Building a Bushido Board (Part 1: Cross-Media Level Design)

Lately I’m working on a table for a new miniatures game I’m trying, called Bushido. It’s an interesting accompaniment to Infinity– whereas Infinity is futuristic black ops and a huge emphasis on ranged combat, Bushido is more mythic Japan and has a very strong emphasis on melee combat. Notably, it’s also played on a board a quarter of the size of an Infinity table, making things much more close-quarters.

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More on Bushido later (probably). What I’m really thinking about is level design. I come from a video game design background, a world of de_dust, Blood Gulch, Facing Worlds, Summoner’s Rift, Lost Temple, Warsong Gulch, and a variety of other famous maps. These maps are carefully designed, usually iterated on thousands of times, and are meant to stand up to repeated play. Summoner’s Rift is largely the same map as it was when League of Legends first launched– certain things have been tweaked over the years but the overall layout is almost entirely unchanged. You can play in that space five, ten, a hundred times and have different experiences. Team composition, strategy, adaptation, all of these change the experience on the map.

So, a Bushido board. Bushido is a miniatures game, and even the most terrain-heavy miniatures games tend to be built to be modular, and change every single game. I’ve been playing miniatures games for over a decade now and I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that I’ve never played on the same table twice. This is considered normal. From the perspective of the video game level designer, this is kind of madness. Modularity is considered the most important thing for a set of minis game terrain– people tend to talk about “sets of terrain”, not actual boards themselves, because you just take all the pieces and assemble them on the fly into a board that you then play on once or twice and disassemble.

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I’ve unconsciously slipped into the same thought processes when I’ve helped out with minis terrain or built my own. You can see the usual sort of result in the above picture– it’s a textured map with distinct “objects” placed on it. Individual elements are internally themed and look good on their own, but the whole table is kind of just a space where terrain elements are placed, rather than something designed. It’s a system that’s very vulnerable to bad design– tables that are unbalanced and don’t really get improved because they don’t get any iteration. Instead you get a kind of tribal knowledge of “what makes a good table” that isn’t really universally agreed upon. Some games lean into this, suggesting that tables are laid out by the players beforehand, alternately placing terrain elements until there are “enough” on the table.

As I build my own Bushido table, I’m dissatisfied with both the non-specificity of table design in minis games but also the overall look. Minis tables are rarely beautiful, even if they contain beautiful pieces. The house in the center of the above picture looks fantastic, but it’s just plopped into the middle of the table. Now, look at Hanamura, from Overwatch:

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Just viewing it from above looks pretty nice, no? It looks like a believable space, but it’s still nuanced and playable. When you’re on the ground, you can see stuff like this:

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It’s a GORGEOUS shot, and that’s entirely playable space. Everything there is serving a purpose and contributing to that portion of the level while also being aesthetically satisfying. It’s what you lose out on when you do procedural spaces. Diablo recognizes this, peppering its procedurally generated levels with “set pieces”, key areas that are laid out a specific way to accomplish a goal, but it’s still possible to see the seams; it lacks the aesthetic appeal of something totally crafted.

It makes me wonder: why can’t the same thing be done with a minis game? Shouldn’t it be possible to develop a board that’s less like randomly generated dungeons and more like Hanamura? (Note: I’m not saying that Hanamura is necessarily a pinnacle of perfect level design, but it is a fun map and it looks fantastic, and I’m not bored of playing on it repeatedly.)

Here’s what I’m starting with:

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Excuse the vertical cell phone shot, it’s bad and I feel bad. I’m considering how to design this space to be a map that’s fun to play on multiple times, and that while I may very slightly tweak it, will look mostly the same for months or years. This mostly-static design lets me make all of the terrain elements look intentional, not plopped down, really make the whole think look like an intentional space.

I need a more complete understanding of the game to accomplish this, but I don’t think it’s impossible. The fidelity of a minis game is lower than a video game, which makes the overall project easier. What I need is a good understanding of the various scenarios and how they interact with the game board. With luck, a single board will accommodate all of them, but we’ll see. I may be able to iterate on this in this space.

