ModCubes – A new gaming aid

I was flipping through Kickstarter a few months back, and a project happened to catch my eye.  That project was titled Modcube – Part Tokens, Part Dice, Fully Modular.  I decided to back it, and tossed in roughly $60 for two sets of tokens and cubes, planning on getting the ones that were created for Warhammer 40k infantry and vehicles.  Fast forward a few months, and they arrived in the mail!  Excited, I eagerly dug into the package, and assembled my 16 cubes.  Each cube can hold 6 different tokens.  After careful planning (actually it was just me thinking “Oh this could work.”), I snapped my 16 cubes together.  I had cubes with numbers showing how many wounds were taken, cubes showing what was rolled on the vehicle damage table, cubes showing if the unit needed to take a leadership test, and many other various useful status effects.

As you may remember, I brought them in to the Montgomery Mall one Saturday, and let Jay and Chris use them in their game.  In the middle of the game, Jay commented on how useful they were, which I call a big plus.

I rather enjoy these cubes, and highly recommend them to others.  They’re lightweight, durable, and can be rolled just like a normal 6-sided die.  The cubes and the tokens come in an enormous amount of colors, so you can easily choose your favorite color, or mix-and-match to get multicolor cubes.  They are very easy to customize with your own combination of tokens.  As of this current writing, not only do they have tokens for 40k infantry and vehicles, but they also have tokens for Star Wars: X-Wing, Infinity, Malifaux, Star Wars: Armada, Warhammer 40k mysterious objectives, Warmachine/Hordes, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, and D&D Attack Wing, so there’s a wide range of tokens.  On the downside is the fact that the colors can rub off on your hands if you handle the tokens themselves too much (Mine got a tad bit smudged as I was assembling them, but they’re still readable).

To sum it up, I’d give them a solid 9/10.  They will be selling them to the general public sometime in November at their site, www.modcube.com, so keep checking there to get yours!

Accepting When to Quit a Game

So today I quit playing a game. A single player game no less. I just gave up. Not because the game was too difficult to be conquered (though for honesty’s sake I had just died for the fourth time) and not because the potential for the game wasn’t good. I quit because I wasn’t getting what I wanted from the game in pursuit of something the game wasn’t delivering enough of.

Let me back up and explain.

The game in question was No More Heroes, an old (2007) game for the Wii that I borrowed from a friend because I had heard amazing things about it. To be specific, the amazing things were in this article here about the ending of the game (needless to say, spoiler alert.) And I wanted to see that ending in context. I wanted to play the game that could not only insert such a dark, truthful moment into a video game where such things aren’t generally done, but also in such a clever and powerful way (for clarity without spoilers, the information is revealed in a fast forward which breaks the 4th wall and references previous moments within the game).

I wanted to experience that moment as it was meant to be.

And when I started the game, I loved it. After a quick tutorial I was hacking and slashing with ease, enjoying the relatively simple combat. Sure it was a bit repetitive, and yeah the level design was very closed, but this was a game that had story. This was a game that had clever cut scenes. And the game play was fun enough that a little repetition wasn’t going to distract me from that.

Then I fought the first boss. And it was hard. But not in the way it was supposed to be. It wasn’t hard because I had to figure out a long string of moves with timings and combos. It wasn’t hard because it required me to think strategically or do complicated maneuvers. It was hard because the boss could only be hurt at certain arbitrary times. Not because he was blocking. Not because he was using a special move that only activates once every thirty seconds. Not because he was just too damn fast He just…couldn’t be hurt because he couldn’t be.

But I beat him. It took a hot minute and it was frustrating, but I beat him. This opened up the open world aspect of the game which, when you really look at things isn’t all that open world. Yes, the world is open, and you can drive around it, but you can’t interact with much. You can’t do much at all in it except go from set place to set place. But that wasn’t why I was playing this game. I was playing it for that ending. That awesome, unexpected, extremely well done ending. And I was going to get to it.

Which took me to the second boss. And his guns. And while the guns were frustrating, they weren’t the most frustrating part of the boss fight. No, that honor goes to the same frustrating part of the first boss. He couldn’t be hit except during certain times and all other times he was invincible because…reasons.

Again I beat him. It was close, but I did it. Back to the limited open world. Back to the grind for cash before entering the next narrow hallway stage into the next boss fight which…you guessed it. Boss couldn’t be hit except during certain times. Oh, but I left some parts out. See, video games get harder as they progress. What did this new boss have?

