Archive for March, 2014

Bioshock: Buried at Sea

The final piece of DLC for Bioshock Infinite came out this last week, and after banging my head against the terrible storytelling of Diablo 3, I picked it up for myself, because I have been waiting for this for a while.

I didn’t actually get the first episode for Burial at Sea when it came out in December. Reviews came in saying that it was short and rather unfulfilling, clearly the first half of a story… which I do rather agree with, after playing it for myself. Running around Rapture in its prime was fun, and the ending was gloriously awesome, but everything in between was woefully short and wanting.

That said, Episode 2 has gotten some much better marks from the press, and I definitely see why… but in a sense, it left me with the opposite feeling as I had with Episode 1: The bulk of the game was gloriously fun, but the ending… left a lot to be desired.

What is Burial at Sea?

If I had to describe Burial at Sea in one sentence, it’s a prologue for Bioshock, set in pre-shit-going-bad Rapture, using Booker and Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite to set up things… and that makes sense.

Bioshock’s biggest strength, after all, was Rapture. It was a city that existed entirely as a metaphor for Objectivism. A city in a unique environment, where the richest prosper and the poor must suffer, where industry is allowed to do as however it wishes to do, where empathy is not merely a weakness, but a cancer upon the noble, inquisitive mind.

The big problem with Bioshock, though, was that this attitude extended to the characters. Suchong is a scientist unbound by the petty trivialities of morality, Steinman is a doctor more interested in profits and scientific advancement than he is in treating his patients, Ryan as the true believer… but one that assumes that he’s among the best destined to rise to the top and infuriated when that proves not to be the case… and Fontane aka Atlas as the reason why Objectivism won’t work: Because once someone comes along who knows how to cheat the system, everything falls apart.

The only real characters who don’t fit this are Tenebaum, who does little and basically counts as the “Good Guy” NPC for much of the story, and the player character, Jack, who… has no personality to speak of whatsoever, because he’s a blank slate avatar that the player can easily slip into.

The result of all these characters as metaphors, though, is that they’re just metaphors. You gain allegory, but you lose reliability and complexity, and there’s no one clamoring to see more of these characters.

By contrast, the one of the biggest weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite was that it did little with its American Exceptionalism centered city of Columbia… but did a ton with the protagonists, Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth Comstock. To go into what made those characters so grand… would be difficult to do, let alone without spoiling every major plot element of Bioshock Infinite. Let’s just say that these two characters aren’t metaphors or examples or strawmen or anything. They’re living, complex people that grow and change over the course of the story.

All that is why Burial at Sea had such a huge draw: Taking those two beloved characters from Bioshock Infinite and placing them in the city of Rapture? Who could ask for more?

Did it work?

I want to avoid major spoilers… but I really can’t, because the big problem with Burial at Sea is the end.

So, spoiler time.

In Burial at Sea, Episode 1, Elizabeth comes to a version of Booker DeWitt in Rapture and hires him to help find Sally, a little girl that went missing… and a little girl that Booker sorta adopted for himself, but lost. This leads them down a merry path of bloodshed until they reach the girl, whereupon its revealed that she’s been turned into one of Rapture’s creepy Little Sisters… and that this Booker is actually a version of Father Comstock that has been trying to hide from the things he’s done, including to his own verison of Elizabeth… and he promptly gets killed by a Big Daddy, just as Elizabeth had planned.

(Look, I’d go into the Booker/Comstock thing… but lets just say its complicated, and quantum, and move on, because it really doesn’t matter much after this)

In Episode 2, we actually play Elizabeth, as she realizes that she used a little girl as bait to kill a completely monster, and goes out to try to rescue her, although devoid of her powers from the previous bits, because… she died in god-mode, and now is a regular girl.

…look, this series is kinda weird, okay?

Point is, Atlas has Sally, and Elizabeth needs to do all sorts of things that build up to the events of Bioshock, kickstarting the revolution, all while wondering what god-her was thinking with this, and being aided by the voice of the Booker from BSI, the good Booker, although its stated that he’s just a voice in her head or something… until she realizes, just before the end, what god-her was thinking: By doing this, she can save Sally, the girl she put in danger, and set into motion the events that will culminate with Jack coming to Rapture, killing more or less everyone still alive over the age of 10, and saving all the Little Sisters… but killing Elizabeth in the process.

