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Hack Review: Uncharted 4

So it’s been about a week since I finished Uncharted 4, but I wanted to let it sit as I worked my way through how I felt about it. I want to start off by getting the simple stuff out of the way: the game is great on pretty much every conceivable level, from level design and visuals to gameplay to voice acting. As with previous entries in the series, I routinely stopped just to marvel at my surroundings – or listen to them, or both – and it was just damn impressive.

That said, the story is a bit of a rough one. I don’t mean badly written, though, not at all. I mean because you know going into it that this is Nate’s last adventure – at least so says Naughty Dog, and I believe them – and so there’s an extra level of apprehension to everything because between that and the game’s title you find yourself constantly wondering how the titular thief is and what kind of end they have in mind. I won’t say it makes the game melancholy, as the trademark Uncharted wit and banter is strongly in evidence, but it does add a depth and maturity to the story, as well as an extra sense of risk any time a character is in peril.

Think it like watching the last season of a television show you like, or firing up Mass Effect 3, or how we will all feel picking up the last installment of A Song of Ice and Fire – you’re sad the story is ending, excited to see how it will happen, and more than a little scared because you know all bets are off and literally no character is safe. It’s a thrilling experience, done correctly, but an even more nerve-wracking one too.

I wasn’t precisely surprised how emotional I got at some points during the game – I love the characters and I’m an unabashed fan of the series, so you could say I’m invested – but I was pleased with how well it was handled. They didn’t wring melodrama out of it, and even when some of the characters made boneheaded decisions, I believed it emotionally even if it didn’t quite scan logically. More credit to the seasoned and awesome voice acting crew on this one too, for delivering top notch performances. The addition of a new character can really throw an existing dynamic, but it worked beautifully here. Sam doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a distraction, he feels like part of the crew, and the brother chemistry works beautifully in both the funny parts and the serious ones.

I read a review that commented on how you can see the influence of The Last of Us in some of the pacing and the emotional beats, and I’d agree with that. In particular I can see that in how this game takes time to slow down and explore its environments a bit more, to reward you for taking different paths and trying dialogue options. (Seriously, when you have a chance to explore a house – Nate’s or otherwise – then TAKE IT. Lots of neat little things to pick up for character and backstory.) It’s not the first Uncharted game where I was tempted to go back and replay levels to look for stuff, but it was the first time I would do it for story and exploration more than just picking up missed collectibles.

As for the gameplay and set pieces, well, it’s Uncharted. You know what you’re getting, and you get it here like you have in all the others – crazy chases (the mud flats is an insanely fun level in particular), amazing and also exploding/collapsing environments you have to race out of in cinematic fashion, cool Indiana Jones puzzles to figure out, the works. Combat is jazzed up nicely, with good melee and slick shooting, though I will tell you the enemies are no joke this time around – stealth is much more of an option and I suggest you take it, as even on “normal” the enemies are lethal shots and good at flanking and using grenades and other tricks to flush you out and take you down.

And two words of pure joy: GRAPPLING HOOK!

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Now, I’ve heard some folks say that Uncharted 4 felt a little tired in the sense that these amazing action scenes and set pieces are expected by now, which makes them predictable instead of the flat out craziness off the first few games. I can see that point, but I don’t believe the predictability detracts from their excellence in execution. And more than a few of those moments had me scrambling and laughing and saying “holy sh-t!” so I think they pulled them off.

There was also a somewhat controversial decision to not include a particular type of plot element in this installment, which has been found in every other Uncharted game (to greater or lesser degree). I will admit I was mildly disappointed when I realized they weren’t going to go in that direction, if only because I like those sorts of stories and felt they had a good setup here (and did it well in the past), but I also recognize that it might have been one ingredient too many in an already packed story. And given that it was the final installment and plenty of personal and emotional stuff going on with Nate and his family – adopted, married, or actual – it was probably best not to muddy the water any further. I salute their restraint, though I still would have loved to see what they would have done differently if the story wasn’t so big already …

Still without going into spoilers, I will say that the very, very end of the game – the Epilogue, in fact – was a total surprise, in the best sort of way. And definitely a spiritual descendant of The Last of Us, which you’ll understand when you see it. I wasn’t expecting an epilogue in general, and I especially wasn’t expecting the one I got, so I will say that it worked particularly well in those respects. It wasn’t how I expected Uncharted to conclude, or at least Nate’s story, and I think some people might have felt it was a bit underwhelming or anticlimactic, especially given the franchise’s action-packed history.

Not me, though. I liked the quiet meditation of it – when you get to it, EXPLORE. EVERYTHING. – and really enjoyed that they let me take my time to process it. No gimmicks, no cheap jumps or gotcha moments, just … an ending. Maybe not the one we were expecting, no. But perhaps the one we should have been.

Bravo, Uncharted. You earned a great exit, and you got one.

Badass Larp Talk #25: Play the Game You’re At

Have you ever showed up at a baseball game and wondered why no one wanted to toss a football around? Tried to enter your ferret in the Miss Teen USA pageant? Or offered to throw down at a Street Fighter V  tournament using your sick Magic: The Gathering deck? Of course not! All of those are ridiculous examples, right?

Except that’s sometimes exactly what happens when people come to larp.

Before I get into it, let me just say that I don’t normally pull the veteran card when it comes to larp. For one thing, logging a long time in a hobby doesn’t automatically make me better at or more insightful with it than someone else. For another, like any art form, larp needs youth and fresh perspectives as much as it needs the proverbial age and guile, so discounting people for having less experience is a fool’s errand. So I’m reluctant to make it a factor as a rule, and yet in this instance I feel that time logged actually has merit. So if you’ll pardon me, here we go.

