The Dollar Debate: Cost Per Hour In Video Games

Green Man Gaming inflamed the video game review world with its cost per hour metric, but it’s not really a bad idea.

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Green Man Gaming Logo
(Image Credit to Green Man Gaming, retrieved from their official Brand Assets page)

A little-used online gaming store called Green Man Gaming released a hotly debated metric for its consumers last week: Average Cost Per Hour. According to Matt Kim from US Gamer, the metric is determined by the price of the game at the time someone views it divided by the average number of hours Steam connected users of Green Man Gaming have played the game. It goes without saying that, as a statistical measure, this metric is highly flawed. For one thing, this a volunteer sample and is not at all representative of all players of the game. It’s not even representative of Green Man Gaming players of the game which might be a more helpful metric considering that consumers using Green Man Gaming may share goals and perspectives. For another, Steam hardly, if ever, accurately tracks the amount of time a player spends in game and using current price as opposed to the price when purchased ignores the impact of investment on motivation to play. I can’t be the only person who’s spent more time in a game simply because it was more expensive for me. The list of qualms with this particular metric could run through this entire article, but instead of talking about how bad this particular version of the metric is for games, as was done in practically every major article covering it, I’d rather discuss how an average cost per hour metric could be useful.

I know what you’re thinking, “Useful? How could something that practically every major article believes distorts our understanding of a game’s value be useful? Doesn’t it harm developers and encourage the inclusion of time padding in otherwise succint and engaging experiences?” and yes, it does do all those things… in its current form on Green Man Gaming and in our current gaming culture. But have some imagination, this metric serves an obvious purpose! Not every gamer has a limitless pool of financial resources, and gaming is already far more expensive and specialized than practically every other entertainment medium out there! Finding ways to make gaming more accessible, like the explosion of the mobile market did, is critical for games to continue to develop as an artform. Yes, that’s right, more consumers and producers will make games a more mature artform, so giving an accurate average cost per hour metric could bolster our communities and platforms. There are many ways you could alter a flat average cost per hour into something more helpful.

Green Man Gaming - Stats and Facts
(Image credit to Green Man Gaming, retrieved from their official Moonlighter product page)

Why not, for instance, create a value based rating system as opposed to a nebulous review score structure? The calculation for this rating system would be Appraised Game Value = Hours Enjoyed × Personal Cost Per Hour and Value Per Hour = Appraised Game Value ÷ Hours Played. For example, let’s say you bought a $60 game that you’ve played for 20 hours but every hour you played was abysmal and you regret the time and money you spent. That game’s really worth $0 after your appraisal, so the value per hour (what the game should cost) comes out to $0 an hour. If you enjoyed all 20 hours of the game, that’s a $3 value per hour, and if you enjoyed 15 hours of the game that’s a $2.25 value per hour.  A value per hour rating system could then be compared with a cost per hour metric to aid in purchasing decisions. This eliminates the issue of cost per hour being used as a value system, and the meaningless “out of ten” reviews we’re all familiar with. This rating system also leaves room for higher order recommendations in the form of impressions, ordered lists, full scale analyses, etc. by separating the consumptive value of a game from its artistic merit.

Now on to fixing that pesky cost per hour metric. First off, self reporting is wildly inaccurate and Steam counts hours spent downloading and updating software in proprietary launchers, adjusting settings in menu, and many other superfluous moments into its record. What a cost per hour metric requires is an in-game timer like the one in Pokémon games and an “Are you still playing?” stop screen like the one used on Netflix. This wouldn’t eliminate every problem and is obviously a far way off (good luck trying to standardize all that) but it would drastically improve our data quality. Once we had that improved data collected in a publicly accessable forum, all sorts of demographic information could stratify the data according to the users needs. Imagine a Spotify style Discovery playlist that suggests games to you based on the playing habits of those with a similar library or similar favorite games! Imagine a specialized, social media style feed that performs a similar function. That, however, is beyond the point. Users could select which consumers to include in a cost per hour analysis or defer to an algorithmically generated analyis that matchs the user to those with similar tastes or view the full analysis that includes every player in the system. Each of these choices would give valuable information, but the order in which they’re arranged is important. I believe the default cost per hour metric should be blank and request you add users to track and only give the full player base or algorithmic analysis upon request. This would disuade the use of such a subjective measure of the game as objective and improve the metric itself as users develop it to reflect their own desires. Certainly a metric like that would be integral to purchasing decisions and celebrated/critiqued into fitness!

Despite all this, it is important to remember that even a value per hour score doesn’t relate every bit of critical information on a game. For a player, playing a game is like eating food. Appraised value and value per hour are to games almost what calorie content is to a meal. In both cases, that metric is terribly important for those with little to spend and degrades as a measure of utility as financial resources swell. Other methods of games criticism tell us more nuanced information like which ingredients were used, where those ingredients came from, how their flavors interact, and more, but no food critic has ever bemoaned a calorie count for degrading the value of their assessments. We shouldn’t let our critics either.

Besides, they must be a little impressed… Why else would they give a little-recognized retailer such great publicity coverage?

Birb Friends Series: Thinking With Portals

A new video article series on Valve’s Portal is coming to Birb Friends!

Thinking With Portals
(Image credit to Valve Corporation, retrieved from IGDB.com’s Portal Press Kit)

      Hello Birbies! I know it’s been a long time, but new content is coming very very soon! I’m proud to announce a game design analysis series on Valve’s monumentally successful Half-Life spinoff, Portal! I’ll be taking a look at all aspects of Portal, from GlaDOS’s quips and the visual design to the implications of the portal gun itself, in Birb Friends’ first ever video article series: Thinking With Portals. Each chamber will have its own dedicated article so we can delve as deep as possible into the choices that make up the game and its design. While this will be a look at the original Portal game in isolation, assuming the player jumped in without playing the other games included in the Orange Box, which was a video game compilation box including some of Valve’s best titles like Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, there’s still much to be gleaned from its design both as a literary work and as a monument of game design. So stay tuned for more information in the coming week if you’d like to start Thinking With Portals!