And that last part is the big problem with Burial at Sea: At the end of it all, it becomes about Bioshock, not Bioshock Infinite. It stops being a story about Elizabeth’s struggles to save a young girl and becomes about Elizabeth sacrificing her godlike powers, immense perspective and even her LIFE in order to enable the admittedly heroic actions of a… nobody. Such a sacrifice for the sake of Bioshock’s lackluster ending doesn’t build the ending up, it tears the wonderful story of Burial at Sea down.

The Good end of Bioshock was disliked by many, largely because it’s so saccharine after such a dark and brooding game, and Burial at Sea just tries to raise the stakes on that even further. Keep in mind, because of Elizabeth’s actions in starting the revolt that will end up destroying Rapture, all of the following things will happen:

  • All the residents of Rapture, excluding the Little Sisters, will either be killed horribly, or turned into the psychotic murders known as Splicers, many of whom Jack will end up killing. It’d probably be fair to say that the death toll would be in the tens of thousands, if not more.
  • Included in that total are all the children that live in Rapture that aren’t turned into Little Sisters. Just because you didn’t see them in Bioshock (…because gruesomely murdered children is hard to pull off without an AO ESRB rating), doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
  • A passenger plane flying over the Atlantic ocean is hijacked and crash-lands into the ocean, likely killing everyone aboard with the exception of Jack.
  • Elizabeth, a woman explicitly defined as being omniscient of the present and future, with powers beyond knowing, gives up her power to become mortal, do all the above, and die.

And yet, the ending tries to play this all off as a good thing. That this living god found the Little Sisters to be more important than everything else, and that there was only one way to save them: By killing tens of thousands of people, most no more guilty of abusing the Little Sisters than 1850’s Georgians were guilty of abusing slaves, including probably hundreds of innocent children, and dying herself. There are justifications one could make, explanations, ideas about how this could all logically make sense, sure. The limits on Elizabeth’s powers, and the nature of Bioshock’s multiverse, are so ill defined that there’s certainly an explanation somewhere in there. But Burial at Sea makes no real effort to explain it.

I don’t want to say I disliked Burial at Sea, far from it. One of the first things I thought after finishing it was that I would be a very happy man if all DLC was as smart, well written and tightly focused as Burial at Sea was.

The problem is that, in trying to bridge the gap between Bioshock’s Rapture and Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth… in the end, it gave up on Elizabeth, and just focused on Rapture’s downfall and, arguably, the weakest part of Bioshock. Despite everything wonderful that had happened before… the ending just drags down what could have been a nearly perfect experience.

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Diablo III: Reaper of Souls: Same Shitty Storytelling, Different Year

So, last weak the expansion pack for Diablo III came out, “Reaper of Souls”, advertised as being about an angel basically going evil and deciding to kill all humans because humans are evil and suck, and since I’m still a fan of the Diablo series, and genuinely do love the gameplay, I picked it up.

Yes, this was even after remembering my post last year, The True Tragedy of Diablo III, which was largely about how disappointed I was by Diablo III’s storytelling. Not the outline of the story or the themes involved, of course. Frankly, I’d love to see that theme explored more, the sense of continued optimism and eternal persistence in the face of gloom, dread, tragedy and personal mistakes that was woven throughout so much of what passed for Diablo 3’s story.

I played through the new content, and, aside from a few bits that were just on-the-face dumb (the ending is pretty sudden and uninspired, not really resolving the events as much as just stopping), the story continues in Diablo 3’s grand tradition of coming up with interesting story ideas and doing jack shit with them.

