Trying to Get Our Numbers Up

Trying to Get Our Numbers Up
That Podcast We Did

 
 
00:00 / 1:15:29
 
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Brick & McClain discuss adorable Christmas memories, terrible Smash Bros. bosses, timpano, lucky New Year’s stew, the importance of buffer dogs, doggie Xanax, Infinity Wars spoilers, fictional resurrections, McClain’s phone tribulations, and the new states of Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

Subscribe to That Podcast We Did:

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▶ Google Play: https://play.google.com/music/listen#/ps/Ikfr5vm6pmp5o5rxdefzm3q2sq4
▶ YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJaCM0fQ67ZYbv-rfGnaqZqDE0D5QKtXF

Timpano: http://scibbe.com/archives/4634

Cool US Population map: http://fakeisthenewreal.org/img/reform/electoral10-1100.jpg

Four New NetHack Roles

NetHack has a strong history of referencing fantasy materials in its content, predominantly ancient religious mythology, Lord of the Rings, and a smattering of Discworld. But a lot of modern mythology has been written since NetHack‘s inception, so I thought I’d help them out by modernizing the game a bit with three roles based on fantasy properties that didn’t exist when the game was new.

Note: I’m aware these roles aren’t entirely NetHack-ish, and their mechanics sort of break the spirit of the game a bit. I think that’s fine, because 1) the DevTeam isn’t going to implement these anyway, and 2) my main criticism of the game in its current state is that there are too many same-y roles. Aside from four or five exceptions, your choice of role sort of doesn’t matter after ten or so dungeon levels. I’d like to see new roles along the lines of Monk or Archeologist, with cool gameplay mechanics that actually matter.

These are formatted in more or less the same way as the role pages on the NetHack Wiki.


Auror

Aurors are humans of any alignment.

Starting equipment:

  • a +2 cloak of protection
  • a wand of teleportation (0:8)
  • a random attack wand (magic missile, striking, cold, fire, lightning, or sleep)
  • 2 random wands (not attack wands, teleportation, nothing, create monster, polymorph, or wishing)
  • a scroll of charging
  • a pair of lenses
  • 2..3 candy bars

Intrinsics:

  • XL1: stealth
  • XL5: warning
  • XL13: see invisible
  • XL20: invisibile

Skills:

  • Basic: knife, short sword, club, quarterstaff, dart, riding, bare hands, attack
  • Skilled: dagger, unicorn horn, divination, enchantment, matter
  • Expert: escape
  • Special spell is teleport away

Special rules:

Aurors rely on wands as their primary gameplay. They have a number of special features:

  • Upon [z]apping or [a]pplying a formally identified wand, Aurors learn how many charges the wand has (or had).
  • [z]apping or [a]pplying a wand has a chance to exercise Intelligence.
  • If an Auror has shock resistance, wands in their open inventory are safe from destruction.
  • Wands are less likely to explode when being charged, based on the Auror’s Intelligence.
    • (7:x) or higher wands explode only 90% of the time.
    • (1:x) or higher wands of wishing always explode.
  • Upon gaining intrinsic warning, Aurors are also specifically warned if an enemy they can see is carrying a wand. (“Careful! That foo is brandishing a <wand>!”)
    • Or, “The foo is holding a <wand>.”, if peaceful.
  • [w]ielding a wand confers special properties, depending on wand type.
  • [z]apping a wand with at least one charge while [w]ielding it has a chance to expend the Auror’s Pw instead of one of the wand’s charges. This chance increases based on the Auror’s Intelligence. Consumed Pw depends on wand type.
  • Since many wands have identifying properties when [w]ielded, Aurors can potentially identify some wand types without expending a charge on [E]ngrave testing.
Wand typeProperty while [w]eildedPw consumption
lightlight source, radius 26
nothingformally identifies
("This is just a stick.")
0 (and abuse Intelligence)
diggingdetect $ and *, radius 231
enlightenmentunchanging25
lockingdoors resist less often12
magic missilemagic resistance12
make invisibledisplacement25
openingdoors resist less often6
probinghallucination resistance6
secret door detectionsearching18
slow monsterstoning resistance12
speed monsterfree action18
strikingreceive (y/n) prompt before destroying objects6
undead turningdrain resistance37
coldcold resistance25
firefire resistance25
lightningshock resistance25
sleepsleep resistance6
cancellation+1 MC (as per ring of protection)43
create monsterESP12
polymorphpolymorph control37
teleportationteleport control37
deathmagic resistance43
wishingno effect
("The wand's magic will not be controlled!")
n/a

