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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Evermore: Lore 2022

I covered the opening of Evermore (a LARP-focused theme park with no rides but lots of fully costumed actors playing out their roles) pretty extensively. My professional GMing business was just starting to take off during their opening season in Autumn 2018, and while my schedule was getting more and more tight, by pure coincidence I wound up with an evening open when Evermore was running, and Evermore was an enchanting new concept that I wanted to explore more of.

While Evermore opened strong, however, their Autumn 2018 season ended weak. It had two basic categories of problem. The first were the organizational issues: Actors would hand out hooks for quests that were no longer available because the season plot had moved past them and would give contradictory information as to whether a certain plot beat had been reached or even existed.

The second was pacing issues. You generally want a plot to move through setup, buildup, and climax, but Evermore’s first season (and several after) struggled with the climax. Evermore has the setup nailed down: You enter the park, interact with characters, and start to get an idea of what’s going on. Back in Autumn 2018, they assembled the buildup as they went along, figuring out faction quests for the monster-hunting Blackhearts and the Knightly defenders of Evermore that had you go through a brief haunted house and shoot some arrows at an archery range and such, with the idea that this would prepare you for a final confrontation with the evils of the dark blood plague.

That never happened. Evermore completely dropped the ball on climax, and generally had difficulty tying off its plot threads. There was an early quest line, for example, where you talked to vampires to see how they were immune to the dark blood curse. Turns out it’s something to do with their venom, but consuming it would turn the drinker into a vampire as well. As I said in 2018: “[T]heir vampire venom protects them, but would also turn anyone who drinks it into a vampire. Which, like, is immortality included in that deal? These are pretty ugly nosferatu vampires and I don’t know if it’s possible for them to sustain themselves without killing their victims, but I’m interested in subscribing to their newsletter.” But what 2018 Chamomile did not know is that this never goes anywhere. The vampires never appear in the story again, whether as a potential source of a cure or an antagonist or anything. By the end, it’s not even clear what their opinion on the Fey King is. Do they think of him as an ally? A rival? Are they apathetic? An actor might’ve been briefed with a response or improvised something if I’d asked, but it never comes up. Lots of setting elements are like this. The skeletal soldiers marching around are never relevant to anything, nor the goblins and their forge, despite some early indications that helping the goblins get to their forge and produce weapons would be a plot beat.

And worst of all, this lack of climax was scarcely better in the main plot. The season climax was carried out entirely in vignettes performed at various stages throughout the park over the course of the final few nights, without the quests completed by the worldwalkers contributing much of anything. The closest thing to a plot beat that seemed informed at all by the quests is when the audience was told that the little “gold” nuggets they’d been collecting were magical and would help close the portal to Scarytown, which would’ve been sloppy but adequate except that the importance of stockpiling the gold hadn’t been communicated for 95% of the season so it was totally possible to show up to that scene with no gold in hand because you spent it all on dollar store trinkets which allegedly have magical powers (which is a pretty cool goldsink in the typical situation where you actually want to sink gold – unfortunately, Evermore’s Autumn 2018 season was not the typical situation). No one’s counting up how much gold is there and altering the course of the scene in response, of course, but it’s possible that even if you meet the park halfway on the logistics and agree to pretend that the gold you carried to the scene contributed to the outcome, it’s still possible to show up without any gold because you weren’t told it was important until it was too late.

As much as Evermore had problems with keeping actors on the same page regarding what stage of the plot we’re supposed to be on, the biggest problem to solve going forward was easily going to be the lack of any climax to the player’s personal plotline. While obviously you cannot personally defeat the villain because there are like ten thousand other park guests who need to be served a satisfying plot and only one villain, you could have something like a haunted house with a Shiny Rock in the middle that you’re only allowed to enter if you’ve completed the quests to prove your worth and join the Blackheart Hunters/Knights of Evermore/Witches’ Coven/Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything/whatever, and then you give the Shiny Rock to a quest NPC, while behind the scenes as soon as someone leaves the room with the Shiny Rock one of the actors replaces it with an identical Shiny Rock, and the quest NPC who receives the Shiny Rock hands a sack full of them to someone to restock the haunted house every twenty minutes, but if you suspend your disbelief you just gave the NPC the Shiny Rock. When they’re confronting the big villain in the climactic performance and pull out the Shiny Rock and the villain is all “oh, no! The Shiny Rock! I am slain!” then you’ll feel like you were a key part of making this happen.

Autumn 2019 was pretty much entirely a retread of Autumn 2018, which had me seriously concerned about whether the park was even worth coming back to if each season was just going to be the same thing but with new actors and a slightly different park layout, and then everything changed when coronavirus attacked. I had a trip to New Orleans dropped in my lap for Halloween 2021, so any Evermore plans were canceled in favor of that, but now in 2022 I’m checking back in. How has Evermore’s Autumn season – their biggest and most popular – evolved since their 2018 opening?

My flippant suggestions about getting chased through the woods by a monster to accomplish some kind of Plot Objective was almost literally done, which I have chosen to interpret as Evermore’s writers and directors reading my blog and using it as a checklist. Still, while the construction of the haunt is perfect for the purposes of providing a climax (I, personally, would’ve preferred a bigger emphasis on building an atmosphere of dread and less on jumpscares, but jumpscares are an industry standard and you break from those at your peril), its placement in the plot is wrong for it. The haunt is something you pay extra to get into, and none of the other quests particularly point you towards it. I went around Evermore doing setup-y things asking about what was going on hereabouts and hearing that there were ghosts and vampires in town, and that the mayor was some kind of doctor fellow, then I went around doing faction quests and personal favors beating up on other park guests with foam swords and speaking with ghosts and spying on witches, and then I went and did the haunt. Logistically, everything for a proper setup, buildup, and climax was there.

