Whose Fault Is This?

Per the title, quite possibly the least meaningful question it is possible to ask about anything. We learn it early, we learn it from everything around us. We obsess over the answer, as if the answer had any significance whatsoever. Spoilers: it never does. In relationships, in business, in politics, in parenting, whether the event in question is good or bad, we ask this question constantly.

We’re also really bad at answering it, or of doing anything useful with the answer once we have it. Perhaps we can definitively assign blame, then what? Are those to blame then exiled? Social pariahs? Sometimes. Sometimes we eliminate them in a variety of ways, removing them from “positions where they can continue to do damage”. Oftentimes we seek revenge for their wrongdoings, exacting vengeance in the name of justice as if any data anywhere suggested that was effective. What all of these things do is drive  a desire never to be caught, for even the tiniest mistake. Never be at fault, never be the one to blame. It is how small errors pile up until massive systems come crashing down. It is how those seeking to exploit the system find loopholes and get away with them. It is what makes it ever harder to answer the question “whose fault is this”, because we all know that it will be a Very Bad Time for whoever that person is.

What do we gain by this? Do we correct the error by identifying its source? Can we even accurately identify the source, or is that, like many things, more complicated than a simple pointed finger? Does ferreting out those responsible change the past, or adequately ensure that errors won’t happen in the future? Not really. Instead we spin our wheels unproductively, generating acrimony and paranoia to no real end. We get very worked up over the pursuit of this unknown, as if knowing it is an end unto itself.

My mother has a question that she poses whenever I or anyone else is getting worked up this way: “How would that be productive?” It’s a question that comes from a lifetime of clinical detachment, a need to separate conscious thought from emotion lest the latter overwhelm you. It can feel heartless; when I confide in her that I’m trying not to have an anxiety attack over my current stress level, she asks what having a panic attack would accomplish. Nothing, obviously, and to the wrong target that would be infuriating. For me it’s a redirection, a shift in focus and a hint at a better question. I get anxious when I ask the question “what is going to happen next?” — it’s not an answerable question and it’s possible to expend a lot of energy trying in vain to find an answer. It’s stressful to pursue unanswerable questions, but “How would that be productive?” hints at a better question: “What would be productive?” At an uncertain time, my mind works to find certainty, and I get anxious if I pursue questions that can’t be answered. Pursuing questions that CAN be answered, ones that add value and are productive, gives me something for my mind to work on and lowers my stress level.

For me, it’s a stepped process. I might not be able to answer “What happens next?” and I might not be able to answer the better “What do I do next?” I’ll take that a step deeper, if I don’t know what I should do next, I’ll ask “What can I do next?” Sometimes this isn’t enough, and the next question becomes “How do I find out what I can do next?” If I can’t answer a question, I step down until I get to a question I can answer, then work my way back up.

So, “Whose fault is this?” is really two questions. One is “How can we stop this bad thing from happening again?” and the other is “How do I stop feeling bad about this thing that has happened?” The unspoken thought process here is that finding the fault allows us to answer both at once, by “eliminating” the problem. Unfortunately, that’s not how problems are fixed, especially with people. At the very best, it brings up another question: “What do we do with this knowledge?”

There’s a different question that I’ve come to prefer: “What do we do next?” It helps us move forward productively, and helps us focus our efforts in a way that bears fruit. It skips the assignation of blame because the followup step to finding fault is inevitably “okay, now what?” which is where we’re getting to anyway. It sacrifices vengeance for forward motion– we will go on and if you are not with us, you will be left behind. It outs your actual saboteurs while allowing those who have made honest mistakes to atone. It is not forgiveness, it is efficiency. Exacting punishment requires resources that would be better spent on forward motion. We are a social species; being left behind is often punishment enough, and exceptions tend to make themselves known.

I spend a lot of time now trying to pursue only questions that have productive answers, and determining what those questions are. I want to ask actionable questions, I want to pursue trains of thought that have a tangible effect. It’s called in some circles a “bias for action”– a bias I’ll readily admit to.

(Games) Journalism versus Enthusiast Press

I read an incredibly, incredibly petty article today. It’s written as a defensive piece that lashes out and, ironically, proves the very thing they’re railing against.

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Short version, so you can skip the article if you choose: Polygon is upset because Bethesda has evidently claimed that games journalism doesn’t matter. They cite Bethsoft’s “late” review copies as an attack on reviewers and, by extension, customers. They strike back by offering the “sage” wisdom of not preordering games. It’s honestly sort of a pity that this kind of thing is coming from Polygon, because of all of the gaming media outlets out there, they’re the ones who flirt the closest with actual journalism the most. Polygon has some really excellent articles on occasion.

I have a variety of thoughts about this. First of all is the difference between “journalism” and “enthusiast press”. We have a name for news written by fans of a thing, about that thing, that is generally excited about said thing. It’s called enthusiast press, and it is what virtually every gaming media outlet actually is. Enthusiast press is fine, it’s a way of being a marketing signal boost, it’s a way of celebrating common interests, it’s great for building hype, it’s great for getting the word out about upcoming things. It is not hard-hitting journalism.

Journalism is a different thing entirely. It takes a goodly amount of training, and is genuinely very difficult. You have to extract information from potentially unwilling people, you have to know exactly how to protect your sources, you have to understand concepts like fact-checking, reduction of harm, integrity, and accountability. You also have to find a way to keep the lights on in your office WITHOUT that revenue stream being a conflict of interest. You can lament reality all you like, but that separation is absolutely vital to calling your content “journalism” and having anyone take you seriously.

I have no doubt that there are people at Polygon who understand this. It probably chafes them, I’m sure they would love to be able to do actual journalism. It chafes me, because the games industry could use some really great journalist outlets, ones that can report and make the entire industry better through transparency without pandering to major publishers or allowing themselves to be influenced or controlled by the very people they’re supposed to be reporting on. The industry could use it. Unfortunately, what’s happened instead is that the games enthusiast press has, as their relevance has shrunk, started throwing around the term “games journalism” to regain credibility, painting an illusion of separation where, realistically, none exists. In so doing, they’ve devalued the term “games journalism”.

Allow me to retell a story I heard: A group of people from games media outlets were invited to a closed-doors showing of an upcoming title. Their trips were paid for by the publisher, as were their meals and their hotels. Fairly standard practice. While viewing the game, several of these people heckled the presenter, disrupted the play session, and otherwise made big enough asses of themselves that they had to be escorted out. Their later-published reviews of their experience were, unsurprisingly, extremely negative. The publisher said nothing, simply did not bother to invite said people to another event. They quietly made a note, remembered the behavior of the hecklers, and acted accordingly.