Here’s the layout I’m currently envisioning, with black boxes for structures (darker portions are the size of corner deployment zones):

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It’s a start. We’ll see where I end up.

Overwatch Part 1: Why Casual Is Better

Overwatch is Kind Of A Big Deal right now. Blizzard is breaking into a new IP and new genre with its super-stylized team shooter, and it’s a rather good game. It’s not a game for everyone, but I think it’s a game worth trying, because it does a bunch of things *just* differently enough to be compelling.

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Let me cut to the chase: Overwatch is Team Fortress 2 as done by Blizzard. Same bright colour palette, same stylized art, same overall sense of winking fun while also being a tight, well-tuned shooter. The main thing it adds to Team Fortress 2 is movement, which is significant. Lots of shooters have been playing with the idea of movement as a significant verb, and Overwatch is no exception– different characters move differently and this is extremely significant. I’ve talked before about how important new verbs are to games, and while certainly a newer game, Overwatch is more fun out the gate than TF2 was, and a huge part of that is that it adds that verb. Indeed, a lot of the gunplay in Overwatch is LESS satisfying than TF2, but it matters a lot less because there are other things going on.

For a while, I’ve lamented that MMO game design has been co-opted by virtually every other genre out there while apparently learning nothing from the advances elsewhere in the industry. It’s not super surprising to me, then, that a game made by the company that basically defined MMOs for the last decade draws heavily on MMO design ethos. Overwatch feels more like a team PvP match in WoW than it does a more ‘traditional’ shooter. Working together is always important, but in Overwatch this is accomplished through abilities that work together in intuitive ways. Overwatch breaks its characters down into MMO-style roles, and even if the abilities and armaments of a given character aren’t immediately apparent, by seeing what role they’re labeled as, you can get a sense of how to play them. It’s very MOBA-esque, although significantly more intuitive than most MOBAs.

What really sets Overwatch apart, though, is the same thing that sets Heroes of the Storm apart: accessibility. Team shooters are hugely inaccessible games for the most part: an exercise in new player frustration as they die and lose repeatedly without a good sense of why or how to improve. This kind of frustrating experience is really bad for a game’s health, however much a certain player mentality really likes to say “oh, you gotta get your lumps in at first”. Trying to sell someone on something “fun” but telling them they’re going to have to suffer before they get to “the good part” is a fairly outdated mentality at this point, and Overwatch does everything it can to eliminate it.

Overwatch pops up helpful player tips constantly. It will give you tips on how to fight the character who just killed you, it will suggest team compositions, and it draws lines through the map at the start of the game so you know where you’re going. Map knowledge is important for playing the game well, but playing competently doesn’t require that you memorize every map before jumping in. Adding to this, the way maps connect together is intuitive– there aren’t a lot of obscure passageways to hunt down in order to reach hidden snipers.

Adding to this, the characters are simple but deep. There’s no ironsights aiming, virtually no weapon switching, very few complex weapon interactions, no difficult comparisons between similar weapons– what you see is what you get, and this helps the game a LOT. The nuance in each character comes naturally as you play them, not in complex pre-planning. Making a character shine often requires good teamwork, and it’s apparent how to make that happen. One character has a gigantic forward-facing shield that blocks incoming fire. It’s great for protecting an advance, since your allies can shoot through it but your enemies can’t. It leaves you open at the sides and back, though, so your team needs to cover your flanks. This is REALLY OBVIOUS the second you see this character in action, and doesn’t require some deep knowledge of the ability to function.

The sense of accessibility permeates through every level of the game’s design. The game is chock-full of positive feedback, and eliminates a LOT of standard first-person shooter tropes, especially in the UI, in order to promote teamwork and prevent the kind of statistical comparisons that create toxicity between players. There’s no kill feed, except in spectator mode, and if you pull up the scoreboard, it will show you your statistics and the current top statistics in the game, but not EVERYONE’s statistics. There’s no distinction between kills and assists. The game operates at the team level, and when it displays the top players, it shows off almost entirely random-seeming stats. If you’re losing, or failing with a given character, you can swap out during a match, in your base, rather than being stuck until the end of the match. All of this promotes as much of a positive upward spiral as possible, and keeps the game fun and intuitive.

