Tag Archives: kotaku game diary

The Tension Of Playing Overwatch During A Blizzard Controversy

Yesterday, like I do every day, I wrapped up my workday, closed my Chrome tabs and, without pausing, hit the Windows button on my keyboard. In the search bar, I typed “Over-” and hit enter. My eyes found the big, blue “Play” button on the game launcher. Overwatch’s familiar orchestral music swelled and, in an oblivious four clicks, I was queued up for a game. I won that game, and the next, and it felt good, like it always does, to win.

It was eerily easy not to consider my own actions in the context of the week’s Blizzard news. We often load up our go-to games impulsively, without consideration for what it may mean in a greater ethical context. Right now, it’s something we could stand to wrestle with more mindfully.

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My play session was on the tail end of a news cycle criticizing Overwatch’s publisher, Blizzard, for their excessive punishment of Hearthstone pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai for saying “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” on stream. Blizzard said Chung, who had just won his Grandmasters game, violated the Official Competition Rules v1.4 P.12, Section 6.1 (0) by “engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard.” Chung received no prize money and a one-year suspension while the competition’s casters were fired. Outrage ensued, and I was not an unbiased bystander to it.

Someone covered up the “Every Voice Matters” and “Think Globally” phrases in a Blizzard headquarters statue expressing the company’s values. College Hearthstone players expressed their solidarity with a “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizzard” sign. The Hearthstone subreddit closed, overwhelmed by the explosion of criticism. Hearthstone casters have quit—famous ones, too. Dozens on social media said they were cancelling their Blizzard accounts or World of Warcraft subscriptions. All of this so consumers—fans, even—can show Blizzard that they will not support a company that thwarts people’s livelihoods and snatches away financial resources when they make statements about human rights they deem inappropriate.

I cannot, as a journalist who covers Overwatch and WoW Classic, entirely cut myself off from what I write about. But what deeply unsettled me was how easy it was to go from fury and rage over Blizzard’s decision to impulsively queueing myself up for a couple rounds of Overwatch to de-stress after work. We are creatures of pattern, and once my responsibilities are complete, an aura of droneishness overcomes me as I fall into my favorite pattern: a glass of bourbon on ice and an hour of Overwatch.

Games are designed this way. Seamless. Music engineered to transition you into the gaming mindspace. Fewer clicks before jumping into a game. No downtime during the gameplay loops. Fewer barriers before queueing up for another one. This immersive world with its own, separate set of values and stakes is designed to feel isolated from life. Overwatch presents a utopian, multicultural world, which, as game director Jeff Kaplan once told Kotaku, is meant to suggest that “it’s time to move on from some of these visions that we keep reinforcing rather than imagining something being a little different.”

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An online game is simultaneously an escapist paradise and a big-money commodity. They’re both player-built digital communities and the products of publicly-traded companies like Blizzard-Activision, which above all function in the service of financial objectives.

They can be all these things at once, but it’s time I, and others, stop thinking of them as separate. Overwatch is not separate from Blizzard and the controversy its actions deserve. The place where it lives in my mind is. I need to do the mental work of folding my impulses around playing Overwatch into my deep, deep anger about how they behaved toward Chung and the Hearthstone casters. Once others do the same, we might find that we have more power over our impulses than we thought. 

Source: Kotaku.com

I Succeed At This Game By Trying The Silly Shit You’d Be Punished For In Other Games

Kotaku Game DiaryKotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.

I love old-school adventure games so damn much, but sometimes I just can’t manage to finish them. I get stuck on puzzles but I’m often too stubborn to consult a guide, or I lose patience with their pacing, or sometimes I’m just tired of looking at my laptop screen (most of the adventure games I want to play are on my work laptop). I feel bad about this, because at their best, adventure games are playgrounds of absurd logic, fun characters, and gorgeous art. A mobile game called Pilgrims has finally got me jazzed to play an adventure game again.

Part of this is due to the game’s presence on Apple Arcade—although it’s also available on PC—but another reason is the neat way it foregrounds the trial-and-error method for solving puzzles, a method that adventure games devolve into anyway. Here, it’s what you’re actually supposed to do.

