“Socially Responsible” Skylines


One of the goals of the new elite is to harness the power of games to educate people—or most honestly, to indoctrinate them. They believe that games have the power to impart values and that these values should be socially responsible. This isn’t a terrible position on the face of it, until you see that they are not simply talking about protecting the malleable minds of growing children. In their world not even grown men are capable of standing up to heretical materials. What ideas are currently the most dangerous is constantly changing, but never changes is that there are always people demanding that art become propaganda.

Games do have a potential to educate adults and children alike, and as such I do believe that they have a responsibility to portray the world in a reasonably accurate way. Which is just to say that I prefer my art to be as truthful as possible. Unfortunately for ideologues both right and left, truth isn’t a political concept. So when an ideologue tells you that a game should be socially responsible, what he is saying is that it should be propaganda to suit his ends.

When a game purposefully bends the truth or even simply lies about a real world concept to suit the political ends of the developers or third parties the developers are attempting to please, it’s worth pointing out.

Cities: Skylines arrived in 2015 like a bolt of lightning, bringing the corpse of city building games back to life. The Sim City series was near and dear to my heart when growing up, and the level of affection and nostalgia I have for it is similar to what I imagine a lifelong console gamer must feel towards Mario. It is a brilliant game on the whole, and a fine rebuke to Maxis for their ill-conceived attempts to reboot the Sim City franchise by gutting it and packing the husk full of garbage that no one asked for.

Despite my high opinion of the game, I have a small issue with Skylines in that, unlike the Sim City series, the developers have chosen to make wind turbines completely reliable and to have high wind zones situated basically everywhere. The result is that, rather than portraying wind power as it is used in real life, it is a staple power source from the start of the game. It is in fact the best way to power a fledgling city.

A child playing Skylines or a low-information adult might come away from the game with a false impression about wind power and how it is useful. Gone also is the sense of accomplishment from advancing from cheap and dirty power sources to expensive and clean ones. There’s almost no reason to use dirty energy sources at all—how does that even make sense from a gameplay perspective? How are we supposed to feel good about banishing pollution from our city and overcoming complex green power logistics if it was never an issue from the start?

Since the game is so detailed and well designed in many other ways, I can only assume this decision was made for political reasons. It’s a mark against an otherwise fantastic title. Someone who played Sim City, which portrayed wind power technology in a relatively realistic fashion, knows at least some of the pitfalls of attempting to power a city that way. He comes away from the game with a better impression of how the world works than he had previously. The player of Skylines, however, is worse off on that particular point than someone who knows nothing.

This is what happens when people decide that games must advance a particular agenda—they become less truthful and the gameplay suffers. What’s socially responsible for an artist is to tell people the truth as you understand it, not to manipulate them.

Hardpoints, Timidity, and Destiny


Take your pick.

You have seen the movie before: aliens arrive who seem to have the best interests of humanity at heart, but it turns out they really want to devour us or whatever. Or maybe some dope in a government lab mixed up the flask with the horrible supervirus in it with his Earl Gray and before the end of the first act the whole world has major zombie troubles. In the end it’s not about the zombies, but the people. I lost track of the metaphor; the point I wanted to make is that the we live in a taxonomically different epoch in which the date is not 2016 A.D. but 15 A.D.E—After Deus Ex, the year in which our lord and savior J.C. Denton revealed the Word that RPG mechanics make everything better. Destiny and its 2015 expansion The Taken King are the new evangelists on the scene for shooters-which-are-also-sort-of-rpgs.

Events have largely borne out the glory of the Word, but like any religion there comes a time when the priesthood grows decadent and their vices must be named and numbered. I have two main points to tack up, both of which are not unique to Destiny but which fuse together there to cover it in a thick cloud of mediocrity. The first of these is something we’ll call hardpointing.

On modern warplanes there are specific places on the airframe called hardpoints which are designed to mount various kinds of external gear: fuel tanks, bombs, missiles, cameras, and so on. In addition to having a really bitchin’ name, hardpoints are ideal as game mechanics because of the way they induce the player to make real trade-offs in their capabilities. As a mechanic it’s one of the few cases in which reality, which most sane people regard as virtually unplayable, appears to have a balanced design.

