Conditional Gaming: Beyond a Hero

Looking Back on Guitar Hero as a Guitarist

Way back in 2005 RedOctane and Harmonix released Guitar Hero, a rhythm game about living out a rock fantasy as the main guitarist of band on their rise to stardom. While by no means was it the first rhythm game, Guitar Hero has the most name recognition with gamers and casual players alike . This was enough to grant a total of seven games in its main series. That isn’t even counting the many releases that revolved around a specific band, like the rock gods that go by the name Van Halen, Metallica, and Aerosmith. So there were a large amount of gamers out there playing a plastic guitar in tribute to these bands, and getting good at it, incredibly good at it. To the point where playing Guitar Hero starts to feel like playing a real guitar. Falling to your knees during a signature solo becomes natural. So does rocking to the beat of the song or smashing the guitar after it’s all over (PLEASE DON’T DO THAT). This can lead to doing some things on that game that most guitarist couldn’t touch. Until it got boring… Until maybe there was a feeling of want after the series inevitably ended… Until the maestro of this plastic guitar decides to put it down, and pick up the real thing. A mighty instrument made of wood, metal and soul.

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Nearly Independent: Horizon Zero Dawn Has You Make Almost Everything

Horizon Zero Dawn is set in the world of the Wilds, where forest and desert take up more area than the growing population that lives in them. People form tribes, preferring to band together and help one another survive, settle down, and cuddle for warmth. Other than the struggles of tribal life, like starvation and the bitter cold of winter, there is another threat, a predator. One that is larger than life, skin as hard as steel and a FULLY AUTOMATED MOUNTED GUN ON ITS BACK!… and two on its jaws… and lasers there too… and a radar to scan you in hiding spots, proving that you can’t run, or can’t hide. These giant robot dinosaurs live everywhere and it’s clear that they’ve had control of this land before any human opened its eyes to see the beauty of the very same landscape. Without the help of a faithful tribe, life can seem bleak.

Tribes feel so safe because power comes easily in numbers, what one doesn’t know another can thrive in. Life gets harder in the later years, and knowing that the next generation can help in exchange for wisdom is comforting. Forming tribes to stand together can make these titanic mechanical beasts, some literally named Deathbringers, that much smaller. Knowing you aren’t alone can make these Deathbringers manageable. With the help of others, feats that are impossible alone become within reach. Living alone is a death sentence.

Aloy, the main character of Horizon, lives on her own. Exiled from her village as an infant she only had help from a fellow exile and father figure, Rost. From him, Aloy learned everything that it took to live on her own. Hunting, cooking, tying a sick braid in your hair, and she had to master all of it. There is an immense pressure on her that if she fails just one part of her exiled life, then it will quickly end. So it would come to reason that Aloy should be able to handle every facet of her survival. But there is one aspect that escapes her grasp, she can’t create her own weapons or defensive armor.

They say unraveling those braids yields about 10 yards of rope.

Aloy is completely and utterly self reliant, making everything she uses out of the world around her, everything except for arguably the most vital tools of survival. While it’s not impossible to believe that making bows and slings are out of her grasp, it feels strange. Every other component of that game can be found or created from found objects. Hours can be spent hunting animals to upgrade how much inventory Aloy could hold at one time. Running dry on ammo for a particular weapon is solved by a simple hike through the forest to find the sticks and flammable materials. But if you want to get a new and stronger way to fire these combustible arrows, you have to buck up and try to avoid eye contact as you ask someone else to make one for you.

Aloy has been taught everything, from a young age Rost would bend down and speak of a shrub called a Salvebrush and that it can be used to help wounds heal faster. At the same time, the kids of her former village would shun and bully her. Both these would make Aloy grow with the ability to survive without needing anyone else, and with a seed of hate toward the village who kicked her out of society. This doesn’t seem like the person who want to go out of her way to ask someone else for any kind of help. She has learned all she needed while she was young. She grew up with that knowledge while training to her physical peak. It’s at this point where the player truly takes control of Aloy. From the start you are a master of the Wilds needing no other but yourself and a handful of arrows. As the game progresses Aloy gets stronger, being able to do more and more on her own.