A ranged attack which was unblockable (which, 2007 wii controls meant I was getting stuck behind pillars and not dodging too many of those. Then there was a variation of that move at about 50% health where she would launch a barrage of them. Enough of them to kill you. Which I found out the hard way a couple times. And once you got her down to 25% she had another attack which if she hit you would instantly kill you.

I died. A lot. Strong words were spoken. At one point I had to turn the system off and walk away.

But! But. I was determined. I was going to get to that ending. I was going to see it in context. I was going to experience the anticipation and earn my way to victory. Research on the internet told me that she was the most difficult boss in the game (for some reason) and that there were no exploits, you just had to be calm, patient, and hack away at her until she died while not dying yourself. It was going to be hard but I could beat her.

And I did. After about ten more tries I did it. I beat her. I shouted victory. I did a little dance. Then returned back to the limited open world, back to grinding for money, so that I could go back to another limited level, cut through a new slew of similar but slightly different enemies, to get to another boss who once again couldn’t be hit except when the game decided and who had another pair of unblockable attacks which took away half your health and got him down to 1% health on my fourth try only to die when I got stuck on a piece of terrain I couldn’t see because of the camera..

That was it. That was the straw. Because I realized something fighting that boss.

I didn’t care about the game play. It was repetitive, uninspired, and other games did it better. I love a good hack and slash but this neither had enough enemies to make it interesting, nor was it refined enough to handle more than four enemies even if they had included more. I didn’t care about the boss fights, because I want a boss who can’t be hit because they won’t let me, not because the game won’t. The only thing I cared about was getting to the end to see the video I’d already seen in full context as opposed to just a clip on a website.

This 42 minute clip saved me another six-ten hours.

And I got what I wanted. I didn’t have to fight through uninspired gameplay to do it. I just had to go watch a youtube video and see the other cut scenes that led to the story I had wanted to see all along.

At the end of all of this, it may sound like I’m going to say No More Heroes is a bad game. But it’s not. I’ve played far worse. I’ve powered through a lot worse. People love this game and I’m not here to tell them not to enjoy it. But getting to be an older gamer, I realize now, if I want to play a game for a specific reason and the game is not enjoyable to me in other ways…it’s probably time to stop. Save myself the frustration, the anger, and the time. I got what I wanted, and I didn’t have to hack and slash to do it. I just needed YouTube.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened to me in a game.

Catherine is a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find he has cheated on his girlfriend, though he doesn’t remember picking up the girl. The descriptions I had heard of the game seemed to point to it being a game where you had to navigate the careful thread of unraveling A. Where this girl came from and who she was while you B. Tried to save a relationship that you had accidentally compromised. The game has six possible endings based on the choices you make throughout the game and if that was all this would be an amazing game. But instead you get gameplay like this.

If you don’t feel like watching the video, I’ll fill you in. That is a puzzle game right there. But what the hell, you might be thinking. Didn’t I just describe the game above as a relationship navigator? Yes! It was! With a puzzle game in between because…it needed to be a game apparently. I really don’t know the reason because every trailer I saw for that game didn’t include that aspect of gameplay.

But that’s not even the best example I have of the plot trumps game play experience. The final example, and I think the best is a little game called Battleblock Theater.

Battleblock theater isn’t a bad game. In fact, if you like platformer collection games much like Super Meat Boy, or just platformers in general then it’s good. Repetitive, challenging, but good. But compared to the cutscenes…it’s just ok. The cutscenes, however, are amazing! In fact, I’m watching them right now just because they’re so funny.

But I never beat that game. Never will. With limited time and so many other games to play and other things to do, the game play just isn’t enough to keep me interested when I can just get the cutscenes by themselves.

So what am I trying to say here? At the end of the day I’m the type of gamer who wants a good story. And a good story used to be enough to keep me powering through game play I wasn’t enjoying just so I could get that story. But as I’ve grown and matured, I’ve come to accept that…sometimes I just don’t care. I don’t need to finish it. Same as how I don’t need to finish a book if I’m not enjoying it after fifteen pages, or don’t need to finish a movie if I’m bored after the same amount of time. There are other ways to get the information I need and the enjoyment I seek. And if it means being a quitter…well, as a former smoker sometimes you know quitting isn’t the worst thing in the world.