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As you’ll recall, getting stuck on a puzzle had been part of my problem with adventure games in the past, and often led to me disengaging entirely with the game. Usually, I’d get stumped because the logic of the game had become impossible for me to parse, so I’d just start trying things with no rhyme or reason, mindlessly matching items with interactable objects and seeing what would happen. That’s not very fun, so after a while, I’d quit.

Pilgrims, however, is a game that strips everything back and makes being “wrong” part of the fun. It’s a game about a pilgrim-looking dude on a journey; it’s not very clear where to, there’s no text in the game and every character speaks in amusing gibberish. Mostly, this is a game about trying stuff and seeing what happens. Every item and character who joins you is available to play as a card. Play a card in a scene, and even if it doesn’t give you progress, something amusing might happen. A man in a tavern might pour your character beer and get them drunk. A bear might eat your stew and punch you out. A demon might twirl a lasso like a rodeo character. None of these things have advanced me in the game, but I’ve loved seeing all of them.

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That’s why I think I’m going to finish Pilgrims. Because, like a pilgrim, I’m off to see what I can see.

Source: Kotaku.com

Returning To Final Fantasy VIII After 20 Years Is Letting Me Resolve Childhood Shame

Photo: Square Enix
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.  

I vividly remember when Final Fantasy VIII came out in February 1999. I coveted it for months but didn’t get it until October for my 11th birthday. It was my first Japanese role-playing game ever. I struggled desperately just to get through its opening moments of tutorials and text walls and Y2K CD-Rom-ass menus. I was waiting for a fight where I had to run around and throw grenades into tanks. Ultimately, I resigned to give up and just watch my older brother play, leaving JRPGs untouched for years thereafter. Revisiting Final Fantasy VIII as an adult, after years of recovering with other role-playing games, has been revitalizing: It’s actually fun this time.

When the remaster was announced, I had to prepare myself to revisit some old trauma. In addition to not being able to get through its opening hours, I accidentally deleted my older brother’s save off the memory card one night after he’d just gotten to the third of four discs. So this game is cursed not just for me but for the whole Tamayo family. He never picked up the game again.

I distinctly remember spending way too long in the first testing sequence where mercenary Squall acquires the Guardian force Ifrit, a fire beast, by successfully battling him alongside his instructor Quistis. I could not figure out how to manage the menus and the rhythm of the battle. In little-kid time, this took me days to figure out. I then moved on to the first actual field mission, where I stopped and left the original for good.

In the time since, I’ve played dozens of other role-playing games, including other games in the Final Fantasy series. I racked up a lot of experience leading up to the moment this morning when I reached the same place I gave up as a kid. I reached the field mission, put my Switch to sleep, and got off at my subway stop. I was able to complete all this in under an hour of grown-man time.

The feeling of returning to this game and actually understanding how to flow through it is incredible. It’s like I’m finally able to get a tiny bit of closure. And honestly, the fast-forward feature is helping a lot. Finally getting what used to be such an impossible game for me and finishing something I started 20 years ago is empowering. Plus, we’ve got cloud saves now, so maybe I’ll pick up a copy for my brother too.

Source: Kotaku.com

Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad Is Why I Love Card Games

Image: Square Enix
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.  

Final Fantasy VIII Remastered is finally here, which means I can continue my long and storied history of never actually finishing Final Fantasy VIII because I am too busy playing Triple Triad. It’s a whole thing: I get a copy of Final Fantasy VIII, immediately start playing the in-game card game more than anything else, and then tragedy strikes. My disc gets scratched, or my save file is lost, or I need to clear hard drive space, or one of hundreds of other games demand my attention. Nevertheless, I love Triple Triad, and it’s a big reason I’m into card games in the first place.

Triple Triad is a card game you can play in Final Fantasy VIII that’s kind of like dominoes. Each player assembles a hand of five cards to use for the entire game and takes turns placing them on a 3×3 grid. Every card has four numbers from 0-9, one for each edge of the card. You want to place cards so their values are higher than they cards they’re played next to, causing opponents’ cards to be flipped while protecting your own cards. It’s extremely simple, and extremely satisfying.