This idea of being self reliant took hold of me, and I often refused to visit any villages unless brought there by a quest. That is until near the end of the game, I had cleared the fog over the map and most of the activities scattered about it were done, all that was left was the story. But suddenly there was a difficulty spike, enemies hit harder, and my weapons weren’t as effective as they were before. Curious, I scoured my inventory for a clue on how to continue. After a long look it hit me, I’ve had the same weapons from near the start of the game and visiting a nearby vendor uncovered where the rest were… waiting to be bought.

This feels oppressive as Aloy is still seen as beneath her peers. She goes from the title Exile, to Savage as she leaves to lands outside her tribe. After witnessing Horizon’s prologue where Aloy proves she can handle herself without a tribe, if feels like a let down having to ask for a shiny new weapon from a merchant in the city where the common citizen can be heard calling her a savage. The seed of hate that was planted early on in the game seems to have withered away, replaced by a mild resentment as Aloy passively deals with the people around her. Aloy is ok with needing the help of others, rather than going out to help herself like she always has.

Getting a store bought bow feels mundane, it might as well come with a price tag. The new gear is useful, but not fulfilling. It helps take down larger challenges, but I can’t help feel that new bow did the work, not Aloy as a character.

Creating every weapon from scratch out of the remains of fallen machines would feel so much more satisfying. It would give a reason to explore and conquer greater challenges. How do you want to bring two thunderjaws to their knees? Stalkers are normally something to run from, but you need that part that only they hold. Using Trampler horns to create a new bow with your own hands gives a feeling of ownership. That bow is yours, and you know exactly what it took to obtain. Maybe it even deserves a name.

I call it… xXNinjaStorm69LolzXx

Taking the route of bought, over hand made weapons and gear doesn’t stop Horizon from being a tremendous game, it reigns high on my list of games of 2017. But it seems like a quick patch over that could have been a more elegant solution. Creating weapons would have made Alloy appear stronger and have her stand out more from the rest of the world. This solution would improve game mechanically and one that falls easily in its story.

-Joe Turgeon

Flow State: Playing the Cooler Sibling in the Ultimate Power Fantasy

Devil May Cry games are the epitome of stylish, hack-and-slash gameplay. Protagonist Dante is a cocky, powerful, half-demon, demon hunter who never misses an opportunity to remind the camera and the audience of just how cool he is. Sporting a massive, demonic broadsword in combination with dual magic pistols that never run out of ammo, players control a versatile fighter who is deadly at all ranges. In each game, players are awarded newer, more outrageous weapons to add to their arsenal as they progress through the main campaign, unlocking even wilder attack combinations.

Of equal visual flourish in the series is Dante’s twin brother, Vergil. Although encountered only a handful of times as a boss in the original game, he is featured prominently as a main antagonist in Devil May Cry 3, shown to be a power-hungry swordsman who is as powerful as our already impressive hero due to a full-fledged embracing of his demonic heritage. Over the course of the game, players are shown Vergil’s abilities to be centered entirely on legendary sword Yamato, a katana so sharp and powerful that it can cut the very space around its wielder.

While the Devil May Cry series touts the ability to control mighty individuals, each entry has always been at fault for showing off more impressive feats in the cutscenes than anything the player is able to do in real time. These limitations were largely in part to the available power of the console the games were originally developed for and narrative design choices. However, being aware of these limitation does not lessen the sting of seeing Dante and Vergil pull off superhuman feats in the cutscenes and then being given control of wimps in game.