Spoiler time, so apologies if you really, genuinely care about what the storylines in the new content are, but here’s what I can remember of the major and minor story elements:

  • Angels in the service of the crazy-and/or-evil Angel of Death, Malthael, descend upon the large city of Westmarch and start killing everything they see, turning the slain humans into Reapers, undead beasties that go around killing more people. The Nephalem hero from Diablo 3 shows up in Westmarch and gets to work stopping it, especially once the hero finds out that the Ebon MacGuffin (I mean, Black Soulstone) from Diablo 3 got stolen by Malthael as well.
  • When the rest of Heaven found out about Malthael going rogue, they had sent another Angel to try to find him and turn him back to the light, however this other Angel grew to agree with Malthael’s cause and joined up with him. And he clearly didn’t go alone, showing that Angelic Purity is hardly universal or reliable.
  • Each of your companions have their stories develop further, be it bringing down the Templar’s corrupted order, finally finding Lyndon’s brother, only too late, or discovering that one of the Enchantress’ sisters betrayed them all, instead of allowing herself to be sacrificed for Eirena’s sake.
  • While Westmarch is being invaded, there’s still politics going on. The city is ruled by stuck-up nobility, many of whom are showing their true colors in the horror. The long-abused underclasses are taking advantage, French Revolution style, but end up killing nobles seeking to help save the city, and even the King is murdered by a rival noble, seeking to put his family back on the throne… all while Angles are coming down and killing everything in sight, in the grandest tradition of idiots refusing to see the big picture.
  • And there’s smaller acts of heroism in there too, be it soldiers fighting and dying to protect civilians from the angelic horde, a random man rescuing a young woman, only to turn out to have been a deserter now bound for the noose, even a sorcerer trying to find a way to save the souls being taken by the Angels, only for the spell to fail with nearly disastrous results.
  • As you finish things in Westmarch, you find out what Malthael’s plan is: To use the Ebon MacGuffin to destroy everything with demonic heritage. While this doesn’t seem bad without context, it is a little bad when you remember that Humanity is the result of an Angel and a Demon’s union… and so Malthael plans to destroy all of humanity to rid existence of the demonic taint.
  • You also find out that the person that can best hunt down Malthael is Adria… the woman that betrayed the good guys in the main campaign of Diablo 3, killed the one of the most benevolent characters in the game and is a woman that the heroes, as well as most of the players, would be oh so happy to tear limb from limb… and so you need to hunt her down, mindful that you need to get the information from her before you kill her.
  • Once Adria’s dealt with, after some ominous words about how Diablo will find a way back, you need to go after Malthael, and are assisted by a very grumpy Angel named Imperius, who knows that Malthael needs to be put down, but can’t bring him to do it himself… so will just give the Heroes a bit of a leg up, even if he won’t stop being a dick about it.
  • And then you find out that, to destroy Malthael, you need to absorb the spirits he had taken of some of your countrymen (the people depending on your class), and thus becoming an embodiment of your class and your people.
  • Of course, you end up fighting Malthael, but during the fight Malthael shatters the Ebon MacGuffin, powering himself up as a result for the One-Winged Angel form (…although he still has two wings). With the killing blow, however, you find out that killing Malthael may have ended up setting Diablo free once again, and the game ends with Tyrael wondering if the Nephalem heroes will ever become corrupted and evil… because they’re certainly powerful enough to take down the Angels.

Sorry for the wall of text above, but that was rather the point: There’s a lot of story elements in Diablo 3. Angels falling and becoming evil, people fighting each other even in the face of a greater threat, small acts of heroism and sacrifice, the chance for revenge versus the need for life saving information, an adversary coming to your aid, growing stronger through spiritual methods and the eventual worry of power corrupting even the most noble souls…

And, like in Diablo 3’s main campaign, they do very, very little with it. Even the bigger elements barely get touched upon. Story elements are shoved to the side whenever possible, even when there’s chances to make them work better. There’s a few points in the game where “You need to go do these things so we can draw the gameplay out some more” shows up, and its little more than transparent excuses for you to go around and kill things.