Birb Friends Review: Shadowrun Returns (PC)

Shadowrun Returns Title Screen
Image credit to Harebrained Schemes, retrieved from the official Shadowrun Returns Steam page.

Shadowrun, as a setting and a world, has always fascinated me. A pulpy mixture of Tolkienesque high fantasy and the gritty noir flavor of Gibson’s cyberpunk, what else could an angsty adolescent male want? That is, besides a way to insert himself into that world without 50d6, vacant mouthbreathing stares, and that one decking player that always stalls the game for everyone else. (You know who you are…)

SR5 Cover Book
Image retrieved from the Shadowrun Tabletop Media Kit.

That’s right, Shadowrun is a tabletop RPG from back when the medium was in its prime. The first edition Shadowrun ruleset was released in 1989 and presented a world relentlessly steeped in the pop literature traditions of the time. Filled with quirky lingo like “chummer,” fantastical racial slurs like “dandelion eaters” (it’s for elves, if you were curious), and slang for new technological developments like “trid” (holographic 3D television), rereading the Shadowrun ruleset for the fifth time was a surefire way to impress your friends and immerse yourself in early 90’s cyberpunk.

At least it was if you were me… in middle school. I’ll confess, I exhausted every possible outlet for Shadowrun roleplaying that didn’t require social interaction. From the black ASCII screens of old school MUDs to the terrible first person shooter that made its way onto the scene in 2007, nothing filled the empty hole in my heart for Shadowrun. That’s why I, like so many others, was elated when the Kickstarter campaign was launched. A genuine Shadowrun CRPG complete with Steam Workshop support for a virtually limitless stream of content? Push that drek out, chummer! Shut up and take my credsticks!

The Streets of Seattle
Image credit to Catalyst Game Labs, retrieved by Birb Friends.

In terms of gameplay, it’s a pretty standard turn-based RPG with a classless progression system taken straight from the tabletop game. It’s sleek, slim, and easy to understand so I won’t explain it here, but it’s not revolutionary, and it’s not exciting. Some design choices also slow and detract from the experience, like how clearing a combat area doesn’t always return you to the exploration movement mode, so your characters have to individually scramble. That’s not to mention the fact that this game, a mystery game about underworld espionage and infiltration, has no dedicated stealth system… so there’s that. The game’s systems are hardly ever turned on their heads, and when they are it’s often more frustrating and stalling than anything else. Despite a variety of character builds being available, most will feel the same to the player, because player agency is practically nonexistent in terms of narrative progression. That’s not to mention that some builds are far superior to others because of a design choice made in the last few hours of the game! Don’t play a shaman. Seems like a fun idea, isn’t really worth it. Diversify in a few different attributes, and have some fun with the combinations. That’s where the system shines.

As for the narrative, it’s stock. Full of archetypal characters with no deviation, even less motivation, and average character growth if any at all. If you thought Bioware was the king of bland, you haven’t met developer Harebrained Schemes yet. Of course, this is their first outing, but pushing more funding and development into the narrative would have helped this game more than anything else. There’s only one consistent companion, Coyote, in the game, and while they’re complete, they aren’t interesting. To make Shadowrun Returns’ short story shorter, your buddy Sam kicked the bucket but the campaign’s eponymous “Dead Man Switch” triggers with the message that he has money if you can get to the killer. In need of the cash, you go through a few twists and turns along the way, say hello to familiar faces in unfamiliar places, then realize that the most interesting parts of this story happen elsewhere – without you. I’d comment on the use of symbolism, metaphor, et cetera, but it’s either so on the nose you might as well be a Proboscis monkey, or just not there. As interesting as the setting could be, this is not a tale to sweep you away.

The Seamstresses' Union
Image credit to Catalyst Game Labs, retrieved by Birb Friends.

Shadowrun Returns falls especially flat in the narrative department because of its often excessive, flowery, and purposeless walls of text. I understand that not every game can be voice acted, especially one made on a Kickstarter budget, but it would have helped push things along and draw my attention in a more immersive way than what I got. The music is passable but only passable. You’ll find no sweeping beautiful arrangements in Shadowrun Returns, just dingy electrified beats in songs reused as much as the syllable “du” in Darude’s Sandstorm. As for the graphics, they’re vibrant and often varied, but stereotypical for the cyberpunk genre. Occasionally, a setpiece will attract my eye, but never for more than a few moments. Beyond that, the character models look like something straight out of 2006, and their animations, with every character hunching awkwardly as they shuffle to the designated spot, aren’t much better. Still, everything in Shadowrun Returns is perfectly functional.


FINAL VERDICT
Shadowrun Returns Header
Image credit to Shadowrun.com’s Shadowrun Returns media page.

Shadowrun Returns is a run-of-the-mill tactical turn-based CRPG with a lackluster whodunnit narrative and everything else to match. Its greatest strength is its intriguing setting and its greatest weakness is how little time it dedicates to exploring and giving life to that setting. $15 is a little steep if you only plan to play the Dead Man’s Switch campaign, but with comprehensive modding tools, there’s plenty more to explore. That being said, Shadowrun Returns was followed by two successors that most agree are far superior, so before you buy, consider picking up Shadowrun: Dragonfall or Shadowrun: Hong Kong instead.