But Final Fantasy VIII also makes Triple Triad incredibly rewarding to play not just because it’s a good in-game diversion but by seamlessly integrating it into the game’s world. Just about everyone in Final Fantasy VIII plays Triple Triad. The game has a button dedicated to asking other characters if they want to play, and most of them say yes. Each region of the game world has its own rules variants, so playing in Balamb, where the game starts, is slightly different than playing in places you visit later on. Regional house rules in a fictional card game are the sort of thing that makes a world feel alive and worth spending time in. There are side quests that stem from playing Triple Triad, and unrelated side quest goals can be achieved through playing Triple Triad. It gives the world texture.

Card games’ design constraints are compelling—small rectangles with one side only you can see, and one side everyone else can see. You can only fit so much information on a card, and you can fit even less when you try to make the card itself nice to look at, with beautiful art.

How card games solve for these constraints fascinates me. When digital card games like Triple Triad replicate physical card games successfully despite missing out on some of their primary appeals—their wonderful tacticlity, the satisfaction that comes with amassing a collection or admiring a well-constructed hand or deck—I feel a rush.

I love deck-building video games lots—and deck-building tabletop games too—but I wouldn’t have even tried them before Triple Triad showed me how fun they could be, how easy to slip into and suddenly become obsessive over. I never got into Magic: The Gathering or any of the fad collectible card games that spread in my youth, so for a long time card games for me were just limited to the kind of games you could play with a regular poker deck.

Final Fantasy VIII changed that. Even though I still, hilariously, have not finished it (I hope to someday soon) it still managed to make my world a little bit bigger, richer, and more varied. Now I love card games of all stripes, and can’t get enough of them.

Source: Kotaku.com

I May Never Stop Watching YouTube Tutorials And Actually Play This Strategy Game

Image: Paradox Interactive
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.  

For the last couple months, I’ve been trying to get into Stellaris in a big way—partly because the game is one of the few 4X games to get an uncompromised console port, and partly because I think space stuff is rad. Since I’m not a PC guy, I’m still pretty new to games in the 4X mold. The “Xs” are an abbreviation that still cracks me up; it stands for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.” As someone who is into two out of those four Xs (the first two), I figure it’s time to see if these games are for me or not. Which means I have been spending a lot of time on YouTube. And not that much time playing the games. Not yet, anyway.

The reason I’m stuck in a YouTube hole is that games like Stellaris are almost completely inept when it comes to tutorials. In Stellaris, tutorialization takes the form of thorough and elaborate tooltips. Every time you open a new menu, a window opens up telling you what that menu is for and what can be done in it. You’re also given nudges at various points about what you should do to get the wheels of your spacefaring civilization going. From all this, I mostly understand how the game works. It’s just not very fun.

This is because tutorials like this are bad at telling you what to do in that crucial stage between the latter portion of early-game play to the mid-game meat, when formative decisions transition into interesting dilemmas. I know how to mine for minerals and issue orders, but I’m not really sure why, or when to do what task during the mid-game. I haven’t had to deal with that in action yet, because I’m just getting started. But I just don’t feel prepared.

So I turned to YouTube, which has actually been a good resource as long as I dodge videos with titles like “Which Game Publisher Is The Worst Company Ever Founded” or “How Women Completely Ruined Star Wars” that keep popping up even though all I’ve typed in the search bar is “stellaris help.” It has been nice to have someone just lay the game out for me. So nice, in fact, that I have just stopped playing Stellaris altogether.

One problem is that the videos I like are just too long. I’m in the middle of a (really quite good) Stellaris tutorial video, and it’s a whole series, each part pushing 40 minutes! There are at least three; I’m scared to see how many there are. As good as the series is so far, I’ve felt some bitterness creep in about other things I could be doing, like rewatching Happy Endings or Hannibal (this time with commentary.) Or, you know. Just playing another video game. Maybe even Stellaris.

One of my deeply-held beliefs is that some of the best games teach you how to engage with them purely through play. That’s not a hard and fast rule for me; games should challenge us, and taking the time to engage with something complex and obtuse can lead to something very rewarding. For example, I love learning all the rules to a complicated board game. 4X games seem a lot like board games, actually, except I can play them by myself.