I know what the reaction is: It’s Diablo. You don’t play it for the story, you play it for the gameplay! Who cares if the story is shit, it’s an action RPG, the story’s just there to drive the action! The problem I have with it is twofold:

1: Shit is shit. The story’s a part of the game, it has cutscenes, cinematics, voice-overs, there’s achievements linked to finding all the conversation stuff in the game. If its in the game, its worth criticizing, and given that they put time and money into the story, why shouldn’t the quality of it be criticized?

2: It’s not an excuse plot. I WISH it was an excuse plot.

Diablo 1 and 2 had wafer-thin stories that were used to string the action along. There were good elements in there, sure, but it wasn’t given a huge amount of focus, outside of the cinematics that did a great job of setting up the next bit of story. The thing is, when you get a thin excuse plot that exists just to drive the action? Its easy to ignore, it doesn’t get in the way and it provides a bit of fun.

Diablo 3, and now the expansion, are not excuse plots. They put money into them, there’s inventive ideas with strong themes involved, ideas designed to build up the world, a real sense that the game is supposed to MEAN something.

The problem is that Blizzard is using the same old strategies in their efforts to ‘tell’ the story. Brief conversations consisting of 3-5 lines, spaced 15-30 minutes apart, depending on the subject. Journals you’ll find lying around the level, which are all too easy to miss in the chaos of battle. A handful of cinematics that are mostly exposition. Occasional sidequests that are meant to ‘enrich’ the world, but are entirely self-contained because the levels are randomly generated, so they can’t be sure which small zones you’re going to stumble across this time.

It all merges together into what can only be described as Homeopathic Storytelling: A small amount of good story and plot in there, but so heavily diluted by the action and refusal to force the players into the story at all. The story so often gets shoved aside for the sake of gameplay that it gets ridiculous after a while, thin excuses for plot cul de sacs popping up here and there that never get brought up again.

Like with the main campaign of Diablo 3, there are elements in the story that are worth exploring, that nearly DEMAND exploring. Because Blizzard fails consistently to do so, the game suffers badly.

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A Response to Jim Sterling’s “Monetizing Whales For The Retention Of Virality” video

(If you haven’t yet, you should probably watch the video in question. Yummy, yummy context.)

First off, I want to say that I greatly respect Jim Sterling’s work. He’s a great reviewer, does fantastic videos on the video game industry and tends to be a nice counterpoint to a lot of the other video game journalism that tends to be afraid to outright criticize publishers and developers doing terrible things.

Of course, while I respect him, that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with his points on occasion, as I do with some aspects of his latest video. His video tears into the GDC conferences that occurred last week, and that many of the panels had names that were, well, somewhat disheartening at first glance.

Again, please watch the video, because I don’t want to accidentally misrepresent his points on the subject, and i’d like to just go right at them. Also, I’d like to stress two things:

1: I did not go to GDC, so I can hardly speak on the actual content of the panels myself. Its entirely possible that the panels were indeed all kinda evil… but Jim Sterling didn’t go either, and at no point brings up the content himself.

2: I want to avoid “Games need to make money” as an argument. It’s a trite cliche, and while on the surface true, it doesn’t say “How much” or “What is acceptable and what isn’t” and “”But chasing bad profits is a bad idea for all involved”. Lets just assume that a game needs to make, at the very least, a small amount of money… because, for everything made commercially, that’s true. 

First things first…

The Introduction Example

The panel that Jim Sterling was talking about, which he calls “How to Safely Monetize Teens” is… actually not that bad, apparently.

First off, it’s actual title was “Monetizing Teens in a Safe and Legal Manner“, and came with the following description:

This session will discuss how to maintain parental control over teen spending in the digital era, while also safeguarding their identity. By facilitating a parentally approved transaction, this can protect game developers against chargebacks and friendly fraud.

Based on that description… it seems like a legitimate concern and a pretty important topic. The title is inflammatory, to be sure.

And, as luck would have it, one of the attendees live-tweeted the session: “The #monetizing #teens #GDC panel“, and, from context, seems to have mainly been about the legal issues involved and urging to try to keep parents in control, and the panel never really dived into anything controversial, the panelists largely dodging the trickier questions.