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At the same time, it’s a surprisingly deep game. Very simple characters offer a lot of nuance, especially in a group. One of my favorite characters is D. Va, a mecha pilot tank-type. Her mechanics are really simple: she has rapid-firing shotguns that are strong in close, she’s got a forward conal shield that will block incoming fire, and while her base movement is somewhat slow (slower while shooting), she has a rocket boost that lets her fly around very briefly at pretty high speed. When her mech takes fatal damage, she’s ejected and becomes a much smaller, much faster target with a surprisingly powerful and accurate sidearm– survive long enough in this form and she can resummon a new mech. Her ultimate sets off the self-destruct in her mech, creating an enormous, super-damaging explosion that will kill virtually anyone it hits (including you, if you’re too close). In practice, this creates a really slippery tank class that can absorb a shocking amount of punishment between deaths, and is a really strong flanking tank that can hit an enemy from unexpected angles and (with her ult) is great at cracking dug-in enemies. She’s a lot of fun to play because you can stay in the fight for an incredibly long time, and you’re doing very different things while in the mech vs out of it. Working together with teammates means you can push harder than other tanks, since if you go down you’re still contributing to the team on foot, and then can fairly quickly get back into a new mech at top form. Right as you break through an enemy blockade, you can swap to flanking mode and make sure your team can lock their position. Alternately, you can blow up your mech in a group of enemies as the spearhead to a big push, especially if you have another more standard tank to help out.

My initial question when I started seeing Overwatch stuff was “why would I not just play TF2?”, and over the past few days I’ve gotten a really clear answer. It’s a fun, accessible game that adds movement as a fun new dimension to an otherwise lighthearted, casual experience.

Back After A Break (Or: When The Game Stops Being Fun)

It’s been a while since I posted last, mostly because there hasn’t been a lot I really feel like saying. It turns out it helps me to take a break from posting every so often to clear my head. I hadn’t really considered this previously, because my breaks from this have coincided with fairly major life events, so it’s seemed reasonable to just stop posting for a while. This time, it was more burnout than anything.

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While not posting, especially when I’ve had an unbroken string of posts for a while, there’s this weight of obligation, this feeling like I need to post something, need to write something, just to fill up space. It’s the same sense of feeling obligated to log into an MMO every day, just to “check in”. I hadn’t really connected the two before now.

Something I see a lot, and have talked to a lot of people about over the years, is burnout. It’s a huge issue in game development, and it’s a constant cycle in MMO raiding, two spheres where I’ve spent a lot of time. There’s a pervasive sense that you need to keep going, keep doing the Fun Thing, because if it’s not a Fun Thing, why did you spend so much time in it? It’s often compared to the business semi-equivalent, the concept of sunk costs, but I feel like it’s a poor comparison. Just because I’m not having fun with something *now* doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun *before*. We change, situations change, and it’s not (always) the game’s fault.

I haven’t logged into FFXIV in months now. I haven’t stopped liking that game; it’s still one of my favorite games, I just don’t feel like playing it right now. The most fun I have, the most invested I get in that game, is when there’s a nice big backlog of content to go through and get a bunch of story all at once. Getting the story in drips and drabs just gets me to lose the thread, especially when they come months apart. I’m excited about the next big thing they’re putting together, their procedurally-generated dungeon, and I’ll wait to play until that’s out and I have a bunch of stuff to catch up on.

Starting to post here again is kind of the same thing. I feel like I have things to say and comments to make, and I’ve played enough games in the interim to have more food for thought.