I’ve been larping for 23 years now, not as long as some of course, but long enough to have seen trends come and go and as well as observe all kinds of play styles, game setups, and group configurations. I’ve done everything from homebrew parlor larps to massive networked boffer larps to Jeep and American freeform games. I’ve been a player and game runner and a rule designer and participated in all kinds of stories across a couple dozen genres. And let me tell you, sooner or later the same person shows up:

A player who attends one game, but tries to make it into another.

I’ve seen this in pretty much every venue and genre you can imagine over the years. There are always players who feel that the game and its setting should bend to what they want to play, rather than trying to create characters that work in the world they’re presented. I addressed some of these when I talked about problem players a while back, but it’s worth mentioning that players who want to bend the game can have very different motivations, which means that understanding them and how to approach them

The Commanding Cosplayer
This is a player who has a really cool cosplay, and is less about larping in the setting offered than finding another place to wear it between conventions. The game setting is near enough to the original cosplay source that they feel confident wearing it there, because “close enough,” right? Often they will make a nominal effort at changing some superficial elements, like having a different name than the character, but otherwise they don’t want to change more than they absolutely must, since the costume is what matters. Note that this can apply to people who have excellent historical costumes as easily as cosplayers who base their looks on fiction – I’ve seen Revolutionary War soldiers try to play at fantasy larps in full kit or period-perfect 1920s gangsters arrive at a cyberpunk bar. Having really great costumes can be a boon to any character or any larp, of course, but the Cosplayer is a problem because they want the game to shift to accommodate their aesthetic, rather than the other way around, and can wind up being visually distracting or outright disruptive to the game environment as a result.

The Fanfic Superfan
Sure, this game setting is great, but OMG! You know what it reminds them of! THEIR FAVORITE [BOOK/ANIME/MOVIE/TV SHOW/COMIC SERIES]!!!!111oneoneone This player compares the game to their beloved inspiration whenever possible and immediately tries to figure out how to shoehorn in terminology, backstory, characters, world concepts, or other elements from this source, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea. These are the players who try to turn your local fantasy larp into straight up Game of Thrones, who want to make a Requiem game into a live-action Vampire Diaries fanfic, or can’t seem to so much as see a wand in a setting without endlessly equating everything to Harry Potter. Now, every game has inspirational material behind it and that’s great, but the trouble is that the Fanfic Superfan just can’t let it go and embrace what’s new about the game setting, which does both their inspiration and the larp a disservice.

The Exchange Student
This player brings in a character from another game that they love and want to keep playing, regardless of whether or not the concept really fits the game they’re arriving at now.  Rather than change their backstory or other core concepts, they try to bring their original character elements into the game even if it doesn’t suit the world as presented. An example would be a player who tries to bring a vampire character from a homebrew setting into a Masquerade game, but refuses to use the clans and Disciplines of the new setting, instead trying to get their original clan and powers approved instead. Speaking as someone who’s played variations on the same base character off and on for 16 years now, believe me I understand – but the difference between me and an Exchange Student is that I always reshape and reinterpret him to fit the game world, instead of assuming I can walk in as the same person with the same backstory and capabilities regardless of setting.

The Backseat Designer
This type of player can be a little more subtle than some of the other types, but winds up being far more disruptive if their behavior is not caught early. Simply put, the Backseat Designer thinks they know better than the game runners when it comes to a game’s rules or setting or both, and therefore feels free to introduce their own elements instead. Sometimes they can’t help but comparing the game to some fabled game of their past, and constantly try to reinvent this one until it’s a copy of that one, or it might just be that they can’t help tinkering with what they see. This might be making up an important historical event that never happened in the official game timeline, or it might be choosing to ignore a rule they don’t like (or impose one of their own design instead), but whatever form it takes, the Backseat Designer sees no problem in changing the structure of the game in order to make it what they feel would be “better.” Naturally, while larp is a collaborative exercise, changing major elements like rules or important world history without consulting the game runners is a reciper for confusion at the very least, and serious player discord and event problems at worst.

The Troll
It’s pretty rare in my experience, but sometimes people come with a concept they know doesn’t fit for no other reason than just to mess with the game/see how much game-breaking they can get away with before they get tossed or the game grinds to a halt. The trouble is that a troll can appear to be one of the other types, but while those players generally aren’t trying to deliberately create trouble – they might just be a little confused about the setting, their character, or both – the troll is just there to be as disruptive as possible. Needless to say, if it becomes clear that a player is simply playing a character who doesn’t fit in order to mess with the game, it’s best to toss them out as quickly as possible, and if necessary retcon their actions if they ruined play for others. Giving a supposedly repentant troll a second chance is up to individual game runners, of course, but it is  worth remembering that other players who don’t make such selfish and disruptive decisions are worth giving priority.

So What’s to Be Done?

As evidenced above, there are a lot of motivations that might cause players to try to bend a game to suit their needs rather than adapting their characters to the world they’re offered. Regardless of why they do it, though, it’s important to recognize that this is not acceptable behavior – while larp is a collaborative effort, it is still important to respect the  role of the game designers and the vision they have for the kind of game they want. Some may not care if players freely add or change elements, but many do, and unless a player has been given specific permission to make changes or bring in characters who don’t quite fit the normal setting parameters, they should work with what they’re given rather than spend energy trying to make it into something else.