The problem is that one didn’t actually lead to the other. I went through a haunt and pushed some buttons to drop some cages on specimens for the doctor, and it was by far the most intense haunt that Evermore’s ever put on (except maybe the 2021 season, a Halloween trip to New Orleans fell into my lap that year so I didn’t make it back to Evermore), but this didn’t come as the climax to the earlier buildup, nor for that matter did the buildup particularly follow on from the setup.

It’s possible that the problem here is with me: Prior experience with Evermore has taught me both that it’s very hard to squeeze everything I want to do into one night, so I should hurry, and also that there’s usually a couple of factions offering quests that give you a decent look at the plot of the current season, so I figured out what factions were around and went and talked to them. Maybe the faction quests have been demoted to side quests and that’s why the main plot leading up to the haunt was barely even referenced. Even in this case, though, when I first came into Evermore I introduced myself and my brother (who was visiting with me) to a plot relevant NPC and asked if there was anything quest-ly that needed doing, and I did not get any clear directions to an on-ramp to the main plot. The main plot, being main, should either be thrust upon you by just about any NPC you ask about it, or else it should have so many on-ramps that you’ll stumble across one by blind luck.

And it’s also possible that the buildup giving context to why the haunt is important is locked entirely in earlier nights of the season, in which case tying the pace of a player’s plot arc to the park’s in this way is bad for several reasons. Firstly, you don’t want a player walking from their regular boring life into instant climax because it’s the fifth time they’ve been to Evermore this season so the new last-week-of-October climax content is the only new stuff to see. Second, some people can only come one or two nights a season and still want a complete story.

Also worth noting that the haunt costs extra. Without seeing the park’s financial records personally, I couldn’t say for sure how necessary this is, but as a separate experience not particularly tied to the park’s main plot, that’s not really objectionable either way. There’s plenty to do in the park with a regular ticket, you won’t be going home early because the park has run out of content, nor are you going to be given a bunch of quests that build up to the haunt and then pumped for an extra $10 to get in. But if the haunt is going to be a separate premium experience with an additional cost and not your climax, then the park still needs a separate climax or else it has the same pacing problems as always.

What Is WATCH_DOGS Trying To Say About Saints Row?

In WATCH_DOGS, there are vaguely four criminal factions that keep showing up: First, the mercenary “fixers,” criminals for hire who show up as generic baddies for things like the assassins being sent by a mysterious villain with unknown allegiances or the goon squad who provide combat backup for a random hacker. Second, the Chicago South Club, your classic mafia, run by someone considered a model citizen who has the mayor in his pocket, and a major antagonist of the game. Third, the Pawnee Militia, some right-wing gun nuts who live out in small town Pawnee which has somehow been imported from the Pacific Northwest, who, as far as I can tell, exist mainly to give some criminal bad guys for the protagonist to mow down in that section of the map.

Finally, the subject of our discussion: The Viceroys, an inner city street gang being run by a criminal called Iraq, because he was in the military and brought back professional tactical training with him, which he passes on to his inner circle. That whole backstory has nothing to do with Saints Row, but the name is suspiciously close to the Vice Kings, a gang specializing in prostitution and other sex work from the first Saints Row game. The Vice Kings were the black gang, and while the WATCH_DOGS gangs are not as heavily racially coded as the first Saints Row game, the Viceroys have the same inner city Compton-from-the-90s vibe that the Vice Kings were channeling. And while the sex slave auction that you infiltrate halfway through the plot is a joint venture between the Viceroys and the Chicago South Club, the Viceroys are the ones who are in charge of security, with the Club in a more managerial role (there’s an implication that the leader of the Club is grooming Iraq to take full control of the auction at some point, as reward for doing the Club’s dirty work), which is another connection to the Vice Kings, who run prostitution rings with at least some amount of human trafficking involved (you save some kidnapping victims early on in the first Saints Row, although it’s not clear how much of the Vice Kings’ sex trade is coercive).

And once I started wondering if the Viceroys and the Vice Kings were connected, I noticed that the charming sociopath criminal ally/last minute antagonist Jordi Chin is pretty similar in temparament to Saints Row mascot Johnny Gat. He’s got the obsession with violence, the flippant and (moderately) witty disregard for human life, and even the same first letter and cadence to his name.

I don’t think any other game elements are particularly borrowed from Saints Row. The Militia and South Club don’t have a ton in common with any of the Saints Row series’ gangs, none of the other characters remind me much of any Saints Row characters.

There’s no smoking gun that Viceroys are Jordi Chin are definitely based on the Vice Kings and Johnny Gat, and probably the biggest evidence against is the question in the title: What’s the point of the comparison here? Jordi Chin as a Johnny Gat expy kind of almost makes a point about how fucked up the character is, and maybe say something about the Saints Row games as a setting where that character feels natural and at home, except the protagonist Aiden Pearce is the actual player character and therefore does pretty similar violence to what Johnny Gat gets up to (implicitly – gags about his body count and his general attitude imply that he does similar ultraviolence as your average Saints Row player, but it’s never directly depicted). And Aiden acts like Jordi Chin is much more violent and unstable than he (Aiden) is, even though it’s hard to tell the difference between them. Admittedly, the game does try and encourage not harming civilians, whereas Saints Row doesn’t care how many people you run over, but regaining reputation lost from accidentally plowing through pedestrians is so easy that the nudge against civilian casualties is pretty gentle.