Feeling Out Of Things To Say

Lately my pace on this blog has slowed. I don’t know what (if any) regular readers I have who’ve noticed this, but I figured I’d at least mention it. I’ve done five days a week for a little over a year and dropped to four, then three, than now once or twice a week. Part of this is that work and class picked up and it was hard enough to juggle both while still writing weekly, but part of it is also that I feel like I don’t have a lot to say.

via twolittlefruits on Etsy

via twolittlefruits on Etsy

I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t really like talking unless I feel like there’s something valuable for me to say, something someone else might hear or read and either think about or disagree with me or be inspired by or understand something better or whatever. I’m similar in person– I generally don’t talk unless I have something to say. Most of my posts (though not all!) have been essentially semi-academic-style essays about various topics, just more opinion-leaning than cited, credible sources. It makes me feel like I’m contributing rather than just talking.

Lately, I’ve been busy with class and haven’t been playing a lot of games– or I haven’t had a lot of Big Ideas about the ones I have been playing. I don’t have anything deep or insightful to say about Stardew Valley or Mini Metro, other than both are really great games and I enjoy them a lot.

I guess a big part of it is that I don’t know what people like to read. If you are reading this, what DO you like to read about? What makes you check this space? I’m honestly curious, because I don’t really know.

Incremental Progress

I’m playing Bloodborne with Kodra, which is a kind of self-flagellation that I generally reserve for your more serious sort of monastery rather than my living room. Still, losing this badly to a video game is an experience best shared, and to our credit we’re making slow but steady progress.

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Like its Souls predecessors, Bloodborne is brutal, unrelenting, and utterly fair. It’s satisfying in a way that few games are, because you genuinely feel like some of the things you fight are impossible until you beat them and realize they’re beatable. I rarely feel like I’m fighting the controls in the game, and the enemies are numerous and varied but all message pretty well. It makes me pay attention to things I normally leave to the UI– watching the angle of attacks, watching enemy animations, watching the game, rather than a hotbar or an addon or a warning message or what have you. You run into these big, hulking person-shaped monsters pretty early on, and while the first time we ran into them we died horribly, the second time I was able to pay attention to their movements and figure out how to simply not be where they were striking.

It genuinely feels like I’m developing skill as I play the game, and part of it is perception, which I like a lot. I can get better at the game just by watching how enemies fight, so even if I lose, I learn– and I lose a lot. It’s worth noting that we’ve played for probably ten or twelve hours at this point and we haven’t beaten any bosses. We’re not great at this game, and neither of us have played much of the previous ones.

It’s still a great couch co-op game, in the sense that we trade off each time we die, or (more recently) sometimes when we’re looking at an enemy that one of us is better at fighting than the other. With our powers combined, we’re almost a single competent player, it’s awesome. One thing I’ve noticed is that the game rewards boldness a lot more than the previous ones. My previous experience with Demon’s Souls was hiding behind a shield and moving through the world in fear, very defensively. Bloodborne rewards me for acting boldly, dashing through that group of enemies and going back into the fight when I take a hit rather than hiding in a corner to lick my wounds and heal.

I also really like the little notes that are left around. Seeing other players try to string together warnings with the limited word/phrase selection is fantastic, and we’ve gotten quite a number of handy hints from them. It makes the whole game feel like a shared experience, and the blend of pre-emptively helpful (“reeks of trap!” and “remember hidden path”) and post-tragedy frustration (“vile crows” and “alas, ambush”) messages are often really funny. I think my favorite so far is, at the edge of a fatal-looking drop, simply “time for common sense”.

There’s something I love about people getting creative with heavily constrained communication. The ‘helpful’ messages littered throughout Bloodborne and the Souls games would be nowhere near as fun if players could simply type things out. Instead, the strict, limited word selection and short length makes for some delightful moments, especially when you run into a note that you know is trying to tell you something important, but you have no idea what it’s trying to say. Sometimes messages are just trolling you, but you’re not sure how until later.

The best note I’ve seen isn’t actually in Bloodborne– it was in Demon’s Souls. At the center of a bridge, filled with enemies and that a dragon would continually fly over and breathe fire on, there was a note. It wasn’t reachable for ages– you had to kill the dragon or otherwise be rid of it before you could stand on the part of the bridge where the note was, and I remember running past it but not being able to stop and read it maybe twenty times before finally getting a chance. I finally defeated the dragon, made the long trip back to that one bridge, fought all the enemies on it, and, curiosity burning, went to check the note that it had taken me nearly a week to reach and reveal.

