Siege Survival: Gloria Victis

I had a real nasty run with Regrets in September, and I’m pleased to report that my first and so far only Regret of October has been relatively tame. Siege Survival: Gloria Victis just isn’t fun, and I figured that out after just a few hours of play. I often don’t have a ton of fun early on in a game I end up loving – I need some time to settle into it, to understand how the game works and what it’s about. This is true even if the game has a perfectly effective opening, as Siege Survival does.

But I’m comfortable in saying that Siege Survival is just not a game I like. It’s This War Of Mine transposed into the medieval era and with all the emotional greys sucked out. Turns out, the scavenging and crafting/survival mechanics of This War Of Mine are pretty boring without the context of being civilians trapped in a wartorn city desperately trying to survive, confronted with options to do things like rob a helpless old couple blind because you need food dammit, delivered in gameplay so you don’t just click the “rob helpless old people” option, you actually have to walk through the house and click on stuff to put in your inventory while the old man is following you around begging you to stop.

Siege Survival trades that out for a goodies versus baddies set up. I mean, it’s medieval warfare, so probably our team is just as despicable on the offensive, but I’m playing as a couple of peasants in a town under siege, so the villainy of the invaders is on full display and the villainy of the defenders is weakly implied by the fact that this is a realistic-ish medieval setting so we can extrapolate some things that are otherwise not hinted at, let alone depicted, by the game. And while you play as a couple of peasants huddling in the courtyard of the castle, scavenging supplies from the city at night to build stuff to get you through the siege by day, some of the things you build are weapons and armor for the soldiers holed up in the castle’s bastion. You are unambiguously on their side and yet for some reason none of those guys ever go on dangerous night-time expeditions to retrieve stone and timber from the half-demolished remains of the town.

And while that town does have a few story vignettes, none of them are especially compelling. The goal with them seems more to depict the grit and brutality of a medieval siege – but not in such a way that asks any of the compelling moral questions that This War Of Mine did. TWOM’s great accomplishment was in applying such intense resource pressure to the player that you are sorely tempted to do terrible things to alleviate that pressure, and may indeed die if you do not, and Siege Survival has the resource pressure but doesn’t give you any questionable or blatantly evil options (and yet in such a mundane way – you don’t arm soldiers committing war crimes or sell your neighbors out to the invaders or anything as dramatic as that, you just walk into a house and put the soup cans in your backpack while the house’s helpless owner tells you to stop).

Siege Survival also has the problem that, as a resource management game about outlasting a siege, it’s possible to make crucial mistakes very early on that can jeopardize your ability to hold on at the very end. In the first few days of the siege, I managed resources very poorly and my pigs died of starvation. Looking at some guides online, this looks like it will make the entire rest of the game much harder. I’m glad I looked that up in a guide, because if I’d gotten eight hours deep into the game and found my situation was pretty much untenable because I lost my pigs in hour one, I would’ve been way more frustrated. And unless I play the game while following a guide through the whole time, I might bump into a walking-dead situation like that at any time. This is the kind of pace some games have, but if they do, they need to be really good to justify potentially having to replay 5+ hours of a scenario to avoid a mistake made very early on that became crippling only in the endgame, and Siege Survival is quite boring.

Gamedec

Gamedec is an adventure game where you are a game detective, that is, a private detctive who specializes in cases taking place in full dive virtual worlds. You visit a bunch of different virtual worlds for various cases, and it turns out the future-cyberpunk internet’s a small place, apparently, because you run into a surprising number of recurring characters despite going into a new game every time. The game is driven almost entirely by dialogue, without any of your old school bullshit adventure game puzzles where you have to rub every item in your inventory on every interactable object until plot progress pops out.

I don’t want to discuss the plot in detail because it mostly all works and is pretty well written, and I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a mystery game, so of course any discussion of the plot is going to be spoiling the solution to all of the mysteries, and even discussing the premise for some of the later mysteries gives away the ending to some of the earlier ones.

This is not to say the game has no flaws, just that those flaws are all mechanical. Some of these are intentional decisions that I think were bad ideas, most notably, that you can’t see which dialogue options give you XP and of what type. The game has a skill tree, and having skills on the tree unlocks dialogue options. Unlocking skills requires the right combination of four different flavors of XP, each associated with a loosely related set of personality traits. Whenever you pick a dialogue option that favors one of these personality traits in particular, you get XP. This is a perfectly good system except for one thing: The game never indicates which dialogue options give you XP or of what type. Since you know the XP flavors are tied to different personality types, and since you need XP of all flavors (though in varying amounts) to unlock most of the skills, you’re incentivized to shift your dialogue choices based on what kind of XP you need right now. Picking one flavor and sticking to it isn’t viable – no path on the skill tree can be unlocked without getting at least a few points in all 4 XP types. And not every dialogue option has XP associated with it, so frequently I’d pick a dialogue option hoping to get a specific type of XP to unlock a skill, only to find that it doesn’t actually do that. The end result is that XP comes in basically at random unless you look up a guide that tells you which options give you what.

Other flaws are outright bugs. The game originally had a default male protagonist with a customizable name (apparently this is not true, contrary to an online discussion I’d read about the game, which makes the sloppy implementation of the protagonist’s pronouns even more egregious), which later expanded to a protagonist with customizable appearance and pronouns, but the implementation of the gender-swapped pronouns is badly broken, with code fragments like “(gender!female” showing up (I can’t remember the exact example, but it was clearly a bit of code for the variable pronouns that hadn’t been closed properly). A particularly annoying one actually affected what ending I could get. According to guides online, it should be impossible to be locked into just one of the game’s six endings. One ending is always available no matter what, but also there’s a boolean variable that you can flip with certain choices in the game which unlocks two endings in one state and one ending in another. This means there should always be a minimum of two endings available. I got locked into just one ending, though, because the game seemed to think I had simultaneously done and not done the thing that affects the other three endings (and I legitimately didn’t qualify for the other two).