This may sound harsh, but at its heart it’s actually advice with the best interests of everyone at the game in mind. For instance, if a game designer announces a new larp set in a four-color superheroic world of her own creation, where the players are going to portray old school straightforward superheroes, attending that game is an agreement on the part of the players to take part in that world. Yes, the game designer needs to make it clear what kind of game she’s putting on – if only so the players don’t make inappropriate characters by mistake – but she should not have to then further defend it from players who want to play a different game and so try to make hers into what suits them.

Sure, a player may wish he could have a darker, more modern superhero character. He might think that modeling his character on Rorschach from Watchmen would be the coolest thing ever, or that it would be great to have Infinite Crisis have occurred in this world, or wish he could bring in his wonderful Dark Knight cosplay outfit based on Batman’s iconic battlesuit in The Dark Knight Returns. He might want to have time control as a power, and have a whole rule set worked out for it, even though it’s not on the regular powers list for this game. All of these might be great elements … but not for this game.

This game is not about those things, and trying to make it so is not conductive to group play.  

Let me be clear – it’s OK to ask game runners questions, or even offer suggestions. Nobody is saying otherwise! However, if the game runners decline to make changes a player desires, it’s the responsibility of that player to accept such a decision and either play the game as presented or leave and find a game that better suits their needs. After all, one of the wonderful parts of being involved in this golden age of larp we have going right now is that there’s certainly no shortage of alternative games available if one doesn’t suit you. Or, for that matter, no shortage of players who’ll likely be interested if you start your own!

But if you go to a game, don’t try to make it something it’s not, or judge it for not meeting expectations it was never intended to fulfill in the first place. Instead, embrace the world and the system you’re offered for what they are, because that’s the vision the designers have in mind. It’ll be less stress and more fun for everyone that way.

 

The Ghosts of New Year’s Eve

I see more ghosts
on New Year’s Eve
than through
all of Halloween.

All Hallow’s Eve
is like a tourist town,
one the living
invade once a year.

The dead enjoy
the attention, sure,
but soon they wish
we’d go away.

No, New Year’s Eve
is far worse haunted,
because they gather
around the lights

and across the gap
of tears and sighs
they watch us plan,
and vow, and live.

You can feel them
best at midnight,
if you try, if you listen –
mouthing our promises,

sad and hungry eyes
reflecting the cycle
of hopes and regrets,
seeing all the mistakes

they would gladly make
again, if only.
Just…
If.

Yes, the dead are close
on New Year’s Eve.
So as you toast, count
the faces in the glass,

and if you see
some you’ve lost,
don’t be sad, or afraid –
just raise your glass

and plan,
and vow,
and live.

Badass Larp Talk #24: What You Pay to Play

It’s an often overlooked game design factor, but truly one of the most important things a larp runner needs to decide on are what the barriers of entry to their game will be like. Or to put it another way, what sort of limits and requirements will they impose on their player base in the name of the game? For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming the game is at least semi-public – entirely private, invitation-only games are a different sort of entity entirely.

What follows is a list of some of the most common barriers of entry that a larp runner should consider when putting a new game together, or which might be worth occasionally re-examining as part of an ongoing game. It’s important to note that there are no “right” answers here, simply decisions and how they potentially impact a game. It’s a series of trade-offs, and ultimately the only correct answers are the ones that allow the game runner to create the experience they

For example, if a game runner wants to have a weekend larp event with $150 tickets that also requires extensive costuming, total immersion roleplay, and significant downtime preparation beforehand, that’s not necessarily “elitist” or “exclusionary” – it’s simply her prerogative for crafting the sort of game she wants. She’s accepting that with those barriers in place she’s going to have a small, dedicated player group in return for delivering an incredibly immersive and detailed experience.

By the same token, a game runner who hosts free bi-weekly games with minimal costuming and roleplay requirements isn’t necessarily creating a “weaker” game – he might simply not be interested in turning people away and just want to run a game for a big, rotating cast. If that’s the experience he’s shooting for, then great!

With that in mind, here are the barriers any larp runner should consider

Money: Sticker Shock 
The most obvious barrier to entry is direct cost. A free game potentially attracts anyone who’s even a little curious about what game might be like, while a game that costs $80 or more per session is likely to cut out a lot of low-income players – many high school and college students, as well as fixed income or minimum wage earners – which definitely changes your player base. While the upside of having an expensive game is that it naturally also tends to attract players with more disposable income, which in turn often leads to higher costuming, prop, and makeup standards for the player base, as players who can afford a more expensive session tend to have the money to splash out on fancy gear as well.

The downside to a high cost barrier, of course, is that it simply rules out a lot of the larp demographic right off the bat, and may also force out existing players who suffer a financial setback later on.  On the other hand, free or low-cost games cast a wide net, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on the local player base.

Time: It’s Money Too
Another barrier of entry is time investment, both in terms of session frequency, session length, and any downtime needs as well. A game that’s played for a few hours one night every other month and requires minimal downtime participation is a lot more accessible to working parents and busy professionals, for example, while a monthly game that requires a full weekend (like many boffer larps) and/or has extensive downtime roleplay demands is going to naturally cater to students, couples without children, and other players with more free time on their hands. Games that demand a lot of time investment, whether at session or in downtime or both, do tend to encourage in-depth roleplaying and backstory creation if only due to the sheer amount of time players spend playing and developing their characters. By contrast, a lower barrier makes it easier for players to stay involved at all levels of involvement.

The downside, of course, is that players who can’t invest so much time either feel left out o the important action, or are actually relegated to second-class characters simply because they cannot follow every forum discussion or Facebook post. In an age when even modest larps spawn multiple Facebook groups, private messaging threads, and official forum posts to follow, this barrier should not to be underestimated!