But if you’ve found yourself in the same situation, I’m here to tell you that you’re allowed to quit the games we borrow, sample, or *gasp* purchase. That it’s YOURS to do with as you please, and if you’re playing through something complaining the whole time “gods I hate this game,” it might be time that you just accepted…if I hate this so much why am I playing it? If the answer is anything except “because I want to play it,” then it’s time to quit. And if you’re hating the game and still playing it, then you’re probably playing something in the Souls franchise.

 

Competitive Playing in Casual Games (Opinion Piece)

Winning gives a great feeling.  I’m sure we all can agree on that.  However, does that feeling warrant potentially ruining the fun of others in a casual game format?  For example: in Magic the Gathering, do you play using a deck that may not be certain to win, but will be a challenge for your opponent?  Or do you play the deck that locks other players into a one sided game?  Is it worth the possibility of annoying other players, just to rack up a “W” in games where the only thing that may be on the line is your dignity?  Or choosing to take advantage of an in game exploit in a video game that will undoubtedly result in other players complaining about what you are doing, just so you can say you won?

One should always take into consideration who you are playing and whether or not there is a reason to win besides doing so.  The adage “Winning isn’t everything” comes to mind in such instances.  Perhaps if something is on the line (i.e. prizes, respect, your grandpa’s soul), then by all means, go all out.  However, if you are playing against people who only want to have fun, maybe you should reconsider bringing your gun to the knife fight.

On Improvisation

When I was a boy, my piano teacher once told me that playing a solo is “writing a song onstage”. Being a Dungeon Master isn’t much different than any other type of performance art in this regard. To really differentiate yourself at the table, you need to be able to improvise, and have those amazing moments that will keep people talking about your game week to week. You can spend months preparing a setting and an adventure, and your players will always be able to find things that you haven’t thought about.

So when presented with an adventuring party that does what you didn’t expect, you have two options. The first one is to stop whatever they’re doing, and force them to get back on your very specific path. There’s a temptation to say “Don’t ever railroad your players”, but a little bit isn’t terrible. Forcing the players out of a line of action is really only a good idea when they’re about to start an encounter you didn’t expect, and you don’t want to scramble and quickly roll up a bunch of guards because the players decided to take over a town. I try to avoid having to do this, because it can break the flow of the game, which can lead to distractions, and further derailment.

The second option, and the one that should be preferred, is to roll (no pun intended) with whatever the players want to do. Not only does this not stop the flow of the game, but it also leads to situations that are much more fun than whatever you planned before. If the players want to stop their quest, charter a ship, enslave the crew and become pirates, let them try. If the half-orc wants to try and seduce his way out of an encounter, allow the attempt. Don’t be rigid, don’t say “no that’s stupid”, and don’t let them ever think that you wish they stuck with the plot you spent months writing.

If you play D&D (or GM most tabletop games) and have trouble improvising, you have a set of polyhedral tools to help you. Rely on your dice. You don’t have to dictate the players’ successes and failures, allow the dice to help you. Additionally, get a good feel for the skills, and which one should be used for which situation. I usually DM with a character sheet in front of me, so that I always have a list of what the players can use. Coming up with a good DC is also important, as it is another form of improvisation.

While improvisation is incredibly important, relying on it all the time is a hallmark of an unprepared DM. You need to be at least a little prepared. Personally, I won’t play unless I have a pretty good idea for how the session should go, and I make sure to roll up all my enemies before the session starts. Your players will know when you are improvising all the time, and it can bring some people out of the experience.

Another aspect to preparing is that it without any pre-written history, it is much harder to improvise dialog. As the creator of a campaign setting, you need to prepare some history about the realm, and the characters that show up in it. Give the major NPCs (i.e. the ones that players interact with) at least one motivating factor. Personally, I’m a fan of history, so I typically write a fairly general history going back a couple hundred years. The point is, all you need to do is write  a short backstory for the “Major” NPCs, and they’ll write their own dialog.

While preparation is important, I want to stress that you don’t need to have every possible piece of dialog written in advance (unless you want to of course). Your preparation before the first session should include the setting, some history, the characters motivations, and the mechanistic aspects of the game. The mechanistic aspects are all the things that you need to roll for and should be highly fleshed out before the start of each session. When it comes to a session, I usually write a list of all the stuff I would like to happen for the session. This is as far as I will go when it comes to a “script” for an adventure.