Some of you may think you know who I’m talking about here. You probably don’t. This is a story I’ve heard retold MANY times, and the only difference is the publisher response– did they uninvite people to future events or did they grin and bear it? Otherwise the stories I’ve seen and heard are virtually identical. There’s a term for this: it’s called “biting the hand that feeds you”.

This kind of thing is *why* journalistic integrity is important, and why it’s vitally important for any kind of “honest” reporting to have that separation. Lest you think I’m absolving the publishers from this, consider: if the publisher is paying for the trip, controlling what reviewers see, and otherwise bankrolling the entire thing, how do any of us possibly think the results are unbiased? What possible value is there in paying money to show someone something and have them announce publicly that it’s awful? From a business standpoint, that’s unacceptable and expensive risk.

It’s not an unsolvable problem. If games media outlets don’t like being classed as “enthusiast press” and don’t like what they consider honest reviews to be characterized as “biting the hand that feeds them”, they can take the route of legitimate journalism. The difficulty here is that journalism in general is getting crushed out by enthusiast press which can be controlled by the things it’s reporting on. Finding a way to make money, to keep the lights on, without becoming beholden to the very people you’re trying to report on is a difficult obstacle to overcome. Not a lot of media outlets have figured it out, and I’m not limiting that to games here.

It’s a nasty problem, and it’s not one with a clear and obvious solution. Highly trained professionals with decades of experience are trying and failing to solve it. There’s no shame in being enthusiast press, because it pays the bills and keeps the lights on. It’s what a LOT of media outlets have been doing. But much like publishers can’t get both unbiased, publicly trusted mouthpieces and universally good reviews, the reporting side can’t get both the trust of journalistic integrity and the money/support from their targets.

Games reporters can accept this and either live with being enthusiast press or try to forge a path to journalistic integrity, but sniping at companies because they cast aspersions on your relevance is, well… petty.

Anger and Sadness

A bit of a personal post today.  Bear with me.

It hasn’t been a good year. I suspect a lot of people can relate with that feeling in general; for me it’s been a pretty steady grind with very few (highly cherished) bright spots. It’s been an extended exercise in coping, and staying not just functional but managing to excel in what I can despite it all. I’ve basically had most of what I used to consider my identity removed and don’t have a lot to replace it, paired with an uncertainty about my future that colors pretty much every decision I make. As of this writing, none of the likely outcomes look great; I’m basically hoping that in the next couple of months, something changes from what I’ve been doing for the last 18+.

Friends and family ask me how I’m doing, and for months it’s been pretty much the same answer: no change. I appreciate the sentiment, but rehashing my situation over and over doesn’t make me feel better about it. It’s not something I bring up, because I value my friends and family greatly and I know how much it sucks to have someone close to you suffer and be able to do nothing about it. You want to talk, you want to do something, but there’s nothing you can contribute so you’re relegated to making sympathetic sounds and looking sad, or if those gestures feel hollow, making any recommendations you can think of. As much as I don’t like being on the receiving end of any of that, I don’t really know how else to respond.

Someone asked me a different question, recently. I was asked “how are you coping?”, and when I responded with the usual “oh, you know, as best I can” the followup was pointed: “No, I mean what are you doing to cope, how are you mentally handling everything?”

It’s an interesting question, and one that had been riding in my subconscious for a while. It’s a question I appreciate, because it’s something I can articulate, and it doesn’t feel like the same circular thrashing of “things are bad, I don’t know what else I can do to make them better”. As a followup, my friend mentioned that I haven’t been posting here as much anymore– my reasoning was that I don’t trust my mental state enough to stay objective about the things I write; maybe that isn’t so healthy. So, here we are. Here’s the answer I gave about how I cope with stress:

I’m a very results-driven person. It’s a core that runs deep, something I’ve inherited from my parents. Being overwhelmed by stress and completely shutting down isn’t productive, it’s a response that, however powerful, runs counter to the fiber of my being; even my subconscious won’t let me do it. This would probably boil over if I didn’t have really great release valves built in somewhere.

I developed release valves in martial arts. I started my martial arts training as The Fat Kid; I couldn’t even complete warm-ups without being exhausted, and I was in the same space as others who completed the same exercises without breaking a sweat. Pair this with the fact that failure has never been acceptable for me, and you’ve got a stressful experience waiting to boil over. My instructor keyed in on this and focused on it, he first taught me to redirect that stress into motivation, watching to make sure I got better at it. I was eventually in good shape, which is when the real training began. My instructor would occasionally provoke me, try to get through my usual emotional wall, to provide motivation. Knowing I could react in anger and lash out was never in question for me, I just had too much self-control to ever let myself do it, and I avoided ever coming close. I tamped down my negative emotions to an extreme, and tightly channeled them through very controlled channels, if at all.

Flash forward to undergrad, where I had my first taste of failure. Going from breezing through high school to the much more intense and rigorous curriculum of a very competitive college was a shock, and not one I emerged from unscathed. At the time, I had it suggested to me that I should consider dropping out, that maybe my chosen school was too hard for me, and that, perhaps, I had bitten off more than I could chew. I think part of me was despondent, ready to give up and give in just so the stress would end, but another part of me was enraged. I was angry at myself for failing, angry at the suggestion that I might not be good enough, angry at the obstacles in my way, and years of martial arts training kicked in. Of the two emotions I was facing, one of them felt productive and one of them didn’t. I channeled white-hot anger into my studies for a year and brought my GPA up nearly two full points, and graduated on time.

Anger is probably a misleading word; it has a lot of negative connotation. I could also use “passion” to describe it, passion for myself, passion for self-actualization, passion for growth, passion for my interests and motivations. I see anger and passion as not terribly different, and useful but needing to be kept under control. I’ve gotten good at controlling it.

For myself, when faced with apparently insurmountable difficulty, I can see despondency and passion looming on the horizon, and of the two, passion is productive and it’s something I know how to channel. It gives me energy and drive to push through, and it sublimates well into excitement and joy when I do finally push through. It’s not without cost; without good outlets for energy it tends to build, and I tend to retreat from people and things when it does, because I know it’s sitting closer to the surface and can be provoked more easily. When I’m stressed and don’t have an energy outlet (like work), I tend to avoid putting myself in more stressful situations because I want to minimize that buildup of energy, and because I don’t want spillover to affect anyone around me. I don’t want to snap at people, and when I’m extremely stressed and can’t do anything about it, I’m aware my tight controls are weaker, so I try to avoid situations where I might snap.