Religion:

  • Lawful: Godric
  • Neutral: Rowena
  • Chaotic: Salazar

Quest:

  • Home: Diagon Alley
  • Locate: Hog’s Head Inn
  • Goal: Hogwarts Great Hall
  • Leader: Garrick Ollivander
  • Guardians: students
  • Nemesis: Nagini the Snake

Quest Artifact:
The Elder Wand

  • Base item: wand of magic missile (0:8)
  • Affiliation: lawful, Auror, intelligent
  • When carried: faster energy regeneration
  • When [z]apped: damage calculation as per magic missile spell, rather than wand (for Aurors only)
  • When [a]pplied: explosion as per wand of magic missile
    • uses all charges; wand does not break
  • When [w]ielded: confers intrinsic property of wand [w]ielded in other hand (for Aurors only)
  • When [M-i]nvoked: restores 1d2 charges to Elder Wand; if this causes explosion, functions as being [a]pplied, but still recharges

Dragoon

Dragoons are humans of any alignment.

Appearances:

  • pony = chocobo chick
  • horse = chocobo
  • warhorse = red chocobo
  • white/grey/black unicorn = white/grey/black chocobo
  • ki-rin = gold chocobo
  • apple = gysahl greens
  • carrot = sylkis greens
  • pear = mimett greens
  • melon = tantal greens

Starting equipment:

  • a +1 spear (50%) or random +1 polearm (50%)
  • a +0 ring mail
  • a +0 helmet
  • a pair of +0 leather gloves
  • a pair of +0 low boots
  • starting pet is an unsaddled chocobo chick
  • knows identity of all nonmagical weapons and armor

Intrinsics:

  • XL1: jumping (limited)
  • XL7: speed

Skills:

  • Basic: dagger, knife, pick-axe, scimitar, club, flail, hammer, trident, bow
  • Skilled: axe, short sword, broadsword, two-handed sword, saber, mace, morning star, bare hands, crossbow, lance, two weapon combat, attack, divination, enchantment
  • Expert: long sword, spear, polearms, bare hands, riding
  • Spear and polearms start at Basic
  • Special spell is drain life

Special rules:

  • Dragoons can [j]ump like a knight piece in chess.
  • Monsters are a valid target for a Dragoon’s [j]ump. When [j]umping at a monster, do the following:
    1. If monster has no empty adjacent spaces, [j]ump fails. (“You can’t find an opening!”)
    2. Roll to hit against target.
    3. If hit, apply damage as normal (as though [F]ighting it).
      • If weapon is spear, polearm or lance, +3d8 damage.
      • Rust/corrode weapon as needed.
      • If monster is dead, Dragoon lands in its empty space. (“You skewered the foo!”)
      • If target is still alive:
        1. If target is whirly, it is stunned. (“You stopped the foo‘s spin!”)
        2. Make a Dexterity check.
          • If pass, Dragoon lands on target’s space, and target is pushed to a random adjacent space. (“The foo reels!”)
          • If fail, Dragoon lands on a random adjacent space (known not to be dangerous, if possible), abuses Dexterity, and gains a leg wound. (“Ouch! Rough landing!”)
    4. If miss, treat as a failed Dexterity check.

Religion:

  • Lawful: Ramuh
  • Neutral: Shiva
  • Chaotic: Ifrit

Quest:

  • Home: Baron Castle
  • Locate: Chocobo Forest
  • Goal: Cavern of Mist
  • Leader: Guard Captain Baigan
  • Guardians: guardsmen
  • Nemesis: Dragon of Mist

Quest Artifact:
The Zodiac Spear

  • Base item: silver spear
  • Affiliation: chaotic, intelligent
  • When carried: [j]umping requires no nutrition
  • When [w]ielded: drain resistance, chance to stun target in melee, +5 to hit, +1d8 damage, +2d8 damage while [j]umping (Dragoon only)

Dothraki

Dothraki are always chaotic male humans.