So remember, improvisation is good. If you are playing from a script the whole game, you’re not going to be as engaged, and as a result, neither will your players. Again, this doesn’t mean that you should try and start your sessions completely unprepared. D&D is like having people over for a meal. You aren’t going to start cooking when everyone arrives, you prepare with enough food (game content) so that everyone will have enough. The important thing is to strike a proper balance. If you meticulously plan every possible aspect of your campaign, try loosening it up a bit. If your campaign is an unprepared every session, try writing down three to five bullet points that you want to hit next time, and start from there.

Spoilers! (Rant)

I hate spoilers. Not having things spoiled for me, that I don’t mind, I hate the concept of spoilers. The idea that learning something essential about a storyline ‘spoils’ the experience doesn’t make sense to me. In a lot of cases, learning something extra about a story can actually enhance my enjoyment of it. For me, my mind constantly guesses what is going to happen. Not accurately mind you, but I’m constantly thinking of potential future events in a story. Knowing what happens switches the guessing part of my mind off and instead I can more easily pay attention to what is actually happening in front of me. My mind becomes quiet and ready for entertainment! I can look for foreshadowing, watch the actors (or characters) more closely, and just get more engrossed in the events on screen. I can lose myself in the world. I can put myself in the characters shoes and ask “what events lead to that ending which I now specifically know about?” Already knowing the ending can be empowering to a viewer.

Having watched The 6th Sense, Fight Club, Seven, and Game of Thrones after knowing the ‘big reveals’ in each I can say that the stories are still really well crafted. The big reveals are implied throughout the story so they feel like they’re part of it (for most of them anyway). It’s not the stereotypical ‘What a Twist!” kinds of ending which sometimes get tacked on to otherwise good stories (I realize the irony of saying an M. Night Shamallonollon movie does not have one). The 6th Sense has been referenced as one of the first spoiler warning movies, which may have played a part in starting this craze. Afterwards there was the story of someone buying that one Harry Potter book at midnight, speed reading it, then shouting “Dumbledore dies!” to the rest of the people in line. To me, the craze became specifically annoying when Game of Thrones took off. All of a sudden I couldn’t talk about the book anymore, I couldn’t mention anything about the episode I just watched in public, any time I said “Game of Thrones” I’d hear a number of voices shout from the store I was in saying “WAIT! I haven’t seen it yet!” It sucks. The Marvel movies have propagated the same hysteria. I worked at a comic book store and as such was fairly broke. I usually couldn’t go to the movie on release weekend, so I’d be at work and would listen to all the people telling me essentially the entire movies plot in one breath. Hailing it as the next masterpiece of Marvel cinema, or condemning it to the cesspool of ‘non-cannon’ garbage.

If I really like a movie I’ll watch it 3 or 4 times. If I really like an anime series or TV series, I’ll watch it through at least twice over. The first time viewing experience is usually the least enjoyable. I don’t have the full context of the show, or movie, yet so I miss a lot of the little things. After seeing how it all comes together I love going back and checking it out again to see how well the ending is hinted at. On the second and greater viewings I can look at the backgrounds, listen to the music, or pay attention to how the director framed each shot. I can appreciate the finer points of the medium, which only become available to me after I know what the plot is about.

“Its not the destination, its the journey.” – Some wise dude, I think

Recommendation: Souls Games

Bonfire

The Souls games have been a series since the dawn of Demon Souls in 2009. Since then Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and its expansions, and Bloodborne have been released (and we eagerly waiting for Dark Souls 3). All with similar gameplay styles, immeasurable amounts of lore, and kill-self levels of frustration. They have become enormously popular in the more recent years, due almost entirely to its die-hard fan base, which have been sustaining the life-blood of the games by promoting them through all social mediums. (Owed entirely to the fact that From Software does little-to-nothing in the area of advertising for themselves.) However, these games don’t have the best reputation as they are described as being “the most difficult games you will evar play!” But still you will find countless forums, websites, lets-plays, and other fandom all over the internet and YouTube dedicated to these games. Why is that? And why should you, or anyone for that matter play a Souls game? Allow me, if I may, to tell you why.