I cope with stress by channeling it, and I tend to keep a few side projects going at all times to have outlets. What I’m starting to run into lately is that those side projects feel meaningless and arbitrary in the shadow of my actual situation, so putting time and energy into them doesn’t help. Also not helping is the rest of this year, everything going on that *isn’t* directly part of my day-to-day life that’s just a massive garbage fire. I try not to watch the news but it’s difficult to avoid.

I’m not really sure how this ends. I can maintain, for now. I can probably maintain for as long as the idea of quitting just makes me angry, and want to try harder.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s just what “perseverance” is.

Cinematic Universe 2.0

Worldbuilding is kind of my jam. As entertainment media has shifted away from the Stories As Told By A Storyteller model to something a bit more ephemeral and interactive, I feel like worldbuilding is more important than ever. I remember writing research papers on the move from narratives that were entirely about characters to the idea of introducing an entire world with its own rules and concepts. It’s a surprisingly recent shift, as far as the whole of human storytelling goes.

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I’m also fascinated by big shifts in media development. The Marvel Cinematic Universe shifted the entire concept of the “summer blockbuster” from throwaway fun to a surprisingly deep, interconnected web of movies and shows that all link up. The biggest issue the MCU is dealing with right now is audience fatigue– people are getting a little tired of superhero movies dominating the scene. It makes the reintroduction of Star Wars so relevant, especially since it’s really apparent that we’re going to see a Star Wars Cinematic Universe in much the same vein as its Marvel precursor.

What I find interesting about this is the postmortem of the MCU– it’s obviously not finished yet, but there’s an interesting question about what lessons have been learned from the MCU’s arc– specifically, what is Star Wars going to do differently? Rogue One hints at this– it’s essentially a war movie set in the Star Wars universe, and I think it speaks to a bit of playing with genre within the setting. It’s a strong differentiator, since most of the Marvel movies follow the same theme of “superhero-action films” which likely drives audience fatigue. It’s entirely possible that we’re going to start seeing a lot of Star Wars movies in entirely different genres.

While it hasn’t been done before, the idea of a Star Wars war movie makes conceptual sense, and on the extreme other end, a Jedi-heavy movie structured like a martial arts film would also fit the setting, while being a heavy genre departure. There are a lot of possibilities, and the setting is big and varied enough to support a lot of them– a crime procedural, a disaster movie, a romance (read Lost Stars for an example), even a horror film could all work within the setting pretty easily. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably thought of the appropriate in-universe proper nouns that would go with all of the above.

I think that one of the big things that’s going to be important is figuring out all of the things that cause audience fatigue and working against them. Certainly they’ll have to do away with the classic opening crawl sooner than later, or it’ll become a tired trope very quickly. Character cameos will also need to be curtailed or kept to a minimum, lest the universe feel too small to fit all of these stories. I think Rogue One does a smart thing by emphasizing its unique title and not that it’s a Star Wars movie.

Furthermore, I suspect we stop seeing numbered “mainline” Star Wars movies after Episode IX, and a shift into a more disparate, more spread out series of movies rather than everything working towards a singular plot arc. It creates a lot of space for other media– comics, video games, TV shows, etc and allows the same experimentation that the MCU heralded with less risk of a single disliked offering bringing the entire thing down.

This might be my own bias talking– I checked out of the MCU because I find Captain America boring and eye-rolly, so I missed literally everything to do with Hydra. Essentially, two movies: the specifically Captain America one and Winter Soldier. Not wanting to spend the time with that section of the property meant that I found it hard to get into parts of Civil War (and disliking Captain America even more), and it left me uninterested in the MCU as a whole.

Star Wars can avoid this kind of outcome because it can separate its movies by genre and exclude entire portions of the setting without jeopardizing the setting. It’s entirely possible to have a Star Wars movie without Jedi, for example, or one that is entirely Jedi, and neither diminish the other. There’s even the possibility of setting up some unreliable-narrator stuff by having characters disbelieve the events of other movies– there’s already precedent for it in the original trilogy. It means that the audience can cherry-pick the parts of the cinematic universe that they like and skip the parts they don’t without necessarily being left behind by the whole.

Long story short, I’m really interested to see what happens in the next few years of Star Wars movies, and how they map to their Marvel predecessors.

Playing Games I Don’t Like (Redux)

I’ve talked about the virtues of playing games you don’t think you’ll enjoy. I think it’s absolutely critical to being a good game designer and why I think that as a game player it helps to keep your horizons broad and not tunnel-vision on increasingly specific game types until you connoisseur yourself out of having any games to play. I have a policy of playing games that other people like that I don’t think I’m going to enjoy, and it’s one I take very seriously.

suramarpalace

I got a lot of surprised comments when I started playing World of Warcraft again for the expansion. I found it somewhat amusing but also kind of depressing how frequently my last post about WoW earlier this week was reduced to “Tam thinks WoW is terrible”, when the reality is my feelings on the game are extremely complicated. I’ve now hit the new level cap and have gotten a pretty good feel for what the expansion offers, I didn’t want to write about it without having gotten a complete picture.

As a bit of warning, after the next paragraph there’s likely to be spoilers up to early level 110 content in Legion. Skip if you’re concerned about it, per usual.

There’s a thing I’ve discovered in playing WoW and comparing it to other games, that I see in games like FFXIV as well. I was once absolutely enamored of the gear chase, trying to get increasingly better equipment to take on bigger and fancier challenges, to master those and get even greater equipment to pursue yet bigger, fancier challenges, and so on. I’m not interested in it anymore, to the point where I’m actively annoyed most of the time when I get a gear upgrade. This isn’t just WoW, it’s something I’ve noticed in FFXIV as well; I simply don’t have the interest to spend time chasing after gear upgrades. In conversations with Bel, I’ve previously dismissed this as a distaste for random loot drops, but the structure of Legion and how quality gear flows pretty freely through the expansion really put this into perspective for me. It isn’t that random loot drops annoy me, and it isn’t that I don’t like the token grind in FFXIV for gear upgrades– both of those are true, but they aren’t separate. I no longer enjoy gear progression as a primary motivation. I’m actively annoyed when I get a gear upgrade at this point, because the upgrade rarely makes a noticeable difference in my actual play (but if I ignore it, it will) and I usually have to go put some work into not looking like a clown afterwards. The sole time I am excited for a piece of gear is when it looks particularly cool, which is where WoW’s dated graphical fidelity catches up to it– this is extremely, extremely rare for me, so I’m annoyed the vast majority of the time about the gear upgrading process.