49/100 – Failing…

Steam Sale Snatches!

It’s hard to escape the rush of the Steam Summer Sale. Every year thousands of gamers spend their hard earned cash on digital downloads in the hopes that they’ll find some diamonds in Steam’s mountains of rough. With only $8.00 in my hands, I may have found some hidden gems, but these games are only what you make of them. Enjoy!

Best of Show – FTL: Faster Than Light
  • Sale Price: $2.49
  • Current Price: $9.99

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. It’s not just borderline criminal that I’ve slept on this game for five years, it’s an intergalactically recorded hate crime that warrants an entire rebel fleet on my tail in the most faithfully science fiction and brilliantly realized Rogue-ish game on the market. In Faster Than Light, you’re the captain and crew of the Kestrel, or the Torus, or whatever spacecraft you desire as you flee the Rebel fleet with valuable information for the Federation. It’s like playing as the Tantive IV, if Darth Vader was a series of drones, invaders, and hull fires, and Leia Organa was a Starfleet captain. Filled with classic sci-fi set pieces like derelict spaceships brimming with fungus, distress signals from failing space stations, many other lifeforms including mantis and robotic peoples, and more, FTL is a science fiction experience unrivaled even by the likes of No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous. Although minimal on the graphics side of the things, Faster Than Light delivers on great space adventures in a way no other game I’ve played has. If you haven’t heard of this game already, you must be living in the Outer Rim, and at $2.49 it was well worth the purchase price.

Underexposed Nostalgia Trip – Powernaut VANGARDT

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  • Sale Price: $0.49
  • Current Price: $1.99

I managed to find Alex Hall’s little ode to the Gameboy era of punishing platformers while scrolling through the lowest priced games in the Steam Summer Sale. Powernaut VANGARDT takes design, narrative, and visual elements from games as successful as Metroid, Mega Man, and Dark Souls and repackages them into an inconspicuous bundle of raw nostalgia. Spiky enemies, doors to each room, and spaceship bases should immediately remind players of Metroid, but the “lemon” and charged attacks coupled with the difficulty scream Mega Man to me. That’s not to mention the Dark Souls cloned DNA system (with DNA instead of Souls and home ships instead of bonfires) that allows the player to customize their abilities a bit for the road ahead and also helps them make sense of the open world the game is set in. From inputting game save passwords without the help of the keyboard, to nail biting but entirely fair platforming segments that made me die time and again, Powernaut VANGARDT took me many years back to playing Gameboy in my grandmother’s basement. The excited drive that leads to thumbing through cheat booklets for password codes and failing despite their aid rushed back, and I played Powernaut VANGARDT for hours until I beat it’s first boss: a big ol’ spider. P. S. Bring a can of Raid to Skaridurk Woods; you’ll need it.

Arcade Diversion – Handsome Mr. Frog
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(Image credit to Cowboy Color, retrieved by Birb Friends via nVidia GeForce Experience capture)

 

  • Sale Price: $0.49
  • Current Price: $0.99

Handsome Mr. Frog was another bargain bin catch. It’s a Mario Bros. style arcade platformer with a Yoshi/Kirby gulp and spit mechanic that plays quite well with the jumping. To defeat the enemies you can pick up crates or other enemies and spit them towards each other, but the level design is underwhelming and at some points seems downright lazy. Regardless, there’s something undeniably charming about that handsome frog. You can collect hats along the way and there are little items that boost your score (there is a competitive leaderboard) but that’s about all. Handsome Mr. Frog was a cute and enjoyable diversion worth the $0.49 I paid for it, but I don’t think its revolutionary. In fact, most of the games on this list are derivative instead of inventive…

Platforming Meets Lateral Thinking – Tiny and Big: Grandpa’s Leftovers
  • Sale Price: $0.99
  • Current Price: $9.99

Now this is inventive! Tiny and Big: Grandpa’s Leftovers has a ridiculous Adventure Time-esque premise with a post-apocalyptic setting and a young inventor searching for his grandfather’s pants. The fun cartoon style doesn’t help the resemblance to Adventure Time and even the handheld gaming simulations felt a little too Beemo to me. Beyond that, the addition of a laser cutting tool to help you make platforms, a rope to pull them, and a rocket to push them means incredible physics/platforming challenges can await! I haven’t played much of the game just yet, but from what I’ve seen it’s at least worth the money I paid and maybe even the standard price! If you love 3D platformers, Adventure Time humor, and you’re looking for a new IP, this might be your game.

Walking Simulators, Now In 2D! – Beeswing
  • Sale Price: $0.49
  • Current Price: $4.99

Beeswing is a walking simulator set in the game designer’s rural home town in Scotland. The whole game is drawn on paper with what appears to be marker that, set against an often foreboding soundtrack, gives the game an uneasy atmosphere. I’ve played about 30 minutes of Beeswing and I still don’t know what to make of it. The conversations that take place in game are more revealing and psychologically angled than most other games which gives them a sort of depth uncommon, or perhaps more often unnoticed, in everyday talk. Walk around the place, read some flavor text, and solve some of the townspeople’s problems. There doesn’t seem to be much else to do! It’s a coming home story not too unlike Night in the Woods, and there’s definitely something to enjoy here for the right people.

What did you think of my finds? What did you buy this Steam Summer Sale? Let me know in the comments below! See you next time, Birbies!

