Hatred – All Bark And No Bite

Disclaimer before I begin full on. I didn’t finish the game. I got through about 2 or 3 levels (at least past the marina) and then got bored. I watched the ending on YouTube. That is my experience with the game, about 2 hours or so of time. I didn’t buy the game, I played a friend’s copy via Steam Family Share system. They got it through selling CS:GO crates on the Steam Market. Also, I would like to talk about the controversy full on at some point, but for now I want to give my 2-3 hour impression of the game.

So, Hatred dropped on Steam full on and official yesterday, much to the happiness of those espousing “free speech” notions. Me, being a consumer and lover of the video game medium, decided to get my hands on a copy of the game to see if it was all that. I think I can describe the whole ordeal as a “big hoopla over nothing.” Hatred, as it currently stands and will probably be for a while, is all bark and no bite. A lot of big talk for something of very little substance. For all the talk of the importance of this game existing and fighting some people did to get this game onto the Steam Store and push it to the top seller spot for a few hours, it really is nothing more than a flash in the pan and will fade away only to be remembered by the few fans it has garnered.

This game is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

This game is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

“Then stop talking about it and giving them attention!” No. I have a passion for my hobby, and that includes me discussing and adding to conversations about disliked material. Even if I was to not talk about the game, its supporters would still spread it far and wide like some sort of holy grail, buying copies for friends or shouting from the mountain tops any potential sales or news of it. My being silent on the subject does not instantly erase it from existence. I would like to share a few thoughts on my short playtime with the game.

Let’s get the small stuff out of the way first – Things Hatred does that I like (yes, even the shittiest games have those small silver linings). The filters and art style is very well done. It is reminiscent of Sin City, and draws player attention to specific events and details (police officers inbound, explosive canisters, explosions and fire, etc.) It gives the game world a very dark yet eye catching style. That and it manages to make the game recognizable from a distance. I could sit across the room from the game and be able to recognize it based off of that.

The physics and color filters are well done... About the only thing I can give the game.

The physics and color filters are well done… About the only thing I can give the game.

There is also some impressive tech behind the game. Unoptimized to be truthful, but no less impressive. The destruction physics, use of fire, and the color filters makes every explosion as impactful as the last. I have always been a fan of games that make every explosion not just something you hear, but also something you feel. Likewise, outside of a few moments that cause me to scratch my head, AI is handled well. The crowds scatter and run away from the shooting, they manage to be as chaotic and panicked as one could expect.

Controls are ok. The shooting is a little hard to control in the middle of a heated firefight, and the isometric perspective mixed with things like the aiming system makes it hard to really judge shots or make sense of really chaotic moments. Sometimes I would be taking cover and getting shot from someone off screen, and had trouble locating them beyond their red dot on the minimap (which does not differentiate between armed attacker and unarmed bystander, making it harder in the chaos and confusion to pick out targets).

Ok, the praise of the few things the game does right is over. The question now is if the game is any good? No.

First off, the plot from what I had seen is nonexistent. From their website they stated the game would have the player ask himself what pushes any human being to mass-murder. The game, from the few bits I played, never attempted to bring that question forward. Never does it give the player much pause to even consider “is this wrong?” Instead, it invites the player to revel in the idea of being a mass murderer, and continues to up the ante for the player in scenarios finally culminating in the detonation of a nuclear reactor. I’ve had to eat crow on this considering at the game’s announcement when everyone was up in arms or in unquestioning support of the game, I sat back and said, “Wait, we haven’t seen much outside of a 2 minute trailer. There could be more we aren’t seeing.” I figured the game might try to do something subversive, or even deconstruct ideas of ultra-violent shooters. It doesn’t. It tries to play it straight, while attempting to cover its ass with some of the dialogue and moments being purely cheesy and almost to the level of self-parody. The game brings nothing to the table in this department.

This question never gets answered and they never tackle the subject matter.

This question never gets answered and they never tackle the subject matter.