So, I’m not playing the game for the gear chase, which means that a lot of the other systems are less than appealing for me. I think the implementation of World Quests and the “bonus” quest content is rather good and kind of a long time in coming– they’re basically Renown Hearts from GW2 tuned for level-cap play rather than levelling play. It’s a good system, and it’s good to see WoW adopt it. World Quests greatly ease the gear chase, which is generally a good thing but not directly appealing to me. I’ve done a handful of dungeons, and I’m finding that they message really poorly, at least from the healer perspective, so sometimes I have groups that take immense amounts of random damage and other times virtually no one takes any damage, with little apparent rhyme or reason. It’s hard to know if I’m doing well or poorly other than the binary “did people die”, and even that is hard to pin on either my own failings or someone else’s. Healing is also focus-intensive enough that I can’t easily zoom out and watch over the fight’s mechanics the way I do in FFXIV. Combat mechanics in general simply don’t interest me in WoW as in other games, I feel like I’ve played them out and other than slight remixes on the same concepts, I’m not going to see anything new.

On the other hand, I’m genuinely interested in some of the narrative of the game. For the first time in years, I can remember what it feels like to care about my character’s personality and place in the game’s setting, because parts of the storytelling are so good that I not only find myself interested in what happens next, but am thinking about myself in the context of that story. It’s the highest praise I can offer to an RPG’s storytelling. There are bad parts, and boring parts, certainly– I am extremely tired of the game giving you no option but to take the quests offered to you and then setting up obvious traps, then laughing at you when you “fall into the trap”. One particularly egregious example was in Stormheim, where a quest for a couple of Tauren turns into a painfully obvious con by a pair of goblins, and there’s literally nothing you can do other than a) ignore the quests, which is really just refusing to play the game or b) go along with their obvious scam until you finish the questline for obviously worthless rewards, one goblin literally says “So long, sucker!” and you get an achievement called, I’m not kidding about this, “What A Ripoff”. It’s supposed to be funny, I’m sure, but it’s a joke at the expense of someone who put time into seeing the story through, which is funny only to the person telling the joke, not the victim of it. It doesn’t really make it better that you get a followup quest (nowhere close to the original chain, and only able to be completed long afterwards), because it serves largely to reopen and salt the wound.

On the other hand, Suramar. The setup for this is great; you’ve spent a bit of time seeing these magic-addicted, twitchy elves without a lot of explanation of their background, except that some are lucid and some have gone completely feral, and that the lucid ones can turn feral if they don’t consume enough magic. It’s an interesting but seemingly throwaway device until you get to Suramar, which opens as a sort of setting-up-the-resistance piece. You’re the outsider, helping a group of these elves rebel against their queen, who’s made some pretty terrible deals with literal devils, but who still retains control over the city. You spend time searching for your contact, dodging or fighting both her pursuers and feral elves, while she uses the last of her magic to find shelter and a base of operations. You help restore her by finding and providing magic powder, a fairly thin metaphor but one that plays well into the rest of the story. Yes, these elves are hopeless addicts, but they’re also competent, intelligent, and capable, and working for a good cause. The addiction is regrettable and always at the forefront but doesn’t define these characters’ personalities; they are more than “just addicts”.

Furthermore, the elves you meet and recruit for this resistance are individually capable and powerful, but don’t steal the show from you. A big problem with a lot of the “helper” characters in WoW is that they’re always, always the ones to ACTUALLY save the day, usually through some kind of deus ex machina. In this case, you play that role, and you get the dual reactions of absolute thankfulness from the people you’re helping as well as a bit of irritation that you’re just swooping in and solving their problems, things that they’ve been working at for a long time. It feels very genuine, it feels very convincing, and it’s a very strong story being told– I would play an entire game and explore an entire setting built around just this premise. It absolutely makes it worth the frustration and annoyance of other parts of the game and other parts of the story (can we please, PLEASE just give up on the whole Alliance vs Horde constant war crimes and idiotic “vengeance” storylines already, not to mention the transparent, awful racism that they get paired with?), and I’m genuinely looking forward to playing more of it and seeing where it goes.

It reminds me, more than a little bit, of my experience with Fallout: New Vegas. I don’t like post-apoc settings, I’ve never gone in much for Fallout, and I played and didn’t really enjoy Fallout 3. FNV *should* have been a “nope, not going to bother” game for me, but I sat down with it anyway. What I found was a game with a really compelling story, a setting that changed my mind somewhat about post-apoc settings, and a bunch of new ideas and inspiration. It’s like Burnout, a racing game I ignored because “I don’t like racing games” until I sat down and tried it and discovered that under the hood (ha!) it was doing something I really enjoyed and found really fun.

I don’t love WoW, Suramar has not made me suddenly love the game again, and it doesn’t change anything about a lot of the other parts I dislike, but I’m glad I’ve gotten back into it and I’m glad I stuck with it enough to see that content. Suramar makes it worth ignoring those other things, because it represents a return to stories I actually care about and really enjoy, and can take seriously, which is what made me love the game in the first place.

What’s Satisfying?

Yesterday’s post sparked a few really interesting conversations for me, including a recurring one that drives home an interesting point and meshes well with a lot of the business-side stuff I’ve been a part of lately. How much is your gaming time worth? What is a gaming session look like for you, and what makes a gaming session feel satisfying?

there's not a lot more satisfying than watermelon

there’s not a lot more satisfying than watermelon

I know the answers for myself, I’ve talked about them a bit here and elsewhere, but for me personally it boils down to a couple of things: I want to experience something new or make visible strides towards mastery of something I’ve learned, and I want to spend social time with my friends. These two things are the prime motivators for me in games, above basically everything else. Essentially, I want to hang out, I want to see something new, or I want to be challenged. If none of these things are happening, I tend to feel unsatisfied by my gaming time. In an absolutely perfect situation, I get to do all three.