Birb Friends Review: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC)

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the third installment of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise and a follow up to Daggerfall, marked the first modern Bethesda role-playing experience. When I first encountered the wastes and swamps of Vvardenfell I was enamored, but I was also a very young child. Playing on my original Xbox, I started at the yelps of a man falling from the sky in goofy blue wizard robes speckled with stars and gazed in wonder at the giant fleas that strode the rivers’ silt. It’s been 15 years since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was released, and after years of waxing, raving, and procrastinating, I’ve finally completed the base game’s main story. Nowadays there are innumerable ways to purchase Morrowind and its expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon, including Steam, GOG.com, and in physical releases of all shapes and sizes. With that in mind and regardless of the content that follows, I strongly recommend purchasing and playing this landmark title and achievement of a game.

To detail my experiences with Morrowind, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

logo
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Logo (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from their official Morrowind page)
Technical Proficiency: 77/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 54/100

  • Style Score: 81/100
  • Animation Score: 35/100
  • Purpose Score: 50/100

While destined to be full of reused assets, similar areas, and bland NPCs, Morrowind succeeds in crafting a simultaneously believable and outrageous dreamscape of an island. A volcano gated by pulsating blue magics, an enormous canal city reminiscent of the Aztec’s Tenochtitlan, mushroom trees of great size and variety, and biomes of every sort make up only a small fraction of Morrowind’s intriguing sites. Coupled with the dreamlike fogging of the game’s short render distance, Morrowind’s ethereal setting springs to life. Enemy design is more inventive in Morrowind than previous Elder Scrolls games and introduces future mainstays of the series such as Hungers and Golden Saints. Armors, clothing, and weapons feature designs inspired by a multitude of cultures and, though they occasionally look silly in practice, allow for a wide amount of customization and differentiation between characters. Morrowind’s skyboxes move through night and day cycles with stunning renditions of Nirn’s moons. As for color design, textures are muted and muddled due to the limitations of the time, but deep jewel tones and a variety of lusters and roughnesses allow for many separate yet unified themes. For its imaginative source material and captivating execution, Morrowind receives an 81/100 in the category of visual style.

Animation is where Morrowind’s visuals fall horribly flat. Awkward and inhuman for every humanoid in the game and animatronic for everything else, nothing breaks the immersion of a role-playing experience like an NPC float/running up a wall with elbows bent at an extreme position and clothing clipping into limbs. Despite their shortcomings, Morrowind’s animations are, at the very least, functional in relating game information to the player and expressive for its menagerie of creatures and special people. Everything considered 35/100 is Morrowind’s animation score.

Morrowind is a first/third person action RPG that intends to immerse the player in a believable world. For this to function there are some concessions made to visual cuing and mechanical clarity. Nonetheless, Morrowind delivers many visual cues to its players through the use of specially marked color coded effects that differ depending on the school of magic from which the effect originated, and telegraphed attacks. A distinct sheen on magical items also relates information to the player in a similar fashion along with unobtrusive pop-up tips that describe items available for pickup. While not perfect and often too cluttered to decipher, Morrowind’s visual purpose is completely functional to earn a 50/100.

Overall Sound Score: 80.44/100

  • Music Score: 92/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 69/100
  • Variety Score: 80/100

Morrowind was the first game in the Elder Scrolls series to enlist the aid of highly lauded composer Jeremy Soule. Contemplative and ambient with memorable melodic movements and an orchestra worth of instrumental variety and intensity, Soule’s soundtrack offers a near perfect complement to the adventurous, beautiful, foreboding, and often bewildering feeling of Vvardenfell. Tracks such as “Peaceful Waters” build slowly from dreamy harp song into emotive string crescendos and continue onward to deep ponderings and choral murmurs that resolve with the plucking at which they began. More conflictive tracks, such as “Bright Spears, Dark Blood”, recapitulate the triumphant movements of the title track “Nerevar Rising” while simultaneously washing the player with sounds of fear and apprehension. My personal favorite track still stands as “The Road Most Traveled” which never fails to conjure images of the watery shantytowns in which I first heard its bustling drum beats and swelling melodies. Where Morrowind’s music fails is in its repetition throughout the game’s potentially hundreds of hours of play time and the general lack of context sensitivity. The game’s music rotates through the selection of tracks and only changes tone to notify the player that they are being attacked. Beyond this minor criticism, the soundtrack of Morrowind is moving, fully realized, and as memorable as any John Williams score ever could be. For those reasons, Morrowind receives a 92/100 in the music category.

Screeching creatures, booming voices, shocking shouts, blustering winds, swishing weapons, clanging metals, and much more adorn Morrowind’s aural presentation at all times. The abrasive noises of Morrowind highlight the feelings of isolation and unease that characterize the entrance into Vvardenfell’s alien world. After hours of playtime, the familiar words of Morrowind’s inhabitants will ring in the players ear and work to build every thematic sense that Morrowind contains. The only noises that Morrowind fails to craft are its magic effect sounds which berate the ears unnecessarily and grow quite repetitive quite quickly. It’s for these reasons that Morrowind receives a 69/100 in the sound effects category.

From the full orchestration of the soundtrack to the diverse sounds that accompany those tracks, Morrowind isn’t afraid to show the player new and interesting things. That being said, a larger soundtrack would have been greatly welcomed and certain creature sounds (I’m looking at you, cliff racers) grow tiresome after many hours in Vvardenfell. Increasing the variety of sounds available to each creature could have alleviated this issue, though this is a relatively minor complaint. For these reasons, 80/100 is Morrowind’s aural variety score.