Out of all the games in the series, Devil May Cry 3 gives us the most egregious example of this break between what we are shown the character being capable of and what the player is actually allowed to do. The introductory cinematic opens to Dante and Vergil squaring off, their swords clashing with such speed and power that the downpour of rain around them is briefly held at bay by their duel. Finally, when their blades lock between them as they each try and overpower the other through sheer force of will, we see the sphere of water crash down to the floor below, a stark reminder that these two individuals are no mere mortals. After Vergil overpowers Dante and moves to finish him off, we cut to black and begin the first mission proper. After a second cutscene to set the stage for the first mission, one that is equally guilty of showing a far more powerful Dante than we are ever allowed to be, we are given control of a neutered, stiff, watered-down version of the hero we just got to see in action mere seconds before.

A game is often only as good as how well it lets a player achieve a state of suspension of disbelief, or flow, wherein we forget that we are controlling someone else and are instead enraptured by the fantasy that we are a game’s titular character. Albeit fun games overall, my biggest qualm with the Devil May Cry series is how every engagement plays out identically every single time. Being surrounded by enemies is more often than not a bad place to be, meaning that the safest way to tackle a swarm is to break it up and tackle foes one by one. Unfortunately, the end of one enemy spelled doom for my overall combo, resulting in a lull in the action where I would have to meander sheepishly back into the fray to start the process over again. I ended up needing to abuse a move named Stinger, a technique where Dante rushes forward, the tip of his blade extending out in front of him in order to stab the poor demon who happened to be closest. And while this served as a great way to both close the distance between myself and my enemies and chain one combo into the next, it wasn’t fun. Worst of all was that the game quickly gets wise to my strategy and punishes me for my inability to be as cool as Dante should be.

Part of the problem lies with the a series constant: a persistent scoring system used to gauge the player’s action. This meter provides constant feedback for how well the player is doing with a dynamically changing grade that fluctuates between a score of D at the lowest and SSS at the highest. The game is deeply aware of how varied the player’s action are, providing lower and lower scores for continued use of any one move. Essentially, the more unique the combo, the higher the score, which translates directly into a measure of how well the player is performing. Staleness, missed inputs, downtime, and incoming damage severely lower the score, further encouraging the player to perform at their best. The score eventually provides a measure for how well rewarded the player is at the conclusion of a level, giving out more points to spend on new moves for a higher overall score, further punishing poor performance by withholding access to better, stronger, and often more visually striking moves.

I often found myself scoring no higher than a B or an A at my best on every game in the series, which while an average score numerically, meant that I had to wait until the end game or a subsequent playthrough to unlock everything and therefore Dante’s true potential. With every combo prominently featuring the Stinger move in order to chain my combos together and begin each new engagement, my score refused to reward me further than an average score. With such a firm focus on the successful execution of mechanically varied combos, which often went hand in hand with how visually appealing a fight was, it was frustrating to feel handicapped by mechanics that seemed incapable of providing me the same level of control over Dante as what was shown in the cutscenes. I knew, mentally, what I wanted him to do, but a lack of agency caused by the necessity of precise execution coupled with context sensitivity and an overall gamification of the controls painfully reminded me of my inability to fully wield Dante. In other words, Dante was turned into a video game character that seemed more at home in a fighter than an action game. If you pressed buttons in a certain combination at a certain rhythm, things happened that sometimes looked cool. But at no point was I given a character who possessed impressive abilities that I was also allowed to execute at my whim.

Fast forward to the re-release of Devil May Cry 3 and 4, which introduced the ability to play as Vergil, a character who many fans, myself included, had wished we could play as after seeing his abilities as an opponent. Vergil is shown to be disciplined, precise, and fast, so I was understandably excited to play the game all over again, confident that with Vergil’s innate speediness I could overcome the game’s somewhat clunky mechanics. To some extent, my assumptions proved true. The game was arguably more fun as Vergil, whose ability to teleport up to enemies and obliterate them with Vergil’s more limited kit and refined abilities.