The absolute pinnacle of gaming for me is playing a game with my friends where we’re all playing new content none of us have seen before. I sit, sometimes for days or weeks, before going into a dungeon in an MMO just to play it with my friends (I tend to be a little ahead of the curve). I put Borderlands 1/2 and games like Divinity: Original Sin (a game I love even if I’ve never gotten really far in it) incredibly high on my favored gaming memories, and lately some of the most fun I’ve had has been exploring zones with Kodra and Ashgar in Guild Wars 2 and playing N++ with Kodra and another local friend. It’s absolutely what drives me, and I quietly do some frankly nonsense things just to try to make those experiences possible, like levelling alts just to kill time and spending hours researching upcoming games for possible good co-op experiences.

I’ve talked before about the idea of playing a game “to turn your brain off” as a strong motivator, which is a concept I understand though it doesn’t apply to me. It’s why I don’t like a lot of really popular games; the thing they’re delivering on doesn’t satisfy me, doesn’t make me feel like I’m spending my time well. At the other end of the spectrum, I have good friends who want nothing more than that zen, almost meditative state and value the ability to split attention, whether that means watching a TV show in the background (or foreground) or simply having the freedom to relax. It’s a thing I understand and look for in co-op experiences, that familiarity and relaxing atmosphere, because while it’s not for me, it’s important for other people. You’ll also note I’ve avoided using the word “mindless” to describe this kind of play, because I think it’s both pejorative and incorrect. I’ve watched and listened to my friends playing games in this way and it’s a very mindful approach, borne of thoughtfulness of those around them not playing or a self-awareness that the relaxed state they can achieve is healthy and valuable.

Some friends I have intensely value any gaming experience that they can get up and walk away from at any given time, guiltlessly vanishing at a moment’s notice. Multiplayer games in general tend to be a turn-off, and even playing socially on voice while playing something is something of a stretch, simply because it doesn’t allow the freedom necessary to really enjoy it. I have a bit of this myself, and almost always spend a little bit of time each week playing games entirely on my own without anyone else around. For me, a lot of this time is me ‘scouting’ games to play with the group, or indulging in something I know no one else wants to hear about.

Still others game entirely for the story– if a game lacks a good story they’re already checked out, and virtually nothing else matters. For yet others, it’s about art, seeing something gorgeous or a visual masterpiece is everything. I have a friend who plays slews of frankly horrible games just because of the textures or art style, and even if the game itself is barely functional he can use it as a vehicle to see new, exciting art. He’ll even comment that the game is buggy or pointless or mechanically unsound, but return to playing just to see more art. It really puts the idea of enjoyment of games in perspective for me– he’s even commented that he’s pretty sure X game is going to be garbage but it has a cool art style so he’s buying it.

I totally understand this, I’ve played games I don’t much enjoy simply because they fill whatever particular satisfaction hole I have that needs filling. Some of my favorite games are objectively terrible games but they fill a niche that is hard to fill elsewhere.

Thinking about games from the perspective of “what will I enjoy” or “what makes me feel satisfied” has really helped me figure out both what games I like and what games I might like, but has also made me a lot better at figuring out what games other people might like and why. We don’t have a great set of widely-accepted language tools for discussing this sort of thing, so it’s a lot harder than it seems. We kind of get stuck in a “I like this game” vs “I don’t like this game” qualitative mindset without always delving much deeper. It seeps back into the development side too, where “like Game X, but with Y and Z” tends to dominate the conversation.

What makes a game session satisfying for you? How does your time feel valued by the game you’re playing?

A Return to World of Warcraft

As anyone who’s listened to more than an episode or two of the Aggrochat podcast can verify, I have what you might call Strong Feelings about World of Warcraft. I’ve been all over the spectrum with the game, and have landed in a kind of complex position. Possibly worth mentioning, if the post title didn’t give it away: I’ve been playing WoW again, a little bit, and it’s given me some context and ability to articulate how I feel about the game. Maybe you feel similarly.

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A few major different thought bubbles form when WoW comes up:

First, and importantly (though it’s something that often gets dismissed so I can move onto the parts that I find more interesting), WoW is definitively an excellent game. There is a reason it is as successful as it is, and quite frankly any attempt to deny that it’s a great game is simply blindness. It isn’t without flaws, and there are other reasons to dislike it, but it’s the pinnacle of a certain type of game that competitors have tried to top for a decade and failed. It has more than ten years of evolution, to the point where it’s reached that magic MMO point of being multiple games all at the same time, all appealing to different people and bringing them all together into one place.

Second, WoW has a lot of history. It has, quite frankly, an unwieldy, overwhelming amount of history that is scattered throughout its playerbase. Some things have to give somewhere, and WoW has made it choices as far as what it wants to give up to make the game more focused and less crushed under its own weight. It knows it’s alienated some of its players with these choices, and it’s okay with that. I’m one of those players.

Third, WoW is dated. It felt dated when I last played in Pandaria, and four years later and many other games, coming back to WoW feels like installing an old, nostalgic title, even though it just released a new expansion. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to see if you haven’t played many other, similar games, but there are a lot of little details and quirks that have become de rigeur in online games at this point that WoW feels very behind in. Movement is one of the biggest ones. Most online RPGs now have quick, dodgy movement as a core mechanic, and usually many, many other baseline, easy to use movement tools. Ground-targeted short-range teleports are standard, characters stick to the ground when they move, slow-falling (or removal/elimination of falling damage) is implemented in a wide variety of ways, gap-closers and gap-openers are commonplace, the list goes on. WoW has had very tight, very responsive-feeling controls since its creation, but it hasn’t kept up with movement options. Most interesting to me here is the Demon Hunter, a class that, for no extra cost, gets double-jump and a gliding ability, as well as multiple forward dashes, a backward dash, and at least one targeted teleport (albeit tied to another ability and on a lengthy cooldown). The Demon Hunter feels far more modern than any of the other classes, and it’s shocking to me that there wasn’t a similar revamping of movement for every class in the game, not just the one new one. Add onto that little quality-of-life things like a lack of one-button looting, no talk-to-NPC or quest-acceptance keybindings, and a constant need to click into the gameworld rather than letting smart-targeting handle that for you makes the UI feel clunky, even with (fundamentally required) addons.

As an offshoot of the game being dated, there are a lot of places where the fidelity is surprisingly low. Few if any characters move their mouths when they speak, animations are jerky and don’t flow into one another, most armor is just a texture painted on one of a small number of models, with a couple of exceptions (shoulders) that stand out and bear the weight of a character’s appearance. It’s a throwback to when games pushed the limits on hardware frequently, and WoW could play on virtually anything. As the desperate need to keep up PC upgrades just to play games have slowed down thanks to console gaming (which is pretty much a good thing for everyone, certainly PC gamers’ wallets), lots of games have caught up to a modern hardware standard, and WoW, despite touch-ups where it can, sits pretty far back as far as visual fidelity goes. Playing WoW, FFXIV, GW2, Blade and Soul, and ESO in rapid succession really makes the fidelity more apparent, which brings me to the next big thought.