Appearances:

  • scimitar = arakh

Starting equipment:

  • two of three possible weapons, one of which is enchanted to +1:
    • an arakh
    • a bow
      • and 20..29 arrows
    • a bullwhip
  • a +0 leather armor
  • a pair of +0 low boots
  • 5..9 uncursed apples (50%) or carrots (50%)
  • 2 uncursed tins of horse meat
  • an uncursed bell (50%)
  • starting pet is a saddled pony

Intrinsics:

  • XL1: aggravate monster, searching, food appraisal (for u corpses only)
  • XL7: see invisible

Skills:

  • Basic: knife, short sword, long sword, sling, two weapon combat, healing
  • Skilled: dagger, axe, broadsword, saber, club, boomerang, bare hands
  • Expert: scimitar, bow, whip, riding
  • Riding and one weapon skill (whichever generated +1) start at Basic
  • Special spell is healing

Special rules:

Dothraki have several restrictions:

  • Dothraki suffer a to-hit penalty while [W]earing metal armor, [W]earing a shield, or [w]ielding a two-handed weapon.
  • Dothraki cannot tame a monster he cannot ride. (“That foo is no suitable steed!”)
  • Dothraki cannot cast spells; doing so suffers an alignment penalty and always fails. (“You should not trust in blood magic!”)
    • The exception is the spell healing, when cast on the Dothraki’s mount, while [M-r]iding.
  • Dothraki cannot pick up bells that were not dropped by a monster they killed. (“You did not earn that bell!”)

To make up for this, their mounts enjoy several benefits:

  • Dothraki mounts enjoy all the same protections he does, so long as he is [M-r]iding.
  • If a mount is reduced to 0 HP while the Dothraki is [M-r]iding, the mount is instead set to 1 HP and the Dothraki is dismounted on the nearest available space. (“<petname>/Your <pet> is dying!”)
  • Attempting to [M-r]ide a mount does not reduce its tameness.
  • While [M-r]iding, low mount HP and low tameness are considered minor problems for purposes of [p]raying, and may be remedied accordingly.

Dothraki enjoy the following benefits in mounted combat:

  • +2 to-hit bonus, and +2 bonus to AC
  • If the Dothraki moves three or more spaces in a straight line, and the next action after movement is attacking a monster, the attack counts as a “charge attack”.
    • This attack deals +2d12 damage. It is also loud, waking nearby monsters. (“You scream into battle!”)
    • At Skilled in riding, it becomes more lenient as to what constitutes a straight line. (E.g., ↖, ↑, and ↗ all count as up; →, ↗, and ↑ all count as up-right.)
    • At Expert, the Dothraki need only move two spaces instead of three.

Finally, the Dothraki have some benefits involving shops and bells:

  • Upon entering a shop for the first time, there is a small chance (influenced by Strength) that the shopkeeper will make a gift of one random item (or stack of items) in his inventory. (“<shopkeeper> makes a gift of <item>.”)
  • There is a 3% chance a monster’s death drop is a bell.
    • Each bell the Dothraki carries in his open inventory gives a bonus to hit and damage: +0/+0 if cursed, +1/+1 if uncursed, +1/+1d2 if blessed.

Religion:

  • Lawful: The Great Shepherd
  • Neutral: The Mother of Mountains
  • Chaotic: The Great Stallion

Quest:

  • Home: Vaes Dothrak
  • Locate: The Dothraki Sea
  • Goal: The Red Wastes
  • Leader: Mother of Dragons
  • Guardians: dosh khaleen
  • Nemesis: Warlock of Qarth
  • Note: if the Dothraki uses some tricky means of dispatching the Warlock of Qarth, he will not be able to pick up the Bell of Opening! The only way to seize it is to bring a covetous monster to the level, who will pick it up and subsequently drop it when killed. (The Wizard of Yendor might be happy to oblige!)

Quest Artifact:
The Arakh of Rakharo

  • Base item: arakh (scimitar)
  • Affiliation: chaotic, Dothraki, intelligent
  • When carried: reflection
  • When [w]ielded: conflict, beheading (5%), +1d5 to-hit, +1d4 damage, +2d4 damage while [M-r]iding (Dothraki only)

Waterbender

Waterbenders may be human, elf, or gnome. Human waterbenders may be any alignment.