Costuming: You Must Be This Rad to Ride this Ride
Time and money are both important barriers to consider, but another very important one is the costuming barrier. (To save space, for the purposes of this article “costuming” is being defined as the overall use of costumes, makeup, and props to portray a character.) This is not necessarily linked to the ticket price of a game, though it certainly can be, as even games with “cheap” tickets become considerably less affordable if the costume barrier is set high. On its own, though, it’s what standards a player is expected to uphold in terms of appearing to be part of the game world on just a purely visual level. A high standard helps create an incredibly immersive experience for everyone, and can be crucial for creating an intense roleplaying environment and keeping people in character. By contrast, a low barrier encourages new and casual players, as well as requires far less setup and prep to make players ready to start0.

Costuming standards are an extremely sensitive barrier in the larp world, however, as there’s often a thin line between expecting players to meet certain standards and having garb Nazis shaming players for not being up to snuff. Few things drive off new and potential players than feeling like they’re being mocked or excluded just because they don’t have the coolest costume on site, and even veteran players can get into destructive “cooler than thou” cycles over what is “acceptable” costuming.

No matter where the barrier is set here, game runners should watch carefully for signs of costume policing, garb shaming, or makeup snobbery and stamp them out whenever possible. If a player isn’t meeting the game’s requirements, mocking them never helps – but offering advice and assistance just might earn a dedicated player for years to come.

Roleplaying: Who Do You Think You Are?
How important is it for players to stay in character? How seriously is roleplaying to be taken? How immersive is the experience going to be? Simple questions, but deceptively challenging ones. Most games have a rule about staying in character, of course, aside from perhaps a designated out of character zone or to (briefly) address rules or safety concerns. That’s the absolute minimum barrier, though, and most games unofficially add levels to this requirement over time – not just discouraging players dropping character, but actively expecting them to roleplay in certain ways such as playing to fail, taking defeat seriously, respecting in-game authorities, etc. A high barrier insists on serious, in-depth roleplaying, while a low one doesn’t mind if players are a bit more casual or their characters less fully-realized.

Games with a high standard for roleplaying expectations can be as intimidating as they are engaging, however, and if they don’t take care to offer advice and assistance to players who aren’t used to such acting requirements they’re bound to turn away a lot of potential players who simply don’t feel good enough to play. By the same token, a game with a low standard can be frustrating for players who enjoy more in-depth roleplay if they feel too many other characters just aren’t “serious” or that their scenes are constantly interrupted with out of game chatter.

Lore: There Will Be A Test
Another less commonly considered barrier of entry is what might be called a “lore requirement” – how much in-game knowledge you expect players to have in order to function properly and roleplay in the game world. Games with a high lore barrier tend to have complex world histories and years of accumulated play experiences that reward players with immersive environments and in-depth environments for engaging with their stories, while games with a low lore barrier are much more welcoming to new and casual players, requiring far less explanation and setup for players to get up and running. Consider how much world lore you need to absorb to properly play a highly political Game of Thrones larp, for example, versus how much you need to play neophyte mortal vampire hunters in a World of Darkness game.

The downside to a low lore requirement is that it can feel a little too “episodic” at times – if the game doesn’t acquire much history and backstory as it goes it can seem like a sitcom where everything resets between stories. On the other hand, games with a high lore barrier can be seriously intimidating, like trying to start in the middle of the fourth book in a nine book cycle or picking up a comic series with forty years of continuity references behind it.

Moving the Bar
Last but not certainly not least, changing existing barriers is subject worth mentioning is changing barriers down the line, because if it’s not handled right it can lead to serious player discontent. Raising a barrier presents the most obvious problems, of course – if a game’s ticket price jumps from $35 to $65 there’s likely to be a lot of anger and dismay, for example. Even if players understand the necessity of an increase, it may not prevent some players from needing to drop out due to lack of funds. Likewise, if elf players are used to just wearing ear tips to signal their species, telling them that they now need to do full wigs, face paint, and French accents is likely to call up a storm of complaints.

Lowering barriers may not seem like quite as much of a problem, but it carries difficulties of its own, especially if the existing player base feels like the game is being “watered down” or that their investment in the game is being devalued. After all, if playing an elder vampire used to require writing a 10 page backstory, and now it requires a single page, the players who went through that effort are going to be justifiably upset – and may take it out on newer players who didn’t have a say in the change.

When raising or lowering a barrier, there are a few things that can be done to make the process easier on everyone. The first is to be as upfront and transparent about the change as possible – let players know what is happening and why, and be ready to answer questions and address concerns. The second is to give players lead time when making a change – while this isn’t always possible, the more time in advance the players have to process the change, the less likely it is to upset them or even cause them to leave the game.

Lastly, it’s usually worth considering compensating players who met the original barrier, especially if it’s now being lowered. Going back to the elder vampire example, giving players of existing elders who wrote the 10 page backstories some perks or advantages is certainly fair, and a good way to show that their effort was appreciated even as the new standard is being implemented. Even a small gesture can go a long way to mollifying players, which is worth it to keep the game going and fun for everyone.

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

In Defense of Railroading Your Players

I never thought I’d say this, but sometimes it’s good to have a story on rails.

In case you might have missed it, this past week’s release of The Order: 1886 has generated a fair amount of controversy. Two of the most common objections are regarding the game’s duration, as well as the fact that it is a story “on rails” as opposed to a sandbox world of open exploration. The game’s developer, Ready At Dawn, even came out to respond to critics on the first charge, defending the game’s shorter than average runtime as being what the story required.

And I have to say, I agree. I think both objections are junk.