Overall Controls Score: 97.22/100

Dwemer Spiders
A glass axe stands ready to strike Dwemer Spider Constructs in an aged ruin. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
  • Controller Score: 100/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 95/100

The PC edition of Morrowind does not support the use of a controller although I can’t imagine why you would choose to use one as the mouse and keyboard control setup is more than adequate. The Xbox edition’s controller usage works perfectly as well if you choose to play on that console. During my play through, I found the keyboard and mouse fit the needs of the game perfectly and for that reason Morrowind receives a 100/100 as its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Morrowind, though this may differ depending on the hardware and settings you intend to use. Because Morrowind is a 15 year old game, nearly all modern hardware can run the game smoothly with at least 30 fps. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

While criticisms can be made that Morrowind’s draggable menus are detrimental to the user interface’s functionality, I took no issue with them and at some moments even found their flexibility convenient. Beyond this, nearly all control inputs are remappable and don’t conflict in their default positions, allowing the player to control their character with ease. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 95/100 in the functionality category.

Morrowind Steam Banner
(Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
Artistic Proficiency: 72/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 59.44/100

Dwemers Touch The Sky
The Nerevarine stands amidst the ruins of the great Dwemer nation. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
  • Agency Score: 90/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 38/100
  • Variety Score: 75/100

Morrowind is a game about constraints and how to succeed within them through patience, hard work, and determination. It is a game about consequences and living with those consequences; there are mutually exclusive quest lines that force decisions in interesting ways. Morrowind gives the player the agency to define themselves both at the outset of the adventure and through acting and leveling skills by use within a space that reacts to player agency in novel ways. Oppressive forces like the Ordinators will beat you into line, others will halt your progress until a service has been paid them, and some won’t even notice when their conspirators are murdered miles away. There are many impactful things you can do in Morrowind; kill gods, rise through the political systems of the Dunmer (Dark Elf) Great Houses, pick mushrooms for a fledgling alchemist, but most seem as innocuous, disconnected, and unimportant to the system as our day to day actions in the real world. How wrong that assumption is. The systems of magic within the game also give way to creative agency in terms of problem solving and character building. Alchemy is an incredibly exploitable system to enhance the player character and crafted spells can specifically solve any number of problems in the game. Everything from water walking and levitation to invisibility can be applied not only to the player character but also to NPCs and monsters. With an open world design that allows the player to learn the limitations and impact of their agency and plenty of opportunities to use it, Morrowind receives a 90/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Morrowind is as follows: explore the world and stumble upon a quest bearing NPC, receive quest from that NPC, travel to the appropriate area to complete the task, complete the task or receive an addendum to the task, return to the NPC. Some tasks require dungeon crawling, others require patient talking and item collection, the best require a convoluted mix of both. Morrowind’s gameplay loop is not for the easily bored or illiterate; it requires a respect and dedication for the work and writing that went into crafting it that many other games lack. That being said, Morrowind’s gameplay loop is no better than Diablo’s gameplay loop or any other Elder Scrolls game; it is enhanced and defined solely by the pretense and context given it by the audiovisual experience of the game. For that reason, Morrowind is not a tightly designed game and relies far too heavily on its story as a means to mask its ends. There is no deep combat system here (although the level up system magnifies and builds a narrative for the impact of your decisions in interesting ways), no deep conversation system here, and no slow introduction and intuitive teaching of mechanics. Sadly, Morrowind’s core gameplay loop receives the low score of 38/100.

In terms of variety, Morrowind excels. A large selection of factions and guild allows for hours and hours of content exploration. The wide selection and application of spells, enchanted items, and potions allows for ingenious solutions to combative, social, and environmental scenarios. A small, but dense and hand crafted play world allows adventure in any direction for any reason. This being said, Morrowind’s primary concession is that it’s action will be entirely similar regardless of the new context. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 75/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 85.33/100

Urshilaku_Camp
The Nerevarine cult resides in the Urshilaku Ashlander Camp. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from the Elder Scrolls Wikia’s Urshilaku Camp page)
  • Characters Score: 90/100
  • Plot Score: 81/100
  • Coherency Score: 85/100

Morrowind’s central characters are the self-made gods of the Tribunal, their fallen comrade Dagoth Ur, the Daedric Prince Azura, and the long dead champion of the Dunmer people Indoril Nerevar. You play a prisoner with the right characteristics to take on the role of the Nerevarine, Indoril Nerevar’s reincarnated self, after being moved to Vvardenfell and are given your freedom in exchange for orders by the Emperor to fulfill the Nerevarine prophecy. The history that surrounds all these characters and the resulting prophecy is muddled and different in each book and description you are given. No single narrative can take into consideration every aspect of the current events and many of those who had part in the events of the past give conflicting accounts. This creates an intriguing character study of each participant that not only relates to large sociological issues in the real world but also smaller, personal issues. Fantasy is the home of symbolism and analogy, and Morrowind is full of them both. Beyond this, the characters you interact with during the main quest are much less concerned with your actions and instead busy themselves with continuing the current function of their homeland. Each have personal desires and motivations, but they are seldom revealed. Outside the main quest the world comes to live with many hastily realized characters that are endearing for their quirks alone. For this reason, Morrowind receives a 90/100 for its character score.

The plot of Morrowind is intently political in nature and explores the culture and history of Morrowind while the player finds ways to fulfill each step of the Nerevarine prophecy, join together the people of Vvardenfell against the growing diseased army of Dagoth Ur, and end Dagoth Ur’s plan to conquer all of Tamriel. It follows Morrowind’s philosophical discussions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and control and freedom in a way that mirrors the best speculative fiction and, in some cases, directly steals concepts from previous works.  Despite this, Morrowind’s plot is an engaging, interesting whole with a lot to say about the world. For that it receives an 81/100 in the plot category.