Unfortunately, this also means 4X games lack the tension that comes from not having someone immediately across the table from you making decisions to which you must respond. They also lack the benefit of an in-person pal who knows the rules front and back that can explain all sorts of weird edge case scenarios for me. Sometimes I’m just gonna have to read the rulebook myself, but no one is ever under the illusion that that’s fun. I guess it bums me out that a game like Stellaris—which I still, believe it or not, think I’m gonna love—hasn’t figured out a more fun way to get players right into the thick of things.

That said, I did watch a very long video explaining Twilight Imperium once before I met up with some friends with whom I played a whole nine-hour game. So maybe I’m just a hypocrite. Or I need to make a friend who can explain Stellaris to me. Until then, I’ll keep watching YouTube videos.

Source: Kotaku.com

Control Proves That An Office Building Is The Perfect Setting For A Metroid-Like

Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.  

Control, a Metroid Prime-like game that takes place inside an impossibly vast US federal government building, is out today. As someone who has been paying the IRS back taxes for a decade, it feels like a game that was made to terrify exactly me. It is also one of the best games I’ve played this year. (It’s out today, by the way.)

Offices are scary. People go to offices every day. Individual people experience oceans of psychological drama in offices on an hourly basis. If you want to set an unsettling narrative in a place that resonates with a bulk of players, you can’t do much better than a huge, drab office. I mean, heck: most people I know have not ever been to underwater steampunk jazz-loving tax havens for poets and philosophers.

And no office is quite so scary as a government office. Except a federal government office, which is even scarier.

A federal government office building is bureaucracy transformed into architecture.

Yesterday, after spending the weekend exploring Control’s fictional federal building on the verge of an interdimensional breakdown, I auspiciously spent four morning hours deep within a federal building in Manhattan. As I stepped off the street and into the lobby, the shocking clash of wide-openness and drabness reverberated through my skull. It’s like someone paved a Scottish Highland: the shadow of majesty remains like an aftertaste in the brain.

If we think of weeds as failed accidental attempts at mimicking flowers, federal government buildings are similar attempts at mimicking cathedrals. Weeds and bureaucracy both equally melt the facade of art off of their inspirations. Where a cathedral might have stained glass windows turning external sunlight pretty colors, a federal government building lobby has two stalwart American flags flanking a cold reception desk, and perfect, flat, rectangular pillars of speckly sheet marble.

Whether you’re a spiritual person or not, you might walk into a cathedral and think, “This is where worship happens.”

Similarly, if you only look at a photograph of Boston City Hall, you may utter to yourself in a dark language: “This is where The Rules happen.”

A cathedral inspires awe; a government office building extinguishes it.

Federal government buildings are perhaps the best setting possible for a Metroid-like video game. Nothing can surprise the around-poking adventurer like secrets hidden in a place so boring.

Government buildings give off an immediate impression like painted cardboard. Their insistence on mineral surfaces in their most highly visible areas comes across as a bold bluff: “We put this heavy rock here in this useless place. Imagine what else we’re capable of.”

Spending hours of your life in these buildings feels like wrestling with ghosts. Sinister deceased unreliable narrators leave behind these buildings as bold attempts to convince you of their made-up concept of antiquity.

Replace the dead forefathers with murderous extra-dimensional beings, and you’ve got a video game plot.

Control’s themes burrow deep beneath the facade of bureaucratic architecture. In my own federal building experiences, I’ve seen elevators that stop at such-and-such a floor halfway to my destination. I’ve walked past velvet roped-off darkened oceans of unpeopled desks toward The Next Elevator. More than once, I’ve looked into that desk-ocean darkness and had my gaze instantly recalled by the “Right This Way, Please” murmur of a uniformed, gloved elderly man.

To look at one of these buildings is to consider its infinity.

It’s an absolute, enthralling delight to find a video game made by a masterfully thoughtful team of people who feel the same way. The developers of Control have taken the unsettling vastness of real-world government buildings and exploded it into a non-comical farce of itself.

The unfathomable fictional building in Control completely owns any creepy supernatural inkling you might have ever felt in a real government building. It’s literally Doctor Who-bigger on the inside. Its walls really are moving. Its halls really are changing shape. There really are extra-dimensional ghost freaks possessing the employees.

