The harshest criticism of Fallout 4 has been from people who feel the game is insufficiently different from Fallout 3 or Skyrim. For anyone who plays singleplayer RPGs with a view to roleplay, though, it is the significant changes which have sabotaged the game. I should define what I mean by ‘roleplay’ since it’s a broad term, and it’s been broadened still further by being used as a descriptor for games like Fallout 4 and Mass Effect which traditionally have little in common with the genre. For me, at least, the defining characteristic of a roleplaying game is the ability to create a unique character who has particular skills and codes of conduct. Then, the game has to allow you within reason to play the character you’ve created, making the decisions they would make. If you want to play as a deranged wastelander in Fallout: New Vegas who thinks she’s a samurai, you can acquire a machete, wear makeshift armour and pick and choose which quests to undertake and which areas to investigate according to your imagined character’s feelings. In Morrowind, you might play an academically-inclined mage by selecting magic skills, joining the Mage’s Guild and choosing disdainful dialogue options with grubby warriors and thieves. These are relatively extreme examples, and merely playing a character who believes the world should be organised in a particular way qualifies (and is equally difficult to do in Fallout 4). For me and others who love to play this way, Fallout 4 is a disappointment. It rigorously circumscribes your role in the post-nuclear wasteland and allows very little player expression in building your character, talking to strangers or exploring the world.
Episode five of Life Is Strange is a culmination of what I love about the game and also the grievances I’ve had with its later episodes. The best things about Life Is Strange, its focus on one friendship, the characters of Max and Chloe, the strange dialogue steeped in pop culture and the seriousness with which it regards violence are all present or even more pronounced here. Unfortunately, so are the game’s frustrating digressions and its overreliance on exposition via dialogue (made worse since it’s the villain explaining his evil plan). This episode ends unsatisfactorily after a few unfocused sections which often appear to be padding out length.
This post contains plot spoilers for Life Is Strange up to and including episode four.
Guns have a very special place in Life Is Strange. They’re not commonplace, as is the case in most games, nor are they merely functional, disposable tools. Rather, the few guns which appear in Life Is Strange are lethal and terrifying; immediately after the game begins you’ll be keeping mental, if not physical, notes of who has which gun. Because the world of Life Is Strange is roughly speaking the real world, characters have the rare luxury of having feelings about guns and who should have them. A key feature of Life Is Strange is the ability to rewind time and redo decisions: one of the main reasons I used it was to change who would end up with a particular weapon in a scene. Since Life Is Strange is a game less about beating your opponents and more about negotiation, I did this as often to take guns away from my friends as to deny them to enemies. Max, the protagonist in Life Is Strange, becomes entangled in dangerous scenarios with increasingly regularly in later episodes of the game. In these moments, guns are an unpredictable ‘nuclear option’ for characters who are either unstable or annoyed enough at Max. By the second episode, almost everyone will agree with her that “guns make me uncomfortable.”
I’ve written already about Shadowrun: Hong Kong, a smartly, often amusingly written RPG with infuriating combat, stealth and hacking. In that post, I failed to mention one persistent frustration I had with the game, namely how it limits what kind of character you can play. I don’t mean in terms of your class or stats or equipment, where the options are robust, but rather your background and attitudes. Where other RPGs (and even earlier Shadowrun games) are vague enough in your background or flexible enough in its detail to allow you to play the character you like, Shadowrun: Hong Kong dictatorially imposes a particular view of who your character is, what their motivations are and where they’ve been. You might call this the Mass Effect approach to player characters except that in that series its limitations are made clear from the start and ultimately BioWare made the writing of Commander Shepard, the player, one of the series’ strengths. Hong Kong vacillates on the question of what kind of character you’re playing, and the game is worse for it. It allows neither the freedom to play your own character nor the useful limitation that comes with players taking on a definite role.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong likely had an excellent script. It is an entertainingly written RPG with particularly vibrant companions in a spectacular setting which blends cyberpunk and fantasy. Its mystery is, conceptually at least, as compelling as its predecessor’s, Shadowrun: Dragonfall. In the translation from script to game, however, Hong Kong has suffered badly. Combat, an unavoidable and crucial part of the game, is at best simplistic and trivial and at worst infuriating. New additions to the series like stealth sections are appallingly barebones. A matrix system revamp was earned by the community when Hong Kong’s Kickstarter raised $700,000: the disastrous result will likely make fans wish the game had earned less so the old system would still be in place.