Fourth, while graphics aren’t everything and fidelity doesn’t necessarily make or break a game, the lower fidelity and lack of ability to do subtle, nuanced graphical effects means that WoW has a very hard time being subtle. NPCs to talk to and objects to interact with stand out garishly and blatantly; the game basically shouts at you where to go and what to do. Not a problem when there’s a possible chance you might miss something, but considering the fairly few quest types in the game (kill X, click on X, talk to X) and how many of them you do (I’ve done at least a hundred quests just going from level 100 to level 106), it starts to feel like every quest is a tutorial.

It’s a big thing that bugs me about the play experience. In roughly the same timeframe I’ve been playing WoW, I’ve also been playing Guild Wars 2. I’ve gotten one WoW character from 98 to 102 (Demon Hunter), and one character from 100 to 106 (Monk). I’ve gotten two characters from 40 to 80 in GW2, quite a bit of progression on multiple others, and still had time to spend unlocking masteries and completing the lengthy main story on my existing level 80 character. One of the big things that WoW used to pummel older MMOs into the ground — its relatively quick, painless levelling — now feels slow and ponderous, and like I have very little freedom. The game feels like a slave to its own paradigm, adding ten levels because That Is What Expansions Do without making those ten levels meaningful in any real way. Indeed, everything scales to your level, so the levelling process feels even more meaningless and like a bizarre chore you have to do if you want to play with your friends. I don’t seem to be learning anything in the 10-level process to prepare me for endgame, either; I haven’t gotten any new abilities since level 100 (my Artifact weapon skill) and I haven’t seen any meaningful enemy mechanics to learn how to counter. In a four hour play session, I got my GW2 Thief from 62 to 80 and maxed out his crafting skill from 0 to 500, completed a map, and got a full set of level 80 gear to be going on with, while also doing some character hopping and some story quests. In the same four hour play session in WoW, I got from (the end of) 102 to 106… and I was a lot more focused in WoW.

Fifth and finally, tied to that last paragraph above, I’m intensely frustrated by what WoW represents in the gaming space. In achieving a stranglehold on the market, it’s had a severe chilling effect on everything else in the genre. What was once a widely varied, highly experimental genre is now… much less so. If I want to play an RPG with some progression and some group mechanics and actually have anyone to play with, I’m playing WoW. I’ve wanted to give group content in other games a shot basically since I picked them back up and haven’t been able to, but the sheer number of people playing WoW means I’ve wound up in groups virtually every time I’ve logged in. I feel like I’m renting friends on a monthly basis, where if I don’t pay up and log in, I don’t get to play games with my friends, and I better enjoy the game they’re all playing or I don’t get to play along. I haven’t decided which feels lonelier: playing a game I enjoy with just too few people to be able to do the more interesting stuff or playing a game that everyone else seems to like and I don’t. Currently I’m doing both, in the hopes that together I can fill the hole that neither one can fill separately.

For now, I’m playing WoW. I’m legitimately enjoying some parts of it, but the shine is wearing off. I can predict the stories, I can see the shape of the systems, I feel like I’m well past being surprised. Maybe I’m wrong, and I think it’s important for me to brush up on games that are relevant even if I don’t personally enjoy them. As was true in Pandaria, the storylines that don’t involve the Alliance or the Horde are often very good, and there are plenty of cute jokes littered throughout. Class mechanics have become far less unwieldy (FFXIV could learn something about button efficiency) and there are plenty of nostalgic nods to previous eras of WoW.

I’m just not as invested as everyone else is, and I know how that story ends. I’ve seen it happen enough times by now. I’m already on the edge of it now– I know I’m going to check out when the game asks more of me than I’m invested enough to give, and then doesn’t let me play meaningfully with my friends if I don’t do whatever it takes, be that a gear grind or a rep grind or whatever. I’m already behind in that regard, simply by dint of not being max level and able to do whatever they call max-level dungeons now, and it’s hard to work up the wherewithal to grind more quests to get there. In a move I find personally extremely frustrating, it became incredibly easy to run normal-mode dungeons with higher-level friends, but the exp gain from those is pretty paltry, so levelling through dungeons is infeasible. So, I grind for now, trying to catch up, so I can play with people I know and like and don’t get to play often enough with.

I just wish this didn’t feel like the only choice I have if I want to play games with some of my friends.

How Many Songs Need To Be Good?

I had an off-the-cuff thought during the podcast this weekend that keeps resurfacing in my head. We were talking about music, and I asked how many songs off of an album needed to be good for that album to feel like it was worth it. Pretty much universally, the answer was “about three”. It’s been sitting with me ever since.

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I’ve been looking at media in general, and how much of it I have to really like to stay engaged. There’s a song on an album I own that’s three minutes and fifteen seconds long. At about the 2:45 mark, it cuts into a different vocalist for a segment that I really dislike. It’s jarring and ruins the track for me. I now skip that track entirely, even though I like the first two and a half minutes of it. In the same vein, I haven’t played MGSV in days for a relatively banal reason. It’s not any of the objectionable things in the game, it’s that I have a mission where the drop off point is way too far away, and I just can’t be bothered to go through the hassle.

So, I need about 25% of a music album to feel like it’s worth it, but if the last thirty seconds of a track isn’t to my liking, I skip it. I am willing, and in fact expect, to sit through the first few episodes of an anime before making a decision, yet if a game hits a lull, it becomes harder and harder for me to come back to it (see also: grinding of any kind). My tolerance for parts I don’t like varies widely from medium to medium, and sometimes wildly within the same medium.

For any given bit of entertainment, there’s a threshold where the parts I don’t like outweigh the parts I do, and I check out. It seems simple and obvious, but it’s also something that’s gone entirely unevaluated. What are the exceptions? Can I predict this? I feel like if I can understand what the mix is like, I can better understand both myself and the media I consume.

Trying to pin it down is frustratingly elusive, though. When I try to analyze my thoughts across media, I find myself immediately making excuses, about how one thing is different in some specific way. I know enough about psychology to know that there’s almost certainly a pattern I’m not seeing– or more likely, not letting myself see– but knowing it’s there and trying to make sense of it are two very different things.