Starting equipment:

  • a +1 quarterstaff (50%) or a pair of +1 leather gloves (50%)
  • a +1 robe
  • a pair of water walking boots (50%) or an amulet of magical breathing (50%)
  • a blessed spellbook (healing, protection, or sleep)
  • 3..4 uncursed potions of water
  • 2..3 potions of fruit juice
  • 3 random potions (not water, booze, or fruit juice)
  • 3..6 food rations
  • 3..6 fortune cookies
  • an oilskin sack

Intrinsics:

  • XL1: cold resistance, speed
  • XL5: stealth
  • XL7: warning
  • XL9: sleep resistance
  • XL13: poison resistance
  • XL17: breathless

Skills:

  • Basic: short sword, dagger, spear, trident, crossbow, shuriken
  • Skilled: attack, clerical, escape
  • Expert: quarterstaff, healing
  • Master: martial arts
  • Special spell is cone of cold

Special rules:

Waterbenders have the same penalties for [e]ating meat and [W]earing armor as do monks, with these changes:

  • The to-hit bonus when not [W]earing armor or a shield applies only to ranged attacks.
  • Waterbenders are incapable of dealing a staggering blow in any event.

To make up for this, Waterbenders have the following benefits:

  • Waterbenders are immune to water traps and thrown potions. (“You bend the liquid harmlessly away from you.”)
  • Waterbenders can dilute any potion except oil by [a]pplying it, converting it to an uncursed potion of water. (“You draw the water from your <potion>.”)
  • While standing next to or on top of a fountain, sink or square of open water or ice, the Waterbender’s combat abilities are augmented (“The nearby water swirls around you!”):
    • Gain fire resistance, shock resistance, reflection, and +1 MC.
    • +3 bonus to AC, +5 bonus to hit, and +1d4 cold damage on melee attacks per adjacent square of water (up to 9).
    • [f]iring with a [Q]uivered potion of water costs no Pw and will not consume a potion.

Finally, Waterbenders are able to perform several tricks with potions of water:

  • Uncursed potions of water have their weight reduced by 50%.
  • [t]hrowing an uncursed potion of water at an unoccupied square has a chance (influenced by Wisdom) to convert the square into a water square. This does not work on the Plane of Fire or the Quest Goal level (“The water immediately evaporates!”), the Plane of Air (“The water falls down as rain!”), or any level with undiggable walls.
  • A weapon (or a pair of gloves, if using martial arts) [M-d]ipped into a potion of water becomes more dangerous. (“The water swirls around your <weapon>!”) The effect lasts for a number of turns influenced by Wisdom and experience level. When the effect ends, there is a chance the Waterbender gets back the potion. (“Your <weapon> is dry again. / The water returns to its bottle.”)
    • +2 bonus to-hit per skill level.
    • +1d3 cold damage per skill level.
    • If the potion was holy water, apply the standard effects to appropriate targets.
  • Waterbenders can [Q]uiver stacks of potions of water and then [f]ire blasts of water from them. This consumes Pw. At 0 Pw, it consumes the potions instead. The skill used for these shots is martial arts.
    • Blasts of water can multishot. At 0 Pw, a single potion is consumed for the entire turn, regardless of how many blasts are fired.
    • Blasts of water deal damage as per a thrown rock, +1d3 damage per martial arts level.
    • If the potions are holy water, Pw consumption is increased but the shots gain the benefits of thrown potions of holy water, if applicable.

Religion:

  • Lawful: Tui and La
  • Neutral: Raava
  • Chaotic: Koh

Quest:

  • Home: The Spirit Oasis
  • Locate: The Frozen Ocean
  • Goal: The Fire Nation Ship
  • Leader: Princess Yue
  • Guardians: waterbenders
  • Nemesis: Admiral Zhao

Quest artifact:
The Decanter of the New Moon

  • Base item: horn of plenty (0:50)
    • only dispenses uncursed potions of water
  • Affiliation: neutral, intelligent
  • When carried: faster energy regeneration, +1 multishot bonus while firing water blasts, half spell damage
  • When [M-i]nvoked: charges itself, and changes 1..6 adjacent unoccupied squares to water

Timpano

Peanut and I throw a holiday party for all our friends each year, where we make way too much food, play board games, and usually end up spilling alcohol everywhere. This year, we decided to try our hand at making a dish that utterly defies reason and logic: timpano.

I first learned of timpano from this Binging with Babish video, which I imagine you’ve already seen. Here’s the basic recipe:

  1. Roll out a just absurdly large circle of pasta dough, and line the inside of a dutch oven with it.
  2. Fill it with absolutely every Italian dish you’ve ever heard of.
  3. Bake it, flip it, and serve it.