Particularly annoying since I played the recently released so-called “Definitive Edition,” so you’d think that’d be the one where they fix bugs as critical as being locked out of endings you’re supposed to have qualified for. Or alternatively, fixing the dialogue so that it’s not extremely misleading about how you qualify for the endings (the dialogue for the ending I got does imply that it’s the leftover for people who didn’t stick to any of the other paths hard enough – but then the dialogue for several of the other endings implies I definitely should’ve qualified for those, so one of these is misleading).

And the mechanical flaws – intentional or otherwise – stack up more the deeper into the game you get, which has the unfortunate side effect of making the ending of the game the weakest part of the whole thing. In the final few scenes, properly investigating becomes a chore as you get swept forward in the plot without warning, leaving me with insufficient information to make what seems like critical decisions in the final case, only to learn at the end that none of those decisions were ever intended to affect what ending I get, and the endings are broken anyway. A disappointing ending to a game that’s 80% good.

WATCH_DOGS

WATCH_DOGS is a 2014 video game. Usually I list the year to give context to what games were contemporary and sometimes to point out how certain things made sense at the time even if they haven’t aged well. For example, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s aping of the style of BBC’s Sherlock made a lot of sense in 2015.

But for WATCH_DOGS, “2014” is the sub-genre and premise. Not that it strictly takes place in 2014 (although I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be set, like most media with a modern setting, more or less in its year of release), but that it is so heavily informed by the culture and anxieties of that year to the point where it becomes a useful view of what the world was like (or at least, what contemporary mainstream culture thought it was like) in the Obama era. All the Obama era concerns about the surveillance state and electronic warfare had reached their most advanced forms, and yet remained totally detached from the alt-right Nazi militias and peer-to-peer cyber and propaganda warfare that have become the dominant conversation. These days, concerns about the surveillance state are a side note to discussions of the FBI tracking down January 6th insurrectionists and what 2022 sanctions limiting the activity of Russian psyops did to the audience of this or that online community or the comments section for whatever political news site or YouTube channel. In WATCH_DOGS, it’s firmly the other way around, with the vaguely right-wing militia being bit players included, as far as I can tell, mostly just to give rural the small town section of the map some criminal baddies for protagonist Aiden Pearce to mow down.

DEDSEC, the off-brand Anonymous that the game presents mostly heroically (Aiden doesn’t want to help them at the end, but it’s not really clear why), doesn’t have any QAnon imitators or splinter factions. Corporations and government act as a unified whole, “the Man,” rather than being deadlocked by bitter partisan political warfare, but the police are still considered good guys despite being government enforcers. Aiden Pearce uses binaural beats for “digital trips” which, modulo some exaggeration for gameplay, evoke the idea that such beats’ effects on the psyche could possibly replicate or even approach the effects of psychedelic substances, a common myth from the era which has quietly fallen by the wayside as more and more people have tried it and had no effect, making it clear that the exceptions are some combination of placebo and attention-seekers fabricating counterculture tech so that they can claim to be on the bleeding edge. Good background music does help with focus, but that genre is dominated not by any alleged binaural beat, but by lo-fi hip-hop beats to relax/study to.

The game’s morality is also 1) focused on with a reputation mechanic that rewards you for completing missions that help the city or rescuing civilians from firefights and penalizes you for killing civilians and police, and 2) an absolute mess. Firstly, the game takes place in Chicago, yet it still posits killing the cops as a bad thing. All cops were not broadly considered bastards back in 2014, but the fucking Chicago police have always had a reputation as authoritarian stormtroopers, plus, vigilante justice is nearly impossible to justify if the police are doing their jobs. The protagonist’s hacker powers come from slicing into a city-wide network that the police already have access to, so if the police aren’t either totally incompetent or totally corrupt (or both), what can Aiden possibly do that the ten thousand strong Chicago Police Department can’t?

And a lot of mechanics that clearly put the public in danger have no impact on reputation at all. You can hack stoplights to cause a car crash at an intersection right after you pass through, for example, thus catching pursuers in the wreck while you speed away. Apparently the injury and potential death of the civilians caught in the crash aren’t important. You can also wander around town hacking random people’s phones to siphon funds out of their bank accounts with no impact on reputation.

The reputation system is, of course, reputation, not something that claims to be judging your actions objectively, so maybe the idea is that your theft and causing wrecks can’t be traced back to you and thus doesn’t affect the public’s opinion. If that’s the case, though, you’d expect the narrative to notice that, high reputaiton or low, the protagonist is an unrepentant villain who freely harms innocent people in pursuit of his goals with, at best, a Homelander-like willingness to save people whenever it benefits his public image, or that they’d be more willing to use police as footsoldiers of resident evil corporation Blume.

The game’s themes in general are a dog’s breakfast. It’s doing that corporate storytelling thing where it brings up something (at the time) topical and controversial, but then refuses to say anything about it. Aiden Pearce uses the city-wide ctOS surveillance system to track down criminals and evade police, but the game never takes any position on whether this is a good thing, or if it’s a bad thing, or if it’s bad that ctOS exists but Aiden is making the best of it by using it for justice, or if it’s good that ctOS exists but criminal hackers and corporate corruption are perverting its potential. The game runs in the room, shouts “city-wide surveillance network!” and runs away. You can decide to use or not use ctOS in various ways, but the game doesn’t notice if you do. The first and only time your choices impact the story or game world is in a mid-credits scene where you can decide to kill the hitman who killed Aiden’s niece (accidentally, while trying to kill Aiden) or not, so the story neither makes its own point about its own themes nor does it give you any meaningful way to provide your own answer.

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