And while Jordi does turn antagonist at the very end, it’s like thirty seconds before the credits roll, and you defeat him literally by pressing the square button. You don’t have to move into position or wear away any defenses or anything. He shows up, he points a gun at you, you push the square button to hack a nearby light to explode, and that takes him out of the fight. It’s really baffling what Jordi’s last minute betrayal is supposed to accomplish and I wonder if there was supposed to be something else here, something that might actually say something about Johnny Gat – like that an unstable violent psychopath wouldn’t actually be a reliable ally the way Gat is.

A lack of clear messaging isn’t unusual in WATCH_DOGS (the first game, not necessarily the whole series – I haven’t played the second one yet, and haven’t even decided if I will play the third), so I don’t think the lack of anything to say about Johnny Gat necessarily means that Jordi Chin isn’t based on the character, but it does make me less confident in the connection. Maybe there was a commentary on Johnny Gat that got cut down until we get the Jordi Chin we see in the game as it is, a character with almost no relevance to the plot at all. Maybe someone really liked Johnny Gat or some suit thought they should capitalize on the popularity of the archetype and shoved a character based on him in, and the reason why Jordi Chin has little to do with the plot is because he’s just there to check a box labeled “character who’s kind of like Johnny Gat.” Maybe it’s all just coincidence, and there was never any connection between Jordi Chin and Johnny Gat (or the Vice Kings and the Viceroys) at all.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and the Blind Forest released in 2015, initiating the Metroidvania revival that’s still ongoing. You can tell Ori started it, because it had to bridge the gap between the current dominant indie archetype, the Metroidvania in a ruined world, and the previous dominante indie archetype, the platformer about a tiny cute thing in a big scary world. Hollow Knight, the genre’s current reigning champion, also had a tiny cute protagonist, but even then, the Knight comes across as far more capable than they appear, rather than being a small vulnerable thing in a dangerous world like Ori (and the protagonists of Limbo and etc.), and Blasphemous, the Bloodstained series, Crowsworn, and so on don’t have tiny cute protagonists at all.

You can also tell Ori is the first in the Metroidvania revival because it’s not as good as basically any of its follow-ups. Ori has lots of skill in execution, especially in its art and music, but it lacks a lot of quality of life features that have become standard as the indie Metroidvania scene has developed. It had no fast travel system until its Definitive Edition rerelease in 2016, its combat is pretty perfunctory for how central it is to gameplay, and it has almost no branching paths at all. It follows a pretty standard Metroidvania structure where you have a prologue area that sets up the main quest, three MacGuffins you need to get, and then a final confrontation with the bad guy at the end, but instead of setting you loose in the map like other Metroidvanias of the modern era, Ori takes you through one MacGuffin after the other in strict order (something which more closely resembles older Metroidvanias like Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid).

Ori also has some major missteps in its most climactic moments due to ludonarrative dissonance, that is, the feeling communicated by gameplay not matching the feeling communicated by the story. At the end of each of the three MacGuffin dungeons, the reactivation of one of the elements of the forest (water, wind, and warmth) causes some manner of Metroid-style escape-the-lava, with the most fast-paced and intense music and visuals in the game. The mood of the rest of the game is much slower, exploratory, sometimes tense or dread-inducing, but not frantic like the escapes. Punctuating the ends of the dungeons with such fast-paced escape sequences is a good idea, but they’re way too hard to serve their purpose. The escape sequence isn’t usually even the hardest part of the dungeon, but it’s hard enough to require multiple attempts, which sucks the momentum right out of them.

The first one, in the Ginso Tree, isn’t so bad, although dying even once robs the sequence of a lot of its momentum. The second and third escape sequences, however, lose all their excitement because you can’t actually race through them in a blind panic the way the game’s atmosphere wants to imply. You have to methodically pick your way through, learning and adapting to each obstacle until you can run the entire gauntlet from beginning to end. It might seem like the added challenge would increase the tension, but the opposite is true: Being repeatedly confronted with the reality that nothing worse than being sent to the automatic save point at the start of the escape makes it inescapable that actually I have plenty of time to escape. Hours, really. What stands between me and success is not the need to go fast and escape danger, but to repeat the same obstacle course over and over again until I have it memorized. The third and final escape sequence is especially egregious, since nearly every obstacle is an instant kill no matter how much health you have left, meaning the escape can only either be so easy that you complete it flawlessly on your first try, or else it must confront you with the reality that the stakes could scarcely be any lower.

The sequence following the Forlorn Ruins escape works much better. Kuro, the evil (ish) owl, is hunting for Ori, who must hide behind various rocks and logs to escape her, so the challenge is in platforming around the area while staying hidden. The mood in this scene is tense instead of frantic. Dying over and over still confronts you with how low the stakes really are, but at least the pace of the narrative and the pace of the gameplay are in sync.

The story aims for a bit of nuance, and falls apart in doing so. It turns out Kuro, the main antagonist owl, hates the tree Ori is trying to revive because the tree killed Kuro’s babies. That’s not an implication or hyperbole or anything, in the prologue the tree does a big light show to try and signal the lost Ori to come home (it doesn’t work), and it is later revealed that this directly and unambiguously killed the owl’s babies, so the owl takes revenge on the tree to protect her remaining (unhatched) child.

Ori wasn’t even in any kind of danger, and had no way of signaling back to the spirit tree if they were. The only way the distress signal can work is if Ori sees it and is able to follow the light show back home (it doesn’t work – Ori’s adoptive mother Naru dissuades them from following the lights). It’s only after Kuro’s children are killed by the light show that Kuro goes after the tree for revenge, causing the forest to wither and become dangerous, at which point Ori ends up re-orphaned and wandering through the now much more deadly forest looking for food. The spirit tree couldn’t reasonably have predicted all the dominoes that would lead to the distress signal putting Ori in mortal danger, but you’d think it would be aware that it would kill any owls in range and that Ori wouldn’t benefit from the light unless they were in a safe and stable enough position to follow it home.