Let us first begin with the lore. In the Souls games, players are not introduced to lore in the traditional sense of being “fed” information. There’s usually just one little monologue at the beginning of each, where some NPC tells you to go complete “the impossible task.” In Dark Souls, it’s ringing the Two Bells of Awakening which are on the opposite ends of the world guarded by massive demons. In Bloodborne, it’s curing the beast-blood disease that pretty much wiped out the population. And that’s all the information you’re going to get. So you have very little information to go on, and are sent aimlessly wandering on a quest that you’re not entirely sure why you are a part of. But you know one thing is for sure: gotta kill stuff! So off you go, cutting down enemies, opening doors, and finding hidden treasures. Then you look at your loot, and realize each piece comes with a paragraph of descriptor-font. Then you realize that every item in the game has their own individual story, which ties in with the main story of the game. Telling you very general (and sometimes cryptic) things about the past, the present, and everything in between. This makes it so that you have to piece the storyline together yourself, make your own inferences about the story, and build the lore in your mind’s-eye. This is exactly how the director envisioned it, because as a boy, he liked reading European novels about knights and dragons, but couldn’t read English well. So he just read what he could, and pieced the story together from there. The Souls games have been constructed on this foundation, and are completely unique in this way.

Now let’s move onto game design and controls. As previously stated, the player is thrusted into a world they know nothing about, and are not truly giving a set direction. From most of the starting locations in the Souls games, you can choose where you want to go first. The player will certainly find that enemies in any of the directions do massive damage to the player, but some die easier than others. So choose the path of least resistance, and begin you journey. Now as a new player, it makes it an easy decision for you in terms of choosing your path. But an experienced player, may want to take a more difficult path first, because the rewards yielded will help them progress through the game more quickly. Nonetheless all of the enemies have a high potential to kill you, if you’re not on-guard for even a second. The skill required to kill just one “regular enemy” becomes exponentially increased when having to kill three of them simultaneously. So players have to really be on-point for the entirety of the play-through. The controls in the games usually allow the player to be very proactive in their attacks and dodging, while still being able to maintain a defense while assessing enemy attack patterns. The Souls games can feel a little slow, in terms of the character’s movements and abilities, but it was designed in this way to make the player’s decision mean that much more. This is because the game auto-saves at every interval, making each decision you make, a final decision.

Speaking of good and bad decision making, let’s discuss the “punishment-high” effect of the Souls games. I believe that it’s one of the most unique aspects of the games, which brings players back for more and more… just like the good little masochists they are. Everything in these games is designed to kill you… from the enemies, to the booby-traps in the environment, to your own miss-steps that send you plunging to your doom. It’s really frustrating. The level up systems in the Souls games are also to blame for player frustration. If you want to level up you need souls/blood/etc., which means killing stuff. So you go out to kill stuff, accumulate a whole bunch of level up juice, and then… die. Well now your level up juice is in a pile where you died, and you have to start from the beginning of the level again, with all of the enemies respawned in your path. If you reach them congrats! If you don’t, they are lost to the void for all eternity. That’s all included with the boss fights along the way. Some of the bosses seem completely unbeatable, and will literally wipe the floor with your corpse, desecrate it, and mock you. The fierce battle the player has to go through just to get to the boss is crazy enough, just to be met with a foe that crushes you mercilessly… but this is all part of the process. The game is difficult, and it makes it difficult for you to complete tasks, but there is no necessity to grind for experience. The secret is to test things out, find enemy weak points, be patient, and learn your foe – in the gaming world this is stated simply as: git gud (get good). There are suitable strategies for every situation, and it is your job to find them.

Now you may be asking, where does the “high” portion of the punishment come into play? Well… after facing all of the adversity, the impossible odds, the countless deaths, and the demining failures, you will ultimately overcome it. You will defeat the boss with sheer determination, and accomplish what was once thought impossible. In that moment of victory, you will feel a high unlike any other. Filled with joy, content, and achievement… and you know that it was all because of you. It was every little decision you made in that battle. It was all the hard work leading up to it. And when that high hits you, man I hope you’re sitting down for it, cause it’s a really big wave. I think that the desire to move forward in the game spawns from this, even after the player is punished relentlessly countless times.

In the end, the Souls games tell beautifully tragic stories, while creating a world around the player that just begs to be explored. All of the levels and areas are connected either physically or figuratively, and the creatures are as enigmatic as the world around them. The characters are sure to make an impact on you, and are undeniably unforgettable (for better or worse). The Souls games are full of wonders, frustration, and excitement, of which no other game I have ever played has been able to match. Why play a Souls game? Because it’s the greatest experience you can have playing a video game, if you appreciate the games for what they are, and especially for what they do to you.