When I was an eight-year-old kid playing the original Metroid on the NES, I didn’t know what the title meant. I just thought that “Metroid” was a weird, cool word. Later, I learned that it was a Japanese portmanteau of “metro” and “android,” and that “metro” referred specifically to the Japanese subway system.

Subways, like federal office buildings, are daily-use civic structures that are equally awe-inspiringly cavernous and awe-extinguishingly mundane.

One day, I happened to glance out the window while a Tokyo subway train passed an unused station. Lightning struck my brain. What was that train platform out there in the darkness? This somehow came up in conversation with some friends at a bar several nights later. Deep into the night, my chain-smoking hardcore punk-rock dude friends traded third-hand urban myths about how such-and-such line ended up never connecting there, or that it might someday, or that it turned out they couldn’t finish the entrance topside. I was hooked the moment the conversation started.

Yesterday in a federal building in Manhattan, after spending a weekend diving into and loving Control, I remembered those Tokyo Metro lore conversations. As I Kafka-bustled back and forth between numerous nonsensical and incongruous destinations, I passed many dark hallways. I wanted to take so many photos. I wanted to take a photo of the very first thing I saw when I entered the building: a large sign with a picture of a gun, crossed out. I wanted to take a photo of the huge “NO PHOTOS” sign in the elevator.

Every time I stopped for more than an instant to ponder some mundanely unsettling detail, every time I fantasized about the horrible supernature I’d likely encounter if I wandered off script, some unseen someone Right This Way Pleased me. They were totally extra-dimensional ghosts, dude.

Control nails this mundanity, and mines it for every last drop of lore.

At the top of this post I’ve embedded a video archive of myself streaming this game on Kotaku’s Twitch channel yesterday.

Early in the stream, as Control’s main character, Jesse, enters the Federal Bureau of Control’s office building, where the rest of the game will take place, I joked about my federal building experience that morning: I turned Jesse around and marched right back to the door. “This is what I would do, knowing what I know.”

Then I gasped in sudden, genuine shock: outside the front doors we can clearly see a bus stop. We see cars driving by on the rainy Manhattan street. We see a man waiting at the bus stop. We see numerous pedestrians walking by.

You can see these people for a brief flash as the game’s opening cutscene climaxes. Though by the time the player has (ahem) control, the camera has centered behind the hero’s back.

When the game gives you control, you’re facing a flag-flanked reception desk, and a big speckly marble wall, with a security checkpoint to the right. The game is pulling your eyes forward and to the right.

You’re never meant to turn around. I only turned around as a joke. By the time I turned around, I’d already forgotten that brief flash of pedestrians that I witnessed during the cutscene.

I never expected that anywhere in this game I’d have the opportunity to gaze upon regular people going about their regular lives. Not ten seconds of video game beyond this entrance, that front door will be hidden to the player forever. My respect for the game exploded at this moment.

You could watch my stream archive, if you want. You’ll see me, for example, repeatedly say “Heck Your Desk” as I use Control’s protagonist’s psychic gun to blow up an entire office floor’s worth of desks one at a time.

Don’t let the childish banter of my stream persona fool you: I was simply giddy from finally being free of the federal building in which I’d spent the morning. If the second half is anywhere near as good as the first, Control is one of the best games of the year.

However, if I get to the end and it turns out the twist is that the main character is literally being controlled by a guy (me) with a video game controller, I will print out this post and flush it down the toilet.

Source: Kotaku.com

Grandia Has Reignited My Love For Role-Playing Games

Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.  

When I was in my impressionable pre-teen years, I spent vast amounts of my summer tucked away in a musty little basement down the street. My closest friends would visit at their grandma’s house near me every year while school was out, and when we weren’t “ripping and running,” playing basketball with the “mannish” little boys next door and riding our bikes back and forth up the bumpy brick streets, we gathered around our consoles for hours and hours of gaming. One summer, they brought with them a Dreamcast—the console that would impact my gaming palate more than any before it with games like Sonic Adventure, Soul Calibur, and Power Stone. One game stood out and ate up those hot summer days: Grandia II. It became one of my favorite games of all time, and playing its predecessor, Grandia, has been a trip in every imaginable way.