At the end, Ori sets the forest on fire (Ori themselves may or may not have intended this, but it was an inevitable side effect of the main quest to revive the tree and pretty easy to see coming – the previous two dungeons caused a flood and a windstorm, and the last dungeon is a volcano, so it’s not hard to guess what kind of storm its restoration is going to cause), threatening to cook Kuro’s remaining child alive, so Kuro has to sacrifice herself to restore the tree that killed her children, so the spirit tree can use its power to put out the fires. This doesn’t kill Kuro’s remaining child, even though it kills the owl herself – maybe it’s because the remaining child (unlike the others) is still an egg.

So on the one side we have Ori, who’s trying to revive the tree that used its baby-killing distress signal to let Ori know dinner was ready and it’s time to come home, and who sets the forest on fire to the point where an egg halfway across the map is in mortal peril not as an accident or a result of outside interference, but as an expected consequence of the quest. On the other side we have Kuro, an owl who was minding her own business when the spirit tree killed all her children save one, who attacked the spirit tree to protect the remaining egg, and who ultimately sacrifices her life to revive the spirit tree (her most hated enemy!) once it becomes clear that this is the only way to save her remaining child.

I think Ori is the villain.

You Play A Benevolent God In Okami

Abrahamic religion is no fun. A single omnipotent deity overseeing the universe just sucks all the drama out of everything. Western developers have a tendency to import a lot of Abrahamic assumptions even when making games clearly based on pagan concepts. For example, Black and White. Each civilization has exactly one god, that god is a disembodied entity with arbitrary control over natural forces. This ain’t no Zeus or Poseidon, it’s an off-brand Yahweh with a video game karma system bolted on.

Okami, however, makes you feel like you’re actually playing a benevolent deity in a polytheistic paradigm. Okami is a reboot of Japanese mythology that recycles characters while ignoring their exact relationships and character arc in the traditional stories, so you are Amaterasu, sun goddess of Nippon, except also you are a wolf. Susano is not your irresponsible younger brother, but rather the irresponsible descendant of a great warrior who fought alongside your previous incarnation, Shiranui, and who struggles to live up to that legacy. Issun is not an unrelated character, but instead is your sidekick, and when you find his magic mallet, it shrinks you down to his size instead of growing him to yours. The basic personality and theme of each character is intact, even though everything else is original – which means that you, playing as Amaterasu, are the benevolent goddess of the sun and protector of the Japanese people.

Okami is a Zelda-style adventure RPG sort of game, where you gain items and level up certain stats, but the emphasis is more strongly on your skill in combat than on your raw numbers. So, naturally, one way in which you are a benevolent deity is by running around beating up demons, and upon completing a certain dungeon or defeating a certain boss, you will bring an end to a curse zone, restoring life and beauty to a place that had become poisoned and desolate. That much is obvious, anyone who sets out to make an adventure RPG where you play as a benevolent deity can get that far.

Where Okami shines is in lots of smaller things you can do for XP. A lot of the side quests in the game involve performing small miracles, using your magic brush powers to help random peasants accomplish things they ordinarily wouldn’t be able to. For example, one early side quest involves an old woman who’s lost the pole she uses to hang drying laundry from. It fell into the river and was swept away. You can use your brush powers to magic up a new pole from thin air. Ordinary mortals can’t perceive your true form, that of a wolf painted with divine markings with a flaming mirror floating over your back and a tail dripping with magic ink. They just see a white dog. So, they have no idea you’re responsible and they don’t thank you directly, but instead offer up praise to the heavens ambiguously. There’s lots of little side quests like this, so everywhere you go, you’re performing miracles. Many of them are a simple and straightforward use of your magic powers, as easy as “use the cut power to help this samurai cut a tree” or “use the bomb power to help this firework maker make a bigger bomb,” but the fact that they’re quick and easy is an important part of it: You happen across someone having a problem that they’ve been bashing their head against for hours or days, wag your magic tail a little, and bam: Solved. For them, it’s a miracle. For you, it was Tuesday.

Plus, one of the collectible side quests is to find animals and feed them, which requires you to keep a stock of a couple of different kinds of food (seeds, herbs, fish, and meat) so that you have the right kind whenever you stumble across a wandering animal, or else make trips back to the merchant to buy exactly enough food and then head back to the animals you found (they hang out in the same place like a proper collectible, rather than spawning randomly or something else super annoying). Every time you feed them, you get a neat little cutscene of the animal eating while Amaterasu watches over them, with calm music in the background.

Okami portrays a benevolent deity not just as beating up bad guys, but as directly helping people (and animals) everywhere she goes, and it makes me feel more like a hero than the vast majority of games I play.

The Book/Movie Backlog

My video game backlog project has worked out pretty great for its intended purpose: Pushing me to try new games instead of revisiting old favorites over and over again, replaying them about as soon as I stop being completely sick of them. The problem I’d identified long ago is that every time I wanted to play a video game for a while, it almost always meant I was kind of tired and unfocused and needed to recharge, which means I was in no state to scroll through a list of 500+ video games in my Steam library and pick out something new. I’d play a spate of new games about once a year or so when I’d give myself a goal to play through a specific category, like every Star Wars game in my library, or every Metroidvania. This would work for a while, but after a few weeks I’d get sick of that category and drift back to playing whatever.