Hardpoints, therefore, have enjoyed a long history in the games we play, and not just because our childhood dreams of becoming a jet pilot were quashed by astigmatism. For the purposes of this post a hardpoint is when a new, different ability can be gained only by sacrificing another. It is a subset of slot, because changing what is in a slot usually doesn’t involve giving another capability up. Hardpoints are so successful that designers, as they have in Destiny, often now extend them to include skills a character supposedly has in his head. That’s obviously pretty silly, but as we said earlier game mechanics don’t have to be realistic, and this is especially true to the extent that reality kind of sucks.

So if hardpoints are great, how are they ever a vice? It’s easy to see if you just reverse the trait that makes them a good mechanic to begin with: meaningful trade-offs. With rare exception, new abilities in Destiny arrive with the sound of a wet fart, because we know that not only are they hardpointed—we’ll have to give up something that is probably perfectly fine to get them—they won’t change anything about our relationship with the game outside of some extreme edge cases. I can’t come up with any challenge in the game that couldn’t be overcome by someone with a random distribution of classes, subclasses, and abilities. That’s a fairly damning observation and lays bare that Destiny is largely an exercise in aesthetics.

To compound this frustratingly timid class design, the meaningfulness of the trade-off is further decreased by the ability to simply pop into a menu and change your subclass and abilities at any time with no penalty. In space sims and military flight sims you usually have to go to some kind of base to do that, and the period of time you are out in the wild and are forced to live with the choices you made is when that tension manifests. Not that Destiny would benefit if you could change your abilities only at certain times, because, as we know, it doesn’t matter what your abilities are.

There is a subtler way in which an abundance of hardpoints can spoil a game, and that is when it becomes a crutch. Designers of PVP games, or as in Destiny games in which PVP is at least possible, have an additional burden of balancing player characters against each other, and the problems of balance grow exponentially with every additional possible build a player can have. In short balance grows easier the more similar players are to each other. If you have two identical players, they are balanced by definition. Even in PVE contexts it is easier to balance a player who is heavily restricted by hardpoints, rather than one who is constantly acquiring new abilities and using them together in unexpected ways. This is where timid class design and hardpointing are a lazy answer to difficult problems.

When you combine these issues you are left with a game that offers an extraordinarily superficial implementation of RPG mechanics. I was sold on being a space wizard but the reality of it was that I was just an especially uppity space marine in a long coat. I still enjoyed my time with Destiny, but with bolder ability design and a lesser reliance on hardpointing it would have been much more satisfying. Oh and of course the story is awful and so is the cast of shopworn cliches sentenced to deliver it. Especially the smarmy robot voiced by Nathan Fillion. He’s supposed to be funny because that’s not how robots act lol. Jesus. That’s another post entirely.

On Transistor

Art by C.P.T.

One of the figures in old gaming journalism who I respected immensely was Greg Kasavin, who as the former editor in chief of Gamespot was a towering figure in the Iron Age of Video Game Critics in a way that’s difficult to relate now. I wonder if he would have proved the same rock of professionalism and integrity in today’s highly charged, highly politicized critical environment; if he would have, he’s sorely missed. I miss him either way, really.

He’s in a better place now. After finding his true calling as a game writer/designer he went on to join new indie studio Supergiant and with them produced the isometric action RPG hit Bastion. After Kasavin’s departure from Gamespot the site’s editorial firewall eroded, culminating in the Kane and Lynch scandal which sent the core editorial staff splintering off to form the website Giant Bomb. One of Giant Bomb’s early web series, “Building the Bastion“, followed the development of Bastion from an insider’s perspective.

So it goes without saying that I desperately wanted to like Bastion. Unfortunately, when I went to play it, it didn’t quite grab me. I let it wallow on my Steam account for months. Eventually I hooked up my PC to the television and decided to give it the couch treatment, which I found was definitely the way to play that game. I became captivated with it from beginning to end, and was as impressed with the watercolor aesthetic as I was with the compelling story and mechanics. So why didn’t I jump on Transistor immediately?

Due to various circumstances, by the time Transistor came out I didn’t have a couch or a television to play it on anymore. I was living in Houston at the time, attempting–and ultimately failing–to get a job as a well logger. My life then was simply a mess, and all of it my fault. These problems cast less of a shadow over me this year, and after I landed back on my feet in North Carolina I made sure to get a couch and a console. There’s a somewhat cargo-cultish habit I have of arranging my life in a semblance of what it was like in a better time, and the first element of this, always, is a couch. On some level I just want to have that experience again—the experience of having a home and being secure in the knowledge that we are doing Everything Right.