It read, bright and cheerfully, “Hi!”

Tentative Excitement: the new Hitman

I picked up the “intro” pack for the new Hitman recently, and played a bunch of it last night– $15 for the tutorial levels and the first mission of the game. I’ve played through the tutorials and part of the first mission, and I’m really sold, especially for the price I paid.

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The structure of the game is interesting– there’ve always been many, many ways to approach a Hitman level, and, in general, few reasons to revisit them. In this iteration of the series, there are still the many ways to approach the levels, but the game nudges you to try different ones, making the replay value of the game a lot more apparent by indicating different ways to approach it. Rather than having to intuit creative solutions on the fly while under pressure, the game messages these solutions to you in the form of NPC conversations, various documents you can find scattered around the level, and other such details.

The game also has a lot more depth as far as the choices you can make. Despite being a game about assassination, killing anyone except your target is considered poor form at best, and mission-compromising at worst. Disguises are key to getting close to your target, and acquiring these takes creativity, patience, and timing if you want to do it well. What I also really like is the emphasis not just on the target, but also getting out.

It’s fascinating to me how much a game whose tagline is “enter a world of assassination” (I still always hear the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory song when I read that) puts such an emphasis on not killing people. Going in guns blazing is a really, really bad choice here, and while you CAN do it, it’ll get you plastered all over the evening news; not great for a professional ghost. As a result, the game does a lot to humanize even random nonessential NPCs, giving them habits, quirks, and mannerisms that make them feel more convincing.

One of the things that this Hitman game removes is the omniscient map. In its place is an Assassin’s Creed-style sensory mode, which slows time slightly and lets you see people (and identify your target(s)) through walls, but not the actual layouts of the rooms. It makes the game feel more tense, as I can’t simply hide in a closet and watch the map to study patterns anymore, I actually have to mingle and put myself at risk to gather information.

As I write that last sentence, a thought just clicked for me– I talk about wanting more verbs in video games. Hitman gives me a bunch of interesting verbs, but among them is “gather information”. It’s just moving around and looking around and finding opportunities, but in the game that’s interesting, and is an active, fully-featured part of the game. I can look around and see that some parts of a level are guarded by a particular type of NPC, and others are guarded by a different kind. I can intuit what kinds of disguises I’d need to fit in various places, and see how all the moving parts link together to give me openings to be where I need to be.

Like Thief, and to some extent Dishonored, Hitman is a game that I personally love because it really rewards me for being precise, planning, and executing cleanly. I’m rewarded for outsmarting the level, not brute forcing it. I don’t yet know how I feel about it being presented as an episodic game, because I’ve always found the Hitman series’ metastory to be fascinating and I want more of it, but for the $15 entry fee, I’m pretty okay with what I’ve gotten to play. Pretty good odds I purchase the “upgrade pack” to get the full game later on.

A Statement vs A Discussion

I’ve been mulling over this post in my head for several days now, and still haven’t formed a clear picture of what I want to say. Rather than continuing to spin on it, we’ll see if putting text to screen makes things more coherent. Here’s hoping.

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I love the Division. I hate the Division. It represents a path forward for MMOs that’s been sorely lacking for a decade now. It is chock full of some incredibly high-fidelity, compelling content. It also has content that makes my stomach turn, and it is very clear that it’s doing so intentionally. At times, the game intentionally tries to make me feel uncomfortable, and succeeds.

It manages to be a surprisingly inclusive game, with characters from all walks of life– it’s casually pro-LGBT and has some really great female characters who, from my perspective, feel like powerful women, not just dudes with boobs. One such character is why a friend of mine stopped playing the game. Video games tend not to put women in “lead” roles, either as heroes or villains. In the Division (spoilers to the end of this paragraph), I wound up facing a gang leader who was a black woman, and who, during the fight, hurled a variety of poignant epithets and taunts, one of which commented “oh, so you’re a cop, and you’re going to shoot me because I’m a black woman, is that it?”