The worst of Total War: Rome II’s many problems is its failure to explain its mechanics clearly and especially how they interact. The internal politics of Rome – something critical to why the Rome: Total War was good – are a particularly badly represented mess: a variety of bars and numbers move around the politics screen without explaining themselves or what they mean in relation to the rest of the game. The food system, newly introduced in this iteration of Total War, is not necessarily the worst offender but it is the one I’ve had the best luck untangling and so it provides a good case study for why Rome II’s obscure, badly implemented mechanics utterly rob the campaign of its joy.
I have been aiming to write a review of the recent documentary series Napoleon on this blog for some time. It doesn’t fit with the otherwise PC game themed content but it’s a compelling documentary. I’m not terribly interested by its content (which is mostly military and political history), but it has an impressive ability to clearly argue a particular viewpoint about Napoleon and his empire. This is surprisingly rare among history documentaries, most of which stick as closely as possible to ‘the facts’ and are usually either boring or misleading as a result. They’re boring because they devolve into a string of dates without the focus an argument provides and often misleading because they bolster the misconception that historians are primarily concerned with ordering events rather than arguing about them, their consequences, their causes, their significance. The advantage of an argument, then, especially if it’s a controversial one is that it forces you as a writer to state a case, which is always more lively than reciting a list. Arguments are stimulating to write or to read (or in this case to watch) so it’s refreshing that Andrew Roberts, historian and presenter of Napoleon, clearly has such strong, positive opinions about the titular character.
This is all to say that I haven’t written that review, but I have come across a related and exceptionally good piece of writing which ties the paragraph above to videogames. The essay “How Thinking Like A Historian Can Help You Understand Games, From The Witcher 3 To Assassin’s Creed” by Robert Whittaker has just appeared on Rock, Paper, Shotgun and it’s a wonderful read. Whittaker beautifully illustrates how our interpretation of the past is in flux, how it change over time and most of all how the absolutes we read about so often when history is brought up in the context of videogames are utterly useless. Judging from the comments, people haven’t bothered to read the article and are instead arguing in the exact way the article warns against, which is a shame. Still, it’s an excellent piece that’s worth a read for anyone interested in history and videogames.
I’ve written already about how playing as Austria in Europa Universalis IV successfully addresses the recurring problem of the late game in strategy and grand strategy games. That is specifically the phase of the game where you have won and yet it goes on. In Civilization V, you might reach the year 1800, find you’re vastly ahead of the AI opponents and simultaneously realise it’ll take 100 more turns to finally finish that Conquest or Science victory. In Europa Universalis IV, you might beat France in a major war and realise that all it takes to gobble up the whole continent is a series of tedious, easy conflicts. In Total War games, where the objective is to conquer a quota of provinces, usually being merely half-way to this quota is enough to be larger and stronger than all your rivals. Rome: Total War is interested in solving this problem and while it’s not wholly successful, it does mitigate the tedium which suffuses so much of the late game in strategy and grand strategy. By dividing the game into two phases, one in which you expand for the glory of the Roman Republic and another which sets you against other Roman factions and the Senate itself in your quest to become emperor, Rome: Total War makes victory difficult. It forces you to recontextualise your conquests and think again about what territory is ‘safe.’ It forces you to zoom out from small-scale, distant wars to focus on a larger conflict. Rome: Total War’s late game challenges you, a phrase we can rarely use honestly about this phase in these games.
At its worst, Europa Universalis IV is a game of unchecked conquest. It shares a common problem with many grand strategy games, namely the fun struggle to survive and grow as a state is gradually replaced with a lengthy period of easy conquest and ‘cleaning up.’ EUIV’s timeline spans 400 years (1444-1821), but it’s rare for most players to ever get beyond 1650. By then you are the strongest: alliances can be broken with impunity, neighbours devoured and coalitions smashed. Without the challenge of the early and mid game, EUIV and other titles like it devolve into rote warring to expand your territories. Interesting decisions evaporate, and as long as you’re clever enough not to let a massive coalition form, you will be unchallenged. Playing as Austria is the antidote to those problems. It provides a unique, long-lasting challenge which is different from the experiences of other, more conventional states.
Browsing the internet hours after I finished Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I could’ve sworn I heard a pig snuffle in my room. Sure, it was a blind scraping against a wall that sounded eerily like the game’s effect, but it was enough to set me on edge and convince me that A Machine for Pigs is a great horror game.