Timpano traditionally has hard boiled eggs in it, but that sounded weird and gross to us, so we decided on the following layers:

Layer one: rigatoni, on a bed of provolone cheese, painstakingly organized so they are all more or less facing the same direction.
Layer two: eggplant parmesan, because one of our guests was a vegetarian.
Layer three: Peanut’s homemade meatballs, which include tiny bits of carrots.
Layer four: fresh mozzarella.
Layer five: shells stuffed with ricotta and spinach.
Layer six: chicken parmesan.
Layer seven: hot Italian sausage, peppers and mushrooms.
Layer eight: salami and freshly grated parmesan cheese.

We folded all that up and baked all 38 lbs. of food for about an hour, and this was the result:

Glorious. Delicious. Utterly decadent.

There was a really loud THUD as I flipped the meat and pasta monstrosity out of the pot, but thankfully everything stayed together and carved up nicely. We fed a dozen people and had enough leftover to bring my parents dinner tonight.

What good are holidays if you can’t take the opportunity to go overboard making all your friends and loved ones fat and happy?

Thumbs Down on Incineroar

Thumbs Down on Incineroar
That Podcast We Did

 
 

00:00 / 1:13:04
 

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Brick & McClain discuss anti-animal phrases, the clingiest web browser, fake Australia, the proper usage of “show notes”, weird fetus Pikachu, and the proliferation of anime swordguys.

Subscribe to That Podcast We Did:
▶ iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1391927970
▶ Google Play: https://play.google.com/music/listen#/ps/Ikfr5vm6pmp5o5rxdefzm3q2sq4
▶ YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJaCM0fQ67ZYbv-rfGnaqZqDE0D5QKtXF

Aggressive Monetization Ruins Games

Look, I understand that game publishers need to make money. I get that. I’m not going to write a frothing rant about how DLC and microtransactions are destroying the landscape of gaming. I’m not going to stack up some hippy-dippy malarky about how creativity and capitalism are at odds and any company that “sells out” has lost the plot. I’m not going to howl and rave about season passes or lootboxes or “$39.99 best value!” piles of in-game funny money.

Companies are here to make money. I understand. I don’t need the lecture.

But I like game ideas. I like seeing even very simple ideas in action and going, “Cool!” I like the thought of some poor, faceless game dev grunt signing on with one of these monstrous mobile game companies, being tasked with making Bongo the Bear Taps His Screen (and Then Asks For Your Parents’ Credit Card) or whatever, and actually managing to inject some fun and creativity into it. I like to acknowledge talent wherever I find it, even if it’s in the badly-organized cash-grab hellscape of the Google Play store.

I want to share two mobile games I’ve been playing recently. One I really like, and will probably keep playing, at least for a while. The other I sank about five hours into over the course of a week, then uninstalled in disgust. These games have two very simple things in common:

  1. They’re both perfectly fine games, which would be well worth, say, a $4.99 asking price.
  2. They both have a major flaw smack in the middle of their gameplay loop, which would not exist if not for their aggressive monetization.

Wordscapes

Wordscapes is a find-the-word game. You’re given a group of letters in a circle, and then you have to make all the words you can think of with those letters. I have a soft spot for uncomplicated little word games like this, and I’ve tried a few that are out there, but Wordscapes packages its ideas up in a way I hadn’t seen before. Instead of just listing the words you find, Wordscapes plugs them into a crossword. For me, this makes all the difference.

Other games in this style I’ve tried have a pretty dumb problem: you end up with all but one of the words on your list, some obscure four-letter Scrabble reject you aren’t going to find on your own. Your only recourse, other than brute force, is to use the game’s hint system (which is, of course, backed by microtransactions). Or, if you’re a savvy Internet hero like I am, Google it using one of those online word finders that ruined Words With Friends for everyone.

What sucks is, using a hint system in a game like this isn’t satisfying. It’s not a puzzle, there’s no logic or cleverness to work through, you either know the words or you don’t. You can’t get a nudge. You basically find all but one word on a level, then ask what the last word is, and the game is like “FROE!” and you’re like ok whatev, next level please.