I’m a PC-man at heart, but there is something magical about playing an atmospheric game like Transistor from the comfort of a couch in a darkened room. For me PC games and the environment of their play are best at engaging the mind, and console games and their environment are best at engaging the heart. Bastion and, I assumed, its follow-up Transistor, are heart-games. They are made with heart, and that is how you’re supposed to approach them. This is the point that Phil Fish once made somewhat tactlessly (that being the only way he knows how to make a point) when he claimed that PCs were for spreadsheets, and Fez should not be played on them. For my own sake, I mostly agree with the spirit of his statement, and only offer up the exception that many people connect their PCs to their televisions in their living room. That is, after all, how I connected with Bastion.

Since I am cheap by necessity and spoiled by Steam sales, even when I had the elements of couch and console and television in place, I waited dutifully for Transistor to go on sale. As long as it had been in coming, one day I logged into the PSN store and there was a Supergiant sale going on, and I finally got to play. I knew in advance that it was a different sort of beast from Bastion. One thing I did know was that it was just as amazing-looking as Bastion, with a cool palette to match its cyberpunk pretenses.

It is often held as a point against Transistor that it isn’t as fun as Bastion, or that its combat is hard to understand and execute. Transistor’s nobility lies partly in its defiance of what Bastion is. It is impossible to have the same experience twice, no matter how carefully one arranges the old elements, and these games are designed to be personal experiences. Transistor soars in its ability to offer its jaded players an experience they haven’t yet had.

Transistor‘s mechanics offer a lassitude of player agency that is absent from nearly every game of its kind, including its aesthetic cousin Bastion. The story is inconclusive and available only, largely, to those who are searching for it. The ending defied my expectations and made me reconsider Red’s arc. In Bastion you are given a choice of two weapons and a choice of two endings. Faced with infinite possibility at the end of Transistor, Red (not you) makes only one. That many of the players of Transistor found ‘infinite possibility’ and the necessity of constantly relearning systems mentally taxing is, in that light, ironic.

Anyone who plays games wants the power to approach the system in their own way, and Transistor so excels at this that it does so to its own detriment. The player wants to invent himself, but Transistor saddles him with the task of constantly reinventing himself in response to new powers, losses of old powers, or a desire to access a story locked away by an insistence on mechanical novelty. The process of figuring out who you are and what you’re doing now dominates the game and even defines it. I’m no gaming virtuoso, but I’m not a bad player and I spent as much time puzzling over builds as I spent executing them. It’s a shocking departure from other systems where players are presented with a consistent system and expected to master it. Players of Transistor are expected to become familiar with being unfamiliar.

In games with a high degree of customization the ‘build’ is a sacred concept we latch onto because it gives us a sense of control over a writhing mass of interconnected mechanics. Builds are so important that, sometimes, we don’t even trust ourselves to make them. You might steal your build from some theorycrafter on the internet who has more experience with the game and has spent more time thinking about it. Why not defer to those more experienced? I’m not above it; I do it all the time.

Between its power stripping death penalty, its story-progression requirements, and its constant influx of new abilities throughout the campaign, Transistor rips that comfort away from the player. There is no build. What happens when an enemy puts you down and takes out the core conceit of your build, which you just spent five minutes paining over at the last checkpoint? If you don’t understand what Transistor is telling you, you reload and try again. If you are approaching the game on its own terms, you press on and find out what you can do now. You get to the next checkpoint if you can and reevaluate what you have. Constant flux is the nature of the beast. Even attempting to read all of the ability lore entries will result in barely a single battle passing with the same build. Even if your build is working fine, if you just got something new, isn’t it a waste not to try it? You are incentivized for doing so with story progression.

It’s a short game because if it were any longer a sense of comfort would start to creep in. Transistor is not designed to be comfortable. In the story everything is falling apart and becoming something else, a process which you do not at all understand. It isn’t just you that is being forced to adapt. Your enemies are evolving as well, and you and they are locked in an arms race of sorts. By the time I happened upon something I truly liked and was comfortable with, the game ended almost immediately afterwards. In a sort of fitting coda, the final boss fight was so different from what came before that it required one final rebuild.

Game players naturally expect that the rules of the system will not change out from under them, and most games encourage the development of consistent builds which players naturally slot themselves into. Why break it if it works? This system works fantastically as a vehicle for delivering Fun. It’s Fun to master something. Bastion offered that kind of experience, but Transistor doggedly refuses to. Was that the intent? I think it was. They made Bastion, a game so mechanically tight it is astounding. Bastion’s mechanics are traditional and unassailable; fun. Transistor is brilliant.