Let me preface my defense with a caveat – I am playing, but have not yet finished The Order, mostly due to a lot of deadlines floating around and also a deliberate decision to savor it a bit and play it in small pieces. To which some more cynical reviewers would probably respond by saying that if I played it but haven’t finished it, I must not have done more than sit through the opening credits. There has been serious howling about the fact that the game runs around 10 hours, and how this constitutes a “ripoff” for a game costing $60. A ripoff? Really? Let’s do some simple math.

$60 for 10 hours of entertainment is $6/hour.
$12 for 2 hours of entertainment (going rate for a movie ticket, not including snacks or 3D funny business) is $6/hour.

So, in effect, you are paying about the same for the game experience as you would for a theatrical movie experience. (Except, you know, it’s longer, interactive, and you don’t have to deal with the meathead in the row in front of you texting “omg channing tatum looks like legolas! more like jupiter GAYscending lol #YOLO” the entire time.) Where is the ripoff in that, exactly? Yet longer playtime is consistently touted as a good thing, with games bragging about 40 or 60 or even the occasional insane 100+ hours of playtime. Don’t get me wrong, I get that having a ton of time to bash around in a game world can be a lot of fun. I did every side mission in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series because I loved those worlds and those characters and wanted to squeeze as much out of them as I could.

But there’s also the question of how much of a game’s playtime is gripping story or involving action (or both), and how much of it is simply busywork? I consider Mass Effect 2 one of the finest games ever made, and yet I know my personal playtime was inflated by at least a couple of hours spent firing probes and collecting materials. I spent a lot of time playing watch_dogs, but only a fraction of that time was on the main story – the rest was all side missions, secondary objectives, and the odd collectible. A writing professor of mine once said “there is no greater tragedy than a novel that should have been a short story” and it’s a lesson I think the gaming industry – and its fans – need to remember. Adding playtime is only a good thing if it enhances enjoyment. Otherwise you’re just creating busywork, and unless it all ties in neatly and powerfully you might in fact actually hurt the story you’re trying to tell by throwing off its pacing and drowning it in distractions.

When I finished watch_dogs, in fact, I was left feeling like the sandbox nature of the game seriously harmed the story at the heart of the game. It’s supposed to a tightly-wound neo-noir tale of revenge, but giving the player a chance to drive all over (a very beautifully rendered) Chicago on a whim dilutes the essential drama and pacing of the story. It’s hard to take the unfolding events seriously when I get a plot update like “do this job or your nephew dies” but can cheerfully spend the next few hours driving around shooting gang members and participating in street racing with no impact at all on the main story. I felt like a terrible uncle, sure, but there was no penalty at all. A lack of urgency means a lack of tension, and a lack of tension means events feel flat or disjointed, and that makes a story that could have been a tight, compelling thriller wanders off into a series of weird, disconnected events.

To put it simply, if you try to take a 10 hour story and turn it into a 30 hour story, you’re not doing anyone any favors – not the creators, not the players, nobody.

Which is where the rails discussion comes in. One of the other major complaints about The Order is that “it’s on rails”, meaning that the player has no choice but to follow the path laid out for them by the developers. Or to put it another way, there is only one way to go through the story – the player cannot choose to go other places or do other things. Look, once again, there is no question that sandbox games can be totally awesome. I’ve played my share and loved them … when it suits the nature of the game. Having an entire world to explore and interact with can add an amazing feeling of freedom to a game, as well as fit in countless side activities to flesh out more of the setting (there’s that playtime bump again). But like a lot of design elements, opening a game up into a sandbox experience is a trade off – when players can go anywhere on the map, you lose the tighter narrative control that comes with putting a story “on rails.”

I mean, this is obvious from the textures and assets elements on up. If The Order was a sandbox game, you’d have to detail a huge playable area of London (among other locales), as well as fill it with reasons to go out exploring. That’s a ton of content that isn’t necessarily focused on or related to the main story. Sure, that trade-off is worth it to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only viable way to approach the design. I loved bombing around Revolutionary Paris in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and it was absolutely gorgeous and stacked to the gills with side content, but that doesn’t mean every game wants to invent several types of side missions, collectibles, and other activities just to justify their open world experience.

There’s also the matter that the best games “on rails” make those rails as invisible as possible – you follow the story as it’s laid out because it’s a fun, compelling plot. The Last of Us is absolutely on rails in the strictest possible sense, and it’s still one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced in gaming. I never once bemoaned the lack of an open world map, because it meant that the levels and encounters I was going through were carefully calculated for maximum narrative and gameplay impact – something you can’t do nearly as neatly or cleanly in a sandbox environment. There are great sandbox games, and great games on rails, but they are distinct styles of telling a story, and we need to stop stigmatizing one simply because it tends to have shorter playtimes. Especially considering how much complaining I hear about how pointless a lot of side content feels in so-called longer games – it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t approach to criticism.

As a lifelong tabletop gamer and larper, believe me when I say that my first response to the notion that a game is “on rails” is usually to recoil – one of the things I enjoy most about playing rpgs in those formats is the fact that there’s room for tremendous player creativity. Even so, I also recognize that some types of experiences – especially short convention games or other one shot formats – are best put on some kind of rails, because otherwise you have a bunch of players puttering around for a few hours hoping to bump into a cool plot. Sometimes putting players on track is not only useful, but necessary to convey the story you want, as well as lead them to certain carefully crafted and utterly unforgettable moments.