Just when I thought publisher Capcom had provided me with a recipe for a better Devil May Cry game, they partnered up with a new developer to release a reboot for the series: DmC. Developer Ninja Theory reimagined the series with specific instructions from Capcom to make Dante and the rest of the game different from the existing titles in the series while retaining the essence of a Devil May Cry game. Although initially met with negativity from critics for some of the stylistic choices, the game is now regarded highly by even the most hardcore advocates of the original games. I was personally very fond of DmC for introducing many new mechanics that I felt fixed the series’ inability to maintain flow. By allowing Dante to yank enemies to him or vice versa, every fight turned into one long dance, with every demon a mere button press away from my savage attacks.

What I wasn’t anticipating was how much more fun the introduction of Vergil into the reboot would turn out to be. I can honestly say that the most fun I’ve ever had with the series was in Vergil’s Downfall, the DLC for DmC that provided a brief epilogue to the main game focused around Vergil and Ninja Theory’s take on his rise to series villain. Thanks to the new mechanics for maneuvering around enemies using pulls, playing Vergil competently gave me a rush unlike anything I’d ever gotten prior. The score meter became a tracker of my success, rather than a reminder of my failure. With the game’s mechanics working in tandem with Vergil’s play style, I was able to outperform myself more than I had ever before, achieving my first SSS ranking not just once, but almost in every fight.

Because the DLC is only a few short chapters long, it was a quick ordeal to play through it beginning to end on multiple difficulties. The first time around on the Normal difficulty was pretty fun, as I got to teleport around the various battlegrounds and mostly avoid getting thrashed, which is important when playing as Vergil because he is notably weaker than his brother. Vergil is squishier, making him unable to take as many hits before a K.O., and his attacks require more strategic approaches in order to make sure that an enemy can never fight back. Once I began the second playthrough, something clicked for me, and I understood the way I needed to play in order to meet the game’s expectations.

As mastery began to form, I felt a level of exhilaration previously unknown to me throughout the series. For the first time I realized that, however fun, the first four Devil May Cry games were mechanically inferior to this reboot. If the only two levels of play are “shitty” Dante and “stylish” Dante, then perhaps achieving flow would be a lofty dream meant for those who prefer to truly master a game with continuous play. With DmC, achieving flow was a more seamless transition. Playing as Vergil specifically only further improved on an already successful formula, with my time spent as him truly beginning to look and feel more and more like a dance than a brawl. For the first time since I was introduced to the series, I was finishing entire encounters without taking a single hit. I began to memorize how many hits or what combinations of abilities allowed me to more quickly finish off beefier enemies.

The true test when I attempted the game on the Vergil Must Die difficulty, the series’ Very Hard mode. Most of the enemies could take down ¼ of my already long health bar in one hit. Some even had the capacity to 2 shot me. Each mistake was costly. But short of the boss fight against yourself in Chapter 5, I was able to masterfully weave my way around a battlefield confidently. No longer was I sweating bullets, unsure of my actions. I was Vergil. Powerful and deadly, I made short work of all who opposed me. Even the last fight against a truly harrowing combination of enemies, meant to cause even veteran players to tear their hair out in frustration, fell swiftly before me. I was able to complete the entire fight without ever using healing items, something that I previously had been unable to do on any other Devil May Cry game in the series.

Thanks to Ninja Theory, I was finally able to live out my rabid dreams that first formed at the intro cutscenes to Devil May Cry 3, and the power fantasy that grew from first meeting Dante in the entry to the series. I went from a mere mortal to a demonic swordsman, capable of thrashing his foes with a blade that could cut them down faster than the eye could see, with a satisfying, metallic clinking being the last noise they here as I sheathe my blade back in its scabbard, before the myriad of cuts send the demons back to hell.