During my Star Wars kick after this year’s May the Fourth sale, I felt my interest in the project ebbing, noticed the pattern, and decided to solve it by creating a list of every video game I wanted to play. The broader subject matter means that, when I got tired of one category, I would switch to a different one, not replaying old favorites yet again. And it worked: My Star Wars playthrough has been on hiatus for months, but once I’m in the mood again, I’ll pick up where I left off, rather than feeling like the project is abandoned and starting a new one. Anyone following the blog will remember that I’ve mentioned exorcising Ubisoft from my soul, getting closure on their series and then moving away from them, and while that project has successfully carried me through to the end of the Assassin’s Creed series and into Far Cry, I’ve intermixed tons of other games with it. The “make peace with the fact that Ubisoft sucks and maybe always did” project tends to dominate my chunky, 20+ hour playthroughs, but since I’m also playing lots of 5-10 hour games, I’m not getting burnt out on it the way I have in the past.

But also, video games have completely taken over my hobbies. It used to be, when I needed to recharge, I would scroll over Steam and Netflix and my Kindle library until something popped out at me. Video games were always a plurality if not majority, but I’d also watch movies/shows and read books semi-regularly. Now, the process of finding a new game is much easier, which means I gravitate towards that. The solution, plainly, is to create similar backlogs for books and movies. The problem is, that’s going to be much harder.

The creation of my video game backlog has a lot of prerequisites. The backlog was over 180 games long at start and new games are added on a monthly basis. I didn’t just pluck out a half-dozen games that I’d never gotten around to, and that was the point: By being really huge, it’s easy for me to pass over a game that I don’t feel like playing right now and come back to it later. But in order to build that huge list, I needed to have 500+ games sitting in my Steam library, a list that I cut down to less than 200 by going through game by game and asking myself if I really cared if I never played this video game.

The reason why I had 500+ Steam games in my library was because of 10 years of accumulation from Steam wishlist/sales, Humble Bundles, and Humble Choices. Each of these sent new games past me on a more-or-less monthly basis for something like $5. Steam sends me a steady stream of recommendations based on what I’m already playing, and I’ll wishlist anything that looks interesting. During major sales, I’ll grab a few games if they’re heavily discounted enough. Humble Bundles regularly serve up packages of games that usually include one or two headline titles along with a dozen or so others, and while most of the other dozen never make it to my Steam library, some catch my eye and I give them a shot. The Humble Choice works the same way, except that the games aren’t even grouped by publisher or category, which is how games like Yes, Your Grace and Crypt of the Necrodancer find their way into my library.

And this is what books and movies/shows are missing. If I’d embarked on this project five years ago, Netflix probably could’ve served me on the movies/shows angle, if only minimally. Their recommendations and new releases would’ve served a similar role to Steam, and being a one-stop shop for all audio-visual media meant that once I paid my monthly subscription, everything was free. This means I don’t have to decide whether I want to risk money on a show I might like or might not – anything that looks interesting goes on the list (the video game equivalent being a combination of Steam wishlist and games from Humble bundles that I was already buying for other titles in the bundle). Unfortunately, the Balkanization of streaming services means that nobody has access to the data they need to offer me recommendations that are more hit than miss, and nothing like Humble Bundles – a package deal that includes several more obscure titles alongside one or two attention getting big ones – has ever existed.

Books are even worse. While Amazon certainly has an algorithm, it doesn’t seem to be very good at its job, and I still have to pay for every single title I take a chance on. I’ve tried using Amazon/Audible the way I use Steam, and the end result is that I spent a lot of time on books I abandoned halfway through because they were bad. Humble Bundle has book bundles, but they’re usuall either graphic novels or non-fiction, and the rare occasion on which I’ve tried one of their book bundles, I found its quality was abysmal. It has a lot of short story collections, which I have learned tend to be two or three short stories from really good writers to draw people in and fifteen from the publisher’s poker buddies. Instead of Yes, Your Grace, I get Shipwrecks Above. That collection also had the phenomenal Coldest Girl In Coldtown, but the only reason I realized that story was good and read it is because someone told me about it, and I doublechecked the one book of vampire short stories I had lying around to see if it included that one. There’s probably one or two other good stories in there, but I’d have to sift through a bunch of junk to find them. My video game backlog isn’t like that. September had 4 Regrets to 6 Complete, and I considered that a bad month for Regrets, plagued by technical difficulties!

The recommendation for Coldest Girl In Coldtown worked out great, so that presents a potential solution: Get recommendations. The problem is, if you ask a random individual for their favorite books/TV shows, you will mostly get an inventory of things they read when they were fifteen or which remind them of things they read when they were fifteen. If you ask a broad group for their favorites, you will get things that have broad appeal, with nary a trace of any Yes, Your Graces or even Crypts of the Necrodancer. People who can give reliable recommendations do exist (the guy who recommended me Coldest Girl In Coldtown has a really good track record), but they’re rare. I can’t easily find a group of 50 of them, ask them for recommendations, and assemble a 100+ entry list from each of them giving me 2 or 3 recs each.

I’ve begun assembling book and game backlogs in text files. It took ten years to build up my video game backlog, so even if the tools are not ideal, getting started on the book and movie backlogs right away seems prudent. So far they’ve all got a single digit number of entries, though, and I’m not sure how to open myself up to the steady stream of recommendations that would allow them to expand.

October Humble Choice

October’s Humble Choice is out the day I’m writing this (October 4th). What’s in the box?