It’s ludicrous and more than a little confusing to try to say games like The Order don’t measure up because they aren’t meeting some absurd, arbitrary standards of playtime and player freedom. That’s finding a game lacking because it’s not the game you thought it should be, which is always going to be an impossible standard. If you want to criticize what is there, great – and there have been reviews that focused on what they saw as weaknesses in the finished product. That’s cool, and necessary. We just need to approach a game on its own merits, instead of applying consumer metrics that area increasingly pushing games to adopt sandbox models and multiplayer elements whether they make any sense or not, just to keep playtimes up to what gamers consider “acceptable” levels.

In the end, I’d rather have a tightly crafted 10 hour story than a bloated 30 hour mess.
But it seems like I’m more in the minority with every release.

Player’s Toolbox: The Three-Sentence Character

Justin speaks wisdom, as usual. Why write a book most people will never read when you can do so much more in three bold sentences?

Justin Achilli

I’ve spent many years of my career expanding characters into prose-length works, establishing elaborate backgrounds for them and giving them extensive histories. Because those books are intended for commercial sale, those characters are designed to have broad appeal. Somewhere in those 2,500-4,000 words is a hook almost anyone can use in a chronicle. Whether your setting involves attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or a vampire coup in Chicago, you should be able to grab a character published for your game of choice, find an engaging hook, and fit it into your campaign. It might require a little fine-tuning, but that’s okay – fine-tuning is less cumbersome than whole-cloth world- and character-building, and that’s what published source material is all about. You trade a couple bucks and save several hours of campaign engineering. As well, hobby games draw on a variety of loquacious literary traditions, so it’s…

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Hack Review: Absentia

So this movie has been in my queue for over a year, based on strong recommendations by the terrible minds behind the wonderful site Final Girl Support Group, and I finally got around to watching it. Short version? Don’t wait as long as I did, folks.

The premise is simple: A woman whose husband has been missing for seven years is about to have him declared dead (“in absentia”), and her prodigal younger sister shows up to help her move on with her life. A lot of creeping weirdness ensues, and this whole disappearance angle might not be exactly what you think.

The movie was shot on a very modest budget but wisely uses that to its advantage for the most part, employing low-key practical effects and the power of suggestion as well as a smart score to sell the scares and the growing sense of unease (and unreality). When they do employ some CG, it’s kept to flashes and corner-of-your-eye moments for the most part, and used well in that regard.

The leads are convincing – no schlocky B-movie stuff going on here – as is the supporting cast. The lone exception is Gum-Chewing Cop, who evidently studied at the Caruso School of Police Cliches and is visibly Acting! when he’s onscreen. But the movie easily survives that little disruption and the occasional bit of stilted dialogue, with the actors selling even the weaker lines throughout the film. If they’d cut one line about atoms – you’ll know it when you hear it – I don’t think I would have outright winced at a single bit of dialogue. Which is not something you say for every low budget film.

Absentia is a thoughtful, meditative sort of movie on the whole. While there are some (very good) jumps and scares, none of them are cheap stingers, and for the most part it’s a slow burn sort of film. If you’re looking for quick pacing and escalation to an over the top sort of finale, this one isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a lingering, unsettling sort of experience, I highly recommend it.

And good luck using a pedestrian tunnel for a long, long time after this movie.

Gamer Bonus: This is pretty much what the new World of Darkness is like, I think. Profoundly disturbing horrors in the midst of utterly mundane surroundings.

Badass Larp Talk #23: 5 Ways to Give Better Game Feedback

One of the amazing things about larp is that players are often in direct contact with the people responsible for the rules of the game, not to mention the setting. Even if you’re playing with an established system like Mind’s Eye Theatre or Cthulhu Live, many games still have a thriving culture of house rules and homebrew errata. Which means that the average player potentially has much more input into the rules for the game than in any other form of gaming, especially in the social media age where many game designers are friends with their players on places like Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, as Uncle Ben – the comic one, not the rice one – once said, with great power comes great responsibility. And frankly, in my experience a lot of gamers come across as a bit insensitive when giving rules feedback and proposing system changes, which can make the experience a lot less pleasant for everyone. So in the interest of helping players and designers alike, here are some quick guidelines to giving great larp rules feedback:

1 – Be Polite! (Seriously!)
Not because game designers and event runners are delicate flowers, but because if you want them to take your input seriously, you need to talk to them like they’re human beings. Before you click send, look over what you’ve written and make sure it isn’t insulting or obnoxious. And no, comments like “I’m just being honest” don’t justify being brutal in your critique. I’ve been edited by professionals for years, and I’ve had manuscripts absolutely savaged by editors who nevertheless were never any less than friendly and polite while they took my work apart down to the molecular level.

Gut Check: Would I be mad if I got this from someone else? Is my tone clear and respectful?

2 – Is It Really Better, Or Just Better For You?
One of the most common types of game feedback is what might generously be called “innocently self-serving” – players who claim to be proposing changes that will make the game better for everyone, but which would in practice benefit the player (and sometimes their friends) more than anything else. To be fair, a lot of times players don’t even realize this is what they’re doing, and that’s OK. Their perspective is based on their character, after all, so even well-intentioned players may put forward suggestions that are actually highly self-serving without realizing it. All the same, before you write in with a rules change, stop and as yourself if it’s something the game needs, or just something you need.

Gut Check: How much does the game as a whole benefit from this suggestion?

3 – Is It A Necessary Change?
I’m not saying little things don’t matter – most games are really a collection of little things, when you think about it – but it’s important to take a step back and think about how necessary your proposed change really is for the game. Is it a problem that’s seriously impacting gameplay in a major way? Or is it a minor irritation or small grace note that you just want to see tweaked? If it’s not a huge problem, it’s OK to say that up front – acknowledging that it’s not a major concern often makes it more likely to be considered, if only because you’re not claiming it

Gut Check: How high priority is this? Have I addressed that in my comments?