What Wordscapes does, with its crossword layout, is build an unobtrusive hint system right into the base game. As you knock down the obvious words, including the big one that uses all the letters, the crossword gets filled in, giving you a few freebie letters in the words you have trouble with. When you swipe in “ROSE”, and figure out your last word has R as a second letter, well, you probably still wouldn’t guess “FROE” but at least the searching space is a lot smaller. It’s a neat system that keeps you moving through the levels at a relaxing pace.

There’s a minor innovation, too, which I didn’t realize was helping me at first, but which I really came to appreciate: obscure and obscene words don’t go into the crossword, but count as “bonus words” instead. So the game acknowledges that, say, “RAPED” is indeed a word that uses those letters, and gives you credit for them, but doesn’t take up space on your screen. And if you happen to know what a “FROE” is, you get credit for that too, but level completion isn’t locked behind finding it. This is a neat feature that didn’t happen by accident; a smart game designer noticed the issues other word games were having, and solved them elegantly.

There are powerups you can buy with the in-game currency, which uncovers letters on the board for you, if you really get stuck. The more coins you sink in, the more letters you’ll get. I mostly ignore these because the game isn’t super challenging, but I assume most players use them at least part of the time. I like the bullseye powerup that lets you reveal one specific letter of your choosing; I sometimes use this to get a hint for the rare disconnected words that show up on the edges of puzzles. The game dumps coins in your lap to buy these with, if you need them.

And, of course, you can buy as many coins as you want with real money.

Reviews of Wordscapes complain that the game has too many ads. And, ah, the game does have a lot of ads. Every two levels or so, you have to watch a video shilling Texas Toast or find the hidden “close this ad” button on whatever Bejeweled clone is being pooped out this week. I mostly don’t mind the ads, and they’re not what ruins the game for me.

What ruins the game are the bees.

I’m not totally sure how the bees work. The game gave me a bunch of free ones early on, and when I ran out, it helpfully explained I could buy more anytime. I think the bees get placed on the crossword grid, sometimes revealing letters for you, and awarding you with extra coins as you go.

But you can’t earn more bees, ever. You can only buy them. They’re for premium players only. If you don’t pay, you don’t get any bees.

Are bees a fun and interesting aspect of Wordscapes? If so, then I’m missing out on a fun and interesting feature because it’s been locked up behind a paywall. If not, then they shouldn’t be in the game at all. As far as I can tell they only help reveal letters (which the hint powerups already do) and reward you with coins (which you can already buy). If you need hints, you’re covered. If you want to spend money to buy more hints, you’re covered there too. I don’t see what the point of the bees are, from a gameplay perspective.

It looks like what happened was the Wordscapes guys made a fully-functional, reasonably addictive word game, showed it to their boss, and their boss’s boss’s boss sent word back that it needs bees and this is how bees should work and this is how much they should cost. It’s a totally tacked-on feature that feels like it doesn’t belong at all.

These bees are vocabulary tumors.

Obviously the bees didn’t make me quit Wordscapes. I used the game this past week to unwind a bit after all the Thanksgiving activity. I still like making words and watching coins fly into my giant pile. But it bugs me that every level I play has this annoying “buy more bees” button on it, and always will, for as long as I enjoy the game.

Toon Blast

I played about eighty levels of Toon Blast before uninstalling it.

This is your basic color-matching game. You tap blocks of a particular color, and if there are enough of them clumped together, they explode and new blocks fall in from the top of the screen. Destroying enough blocks at once condenses the exploded blocks down into powerups, which in turn let you clear more blocks. You’ve played a million games like this.

Toon Blast doesn’t lock any of the powerups behind a paywall. In fact, you unlock usable powerups at a pretty steady clip, and they line up on the bottom of your screen. These are like your “emergency powerups”, for when you need to clear a particular block in order to set up an impressive looking combo, or when you’re two moves away from winning a level with one move left.

The final piece of the Toon Blast puzzle is the large amount of types of blocks in the game. There are actually more different block types than there are standard block colors, each with their own behaviors and interactions. When you combine all the different block types with the powerups you can make while playing, and sprinkle the emergency powerups on top of that, there’s actually a surprising amount of strategy involved in clearing each level. There’s no time limit ticking away forcing fast, stupid play (which is the case in a lot of block-matching games), so the Toon Blast experience ends up being thoughtful and liesurely.

And there isn’t an ad break every two levels. So that’s nice.