Now, pure gameplay without plot is normally fine, but then we have to turn to the question of how the gameplay is. Not good. I already mentioned my thoughts on the controls, but a little side note on vehicles. They are fucking impossible to control and make it almost not worth the effort of getting in one. Huffing it on foot is the best way to go. That said, the gameplay leaves much to be desired. There have been parallels drawn to Postal 1, Hotline Miami, and other similar games that revel in players committing mass murder. For the first time since Postal 1, I wasn’t thrilled or entertained at all. Frankly, I was bored. The game does not have much variety. Almost every mission is “kill civilians and police” with side objectives that are little more than “kill a lot of people in this area” or “destroy this property.” For a game that is supposed to be pure gameplay, reveling in its purity, it has very little to show for it. I think I got bored after the first 10 minutes of killing civilians (what little rush it did bring), and none of it was all that shocking. You regenerate your health by doing “executions” on downed NPCs, but those neither shocked nor delighted me. In terms of the game being “non-linear” it is not really that either. Every level is a small set of side objectives and a main objective of slaughter. There are no alternative avenues of approach. No way to do anything other than kill or be killed. Holy hell, even Postal 2 for all of its gruesome and shock at least had options for a pacifist run (and you can beat Postal 2’s base game without killing a single person). Hatred’s gameplay is like its color filters, very monotonous with brief moments of color.

Was it worth all the controversy? No. Frankly, while the context of the violence is important to factor into why it has the AO rating and gathered all the uproar, the game itself is rather tame. One or two executions aside, most of the violence lacks impact (which may factor into a conversation on desensitization), and the game never really gave me anything. I felt no disgust, entertainment, or anything towards this game, which is a very rare thing to happen. I felt complete apathy and boredom. The game itself is painfully mediocre, and a lot of the buildup for the game was a mix of the supporters of “free speech” and the devs feeding into that mindset with this idea that they were being “censored”, or that games are too “politically correct”. So, if Destructive Creations’ goal was to create a game that wasn’t “higher art”, they succeeded. If they wanted to create a game that was just entertainment, they failed.

YOU MADE IT THROUGH!!! Congratulations, have a Quokka to bring up your spirits.

YOU MADE IT THROUGH!!!
Congratulations, have a Quokka to bring up your spirits.

On one final note, going back to the impressive tech, I really wish they could have put their skills towards something really enjoyable. As I have said to others, the destruction and physics, alongside the color filters, makes me wish they could have done a game were the player was either a disaster response unit, or some sort of disaster relief. Maybe a firefighter trying to control or minimize damage while rescuing and saving civilians, or even a rescue crew in the middle of a volcanic eruption or severe flood. Something that could really put all of the tech they demonstrated here to good use. We had The Ignition Factor on SNES, and a few other rare games here and there that dealt with that subject matter, but not much has come from that recently.

UE4 version of this soon, please?

UE4 version of this soon, please?

Biscuits & Backers: A Roleplayers Perspective

So to begin, I’ve been spending at least now 7 hours of my gaming time on Pillars of Eternity, a crowdfunded RPG via Kickstarter that was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and includes the works and writings of some of the most prominent people from the Infinity Engine days and behind great RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment (the three often considered the trifecta of video game RPGs. I would, at this current time, heavily recommend the game. The world is weird and magical, the characters are pretty well written, and there is enough writing and word count in there to fill a George RR Martin book. But past that my personal review will be saved for 1) a first impression dialogue with my friend, and 2) my final review after I beat the game (hopefully by the end of April at the latest).

So, down to business. Earlier a person tweeted an image of one bit of reading from the game shown here:

Firedorn Lightbringer

It reads “Here lies Firedorn, a hero in bed./He once was alive, but now he’s dead./The last woman he bedded, turned out a man/And crying in shame, off a cliff he ran.”

Basically this is on an epitaph, one of many you encounter throughout the game, and all the epitaphs are read in massive groupings like this, and carry short little stories on how the person came to pass, a message on that person, or their last words.  A cool idea, made even neater by the fact that all of these were submitted by backers who pledged at a certain level on Kickstarter. At least it was a cool idea. Now, as people often do, these epitaphs are a mix of people taking seriously, people doing meta jokes, people doing self inserts, etc. Out of everything I experienced in the game thus far, the epitaphs are the most jarring and broke my immersion. The transphobic one is just the tip, but I believe it opens the door to this discussion on the line between developer intent and fulfilling promises to crowdfunders.