Morrowind requires the player to actively engage in seeking out lore and answers, as well as critically analyze the full implications of its design and story decisions to  understand its final product. With that being said, many players, especially those familiar with the other installments in the series, can attest to the enjoyment of experience the smaller distractions and quests can deliver alone. In this way, Morrowind’s main quest is a product reliant on and designed to integrate novel experiences with at least part of the additional game content into itself. This build an understanding of the game’s world as a system and give Morrowind an 85/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Morrowind Cover Art
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Box Art (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from the Elder Scrolls Wikia’s Morrowind page)

While Morrowind suffers from a number of constraints based both in failure of design and in designing for the limitations of the hardware at the time, it’s lore, characters, and plot carry a depth and applicable weight that hasn’t faltered even after 15 years. Imbalanced design adds a layer of novel discovery to play, especially in the magic aspect of the gameplay, and the breadth of experiences available increases replay value. An experience more alike to searching a library with the aid of a librarian than to participating in a great cataclysm, Morrowind is not an experience for everyone but if you enjoy deep fantasy lore, exploring an alien world, testing and playing within the limits of a complex system, and philosophical enquiry it is an enjoyable one. It is my hope that future Bethesda RPGs, and especially future Elder Scrolls installments, will take note of the triumphs and the failures of Morrowind. Voice acting in subsequent games decreased the tedium of exposition but also left exposition awkward, truncated, and discordant with purpose more often than not. Combat has not grown mechanically in any way which is an enormous disappointment as gameplay is the weakest component of the series. The creation of a new mythos that mimics real myth instead of directly lifting from it was a triumph of Morrowind that gradually fell out of favor in the recent games. At the price of $15 for Morrowind’s Game of the Year edition, which includes content not covered by this review, Morrowind is more than worth the purchase price (especially with the added value of mods from Morrowind’s vibrant and active modding community). If you’re interested in exploring an alien world, thinking on metaphysical and political issues relevant even today, and meeting and creating a multitude of wacky situations, then Vvardenfell might be your perfect escapist destination. Just be sure to speak quickly, outlander.


75/100 – Great!

The Last Thing I Do Before I Die

When Samuel Coster was diagnosed with stage 4b non-Hodgkin lymphoma, his chance of survival was clocked at around 7%. Part of Butterscotch Shenanigans, a three brothers strong game development studio that had then been working on an infinite runner game, Sam made a decision. If he was going to die, he was done waiting to live how he wanted and he was going to start now. I’m not here to tell you the rest of Crashlands’ story, Mr. Coster does a much better job of that himself, instead I want to reflect on life, games, design, and meaning. How have you designed your life?

In a lot of ways, the society we live in, the animal we are, and the world around us have designed every aspect of our existence. It’s only natural to play within those designs, its how humans learn about their environments and it feels fun, but at some point we’ll also feel the limitations. Some red tape here, a dirty look there, the lull of a salesman’s con, the pain of hunger, the faltering of our fragile shells in sickness; these limitations are real and more real for certain people. To cope with the control our existence exacts upon us, Samuel Coster took responsibility over the autonomy he was given and so should we all. In every way you can, design your life to encourage the things you believe about yourself and the future you want to bring about. Ask yourself the simple question: How would a game designer make me want to do this?

“I don’t want this to be the last game I make before I die.” Its a powerful thing to know you’re going to die, but don’t we all know it? Our mortality seems to be an emboldening aspect of our life, either creating risk aversion that maintains the status quo or dismantling that aversion in a rush towards the inevitable. Acceptance of mortality is the ultimate conquering of human psychology, if it is possible. Somewhere between YOLO and heaven lies a state of acknowledgement and transformation that Camus refers to as “confronting the Absurd” but that others have found in music, literature, and games. A pleasant rebellion from life through the escapism of simulation/reconstruction that draws its power through the separation it exacts, games in particular allow for a life that doesn’t accomplish within the confines of reality but instead wallows in the confines of itself. Artists, idealists, and theorists never design with the intent of their designs being put in place but instead design with the intent of transforming the landscape of practicality entirely. This is not to say that I suggest abandoning real work, but rather that art, literature, and language exist as part of this false creation and that Crashlands is no different.

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Crashlands, a survival RPG like many others but for entirely different reasons. (Image credit to Butterscotch Shenanigans, retrieved from TouchArcade’s review of Crashlands)

Butterscotch Shenanigans set to work on Crashlands because they wanted to change the world, and they knew the best way to do it was not to. Whether they succeeded with this Don’t Starve style RPG is entirely up to you.

Birb Friends Review: Transistor (PC)

Transistor is an isometric tactical action RPG (although this description doesn’t do its systems justice) developed by Supergiant Games and released in May of 2014 for a variety of systems including PS4, Windows, Mac, Linux, and later, in 2015, for iOS. After the success of 2011’s indie darling Bastion, a successor to the game was envisioned and began to be produced with private funds. Bastion’s team of developers, sound designers, and artists all contributed to Transistor making for a equally stunning release. Transistor’s gameplay nearly mirrors Bastion’s, but the focus on restoring a single town and maintaining centrality in that area are gone and instead replaced with a simple linear progression which, while being mildly disappointing, doesn’t detract from the experience and feels more streamlined than Bastion’s loops. Transistor’s greatest achievements lie in its aesthetics; both visually and aurally the game is stunning. That being said, there is a depth to the symbolism present in Transistor’s world, a symbolism that is easily lost amidst the insufficiently exposited narrative of the game.

