these projects I feel like I should only back as much as I’d be willing to pay for one release so if the subsequent ones don’t come out, I’m not losing too much.
  • Communication is key. Check to see how many updates are being posted. Updates do tend to be much more frequent during the funding phase than the development phase, but it can still be an indicator of how successful the project will be. I look for updates that show the devs have a very good idea of where they want to take the game, and have things like art or design documents to show backers, or maybe even builds already in progress.
  • Kickstarter is a lot of fun when you’re heavily invested in a project. I checked the Project Fedora page daily as it was being funded, and poured over each backer update with glee. Though my other experiences have generally been positive, none of them have been as exciting as that first one.

Have you backed many games on Kickstarter? How has your experience been?

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?

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.