It’s a nasty line, and it’s extremely effective. So effective that, like I said, at least one friend of mine up and quit the game right there. It links into my biggest problem with The Division, one that I’ve mentioned on the podcast: it asks questions, but doesn’t give me the ability to answer them. My only solution to a problem is to shoot and kill someone.

The world of the Division is a world of desperate people trying to cling to whatever little they have, and, in the chaos, warlords of various stripes amassing followers and carving out territory. You, as the player, are literally no different– you carve out territory in the name of making it “safe” (for you and yours) and kill anyone who gets in your way. It’s exactly what every other faction in the game is doing, and in-game ambience even spells this out explicitly. There’s a talk radio station that you can listen in on, where a slowly-freaking-out host goes on about your group, the titular Division, and asks if it’s really okay for a bunch of sleeper agents to come in and start using lethal force on whoever looks at them wrong.

As a player, I have no answer to this. My only solution to a problem is to shoot and kill someone.

What I crave in the Division is a dialogue, with the game and with the people in it. I want to be the last bastion of civilization that restores order and peace, not just the successful warlord that managed to kill everyone opposing them. The game makes a number of statements– “desperate times call for desperate measures” and asks if the ends justify the means, but doesn’t give me the ability to think about and answer that question. It uses uncomfortable situations not to open a dialogue, but for shock value. It’s disturbing, and there is no way for me to take a moral high ground or even ideologically defend myself.

At the same time, this is a game that represents what I’ve wanted in MMOs for a while– a richly-detailed world that my friends and I can jump into and have fun playing. An MMO where combat is *fun* and every encounter feels enjoyable and meaningful. A group system that doesn’t adhere to the standard “trinity” roles but has the ability for party members to fill specific niches that they come up with themselves.

I love what the Division represents, I just wish it wasn’t laced with so much stuff that bothers me deeply. As mentioned in the podcast, if I could buy The Secret World set in the Division’s engine and gameplay, I would buy that game yesterday and still be playing it instead of writing this post.

I haven’t been this conflicted about a game in a while. Maybe that’s the dialogue.

Uncertain Dip

This is a post about food. dealwithit.jpg

I have a small holiday dip sampler sitting in my kitchen, containing perhaps the strangest variety of semiliquids I’ve seen in a while. I’ve had them since visiting my parents over the holidays, and while they’re not in any danger whatsoever of expiring, I’ve been trying (with no luck) to figure out what to do with them. You’d think this would be easy. “Dip stuff in them, Tam, obviously,” but these dips defy simple use.

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One of them is fairly straightforward. It’s “Raspberry Honey Mustard Pretzel Dip”, which is pretty obvious as far as use-case. It’s still sealed, because I haven’t gone out to find pretzel sticks appropriate for dipping, but I’m still kind of side-eyeing the “raspberry” part of the experience. I’m not entirely sure where the association between “raspberry” and “mustard” came from, or if it even makes sense. I like both things, but I haven’t quite worked up the wherewithal to dip a finger in and taste it. Having now realized how silly that sounds, I’ve now opened the jar and, welp, it tastes unsurprisingly like raspberries and honey mustard. It’s going to take a particular kind of pretzel to make this work, and I’m now kind of glad I didn’t just pick up some random pretzels to try. It’s good, just… weird, especially with the mustard seeds and what look like bits of raspberry mixed in.

Also in the “good but weird” category is the Chocolate S’mores Dip. This one I have dipped a finger in to try at least once or twice or maybe a few times. It’s about the consistency of a thick aioli or warm Nutella, a bit too watery to spread on bread but a bit too thick to dip cookies in easily. I have no idea what is even supposed to be dipped in here, and the jar is not really helpful in this regard. It does taste a lot like s’mores, though, with a marshmallow and graham cracker hint alongside the chocolate. Having discussed this particular dip with Ashgar, I think he’s right and that while nothing I dip into it will be “appropriate”, pretty much whatever I dip into it is going to be delicious. Spoilers, I’m probably dipping pretzels in this.