Granted, as the author of the post, Ben Abraham, wrote:

I wonder if before the talks title went viral, there was plans for a more audacious talk – a talk in which the industry’s monetization mask would have slipped, and gone completely unnoticed…

Which is possible, and probably why the people doing the panel tried so hard to dodge the questions, but as the tweets seem to indicate, the prepared presentation seemed more focused on trying to avoid getting teens to spend their parents money without a care in the world.

So, that’s part one…

Doing Talks on Monetization Models

Let me be honest: I hate the term whales (in this context, F2P players that make up the vast majority of purchases), and I think that any game that chases whales exclusively is setting themselves up for massive failure. I have no doubt that a lot of the panels and sessions that Sterling name-dropped were full of terrible ideas and weak monetization strategies that would kill a good game if implemented to their logical extent.

But note the word “A lot”. And not “All”.

The problem is… well, Monetizing F2P games isn’t easy. The way you make a F2P game is to make the best game you possibly can and then make the game less enjoyable in specific ways so that you can sell them back to the player. Even the most innocuous methods, like new outfits or emotes with no statistical benefit to the player, is removing things from the players so they can be sold back to them, in exchange for getting the REST of the game for free.

It’s a bit of a paradox, and there’s a lot of games that do it terribly, like the iOS Dungeon Keeper, Trexels and Heroes of Dragon Age (…2/3 of them from EA, cough cough). And there are some games that do it well (although its hard to say which ones without getting into revenue numbers, but Loadout and Path of Exile have been praised for their F2P generosity).

Ideally, the point of these panels would be to share what worked, what didn’t work, what worked in the short term but fell apart in the long term, and so on and so forth… and I’d wager that, in at least one of those panels, that’s what happened.

But… yes, as long as games require at least a modicum of funding in order to be made and supported, there needs to be discussions on how to best make money without hurting the overall game. Otherwise, it’s probably that you’ll see more follow-the-leader terrible ideas like Dungeon Keeper iOS.

Of course, I can’t say for certain. But lets face it: Every essential part of video game development will need to be discussed and debated and such, and Monetization is probably always going to be on that list.

Reducing the Backlash

I’m honestly trying to find this panel in the GDC 2014 listing, but thus far? The closest one I’ve found is “You Own the Game but the Community Owns You“:

Gamers believe they own the brands, which is a bit of a dilemma for the developers and publishers who have to make decisions based on a much broader need base than a vocal minority. Ideally, game companies won’t make or need to make decisions that go against this outspoken group, but often there is a need. So gamers feel jilted, like the game cheated on them, when they never understood the nature of their relationship.

Okay, the description is maybe a bit douchey, but it’s not like there’s not a reason this panel exists. For example, Jim Sterling put out a video last year titled: “I’m Going To Murder Your Children“, with the following description:

If your first response to a game creator doing something you dislike is to get personal with them and threaten their families, you waive any righteousness you might have had. Seems like a no-brainer … yet so few of us seem to have brains.

It’s sad this episode had to be made, but here’s a Jimquisition about how you’re a total piece of shit if you threaten to murder somebody’s child. Yes … this had to be pointed out.

That’s the backlash that was almost certainly being talked about. There’s plenty of legitimate reasons that a game developer might do something the is in the best interests of the game as a whole, but the players may react poorly to:

  • You overpromised at E3 a few years ago about what the game would be able to do, and now have to disappoint the players now so that they don’t feel cheated when the game does come out.
  • A popular item/character/weapon is overpowered, and you need to nerf it to bring it in line with the other weapons.
  • Someone made a mistake, something bad happened with the game and you need to get the players to understand this as you compensate them for the problems.
  • The game, or an update to the game, just wasn’t as good as you thought it’d be.

The point is… these things all happen, and there’s absolutely a need to be able to communicate with the players well enough in order to make the bad news not… well, spring up death threats and vitriolic hatred that the video game industry is so good at.

In any case, Jim Sterling, if you’re reading this? I do apologize for the snarky comment I shot at you over twitter. Unfortunately, making clear and accurate points can take more than 140 characters, so I do hope these 7500+ characters will do a better job of it.

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