First off, Obsidian did one thing right with the backers, the backer created NPCs. I enjoy looking for those gold bannered characters hanging out in taverns, on bridges, around town, etc. just to search their souls for the 3-9 paragraph long stories on past lives, fragmented memories, etc. It fleshed out the world, gave you an insight into other figures that would have otherwise just been “villager”, “drunk”, “traveler”. Instead you get more lore to take in, more character building of otherwise insignificant characters, and it makes the world feel more whole. The only way the world would feel more alive is if NPCs had schedules and routines they fulfilled on a daily basis. These were the proper way to implement a backer addition to the game. How they appeared to have done it was collaborate with the backer by having the backer submit a character sheet, some history, etc. and Obsidian’s writers just penned the story of these characters in a way to fill in those delightful paragraphs.

This is completely the opposite with the Backer created epitaphs, where all Obsidian seemed to have done was taken unedited submissions for tombstones and grave markers in the game and just put them in without reading through all of them. The transphobic one sticks out for a lot of people, but I happened to miss it because at the time I was just reading the titles of the markers, and the one below it was so jarring and random it threw me for a loop. (The one below was Fluffle, Fluffy Marshmallow of the Obsidian Order). Since the transphobic one got publicly thrown around I’ve been reading more of the markers, and most of them are a mix of jokes, serious ones, honoring actual deceased friends, and everything else I was sure they would be. And since then, a lot of people have been coming out of the woodwork not to call for the simple solution (which would be Obsidian collaborating with the backer who included it to come up with a less problematic one), but instead defending the epitaph under a number of reasons, of which I will go into below in full detail.

The first defense I saw ever was the one from the man, TotalBiscuit, himself. His 11 minute soundcloud found here (https://soundcloud.com/totalbiscuit/pillars-of-transphobia) basically summed it up as “quit being offended, I was more bothered by the body of hanging trees at the Guilded Vale, and this epitaph just sets the mood and tone of the world.” Well, I am about to link at least three or so epitaphs to prove my point here on this:

2015-03-29_00030

Serious world building here. Really helps the atmosphere of Pillars of Eternity.

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I mean, this really is something that gets me into character because I believe it could be encountered in a fantasy world of Dyrwood.

2015-03-29_00023

Kickstarter exists in the world of Pillars of Eternity too?! WHO KNEW?!

Long story short, it doesn’t set the mood or tone of the world, it is mixed in with a bunch of less serious epitaphs, ones that break 4th wall, ones that reference previous works, ones that are spoken in real world languages, etc. If Obsidian wanted it to match the tone and atmosphere of the game, like TotalBiscuit claims it did, they would have collaborated with all the epitaph creating backers to ensure that their messages and the flavor text within all matched the developer’s intent. I think I can leave it at that. While I am at it though, anyone who is claiming that wanting to remove or change that epitaph is “censoring” the developer or preventing them from creating a fully developed crapsack fantasy world, well 1) Obsidian said they would look into it, and 2) It wasn’t something Obsidian created, it was a backer inserted bit of text that Obsidian just put in a location and called a day. No quality control or ensuring that nothing offensive got past.

The second defense I saw was that it was in an out of the way place, and the text was just one poem in a game with a huge word count that could fill multiple volumes. Well, in the pictures below I managed to locate the epitaph in question, in Act 1, near the end of it, in a sidequest at Raedric’s Keep.