4 – Know the Right Time & Place
As mentioned previously, a lot of game designers and event runners are in direct contact with their player base on a daily basis, whether it’s through official game forums, Facebook pages, personal blogs, or other forms of social media. That’s good in a lot of ways, but it’s important to remember that game designers need time away from game too. One big cause of designer fatigue I’ve seen is when designers can’t seem to get away from the game. You start seeing it when posts on their personal Facebook that have nothing to do with game still get a lot of players responding with game terms and jokes, for example, or when the designer is out having drinks at a bar and people keep bringing up game when they are trying to talk about other topics, that sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with using the game as a starting point for a friendship, but if you’re in someone’s personal zone, it’s probably also welcome to talk about other things too. And if a designer has asked to keep game comments to certain times and places, respect that!

Gut Check: Is this a good time to bring this up? Is this the right place to do so?

5 – Accept That You Can Have A Great Idea (And It Still Might Not Be What They Want)
This is a tough one, make no mistake. Sometimes you might have what feels like an absolutely killer idea – for a new rule, a new power, a new setting element, whatever – and you think it will add a ton to the game as a whole. You might even tell other players about it and find they react similarly, and so you send it to the designer and hang back waiting for it to get approved. And then the word comes down that they’re not going to use it. You don’t know what to do – all you can see is how wonderful and perfect the idea is, and how good it would be for the game. So why won’t they use it?

There are a number of possible answers: Maybe they already have something similar in mind they just haven’t used yet. Maybe it actually conflicts with an upcoming plot development. And maybe, just maybe they like it as much as you do … but it still doesn’t fit what they want for their game. Because it is still their game, after all. Look at it this way – if you were in a band, you probably wouldn’t make changes to your songs, even if the person suggesting it knew something about music and was a really big fan. By the same token, it’s easy to forget that a game designer is an artist too, and might like their game the way it is just because it’s how they want it. And that’s their right.

Gut Check: Am I OK with the notion that this idea might not be used?

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Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates! 

Hardcore Truth: How Fans Ruin Their Own Fun

Don’t be a hardcore fan, be a big one.

Why not? Hardcore fans almost always end up ruining their enjoyment of what they profess to adore, while “merely” big fans go on their merry way, still finding new things to enjoy and explore about what they love for years at a time. Today’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer release has given me ample evidence of this notion, because while we big fans of Star Wars are debating the pros and cons of what we’ve seen (and what’s been left out), the hardcore fan response has been pretty much the same. It’s either a rapturous, no-room-for-discussion “IT IS STAR WARS SO IT WILL BE AMAZING ALL WHO DOUBT IT ARE WRONG”, or more often a close-minded rejection of the very notion that anything could possibly be as good as the sainted Holy Trinity, usually accompanied by some tired lens flare jokes and the obligatory “stop ruining my childhood” screed. Which highlights an important difference in how you, as a fan, approach what you love:

Being a big fan is a statement of enjoyment; being a hardcore one is a statement of identity.

The difference, as any psychologist will tell you, is pretty immense. If you enjoy something, but it doesn’t define how you see yourself as an individual, then that enjoyment is capable of expanding and changing over time as you find new examples of what you like and new ways to enjoy it. It doesn’t mean you automatically find every new thing in your fandom wonderful and great – I’m a big fan of Star Wars, for example, and still didn’t enjoy all the movies, let alone all the novels, games, and other tie-ins – but you are able to put the negative experiences in perspective with the positive ones.

To put it another way, I’m a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, for example, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admit when they’ve played a bad game (or season), or that I’ve decided the 1997 team was the single best Eagles team ever+ and that no current or future Eagles team could possibly be better. A big fan takes it as it comes, enjoying some things and not others, but always with an overall appreciation of what they love in mind. They recognize that Godfather III doesn’t “ruin” Godfather I & II, and that when you think about it, the very notion that it could is pretty absurd.

By contrast, when you’re hardcore to the point that you tag something as being part of your identity, whether it’s your Star Wars fandom or your love of a sports team or whatever, you become very resistant to the idea of anything about that subject changing. Because changing it now changes you, and as a rule, human beings are highly resistant to making alterations to our sense of identity. So a hardcore fan inevitably draws inward, becoming either fanatically positive about their fandom to the point of blindness and instant (often harsh) rebuke of the very notion that it could be in any way bad, or bitter and resentful about any new material to come after whatever arbitrary point they’ve decided was the “height” of what they love. They become gatekeepers, protecting “their” fandom from everyone they see as harmful to it, including other fans and even creators if they feel they have strayed from the “true” nature of the fandom.

As you can imagine, neither perspective is ultimately very conducive to continued enjoyment of what a fan claims to love, because either way you’re locked into a perspective that ultimately stifles your ability to appreciate the subject of your affection. You either won’t ever critique it and can’t accept the notion that others will, or you’ll ruthlessly critique every possible aspect of new material to the point where you’re incapable of enjoying any of it. Instead of a source of enjoyment in your life, your fandom becomes a subject to obsess over in a negative way, either because it requires you to block out and shut down any criticism you come across or because any news about it prompts a bitter tirade about how it’s been going downhill since whatever time you decided it had reached a suitable zenith.

No matter what, the hardcore fan always loses.