Grandia, like its sequel, is a role-playing game with an overhead view and a battle system that takes the best parts of both real-time and turn-based battle systems and squishes them into a neat package. Your characters’ physical positions affect whether they’ll be able to damage or take damage from enemies, and a turn gauge lets you anticipate when each character will move, allowing you to cancel or counter enemy actions. It is by far my favorite battle system in any game, and it’s almost always the first thing I mention about Grandia II, next to the fact that I stubbornly prefer its plot about nefarious churches and crises of faith to Final Fantasy X’s.

What I forgot over years of not revisiting Grandia II was the deep and gripping sense of wonder the game gave me. I forgot what it was like to actually get swept up in a game’s sense of adventure. So playing the first Grandia for the first time, years after I’d played its sequel, gave me an eerie feeling of deja vu and sentimentality. It was nostalgia for a game I’d never played before. I genuinely felt like a kid again, lost for a moment in a feeling of adventure and possibility. I forgot what it was like for excitement to feel this earnest.

Moment by moment, I found myself falling into old RPG habits. Talk to every character in the town, check. Explore every area, check. Look for hints or extra items, check. But instead of the feeling of compulsion that drives me to do those things in a lot of other games, Grandia kept me excited to talk to new NPCs—the woman pacing back and forth and fucking fuming, then bafflingly complaining to a kid about her gambling husband. The little boy hiding by the fountain to avoid being caught by his mom and getting dragged to the dentist. The mom hunting for her truant kid, who you can choose to help out or con into looking elsewhere. The old woman telling stories about her time as a child, when the entire town was forests and woodland creatures, before industrialization happened. The powerful men from the Joule company puffing up their chests about how they brought growth to such a small town with the power of industry. As I talked to each one, multiple times to see all of their dialogue options, I found myself feeling verklempt: Oh, shit. I actually used to like doing this.

It reminded me why I mechanically read through every text box in games nowadays, even when I find the writing banal. This is how video games used to make me feel. This is where I’d learned that behavior—from a series where curiosity actually felt worth it. Exploring the overworld wasn’t just a mad dash to find every item there, a series of actions guided by a long-curated cache of RPG tropes—I wanted to play around with the game’s battle system, figure out where it overlapped and diverged with its sequel, learn about the mysterious ancient cities teased at in the game’s opening and the museum my young protagonists visited.

If there’s a downside to playing Grandia for the first time today, it’s the little annoyances that were fixed in Grandia II. The overworld map feels a little finicky after playing the more polished second game. The monsters’ pixelated visages, while nice-looking in the HD collection, are a little hard to track, making the strategic movement of trying to approach them from behind for a surprise attack tricky. The characters’ movements on the battlefield feel slow and unwieldy, and after playing the sequel, the rudimentary turn gauge in the first Grandia feels more like a test pilot than the innovative and well-tuned system the series is known for. And like news editor Jason Schreier mentioned, the Grandia HD collection lacks the fast-forward button that’s present in emulators and many other retro re-releases, making the tedium of slower gameplay all the more pronounced.

What really struck me, though, was the fact that, as impossible as these things were to ignore, I… did not care. It’s always tough to play a game after you’ve played its sequel, especially in a series that’s been out for decades, but actually wanting to read everything I saw made piles of text boxes and unskippable cutscenes feel like a treat. Imagine that—long cutscenes feeling like a reward. I might feel differently when I play through it a second time, once I’m no longer new to the game and ravenous for story developments, but for now, I’m enjoying my slow stroll down memory lane via a game I’ve never even played.

Source: Kotaku.com

I Love When A Book Feels Like A Good Role-Playing Game

Concept art from Divinity: Original Sin 2
Illustration: Larian Studios
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.  

Role-playing games are one of my favorite genres. They’re also the genre I came latest to. I didn’t play video games for most of my teenage years, the time when I would have lost entire weekends and nights to them. Coming to love them as an adult has been a minor tragedy, because the amount of time I have to dedicate to 60-hour epics is shrinking dramatically with each passing year, and I am not quite ready to admit that I cannot play them all.