 

-Brian

Just Me and My Gun: Playing Dead Space with the Plasma Cutter

The original Dead Space achievement list wasn’t too special. Beat the game, collect secrets, kill enemies. A good portion of the achievements are unlocked by simply playing through the normal game or used to introduce basic game mechanics and tools. That doesn’t make their inclusion inherently bad, some were tough and actually made me feel like I achieved something. But there was one beautiful achievement that served as a shining example of what all baby achievements want to be when they grow up. This achievement changed the way you thought about playing the game, changed how you approach each conflict, and possibly made this great horror game even more terrifying… at least at first.

“One Gun” is this achievement, and it possibly remains my favorite one to date. It requires you to “Beat the game using only the Plasma Cutter.” The Plasma Cutter, being the first weapon gained by your character, is found on a bloody shelf and from then on it’s with you to the bitter end. It serves as the game’s version of a pistol, close to medium range, quick, and juuuust strong enough to get you by. Its alternate fire is even boring, allowing you to change the orientation of your normally vertical plasma shot… to a horizontal plasma shot. Most other weapons in the game seem to offer so much more, like the Ripper’s ability to direct a spinning saw blade after its been shot, or how the Line Gun can leave a mine waiting for all who dare follow you. This achievement challenges you to take the rinky-dink Plasma Cutter, settle down with it, and make it your one and only as you walk, run, and fight down the dark solemn halls of The Ishimura.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Brian’s 50K Novel (Chapter 16)

Chapter 16

Atharin picked himself up off the ground. The stranger’s teleportation had not transported him as gingerly as the dispatch wizards usually did. He imagined this was just all part of the ordeal, meant to further encourage the idea that they now disposable. Regardless, the slight was not missed and a bitter anger welled up in his chest.

The rest of his party had landed a few feet from Atharin, and were likewise picking themselves up. Quiploth, as always, was the first one to fully collect herself and was already running around, scouting the area for any curious eyes. Once she had made certain they were alone, she returned to the group and collapse onto the floor, letting out a long sigh as she sat, looking up into a sky that she had long taken for granted.

“Fuck”, she said, to no one in particular.

“Tell me about it. I’ve been threatened with death many times before, like, a whole bunch of times. But never have I felt so thoroughly screwed over. I’m beginning to think the life of a mercenary may not be as easy as I had been told it was”, said Vlad.

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Ideasyncrasy: In Search of the Perfect Destiny

When I write my Metanalysis reviews, I try to apply certain attitudes all while meeting a few goals:

  • be informative, provide as much information about what the game is and isn’t
  • provide my personal experience, why I liked or did not like the game
  • applying constructive criticisms to failings
  • not over-inflate positive qualities
  • approach the game from an angle of light game design
  • remember that what may not be my cup of tea may be someone else’s

This allows me to approach the writing with the goal of being objective, something that I’ve before heard some of my peers express as being useless at best and impossible at worst. I’ve since then embraced the challenge, with my objective being to not try and keep subjectivity out of my review, but to instead explain to others why the game was or was not successful, and what ingredients led to that decision.

I recently reviewed Destiny 2, a game and series that I have one of my most passionate love/hate relationships with. Destiny and its sequel are the amalgamation of Bungie’s (the developer), Activision’s (the publisher), and the game dev community as a whole’s experience creating a fun and addicting game. Destiny the series combines some of the most popular genres: RPG, FPS, and MMO. By combining the aspects of player progression, intense first-person action, and the ability to play not just with friends but strangers the world wide, Destiny is an addictive experience to engage in.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Brian’s 50K Novel (Chapter 15)

Chapter 15

“Oh, come now. Show a little excitement! It’s not every day that some of our best and brightest get promoted to this esteemed crew. Or should I say, demoted? I suppose it’s based on your perspective. But can I just say how excited I am that I’ve got some fresh meat down here?”

The sing-songy cadence of unknown individual rang out in the large hall, echoing far longer than seemed appropriate. Atharin rubbed his eyes, trying to regain his sense of self and the space around him. He looked up to see who the voice belonged to.