Deathloop is an assassin-y kind of FPS like Dishonored (it’s from the Dishonored guys) where you have to kill eight targets before the timeloop you’re stuck in reinitiates. There’s also a rival assassin who’s trying to kill you, who can be played by another player or by an AI. Could be a flop, but could be cool. I’ll try it.

Monster Train is a roguelike deckbuilder game and I have had enough of those. I’m glad I got lucky with Banners of Ruin and stumbled into a winning build fairly early, because otherwise it probably would’ve wound up in Regrets. Monster Train has a weird and kinda cool premise where you’re demons on a train repelling an angelic invasion into Hell (and presumably counterinvading into Heaven at some point), but I’m just done with the gameplay on this one. Turns out, Slay the Spire is probably the only deckbuilding roguelike game I need.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope is a collection of branching-narrative games in the “games that wish they were movies” genre. This is a bad genre. Just make movies.

Disciples: Liberation is a dark fantasy RPG with inquisitors and undead and stuff, and I’m on board for that. We’ll see if it sticks the landing or not, but I like the premise.

Maid of Sker can’t wait to gush about how cool Welsh ghost stories are. It’s a horror game where the gimmick is some kind of sound-based thing? This seems less like a movie with some QTEs slapped onto it to provide the ghost of gameplay and more like one of those horror walking simulator games born from gamer culture’s collective grief for the cancellation of Silent Hills. I like that genre well enough to try its best examples, but not enough to go digging for more after that, and Maid of Sker definitely looks like it’s in the strata where I’d be digging for more.

Epic Chef is about being a chef, presumably in an epic way. There’s some kind of gameplay for cooking stuff, some kind of gameplay for farming stuff, some kind of gameplay for chef duels. Kinda looks like Stardew Valley crossed with Cook Serve Delicious, but I think I’d rather play those games. It doesn’t help that I’m not much of a fan of the low-poly art style.

Railroad Corporation is a railroad tycoon game. How many of these do we have now? Too many. I don’t know if Railroad Corporation is the best of the genre, and I don’t care enough about this genre to find out.

Golf Gang is a golfing game. I do not want to play a golfing game.

That’s two pick-ups, but also I got some wishlist items from assorted Steam sales (and, in one case, from realizing that the listed price is $5): Hades, Drug Dealer Simulator, Hacker Simulator, and Ori and the Blind Forest. The math on How Long To Beat doesn’t seem to be adding up, though. Prior to adding these games, I had (according to the website) 167 games on the list. After adding these six games, I have…170? All of the new games are on the list, as CTRL+F confirms. Some of the stats screens (which do helpful things like tell me that 100% of my games are either unlisted platform or PC) are adding up to 173 like they should be, but the number indicating the total number of games on the list is 170.

Still, I know I added six games this month, which is the same number of games that went on the Complete list (Out of Space, Thief Simulator, Far Cry 2, Okami, Iron Harvest, and Crypt of the Necrodancer), plus some went into Regrets (Little Big Workshop, Industria, Magicka, the Lord of the Rings Adventure Card Game – no big story behind the last one, I just consistently passed it over when looking for a new game even though it’s got one of the shorter playtimes on my remaining list, and realized this means I don’t really want to play it). I’ve got two games that I should be able to unload from the backlog fairly quickly, too – Ori is only about 10-15 hours long, and I’m nearly done with Project Highrise, a game I’ve been picking at here and there since June. So there’s some reason to be optimistic about the backlog shrinking despite continued acquisitions.

On the other hand, when I’m looking for a new game to play, I usually look at the How Long To Beat backlog sorted by shortest average completion time. That means the games I play are skewed towards the very shortest. Sure, sometimes I play a game like Far Cry 2, chosen because I’ve played it and liked it, just never finished it, and I’d had a bunch of Regrets lately and wanted something I knew I’d like and wasn’t broken, but mostly I’m going through games more or less in ascending order of average time to beat, and I’ve pretty much run out of games with a single-digit hour completion time. Will my backlog keep shrinking over time, or will it eventually start to expand again once I finish chewing through all the short games?

Of course, this isn’t really a problem. It’s not like finishing the backlog would represent some kind of accomplishment. It’s just a means of getting myself to try out new games that I’m very likely to enjoy. And since it isn’t a real problem, I don’t plan on putting much effort into a solution, particularly since the only three obvious solutions defeat the point of the project in favor of number-goes-up: I could cut off incoming games as much as I like, but then I’d be missing out on games I want to play. I could increase the amount of time I spend playing games, but then I’d be interfering with other parts of my life for the sake of a goal that doesn’t really mean anything. I could try to finish games more quickly, but I’m naturally a thorough and methodical player, so I’d be having less fun if I switched to playing just the main story in the name of finishing games as fast as possible.

So instead my solution is to shrug my shoulders and not worry about it. My backlog is steadily shrinking right now anyway.

Crypt of the Necrodancer

I just finished Crypt of the Necrodancer earlier today. It’s a rhythm-based dungeon crawling roguelike where every move has to be done in time to the beat of the song. The dungeon crawling is, naturally, pretty simple, limited purely to movement in the four cardinal directions, but learning enemy patterns to hit them properly is very satisfying. A lot of realtime RPGs like this end up with a sort of “dance” you can do to optimize damage output, and Crypt of the Necrodancer puts the dance front-and-center and puts the steps of the dance in beat with the level music, then backs it up with a soundtrack that slaps. It’s a ton of fun, although unfortunately hard to describe – you just kind of have to see it, or better yet, play it.