So I look for that sprawling feeling elsewhere when I can—books, mostly, since the time I spend in front of screens is probably best described as “unconscionable.” Strangely, I don’t really gravitate toward fantasy literature, since I’m not particularly interested in swords and magic and courtly intrigue. I specifically want the feeling of role-playing games: I want to be so transported I feel outside of myself, watching the beautiful little struggles of people who are ultimately small cogs in something incomprehensibly big.

Recently, I finished reading award-winning novelist Marlon James’ latest work, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, precisely because that’s what it offered. In a recent profile, James—who previously made his name in literary fiction with novels like A Brief History of Seven Killings—declared his intent to “geek the fuck out” with an “African Game of Thrones,” to give the kinds of people and folklore that rarely get centered in Western fantasy their due. It rules—partly because it feels a hell of a lot like playing through a Baldur’s Gate game.

The novel is about a man known only as Tracker, who recounts his personal history to a mysterious inquisitor who ultimately wants to know what happened when Tracker accepted a job to find a missing boy, a job that ultimately leads to something horrifying.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a dense, difficult book that slips in and out of focus from one passage to the next. It’s a tall, thick volume at 620 pages long—to read it for long stretches is to fall into a trance where you’re aware of the shape of things, even if you can’t always make out the details. It’s reassuring to have some kind of horizon to look toward, a wall to lean against when I felt disoriented.

That’s why I say it feels like a good role-playing game: The story starts with Tracker coming of age in the villages of the Riverlands and follows him until he comes to a city and joins a party. They venture out and face monstrous horrors on the road, and then, at another city, they find answers. Along the way, we meet characters who tell their stories at length and have their own agendas and side quests, some of which seem like they’re detracting from the main plot but ultimately end up being diversions you’re glad you took. (The story of Sad Ogo—a massive man you should not call a giant—is devastating.)

This isn’t something we haven’t seen in fantasy literature—it’s good narrative structure. You can recognize this in all sorts of stories across media. It’s just cool to see video games fall so neatly in this tradition, another voice in one big story that we’re all telling. It’s becoming more explicit, like the way the current generation of fantasy authors are openly influenced by Japanese role-playing games. (If you want something that will rock your goddamn world, put Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings next to Suikoden II.)

Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I felt small. Maybe it’s weird to say this, but that’s one of my favorite feelings in video games—I like big sprawling games that suggest a wealth of stories unfolding around me, with nothing but my time and attention keeping me from finding them. And man, how I wish I had more time.

Source: Kotaku.com

I Can’t Help Reading Every Damn Text Box In Fire Emblem: Three Houses

I could speak with my house leader! I could also read these books.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.  

Fire Emblem: Three Houses has been a little bit of a slow burn for me. While I’ve been a fan of the series since Awakening, I found myself beset by choice paralysis in Three Houses when I realized that I did not even remotely feel attached to any of the three precocious rich children with whom I was being asked to ally myself. You’d think that once I finally chose a house—Black Eagles, based on Heather’s excellent guide to choosing a house—I’d be ripping and running and tearing up the battlefield. Instead, I opted to do a little reading.

“Opted” might be generous. At this point in my gaming career, my attraction to lore has become more akin to a compulsion. When I explored Garreg Mach Monastery for the first time, I painstakingly talked to every NPC that still had a “new text” bubble next to their minimap icon, a feature I both appreciate and lament because it gives me an easy way to lean into my obsessive see-it-all tendencies. So imagine my surprise and consternation when I realized that, after going through boxes and boxes and boxes of dialog text, there were even more text boxes to scroll through courtesy of the in-game library.

I’m still not even sure what the current year is, but this is riveting!

You can’t actually read all the books in the Three Houses library. It makes sense—there are a lot on those shelves. Instead, as in many games, you walk up to a bookshelf and interact with it for a few boxes of text related to a certain topic: the Church of Seiros, or the geography of Fodlan, or royal genealogy, for example. A more reasonable person would think, “Well, these books will clearly still be here for me to read at later points in the game, like after I do my first-ever real mission.” But what if there was some lore here that would add a little extra color to that mission? Or deepen my understanding of the world and characters around me? Maybe I’d stumble on some piece of information that I’d need for a support conversation. The characters I need to connect with in this game are students and teachers, after all, so trading in facts might actually be useful.