2015-03-30_00005 2015-03-30_00004 2015-03-30_00003

It is found if you elect to use the sewers as your entrance into the place, and if you choose to fully explore the catacombs it is on one of the walls in the crypts. So it isn’t that out of the way, it is just enough that people who are speeding through the game will miss it, but anyone who favors exploration will happen across it, as the sewers are still accessible no matter how you choose to enter the keep. It isn’t some very well hidden piece of dialogue, or in an out of the way location in Act 3, it is in the first Act, in a sidequest most people will happen upon if they explore for even a bit. As for the dialogue being only a small part of the large game, that presents even more of a problem. Speaking for myself, I enjoy reading all the dialogue, all the flavor text, and enriching myself with the lore of Dyrwood. The game is rich in that, and it is so packed with it I feel like by the end of Pillars of Eternity I could be fit to run my own custom campaigns in the Dyrwood country (though the question remains… 5th Ed or Pathfinder? Maybe Dungeon World if I ever get around to reading it). As I said before, the epitaphs are incredibly jarring and add or contribute nothing to the game. For those of us who love worldbuilding and learning about the world, it would be akin to if George RR Martin took a paragraph out of his latest ASoIaF book to put in text on the Doritos flavoring chamber. The epitaphs stick out like a sore thumb. In a game where the lore is carefully created and well written to give a sense that Dyrwood is not only a crapsack world to live in, but that the Hollowborns, animancers vs religion, and other issues are fully realized. Those epitaphs do not tell any story in relation to that. They do not fill out the world in the way people claim. They are there simply as a backer promise fulfillment, nothing more, nothing less. Simply put, if the “memes” in Borderlands 2 offended you because they felt out of place but the epitaphs in Pillars of Eternity don’t elicit a similar reaction, then you are a hypocrite.

Final defense I saw was “it was a joke.” I have two responses to this. 1) If you got offended by Tim Schafer’s jab with the sockpuppet at GDC, but defend this, then you are a hypocrite. You should be offended at any sort of joke related to minorities or making fun of them. That whole epitaph was a joke making fun of actual issues that trans people have to deal with, it added nothing to the world of Dyrwood considering, up to the point I am at, I have not encountered a single trans person and have not encountered any story or quest dealing with the issues that trans people face, and the epitaph does not build upon any of the atmosphere or core themes of Pillars of Eternity. Second, even if it was a joke that contributed nothing to the overall game, it is a simple fix, and Obsidian should collaborate with the backer to incorporate an epitaph that is humorous but not offensive if that is what the backer wishes. A simple fix that got blown out of proportion.

Which takes me to my final point, which is that Kickstarter backer events like this create a serious conflict between the developer intent and fulfilling backer promises. On the one hand, it is nice that Obsidian allows some input from the people that made this project happen via crowdsourcing, but at what point does that input or contribution go from enhancing the world to just being nothing more than a simple 15 minutes of fame for someone, akin to nothing more than a thing they can point out to their friends exclaiming loudly, “THAT WAS ME! I CONTRIBUTED THAT!” As I have stated multiple times, the backer NPCs are probably the way to go, where the backer contributing collaborates and communicates with the developers to contribute something that adds to the world, instead of the epitaphs, where the backer just added something that got through without any approval from the developers.

Throwing out Video Games

Gone Home can never be a video game.

"He said Gone Home isn't a video game?! GET HIM!!!"

“He said Gone Home isn’t a video game?! GET HIM!!!”

And that statement will be the first infamous statement of my blog (combined with the post title I should be offending every single camp out there), but also crucial to the point I am about to make, which is that while the term “video game” may be a popular term to use, and with it conjures this medium many people lovingly call their hobby, it needs to go. It needs to evolve. Either the definition or the actual term.  If we are ever to move forward in the medium and have it stand as its own pillar of entertainment taken seriously alongside the other mediums, and not just as a child’s toy, I suggest an evolution of how we define it.

To understand my point, there needs to be a base definition for what a video game is.  Now Wikipedia outlines games as having 4 key components: Goals, rules, challenge, and interaction. Jesper Juul, in his 2003 keynote “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness” expands on the definition of what is a computer (or video) game.  While laying out the definitions that have come before him, proposes a new definition of what a video game is. In his essay he proposes three categories for definitions.  The game as a formal system (class 1) is the rules and boundaries of the game.  The player and the game (class 2) is the player’s relationship to the game itself, and how they affect the game and the game affects them.  The final category is the game and the rest of the world (class 3).  Essentially the relationship between playing the game and the rest of the world, how the game world is “outside ordinary life” as proposed in a prior definition.  Here is where Juul proposes six distinct criteria that must be met to be considered a video game. They are as follows, with their categories identified according to Juul:

  • Rules: Games are rule-based (class 1)
  • Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes (class 1)
  • Value assigned to possible outcomes: That the different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some being positive, some being negative. (class 2)
  • Player effort: That the player invests effort in order to influence the outcome. (class 1 and 2)
  • Player attached to the outcome: That the players are attached to the outcome of the game in the sense that a player will be the winner and “happy” if positive outcome happens, and loser and “unhappy” if a negative outcome happens. (class 2)
  • Negotiable consequences: The same game [set of rules] can be played with or without real-life consequences. (class 3)