The next weird jar is “Roasted Pineapple and Habanero Dip”, which seems to suggest that both things are roasted. I’m not really opposed to it, but it’s a bit strange. It’s about the consistency of the strawberry drizzle you get on some cheesecakes, making it fairly unsuitable for any kind of dipping whatsoever. It’s also way too sweet, cloying, and rich to be a sauce, though I entertained the idea of marinating some chicken in it until I tasted it. As an aside, I kind of love the combination of pineapple and hot peppers, so while I would otherwise write this off as a wasted jar, I’m going to find some use for it. Pretzels? Pretzels.

The last jar is labelled “Chocolate Caramel & Sea Salt Sauce”. I’m vaguely hoping there’s a missing comma in there, and while I’m used to salted caramel, I rarely see them separated. Also, this is apparently a “sauce”, not a “dip”, and since all of these jars are from the same company, I feel like I could use the differences between this one and the s’mores dip to figure out what they think the difference is. Opening the jar, it’s about the consistency of thick ganache or maybe wet fondant, so, much thicker than any of the contents of the other jars by far. It also tastes like the label suggests– chocolate caramels with some sea salt. It’s frankly pretty weird, and I’m not sure how to dip pretzels into it, so I might have to get creative.

It’s finals week, I’ve been writing almost the entire day, and I’ve just dropped a little more than six hundred and fifty words about jars in my kitchen and their contents, as well as my current odd pretzel craving. It might be time for bed.

On Foes

Video games are pretty heavily predicated on giving you some kind of opponent to clash with. Whether that’s another player, AI-controlled opponents, the game world itself, or the gameplay mechanics, games basically set you up with an opponent to see if you or they/it can achieve victory.

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A discussion we had about The Division over the weekend got me thinking about enemies that appeal vs don’t. Ashgar mentioned that he didn’t like that the Division pitted you, a squishy human, against other squishy humans with realistic guns. We went into a bit of depth on the podcast this week, how The Division is an excellent game as long as you don’t think about what you’re actually doing too hard.

That being said, The Division offers me enemies I find compelling, far more than, say, Warframe or Destiny. I want to face opponents with motivations I can at least understand, who aren’t mustache-twirling evil for the sake of being evil. It’s a big part of the reason I don’t go in much for games about aliens or monsters; unless there’s some kind of sentience that can be communicated with, there’s not really much to understand other than “it’s trying to hurt me, I must stop it,” which feels shallow. I do wish that in The Division as well as other games, there were more nuanced ways of dealing with enemies– we talked about nonlethal takedowns and it’s one of my favorite parts of games like Deus Ex and Dishonored.

I remember playing Turok: Dinosaur Hunter quite a while back and finding it boring. Sure, the enemies were varied and behaved differently, but they were mostly dinosaurs and wild beasts. There didn’t feel like there was any depth there or any possible interaction other than “well, hope I don’t run into one of these because it’ll try to eat me”. Even when interactions have broken down to the point where the primary interaction is violence, I still like to know I’m dealing with opponents who are (presumably) making their own decisions, even if those decisions put us in conflict.

It’s why I don’t like the whole zombie craze. It’s just dinosaurs with a different skin, another mindless opponent that is little more than a strength and endurance test. I prefer to be tested on my agility or intellect– I have more fun when I’m proving I’m faster or smarter than my opponents, not bigger or tougher. Opponents that test neither agility nor intellect are boring to me, and a lot of games that pit you against non-human-equivalent enemies will have foes that are FAR more agile than you are, if they’re agile at all, or big, slow, lumbering bosses that aren’t so much an agility test as a timing test.

One of the reasons I like Warframe so much is because I play light, agile frames that move faster and more adeptly than my enemies. Even in big, tanky frames I’m more agile and more maneuverable than a majority of enemies, which is very satisfying.