One particularly relevant case in point is the familiar “stop ruining my childhood” refrain that has been heard in a lot of fandoms but seems to hold a special place in the hearts of certain hardcore Star Wars fans. This is like complaining that, because they built a 7-11 where your own playground used to be, your cherished memories of playing in that park as a kid are now ruined forever. Stop and think about that a moment, because it’s both silly and a little terrifying to have that kind of view of your own identity, your own personal timeline.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to like that they built the 7-11, much less that Lucas inserted a bunch of pointless crap no one asked for in his classic films. As I said before, being a big fan doesn’t mean you can’t critique or respond negatively to things in your fandom, any more than you can’t feel a sense of loss to see something you cherished replaced by something coldly commercial. Those are perfectly normal and logical reactions, but they’re still placed within a context, a perspective – I don’t like that there’s a 7-11 there now, or that the re-releases now have pointlessly awful Jabba the Hutt CGI, but it won’t stop me from enjoying telling stories about playing in the park with my friends, or remembering all the many times I watched the original movies and had a blast.

What I’m saying is that if those sorts of things really do retroactively ruin your past – as in actually make you incapable of feeling any or all of the happiness you used to feel when you recollected those times from your past – you need to take a big step back and really separate your identity from your fandom. Because you’re clearly locked in a relationship with it that is bad for both of you. Seriously. Think about it.

Big fans? Always. Let’s spread our love of Star Wars – or Game of Thrones, or Doctor Who, or whatever else – to others and enjoy the ups and downs of following a creative property over the years.

Hardcore fans, though? Let’s let that notion go.

+Said no one ever, including me, so calm down everyone.

Hack Review – Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

I am become Bro-shiva, destroyer of dudes.

OK, well, that’s probably putting a bit much of a spin on it. Especially considering how much I suck at multiplayer (more on that in a bit). But on the recommendation of a former student, I started playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare at midnight last night. And so far I’m having a hell of a lot of fun.

Understand, I’m not anything approaching a regular Call of Duty fan. Before last night, the last Call of Duty game I played was Call of Duty 2, which was released in 2005. So it’s been almost a decade since I played a game in this franchise – it was still about World War II when I left, to give a sense of perspective – and while I’m no stranger to FPS games, I generally prefer to play them on PC as opposed to a console. I’ve gotten used to console play over the last couple of years, but still find the mouse and keyboard a lot better for quick reactions. So I came very reluctantly to the decision to dive into Advanced Warfare, if only because while I thought it would be a nice spectacle on the PS4, I also thought I’d be spending most of my time lying down in a rapidly cooling puddle of blood as my poor controller skills got me killed. Repeatedly.

Suffice it to say that I’m very happy I changed my mind.

You see, I’m a military sci-fi fan. I’ve taught a course on the genre before. I read Starship Troopers several times a year, I go through the whole Old Man’s War series at least once annually, and regularly re-examine Ender’s Game. I love the breezy weirdness of Forever War and the boots in the mud grit of the Gaunt’s Ghosts books, the stark technology of Armor and the all-too-familiar modern media echoes of Embedded. And while it’s by no means the first game to mine near-future sci-fi for military purposes, it does it well and with enthusiasm. It’s far enough out there to be different and interesting, without going so far from the recognizable that it’s hard to feel a sense of visceral connection.

The writing, while investing heavily in some of the expected military tropes of the genre, is engaging when called for and knows better than to take itself entirely too seriously when it needs to be an action movie, which I appreciated. (It also doesn’t hurt that Private Mitchell is voiced by Troy Baker, who has so much character and pathos in his voice he could read half-finished Mad Libs and make them sound like the Gettysburg Address.) Kevin Spacey is exactly what you’d hope for in his role as President Frank Underwood Atlas CEO Jonathan Irons, bringing just the right amount of sly paternal affection to his megalomaniacal scheming. While I can see where some of the criticism of his character comes from, most of that stems from the lines he’s given as opposed to his performance; in his defense it always sounds like Spacey’s invested and enjoying himself, even when he’s given some over the top crazy ranting to do. I’ll take that over phoned-in celebrity voice work any time.

Here comes the caveat: I haven’t played the multiplayer. “But Pete! That’s what Call of Duty is all about!” comes the response from someone who apparently thinks yelling comments at a screen is better than typing them. All I can say is that multiplayer – especially PvP multiplayer – just isn’t a draw for me. I’ve never really been a huge fan of it in games, with the noted exception of the cheerfully addictive insanity of Team Fortress 2, and even if I was, recently a few rounds of PvP in Destiny taught me a valuable lesson:

I cannot compete with the Call of Duty generation.

Well, not on a console, anyway. Let it be known that I was so bad that I received my first-ever PS4 hate mail from a player on that first PvP team – out of our team score of 5325 points for the round, I’d managed to contribute a whole 170 points. (Not that this justifies sending a hate mail, because really, but I just wanted to emphasize that I was truly terrible.) Even though I improved to merely awful after a few rounds, I simply haven’t honed the fast-scoping, forever-headshotting, running-and-gunning reflexes of those who’ve been playing competitive multiplayer for hundreds on hundreds of hours. What’s more, I don’t really feel like putting in the time to catch up. I respect the talent and I’ve watched gameplay videos of pro Call of Duty players with real admiration for the skills on display, but it’s just not for me. So my apologies, but if you’re looking for a review of the multiplayer, this ain’t the place.

That said, hopefully it says something pretty strong about the game that I’m really enjoying it despite the fact that I’m ignoring the main reason a lot of players pick it up in the first place. I’m enjoying the story mode, as heretical as it might be, and while the price tag might be a little steep for most folks if that’s all they’re going to get out of it, for anyone who enjoys the story and some multiplayer action I’m pretty confident Advanced Warfare will deliver some solid entertainment bang for their buck.

Now if I could just figure out which stick controls the camera and which one controls the dude, I’d really be in business.

Hack out.

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