Here we have concrete rules and definitions for what makes a game.  While the creators, and fans, of Gone Home claim adamantly that their project is a video game, if we take Juul’s definition to it they only succeed on points 1, 4, and 6, with 2, 3, and 5 up for debate.  It has rules in that there are a set of parameters, boundaries, and controls that define how you move and interact with the world your character inhabits.  There is player effort in that you need to put forth minimal effort to explore the house, unlock locked sections and containers, and piece together the clues to figure out the narrative.  There are negotiable consequences in that you can replay Gone Home and it will not affect you in the real world or have an impact on the real-life.  However, on the three points it fails people can argue that it doesn’t necessarily fail them.  It can be argued that there are two outcomes, either you reach the end of the narrative in Gone Home, or you didn’t, with the value assigned to the outcomes being either you get that final dialogue, or you are stuck wandering the house until you give up as a player.  However, what Juul meant was that there was a win state, and a lose state.  Not simply that the player reaches the end of the outcome, but that there also has to be the potential for a fail state.  Under Juul’s definition, Gone Home fails half of what makes a video game a video games.

Wikipedia’s definition outlines four categories, of which Gone Home meets three of four of the criteria to be a video game.  It has a goal, it has rules, and it has interaction, but the challenge is once again questionable.  There is no true player effort outside of minimal exploration in order for the player to meet the goal.  Never once are they challenged by any gameplay element other than deciding where to go next or how to open a locked container or door.  So even there it fails to meet the complete definition of a video game.

So what does this mean? Does it actually mean Gone Home isn’t a video game? Under current definitions yes it does, but then I could start listing and continue listing the amount of games that fail the prongs, including Stanley Parable, Animal Crossing, Dear Esther, Mountain, Katawa Shoujo, Space Engine, Universe Sandbox, LSD Dream Emulator, and so on ad infinitum. Now, what this has created is a divide between the people who accept the concrete definition, and any game that fails that standard isn’t truly a game, and the people who view video games as an abstract term, and that anything with a modicum of interactivity or declared a game is so.

I believe that the current definition of video games, as it stands, is dead and we need a redefinition. I find that at least both the abstractionists and the traditionalists can at least agree that some modicum of interactivity is required for it to fall under the category of “video game”. I agree with Extra Credits in that limiting a medium by constantly arguing whether something like Gone Home or Stanley Parable is or isn’t a game is detrimental to games as a whole. However, there does need to be some line drawn so that, in some very rare extreme instance, someone doesn’t classify Indie Game: The Movie as a game because it has achievements, is sold on Steam, has DLC and updates, and has Steam Trading Cards. I agree with Extra Credits here that the line is interactivity, and that is what separates games from movies, books, and other mediums.

I agree with them, but still think discussion on the idea of "What is a Game" is needed at times.

I agree with them, but still think discussion on the idea of “What is a Game” is needed at times.

In conclusion, Gone Home and other games of similar nature are not and can never be video games under the current concrete definitions, but does that mean we exclude them from the rest and divide the whole medium because of it? No, and anyone who does so only holds back the entire medium from reaching its maximum potential and traps it in an endless cycle of products geared towards a very simple mentality. What I am suggesting is going forward the community and industry as a whole start redefining the term video game, or start referring to the medium as “interactive media”.  Because if we can include Katawa Shoujo and Japanese VNs in video game discussions but exclude Dear Esther, Gone Home, and other similar games because of some arbitrary reason, the whole medium just needs to sit down and look at itself.

The purpose of this blog will not be to seek that redefinition, but going forward when I use the term “video game” or any version of that term, I will refer to an inclusive idea of “interactive media”, “interactive experience” or “interactive entertainment”. In futures posts on my blog I will be using all these terms interchangeably, unless otherwise stated. I hope this post serves as a baseline going forward as I seek to discuss video games, what they can be, and where we go moving forward to try and reach a mature and rich medium.

Extra Sources

Jesper Juul “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness” – http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/gameplayerworld/

Wikipedia “Game” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game

Extra Credits’ “What is a Game? How This Question Limits Our Medium.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blj91KLOvZQ