In front of him, not ten feet from his where he lay, stood a rather tall and lanky individual. The voice was higher pitched, with an almost airy whisper quality to it. The person wore what appeared to be a bronze mask that concealed their entire face, featuring a far exaggerated expression of a person screaming or howling. Just behind the mask, Atharin could see inky-black hair flowing loosely behind the person, moving and swaying gently behind them, almost as if it were alive. The person wore a fitted leather suit, made up of three pieces, with the collar buttoned up and sealed with a bright red bow tie. The whole ensemble was black, causing the hair to almost blend in with the clothing. The only other color the person wore were red leather gloves and polished, red boots.

The person looked almost cartoony, clownish, and not real. The person made a motion with their hands and made a seating movement, suspending themselves in mid air. The man continued to speak, at this point more to himself than anyone else.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Brian’s 50K Novel (Chapter 14)

Chapter 14

Atharin and his party were marched down a long flight of stairs that winded around and around in a circle, for what felt like several hundred feet into the ground. The base was already plenty deep to begin with, and to Atharin’s knowledge, did not go further down beyond the prisons. However, they had been walking in silence for several minutes, swiftly followed by the five armed figures who headed up the back of the pack.

Atharin thought of reaching for his earpiece to communicate with Quiploth, Vlad, and Sefrin, perhaps ask them what was going on. But he thought better of it, not wanting to incite punishment from the already blade-happy executioners that were order to slay them on an unknown amount of triggers.

After a few more rotations down the large staircase, the walls opened up into a large hall, much larger than anything near the surface. Doors lined the walls, numbering in the dozens. At the end of the hall, large double doors that stretched from the floor up to the ceiling bared some unknown room beyond.

The angry man that the party had been instructed to follow went to one of the doors and reached into a small bag that was strapped to his belt. From within, he pulled a large scroll, seemingly too big for the bag. Atharin recognized it as a Bag of Holding, a popular item among adventures and treasure hunters alike, renowned for their ability to carry a large quantity of items in a pocket dimension that allowed for the storing and moving of items that one person couldn’t normally lug around by themselves.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Brian’s 50K Novel (Chapter 13)

Chapter 13

I crossed the threshold, slowly. The door swung forward silently, revealing a wall on the far side, not ten feet from where I now stood. The doorway opened up to the left and right: a choice.

I swiftly returned the door to its closed state and pressed myself against the left-hand wall. I could hear conversation to my left, coming from some three or four individuals. They seemed to be talking loudly, shooting the shit. I tried to focus on the words they were saying, hoping to get some information regarding what kind of people I was dealing with. Either way, this place was well lived in, and these people were very much alive.

“…don’t know what she wants all of these damn texts for! I thought we were ‘spossed to be thieves, not a bunch a religious wimps!”

Some chatter followed the statement, with some mutterings of general agreement mixed into the noise.

Thieves? Like, a thieves guild or band? So I’ve stumbled into some sort of secret base for a collection of miscreants. They’re probably cutthroat, so I doubt they’d show mercy it it came to an all out fight. Either way…I’ll have to watch what I say around them, lest the become suspicious.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: Brian’s 50K Novel (Chapter 12)

Chapter 12

It had taken me far longer to scour the remainder of this floor than I had anticipated, but after 3 days, I was finally able to secure the first basement to the Platinum Sliver, or Level 2, if we count topside as the first barrier.

Of great, personal pride was the completion of my map to this level, showing all of the secret doors, rooms, and locations of note. One way or another, I had managed to find all of the traps and disable them, as they now lie marked upon my map. Of particular annoyance was how many of them seemed to require me to face down more undead…

…clearly a favorite of this Klarkosh fellow.

Of particular note was the corpse of what appeared to be a previous Bone Priest set to guard these halls. It seems as though the previous one either met an unfortunate end when the ceiling collapsed on him, or a group of adventurers managed to successfully best him. I don’t know, unfortunately, whether they made it past the rest of the traps and creatures that defended this level, as the overwhelming number of corpses very well could have belong to that or any other adventuring party.

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