I say “finished,” but there’s a strong argument that I gave up two-thirds of the way through, instead. Crypt of the Necrodancer has four different dungeons and eight different characters. The starting character is Cadence, with no special features, and then there’s special characters like Dove, who can’t attack enemies and thus has to race through all the levels avoiding all attacks, or Monk, who dies if he ever touches gold (he took a vow of poverty), which means every enemy he kills leaves a lethal hazard behind, or Bard, who doesn’t have to step in time with the music (the enemies move whenever he does, so you can take as much time as you need to decide where to move next – I’m pretty sure he’s an accessibility character). Some of the characters are part of the story, but non-canon, like Cadence’s bomb-happy uncle Eli, who told her not to seek out the Crypt of the Necrodancer, or her slow but powerful father Dorian, who went missing in the Crypt and needs to be rescued by Cadence (his run is sort of canon, except in that he canonically loses at some point).

But there’s also two unlockable characters who further the story: Cadence’s mother Melody and her grandmother Aria. Melody wields a special weapon, the golden lute, which damages every enemy who gets adjacent to Melody. This isn’t as invincible as it sounds, because some enemies block damage from certain directions, attack from range, or have multiple HP, and unlike Cadence, Melody can’t damage enemies with regular attacks. She has to use the lute’s damage aura exclusively. Still, the golden lute is more powerful overall than almost any of Cadence’s weapons (and it’s way better than the default dagger that Cadence starts a run with) and being restricted to it means that all weapons are removed from Melody’s item pool, which means chests and merchants are more likely to stock other things instead, like armor, spells, charms, or healing items. It took me at least a couple of tries to beat each dungeon with Cadence, and I needed a lot of practice to defeat the final dungeon and the Necrodancer, but Melody was more like a victory lap, tearing through the first three dungeons effortlessly and only requiring about an hour of practice to defeat the Necrodancer.

But dear god, Aria. Aria, Cadence’s grandmother, is a difficulty wall. For starters, her story is not about seeking out the Necrodancer at the bottom of the crypt (he’s truly, completely dead by the time Aria’s leg of the story begins), but about escaping the crypt after his demise. This means you start in the fourth, hardest dungeon and have to make your way up. Worse, due to the specific way in which Aria is undead (it’s not really clear how – Cadence’s heart was taken by the Necrodancer and beats in time with his music, and Melody was using the golden lute to keep herself alive, but Aria just kind of pops out of her coffin and clocks the Necrodancer at the end of Melody’s story, with no explanation as to how), she can only wield the basic dagger as a weapon, she takes damage if she ever misses a beat, and she has only one HP (plus a special item that revives you at full HP if you die – for Aria, this gives her one extra hit point but leaves healing items useless). Like Melody, items she can’t use are removed from her item pool, but since that includes not only all weapons, but also all armor and healing items, what you’re left with is spells, charms, and accessories.

You can argue that Cadence is the main story and once you’ve defeated the Necrodancer with her, you’ve won the game. Melody and Aria, like all the other non-Cadence characters, are side/post-game content. They even fit into common post-game content niches: Melody is an overpowered character of the sort frequently given out as a reward so you can stomp all over the game now that you’ve beaten it, and Aria is a massively more difficult character for people who want to keep going.

But they’ve got cut scenes that pick up where Cadence’s story left off, and the conclusion of both Cadence and Melody’s story is found in the opening cut scene for Melody and Aria’s stories (respectively). Like, Cadence’s story ends with her and her father standing at Melody’s grave, Dorian promising that he’s going to show Cadence why the golden lute was worth braving the Crypt of the Necrodancer. It’s not hard to figure out what happens next, but the scene where Melody actually gets revived is the start of her story, rather than the end of Cadence’s. The game goes out of its way to make Melody’s story seem not like a sequel to Cadence’s, but Act II.

I suspect these stories were assembled as they went along, though. That originally, Crypt of the Necrodancer was made with just Cadence, telling just Cadence’s story. I think it’s clear that by the time Cadence’s story was complete and playable, they had already decided to add Melody (after all, Cadence’s ending cut scene is clearly intended to set up Melody’s, to the point where it almost doesn’t work on its own), but I think the game’s original outline ended with Cadence and Dorian defeating the Necrodancer. Cadence’s story has a really good ending. Reaching the bottom of the Crypt of the Necrodancer, she is confronted by her father Dorian, who has been enslaved to the Necrodancer’s will, but she is able to break the curse. Then, she and her father fight together (you control both of them simultaneously, upping the complexity for the final boss) to take the golden lute and use it to defeat the Necrodancer. Triumphant, they return to the surface, where Dorian uses the golden lute to revive Melody, reuniting their family.

Melody and Aria’s endings are comparatively a lot more lame (I looked up Aria’s cut scenes on YouTube). Melody returns to the Crypt of the Necrodancer with the golden lute to revive him and demand answers. He says no, so Melody uses the lute to destroy him again. Melody’s playthrough has a lot of flashback cut scenes about how her mother Aria used the lute to bring back plague victims, but then the greedy villagers wanted its power for themselves, so she set out to destroy it and never returned, but the main plot of her playthrough is that she set out to find information and failed, and then Aria pops out of her sarcophagus to take over. And the entirety of Aria’s story is reaffirming that the golden lute needs to be destroyed, and then they do that.

It’s a lot of backstory and lore and what traces of character drama exist aren’t nearly as compelling as Cadence’s story had. Melody establishes that she never knew why Aria had left her and then in the very next line says she understands now and reconciles, but it wasn’t established earlier on that Melody felt abandoned by Aria. It’s vaguely implied that Dorian has some kind of impure intention for the power of the golden lute, but he only ever uses it to bring his wife back to life, which seems like a perfectly good thing to do, and Melody comes across as pretty ungrateful talking about how she could “see the greed in his eyes, behind the desperation” when he told her about his plan to retrieve the lute while she was dying of plague.