To detail my experiences with Transistor, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

Transistor Logo - Transistor
Transistor Logo (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
Technical Proficiency: 82/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 75.75/100

  • Style Score: 69/100
  • Animation Score: 80/100
  • Purpose Score: 77/100

Transistor follows in the tradition of Bastion in its use of highly saturated colors but the application of these colors is just slightly more selective than in Bastion. Reds, oranges, greens, and yellows dominate Transistor’s cyberpunk landscape. Dramatic shifts to warmer colors and brighter surroundings almost always worked to increase tension in dangerous or climactic situations. Loading screens between areas take the form of side scrolling rides on a motorbike full of context cementing buildings and background landscapes. Enemies are all entirely similar in aesthetic which serves narrative excellently but isn’t an interesting or engaging visual choice. Characters, however, have color themed designs expressive of their profession and personality; it’s a necessary expression in the face of an utter lack of interaction or exposition for most characters. For its selective and dynamic color palette, uniform enemies, and replication of a well established style Transistor receives a 69/100 for its style score.

The animations of Transistor are many times cleaner than Bastion’s animations. Cluckers bounce about on the spindles of their feet, Fetches prowl and leap, and Jerks rumble with enraged energy. Shifting perspectives during transitional pieces and areas is also seamless and smooth, displaying a three dimensional space despite the two dimensional engine. Red’s animations, from her deft flourish to her simple hum, are all sleek, expressive, and proper improvements to Bastion’s Kid. All that being said, a larger degree of variation in animation would have been appreciated. Transistor earns a 80/100 in the animation category.

Transistor doesn’t give perfect indications of where the player is in the world and whether their attacks and abilities will work as the player intends. That is to say, Transistor’s isometric view lacks clarity until the turn function is active. Once the player is planning their turn, the game takes on a whole new perspective, rather appropriately, and dots cleanly explain every obstacle in the main character Red’s way and the effect of every possible approach. Indicators for enemy attacks and movements aren’t as telegraphed as they were in Bastion, but the lack of awareness that the turn function’s clarity can bring is interesting in narrative sense and brings Red’s focus to clear relief. For these reasons, Supergiant Games’ sophomore effort receives an 77/100 for its visual purpose score.

Overall Sound Score: 77/100

  • Music Score: 80/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 77/100
  • Variety Score: 65/100

Transistor’s music almost entirely consists of light, thoughtful guitar and relatively uniform percussive elements that periodically crack into the sound. Thematically melding the humanity and physicality of the guitar’s expression with the digital and rhythmic precision of the percussion directly matches the game’s overarching message on the integration of technology into our very identities. Similarly, the way each area is given a nearly identical arrangement that only receives slight variations dependent on the enemies present in that area mirrors the plot of the game’s Cloudbank city. Vocal pieces, performed by two time collaborator Ashley Barrett, give incredible amounts of foreshadowing and understanding to those that listen as well as being pleasing to the ear. Sadly, they are placed at odd instances in the game that don’t always seem logical in reference to their content. I look forward to seeing more diversity in Barrett’s performance, especially in terms of vocal technique, as she explores artistic territory in the future. Hopefully some of that exploration will be in conjunction with Supergiant Games, but for now Transistor receives a score of 80/100 for its music score.

In my review of Bastion, I bemoaned the massive amount of information being relayed to the user as they try to decipher the plot information given to them aurally by the narrator. In Transistor, this issue seems to be inverted, though not entirely reversed. Not only is the narrator put to little use in relaying pertinent plot information, (more often than not that information comes from the music, text-based terminals, or function ability mechanic) but no resolution was made to resolve the issue of the narrator’s voice becoming drenched in other sound effects to the point of losing recognition. A perfect opportunity to resolve this would have been within the Turn() function, an ability that allows Red to plan out her next moves using the eponymous Transistor that houses the narrator, but instead the narrator’s voice fizzles out with the rest of the background noise when using Turn(). Regardless, sound effects are still functional in relating game happenings to the player and pleasant to hear. In total, Transistor receives a 77/100 in the sound effects category.

Transistor’s score has variety of a certain kind. It bounces between vocal tracks and instrumentals frequently enough, but the lack of ingenuity in variety is its main failure. While Bastion’s tracks frequently mixed the different styles present in its many inspirations, Transistor is a singularly focused affair that doesn’t incorporate facets of its inspiration, or rather the facets of its inspiration’s inspiration. I would have liked to see wider instrumentation and perhaps some tracks with jazz influence. If anything can be said to be lacking from Transistor’s aural landscape, it is variety. For this reason, Transistor receives a 65/100 in the sound variety category.

Overall Controls Score: 92.22/100

Wallpaper - Transistor

  • Controller Score: 95/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 95/100
  • Functionality Score: 90/100

Transistor supports many different controllers across many different platforms. I chose to use a keyboard and mouse during my playthrough. Initially, keyboard and mouse controls felt as if they weren’t the intended method of control, but after modifying the key mappings to match the control scheme of League of Legends, they felt right at home. Controllers, especially Xbox 360 controllers, are also usable on the PC platform, but I didn’t use them for my playthrough. Transistor receives a 95/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Transistor. The only issue of responsiveness I had during my playthrough was screen tearing that at times made it difficult to judge motion correctly or generally distracted from the experience. After changing setting in accordance to troubleshooting instruction found online, my screen tearing was greatly diminished but never removed. That being said, Transistor is nearly perfect in responsiveness on almost all counts and for that it receives a 95/100 in the responsiveness category.

While there was ease in action during gameplay, the main issue of functionality comes in the needlessly convoluted function selection system. Consolidating this system to a single screen would have significantly streamlined my experience as most of my time was spent contemplating the uses of Red’s function in the selection system. Despite this, the controls allowed Red to crash, jaunt, shock, mask, flourish, and more with grace. For this it receives a 90/100 in the functionality category.