At a narrative level, I like games that pit me against foes that make me think about my own motivations (and, ideally, let me act upon those thoughts). In Dishonored and Deus Ex, it quickly became apparent that the average guard or thug was just someone doing their job, not intrinsically tied to whatever awful thing I was trying to stop. They’re basically innocents, doing what they need to for a paycheck or because they’ve been misled into believing they’re right. Those games let me discover that, and then avoid harming innocents. Hitman, a game literally about assassination, actually puts a lot of focus and reward on being nonviolent, because you’re often in public places or otherwise surrounded by innocents who aren’t connected to your target; hurting them is unjustifiable.

I prefer to see my opponents in games as people, rather than just targets, but that comes with the additional demand that I be able to treat them in a way that feels sensible, even if that does mean open violence with the knowledge that the organization or ideology I represent is less harmful than the one they represent. If a game is going to make me question the group or philosophy I’m ostensibly linked to, I’d like to be able to act on that uncertainty. My biggest frustration with The Division is that it makes me question the group I’m a part of, but doesn’t give me any space to act on that.

Immersion (The Division)

I have a few game designer friends who visibly twitch at the use of the word “immersion”. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot both among players and among devs, and it’s often not super well defined. At best, it’s used as a catchall word for being “in the experience”, that sense of feeling like you’re in the game world and not simply playing a game. At worst, it’s a vague descriptor for something someone doesn’t like but can’t really quantify or describe– it “breaks immersion”!

art by Romain Laurent

art by Romain Laurent

It’s a tough thing to pin down, like “fun”, because what one person finds immersive someone else can easily find laughable. Some people never get that feeling like they’re “in the game world”, and trying to describe an immersive experience to them is like talking to a brick wall.

I think a better descriptor would be “attention to detail”. Immersion is the effect, attention to detail is the cause. It’s something I’ve noticed a lot of while playing The Division… pretty much all week. What really stands out to me is the attention to detail throughout the game. Everything from materials making the sounds I expect as I climb over them or shoot them to the believable advertisements and fliers to the desperately-lived-in looking areas you move through adds to the experience. There’s a story, everywhere I go, and there are enough little details that I can interact with to make me feel like I’m jumping over cars and jewelry stores, not textured geometry.

As an example, a car is, functionally, just a piece of cover in the street. The streets are broken up with abandoned cars, very dense, like you’d expect of New York City traffic. A lot of these have been hastily abandoned, and the doors are ajar. You can close them by pressing up against them, and it makes a satisfying “car door closing” sound. It makes the car feel like a car, and not like just another piece of cover in the street.

This past evening, I went into the Dark Zone with a group of friends. The tension is very real in there, but not overwhelming– in a group, I felt safe, and backed up by my teammates. The game’s UI makes it very difficult to tell if a moving person in the distance is an NPC or another player, and our desire to be certain we weren’t shooting other players without meaning to meant we used various tricks (like scan pulses) to find out. It meant that we stuck together, always keeping an eye out in all directions, and moving as a group== just like we felt like we *should*. It’s made even more poignant by the plentiful high-quality drops that you only get to keep if you successfully extract them.

That feeling, that sense of acting within the game the way you feel like you ought to act, or that alignment between your expectations and what is actually happening in the game– that’s immersion. It’s the culmination of all of the little details that add up, and it’s why all of those little things are important. It’s why sitting in chairs in an MMO matters, and why ambient sounds and minor sound effects are vital. It’s why signs you can read are so much more compelling than signs you can’t, and why getting animations just right is so important.

As mentioned before, I’ve spent a ton of time in The Division this week, enough that I’ve been distracted from writing (whoops!). The game itself is much like games I’ve played before– it’s a good cover shooter, and I’ve described it as Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, fleshed out in a different setting. What keeps me coming back to it thus far are all the little details. The sense of picking up the pieces of a shattered piece of civilization is strong, and it runs through everything from the visuals, to the enemy types, to the collectables (that offer me in-game story bits!), to the fact that I can close people’s abandoned car doors.