And then Aria has to die in order to destroy the golden lute, but apparently Meldoy doesn’t? For that matter, neither do Dorian or Cadence? Cadence smashes her skull on a rock in the opening cut scene and then the Necrodancer pulls her heart out of her body to restart it to the beat of his music. While she looks perfectly healthy, she is strongly implied to be some kind of undead. Melody is revived directly and explicitly by the golden lute, and she says she has to keep playing it to stay alive, so when it’s destroyed, she should re-die pretty much instantly. But apparently not, it’s only Aria who dies.

Given the difficulty wall with Aria’s story, this game is definitely going into either Complete or Regrets – there’s no way I’m beating this game with a one-hit-point-wonder who can’t even equip a reach weapon. Since Cadence’s story has a better ending than Melody’s or Aria’s anyway, I’m calling it Complete.

Miscellaneous Games

There’s a couple of games I played and finished and never really talked about on the blog. I didn’t have much to say about them. My buffer’s also shrank to less than two weeks, so I figure it’s time to get less picky about subjects, so here’s a post on a couple of games which individually I had little to say about, but which collectively I might get four or five paragraphs out of, we’ll see.

Party Hard is one of the first games I played after assembling my huge list of games. It’s an indie pixel art game where you play as the Party Hard Killer, a serial killer who goes to big parties and kills every single person there. It’s a stealth-ish kind of game where you have to use a combination of booby traps and a knife in the back to kill unsuspecting party guests while avoiding being seen by anyone but your victim. If anyone survives to call the police, the cops will show up to arrest you. It’s possible to outrun them if you know the level layout well, and they will get bored and leave after a while, a surprisingly realistic depiction of the rigor with which the police have traditionally handled serial killer investigations, but trying to outrun the police is still risky. They’re faster than you, and shortcuts or obstacles which allow you to manipulate their AI into running around in circles until they give up aren’t totally reliable.

I like Party Hard for a similar reason to why I like Assassin’s Creed games: It’s a video game that sticks me in a cool location and gives me something to do there. The fact that the thing to do is murder everyone does mean that the location goes from popping to literally dead the more successful I am, and the pixel art isn’t nearly as immersive as AC’s AAA graphics, but no one else is making video games set in party locations, so Party Hard is what I’ve got and it’s not bad. There’s a house party and a frat party and a Halloween party and a beach party, a party on a pool atop a skyscraper and a party on a cruise ship, a biker barbeque and at the end a subway party being thrown by the kind of maniac-idolizing dipshits who think it’s a cool idea to throw a party and have everyone dress like the Party Hard Killer.

Carrion is a Metroidvania where you play as a shoggoth. You escape from containment in a lab, sneak through vents to kill humans and absorb their biomass, and steal back bits and pieces of yourself that the scientists hacked out for study in order to reabsorb your alien shoggoth powers. At the beginning you are a wolf-sized blob of tentacles and teeth that’s pretty reliant on the old “make noise in one direction, then pop out from the opposite direction” trick. At the end, you gain complete shapeshifting abilities and walk out into the city as John Carpenter’s Thing. It’s pretty good, but it desperately needs a map. The structure of the game is that there is one hub map and then many levels leaidng off from it, with each level being small enough that you can explore and semi-memorize the layout, and that works but doesn’t particularly add to the experience over just having a map. Worse, one level entrance is actually inside another level, not directly connected to the hub. These kinds of nested levels are usually no problem in a Metroidvania, but in mapless Carrion, it’s excruciating. Also, I feel like I’ve brought up Carrion’s lack of map before, but I can’t find it anywhere on the blog, so hopefully it was on Discord or something.

I sort of talked about Spellcaster University, and the only thing I really have to add besides what I talked about in that post is that I really wish someone would take the build-a-magic-academy concept and do it better. Like Party Hard, Spellcaster University is a game that I played to completion because a C is still a passing grade, and that’s good enough if you have no competition.

Salt Lake Comic Con 2022

Given the reputation of vacation photos, I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody actually likes these Comic Con photo dumps, but it’s easy content and my buffer has been dwindling lately.

I got Waldo on the way into the convention this year.
There was an Ezio back in, like, 2014 who was the reigning champion of Salt Lake Comic Con Assassin’s Creed costumes for years, but these two are finally giving him some competition.
Milo is probably only identifiable when Kida’s there to clue you in, but as a couples costume, it works.
Star Wars Imperial costume design is some of the best villain costuming in all of modern media.

I still want to see an expanded Kung Fury that has an extended Barbariana arc where Thor has a kaiju fight with mecha-Jormungandr and Kung Fury beats up an evil wizard. Maybe some more Hackerman stuff, too.

I never saw them together, but there were a bunch of Among Us costumes at the con.
The androids are some of the most underused characters in DBZ. Seventeen and Eighteen especially. Not sure who that is on the right.

I found these two separately. Not sure if they came together.

There were actually two distaff Pyramid Heads at this con, but I didn’t realize the second one was different from this one until she was too far away to get a good picture.
Vocaloid has some pretty strong character designs. I’d love to see a group costume for them.
Helluva Boss continues to represent.
There’s almost no piece of either of these costumes that can’t be bought from a regular clothing store, yet they’re very recognizable. I expect they’d work just as well separately as together.

Emperor’s New Groove was a huge departure in style for a Disney animated film, but it’s one of the best movies they ever made.

I was more worn out and less zealous about chasing down Harleys this year, which is part of the reason why there’s only six, but I think the costume might finally be on the way out.