I say a lot that good design is about knowing what people haven’t yet realized they like. The real magic of good design is being able to elicit a positive, wholly unexpected reaction from someone, and I feel like if I could tap into my own mental hangups and processes, I could start to get a handle on how to better approach design. If I could precisely (or even roughly) pinpoint where people check out, where a piece of media loses people, I could develop better intuition for how to avoid those pain points.

I am opposed, fundamentally, to the idea of “I’ll know it when I see it” design. It asks a designer to magically intuit something that the requester can’t even articulate. It’s like telling a chef to “make some food, I’ll know if I like it once I try it”. It’s why I started taking notes on the things that I loved and didn’t expect to, and the places where I find myself checking out of something. I’ve tried to get better at articulating precisely why I like or dislike something, because it’s from those evaluations that I learn and grow, and can tell other people what I like and don’t like. It’s meant I need to have a constant mental cycle active, monitoring my own reactions as they happen, and drawing connections. When I talk about my “designer brain” always being on, that’s what I’m referring to. It’s comforting at the same time as it keeps me from ever fully engaging with something.

I’ve gotten so used to that background process running smoothly that it’s jarring when it runs into something it can’t or won’t process. I’m still mulling over the idea from before– how much of something can be bad or uninteresting before I stop caring? Why and how does it change across media, even across different entries in the same medium? Why do I get frustrated at stretches of fruitless-feeling running around in MGSV and, in that frustration, switch over to trying fruitlessly to solve challenge puzzles in The Witness?

Building a Bushido Board (Part 4: The Best Laid Plans…)

So, it took a while to actually get all of the pieces I needed for this board. Specifically, I last posted about this board almost two months ago and it’s taken me this long to finally obtain everything. This weekend was a lot of painting and adaptation work, but I’m pretty happy with the end result:

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You’ll notice a few things at a glance, first and foremost how my measurements were off. I’d originally planned a short piece, a long piece, and a gate on each side. The actual measurements of the pieces put a section of wall perilously close to (and for a short distance, inside) the stream. What looked like reasonable measurements on paper turned out not to fit in reality.

SO! Back to the drawing board as far as layout goes. I had a few games with friends over the weekend and played around with some board layouts. I knew I was going to need this iteration step anyway to get to a good place with the board, and since all of my original preplanning went kind of out the window, more thought was going to need to go into layout before I finalized anything.

The layout above, as it turns out, is a disaster. The whole map bottlenecks around a single gate, and players starting inside the walls have a huge advantage in most scenarios, while starting in opposite corners makes for a lot of really awkward positioning and very few compelling decision points.

Kodra helped me work out an alternate layout, suitable for at least trying:

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It shortens the wall and opens up that quarter of the board a bit more. This is a shot taken after some more work has been done, so there are trees on the board, but you can see the rough similarities to my original design. One wall piece goes unused, but the space works a lot better.

In the first iteration, the larger building on the left was swapped with the small tiled-roof building in the bottom-center, but we quickly found that that made for a significant bottleneck problem between the wall and that building.

One major thing that came out of it over the course of three games was that different lists would approach the space differently, which is exactly what I want, and there were multiple ways to set up; both sets of opposite corners are interesting and compelling (also good). A big takeaway is that the side of the river opposite the main walled complex needed something to make it more defensible– it’s wide open with no cover, making it a fairly poor starting location and vulnerable to ranged attackers. It made movement on that side fairly predictable– deploy as far forward as possible, run to use the big wall as cover because you have no other options. It made an inordinate amount of play happen right around the wall corner, which isn’t bad (bottlenecks aren’t automatically awful), but would really cut into the replay value of the board.

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Looking at the board from a different angle yields a better result, though we didn’t play on this layout.

A couple of physical takeaways on the board– while I’d hoped that the roof slats would make it reasonable to perch a model on the roof, it was more precarious than I would’ve liked. C’est la vie. More annoying was the smooth surface of the board tiles made for models sliding around pretty easily, which isn’t ideal. Luckily I’d picked up some grass flock and spray adhesive, and you can see patches of darker grass breaking up the simply painted board surface. This is more for traction than anything. I also noted that the stream was VERY shallow, and tended to make it awkward to put models in there. Making it deeper became a goal, just for more flat surface for mini placement.

I’m pretty happy with the layout above, but I also don’t think I’m in a place where I can call it permanent. This is a bit touchy, since I want to also place down foliage and there’s no good way to do that and still have the foliage move around. However, there are some predictable terrain needs that almost don’t care what the wall/building layout is:

1.) The riverbanks need cover; the stream area is too open in general.

2.) The opposite bank is way too open, and needs some kind of cover.

There’s virtually no building placement that changes these; the biggest thing is putting a building on the opposite bank which breaks up the space but doesn’t provide a lot of playable cover, just a dead space that blocks line of sight. I have a bunch of bamboo trees which work really nicely for terrain (because they’re essentially just sticks, meaning it’s easy to maneuver minis around them) which are going to pretty much all go into service of making the opposite riverbank a bamboo forest. In addition, I have a number of cat-tails to plant on the riverbanks, so the non-building side of the river will ultimately have a lot of usable cover, probably more than the building space itself.

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I like this because my biggest issue has always been the building-side having a clear advantage. Now the river-side is really appealing as well, perhaps more so.

I’ve also placed four trees on the board. While these are static elements, I can still move and rotate the tiles and change up the board layout pretty easily even though the trees aren’t movable. For now, I don’t want to make any other elements static, because I’m still reworking the concept of static terrain.

One of my goals for building a static terrain board is that I can make it really look great and purposeful if I place everything in specific places. I’m finding that even without a static board, I can achieve surprisingly high quality visuals, even without significant pieces in place, like this:

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This approach really needs a road to look “right”, but even without one, it looks acceptable. It’s not the highest possible fidelity, but I’m starting to look closely at the tradeoff I’d be making for that level of fidelity and wondering if it’s worth it. In carefully choosing certain low-impact static elements (the trees), I can still have a highly modular board without necessarily giving up appearance.

What I expect is that as I play more on the board, I’ll place more and more static terrain pieces, iterating on the design and determining which pieces move around a lot and which don’t. If I can, at any point, lock down a wall layout, I almost don’t need anything else to be static because I can simply put down roads and let the buildings sort themselves out. What I suspect, however, is that the walls are going to prove to be the most influential part of the board as far as play, and so they’ll have the most iteration before something is settled on.