Process - Transistor
A collection of Process cells glance at an engraved Transistor marking. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
Artistic Proficiency: 84/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 85.67/100

Snapshot - Transistor
Red crashes the ground as a Snapshot glares. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
  • Agency Score: 100/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 85/100
  • Variety Score: 46/100

Transistor is ultimately a game about the loss of personal power and, in a large sense, what power is in and of itself. The different ways the game allows, and disallows, you to enact your own will fits these themes. A passive, active, and secondary slot is available to place any function, the game’s term for ability, into. Experimenting with these slots not only allows you to diversify the experiences you’ll have in the game but also allows you to customize your skillset not just to your personal taste, but to the road ahead. These are all very personal effects, they have an impact upon yourself and so, in a very limited way, also have an impact upon the structure that supports the outside world, in this game that structure is exemplified by the robotic enemies known as the Process and further confirmed by the Spine of the World. Furthermore, seeking out information about the practical uses of each ability simultaneously brings understanding of the personal history of those who the ability belonged to. If you fail to use this understanding, the function is lost for a time until the integrity of your authority over it is reestablished. Transistor’s ludic representation and dissection of the interweaving systems we come to know and understand in our own lives is brilliantly spoken with the game itself. For this reason, I give Transistor a perfect score of 100/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Transistor is as follows: prepare to enter area by assigning functions and limiters, sight enemies and enter the ()Turn function to plan, set out a path of functions to use during the turn, allow the functions to take place, dodge and protect yourself during the vulnerable cooldown period after using ()Turn, repeat until the enemies are defeated, continue to the next area, and repeat (probably by swapping functions and limiters in order to receive the interesting exposition contained within usage unlockables). Transistor’s core gameplay loop is much closer to proper alignment than Bastion’s. Transistor never forces you to use a function unless you’ve made a mistake or are attempted a formulated challenge, and its rewards for doing so are much more incentivizing and purposeful. All that being said, ()Turn tended to allow me to dissociate from the actual happenings of the game (which I believe to be intended) in a way that diminished my enjoyment of the active experience, and the formulated challenges of Transistor seemed far more superfluous than those in Bastion. For these reasons I give Transistor an 85/100 as its core gameplay loop score.

In scoring the variety of Transistor, the fact that it only holds two separate modes of play is definitely considered. Transistor is truly a linear and singular experience. Perhaps more prominently, and importantly, is the fact that Transistor seems painfully unfinished. Relationships are told instead of shown and developed (although some of this seems deliberate in light of the story, not all of it does), boss battles are relatively inconsequential or significantly mismatched to their rising action, and a single playthrough left me considerably bewildered and discontent by the lack of closure and information. For those reasons, Transistor receives a 46/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 82/100

Red and Cloudbank - Transistor
The Transistor’s User speaks to Red with a powerful blue glow as Cloudbank hangs in the balance. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
  • Characters Score: 83/100
  • Plot Score: 80/100
  • Coherency Score: 83/100

Where Bastion’s characters wrestled personally with their identities, thoughts, desires, guilts, and actions, Transistor’s characters are devoid of deep thought and moving development. The only epiphany Transistor holds for its characters is the bleakest one imaginable, which is perhaps symbolic of the greater realization Supergiant intends for us to learn about technology, power, and individualism. Regardless, the voice acting and design of the villains of Transistor’s Cloudbank city leaves something to be desired. As with Bastion, I wish a longer amount of time was dedicated to learning about these characters. All this considered, Transistor receives an 83/100 as its character score.

The plot of Transistor is ripe with symbolism of many sorts and pulls out all the stops in terms of exploring its main themes. That being said, many players of Transistor will find it hard to understand just why or how anything is happening within Transistor’s world of Cloudbank. The greatest obstacle to understanding the meaning of Transistor is the self imposed ambiguity that surrounds the game. In Bastion this ambiguity is to a much lesser extent and allows the player to enjoy the game as both a base level experience and as something greater, but Transistor’s ambiguity reduces the experience to its most contemplative and philosophical parts, disallowing the consumption of the game as a traditional, surface level experience. All that being said, the plot of Transistor is interesting, integrated to gameplay, and complete which is why it receives an 80/100 in the plot category.

Transistor never struck me as a powerful experience and, in retrospect, I don’t think it truly was. The coherency of Transistor as an experience came to me in the analysis and thought I devoted to the game after its completion. Plot and characters in Transistor that seemed discordant or out of place at first were revealed to be purposefully so when viewed in light of the experience as a whole. It is my personal hypothesis that Transistor takes on its greatest value in replay sessions and with the real-life application of what can be learned within the game in mind. For these reasons Transistor receives an 83/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Box Art - Transistor
(Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)

Above the surface, Transistor is a confusing blur of beautiful art accompanied by pleasant music and engaging gameplay. Below the surface, Transistor is a nuanced statement on the modern notions of control, technology, autonomy, power, change, democracy, and the individual. Transistor’s downfalls lie in its presentation of concepts and failure to teach its players about the story they are acting within. What it lacks in character development, it makes up for in thematic perfection, beautiful art, and solid gameplay. It’s my hope that Supergiant Games’ future endeavors, such as Pyre, are able to present a cohesive story of longer length while maintaining the great attributes of previous endeavors. Diversity in game design would also be a welcome addition to Pyre, as Bastion and Transistor are, in their most basic components, comparable experiences. At the Steam Sale price of $4, Transistor definitely earned its purchase. If you’re interested in strategizing with a variety of self explanatory tools, analyzing deep works of symbolic fiction, seeing beautiful things, and hearing gorgeous performances, Transistor is the right game for you. I’ll see you in the Country.


83/100 – Wonderful!