Those are all the justifications that I’ve retroactively invented for why I read all of those books. But in the moment, none of that was actually going through my mind. I just felt a deep tugging in the pit of my spirit, something like a disembodied voice whispering, “Natalie, here is a thing you can do, a task you can complete. If you don’t do it right now, you might forget it’s here. Read these textbooks, you fucking coward.” In the same compulsive way that I counted things as a kid, needing the numbers to be divisible in a certain way to feel “right,” I often find myself giving in and seeking “comfort” in the way of knowing that I’ve completed every little thing I can possibly complete in front of me before I move on to something else. It didn’t matter that this meant reading blocks of text for which I grossly lacked narrative context, from the climates of places I probably wouldn’t see for several more hours to family histories detailing long lines of nepotism behind characters about whom I already felt ambivalent.

Pictured: another excellent use of my time.

As I said, I’m not technically reading the entire library of books in this game, but only because I can’t. All I can do is watch my character read the books and then provide me, the player, with a summary of their contents. Because of that, I’ve found myself wondering if I should apply the logic behind the video game library to the other text in the game. If several thousand pages of books can be boiled down into a summary that only lasts for a few text boxes, should I apply that to the rest of the reading I do in the game, like the character dialogues? Was the two-box chat I had with a random knight actually an hours-long conversation about the minutiae of guarding a dormitory? Were the 45 seconds I spent watching a cat’s idle animations actually three hours of my character’s in-game life? Was the “…” I got from Marianne actually a tense, long silence that broke into a 15-minute staring contest?

I may not be able to accurately measure the time that my character is spending in the library, but the time that I’ve spent on this task as a player is certainly adding up. When I actually get to my first real Fire Emblem battle, I’ll let you know if all the reading paid off. I’ll let you know as soon as I finish reading all the tutorials in the pause menu.

Source: Kotaku.com

Helping People In Dragon Quest Builders 2 Gives Me So Much Joy

Image: Square Enix
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.  

In Dragon Quest Builders 2, you play as a little anime friend who knows how to build stuff in a world where building things is outlawed. It’s very funny. Often in the game’s opening hours, you will construct something like a simple straw mat, and people will look at you like you invented a bubble gum that makes people sing like Ariana Grande. How did you do that? They will wonder. Is that allowed? They will ask. You didn’t just…”build” something did you? They might fret.

Once their amazement passes, another funny thing happens, one that actually matters for your progress through the game. The characters for whom you built something will rush over in excitement, and literally explode with joy. Little yellow, green, and orange hearts burst out from them for you to collect. These hearts are what Dragon Quest Builders 2 calls gratitude points. Collect enough of them, and you can ring the bell at the center of the town you’re in to level up that town, unlocking new blueprints and recipes for you to build and craft and generally just make an even better town.

Helping townsfolk is a staple of role-playing games. It’s one of the weird little idiosyncrasies of the genre, which often casts players as powerful warriors who are capable of stopping existential threats but also presumes that they wouldn’t get annoyed by a farmer asking them to find a chicken that ran off.Dragon Quest games in particular are well-suited to this kind of diversion. That’s because they are, as Kotaku’s Tim Rogers noted in his review of Dragon Quest XI, basically bedtime stories. They’re meant to be sweet and endearing, just as much storybook as they are games. They’re stories set in worlds where helping people is something everyone does, just because it’s nice and right.

I think about that a lot as I play Dragon Quest Builders 2. Watching its little townsfolk explode with gratitude, it’s nice to see these ideas made just a little more tangible, to see how they feel externalized in a gameplay system. While you could argue (and I would) that the purity of that feeling is compromised by attaching it to a system that lets you earn new things, making all of your altruistic efforts into more of a transaction, the moment of the heart explosion itself remains a joy. It’s a joy to know that you helped someone, a joy to know that they deeply appreciate that help, that they’re glad you’re here, that you could make their lives a little bit better. 

Source: Kotaku.com