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In the meantime, I’m surprised at how well the whole thing has turned out, since I’ve never before built a board or even really worked on terrain. It’s a gorgeous board thus far, and I’m really happy with the results, even if it’s not the static board I was shooting for.

What Makes a Good Stealth Game?

It’s not a huge secret that I love stealth games. Really, I like almost any game where winning requires you be observant and get creative with the tools you have, but good stealth games tend to excel at this. After I talked about the stealth mechanics in MGSV, someone asked me why I like that game as a stealth game but not the old Syphon Filter series, or Ninja Gaiden. It got me thinking about what I like in stealth games, and what makes one good.

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1.) Messaging.

I talk about messaging a lot. Messaging is the difference between dying randomly and dying because you weren’t paying attention. It’s what makes the first ten minutes of Mega Man X some of the most brilliant tutorial game design ever and so many overbearing, annoying tutorials so painfully bad. Messaging is super important in general, but especially important in stealth games.

Stealth games are cerebral games more than twitchy action games. It means they’re a lot more complex, and need to communicate how you’re supposed to interact with them in a reasonable sort of way. You need to be able to tell whether you’re about to be seen, or whether that guard is about to turn around, or how to know if you’re about to make a huge mess of things. You need to know where you can and can’t go, because so much of stealth gameplay is about traversal and thinking about how to get from point A to point B, often while avoiding obvious paths. Messaging is what makes that work. Lighting lets you know where you should and shouldn’t be, and you need to know where you can reach and where is off-limits, because oftentimes the best route is over or under the main path (more on this later).

More important are the little clues and the way the game messages things you can’t intuit. Thief introduced the light bar, which let you visualize how much light you were standing in (since you couldn’t look at your own body to tell). Stealth games tend to have HUGE animation libraries, showing everything from sleeping enemies to reactions to minor noises to investigating to various levels of alertness. Often you’ll have enemies be neutral or hostile depending on where in the map you are, whether you’re somewhere you ought to be or not, and you’ll get warned through animation and voice that you’re approaching a place they’ll turn hostile if you enter. These animations are hugely significant in letting you know how well you’re doing, and it’s why static cameras are so frequently the most disliked “enemy type” in stealth games: they lack nuance.

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2.) Level Design

A good stealth game is a master class in level design. Levels in more linear games tend to look like long tubes if you zoom out far enough– the best gameplay in that kind of straightforward action game has you moving through a space where the escalation is controlled and paced appropriately, with respites and restore points timed out as necessary. Mega Man levels tend to be a great example of this done well. By comparison, good stealth game levels tend to look like fairly small boxes. Rather than huge sprawls, they’re interweaving meshes with key locations interspersed throughout. They’re incredibly difficult to make well, because each section has to have multiple ways in and out and many different paths while still giving you the ability to fire off scripting triggers and story beats appropriately.

It’s why I don’t like Syphon Filter. Most of the levels I remember from that series were linear, with single-room patrol puzzles where being seen meant game over, rather than actual spaces with multiple paths. It wasn’t a game about perception and movement, it was a game about pattern recognition, more akin to a bullet hell shooter than a stealth game. It didn’t provide choices, just demanded you find answers, which brings me to my next bit:

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3.) Options.

Key to a good stealth game are providing options. Are you bad at moving quickly under pressure? Take the slower, safer route. Are you good at knocking out guards but bad at traversal? Go through the guarded route and take out your opposition. Maybe a little of both. It’s why some of my favorite stealth games are ones like Deus Ex or Assassin’s Creed, where (for the most part) you can choose exactly how stealthy you want to be, if at all.

One of my favorite stealth games was Hitman, specifically because despite the premise, it was best played as a significantly non-violent game. It let me play almost entirely non-lethally, save for the target, and in later stealth games I’ve prided myself on playing as non-lethally as possible. It changes the language of games for me from one of overwhelming offense in the face of violence to one of thoughtful conflict-avoidance and nonlethal approaches. Being able to make that choice (which is usually the more difficult option) feels meaningful, like I’m adding challenge but for a good reason. I can hold myself to a particular high standard, knowing that it’s self-imposed and not forced on me by the game.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think forcing stealth isn’t good for a stealth game; it’s the choice to remain unseen and unnoticed that really defines the genre, and leaves you to decide what happens if you fail. It’s why fail-on-being-seen is terrible, it robs you of that choice, no matter how narratively sensible it might be. Check out this segue into my next point:

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4.) Expectation of Failure.

Bad stealth games throw you to game over or make you restart if you mess up, get seen, whatever. Good ones expect that you will mess up and give you ways to get yourself out of trouble. Entire mechanics are founded on finding a way out of trouble, and it means that good stealth games can make their stealth components MUCH more difficult. You’re expected to fail at some point, and then get yourself out of the pot that you put yourself in. Often, early on in the game, you’ll be put into a situation where you can’t avoid failure, to teach you how to escape and right yourself. It’s cheap if done too often, but incredibly effective (and good messaging) when done well.

You’re often much weaker than even basic enemies, or very easily dispatched by them, to make failure sting a bit (but never instantly end the game). The original Thief pitted you against guards that were both better than you were with a sword and far stronger and more resilient. A swordfight with a single guard would leave you badly injured and limping along, a swordfight with two at once almost always meant death. But, you could get by. You weren’t *guaranteed* to die, it was just very likely, so that time a pair of guards managed to spot you and pull swords meant you probably wanted to run, hide, and then work your way back more carefully. Staying and fighting was a choice, and if you were good enough and knew what you were doing, a choice you could make and come out victorious on the other side.

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5.) You Are Special, But Not More Powerful.

Not special in mundane ways. In many shooters, you simply can get hit more times than your enemies can, and recover faster, so the end result is you are just bigger and better than most of what you fight. In good stealth games, you’re usually not bigger or better, but you have tools, or skills, or simply view the space in a different way than your foes. Height is an advantage, and you avoid roads in favor of rooftops (and have the skills to get up to said rooftops. You can open locked doors, or move quietly, or see in ways your enemies can’t.

As above, good stealth games are cerebral, so the tools you get are a celebration of brains rather than brawn. The exciting huge missile launcher and powerful giant axe are celebrations of brawn, the far more common celebration in games, but stealth games give you smoke bombs, and lockpicks, and water arrows so that you can prove that you’re smarter than your enemies, not stronger or tougher. It goes back to the choice thing– the very best stealth games let you choose how you want to play them, and that may not involve being stealthy at all.