Without a time limit, and with all these powerups laying around, where then does the challenge come from. Well, Toon Blast limits the number of moves you can take in a given level. A “move” is defined as “tapping a block on the screen”, and if you can’t clear all your objectives in, say, 44 taps, you fail the level. Then Sad Bear pops up and asks if you want to pay 100 coins for five more moves, or if you want to give up. If you elect to give up, Sad Bear points out that means you have to also “give up your crown”, and I have no idea what wearing a crown does in the context of the game, but who would want to give up a crown? And anyway, the game basically poops coins on you constantly, so if you’re faced with Sad Bear and you can see you’re only a few moves away from completing the level, this looks like a pretty good deal.

However, if you’ve misjudged your win state by just a smidge, you might run out of extra moves, and cause Sad Bear to pop up again. This time, five more bonus moves is going to run you 200 coins. And, if you misjudge twice, 300 on his next visit. All the while you’re being warned that your crown (??) is in jeopardy. And you figure, well, I’ve already sank 600 coins into this, I might as well sink another 400 to beat this one stupid level, and wow, now 50+ levels’ worth of coins is wiped out in a blink.

If you’re like me, you might just throw the crown away and retry the level. The game has thought of this too, and Sad Bear works very hard to prevent it. First, the “+5 Moves” button is way bigger than the “Give Up” button, and Sad Bear gives you like three chances to mix them up with his “Are you REALLY sure you’re a stupid loser who gives up?” prompts. But okay, you push through all that, and restart the level. But then you lose a life, of which you only have five, and they only grow back at a rate of once per 30 minutes.

This all sounds pretty insidious: if you’re stuck on a level, you only get to try it a few times per sitting before you run out of lives and can’t play anymore. (Sad Bear will helpfully text message you when you have more lives to play with, of course.) This system immediately sucks all the fun out of the game, because you don’t get to actually go in and try new strategies or combinations of powerups. You don’t get to try playing with all the fun block types in new ways, or set up new combos, or really much of anything. The game discourages experimenting with its systems — which are fun and colorful and combine in interesting ways — because experimenting actively hurts you.

This is all designed to funnel you into what I imagine is a very common screen for the most active Toon Blast players: the big attractive button that gives you more lives for real cash.

I was willing to deal with all of this, because I enjoyed the core gameplay enough. (Well, not all of it. I blocked Sad Bear the first time he texted me, because eff that ess in the bee.) What really nailed the game for me was the inclusion of BS levels.

All puzzle-y games with random elements have these kinds of levels. I’m sure you remember trying to forge new spells or whatever in Puzzle Quest, or clear a particular section of overlapping track in Zuma, and just not getting the pieces you need. Every Tetris player learns immediately to build up their stack with one empty vertical slice against a wall, only to lose it all because the game went 30 moves without coughing up an I-piece. This is just an element of the colored-block-puzzle genre.

But Toon Blast is so slick and so polished, so very purposely designed, that I couldn’t shake the feeling that a boss in a suit somewhere said, “Okay, once every 20 levels or so, make sure there’s one that’s just complete BS. Tweak it just perfectly so there’s always just two or three fewer moves than the player needs.”

I can swallow a lot of BS in games, because their emergent properties sometimes lend themselves to BS. Sometimes Shadow Man slides when it looks like he’s going to fire, sometimes Zeromus’s ATB just happens to line up so you get Virus’d immediately after getting Big Bang’d. It happens. You get screwed, you reset, you win next time.

But specifically designing your gameplay to have this property, for the explicit purpose of having Sad Bear pop up and ask for cash… wow. It made the whole game incredibly sour. When I cleared a fun level in a satisfying way, the sense of achievement was sapped because I knew the next level might be BS. The rewards for clearing that level didn’t matter either, because I knew the next BS level would just flush all those coins and powerups, leaving me destitute of in-game funny money. And that’s if I was lucky.

I don’t want to pay Toon Blast a dollar every time I get slapped with a level that is purposely designed to be impossible within the boundaries of the game’s rules. I’d much rather pay Toon Blast $4.99, once, and then just enjoy playing it.

Again, I’m not here to rail against games that monetize their features. I can appreciate that the old quarter-munching arcades were a viable business model, and that a lot of these modern mobile games are just an extension of that.

But even in 1985, even in those old dingy arcades, there was a difference between designing a game to be fun, challenging, and rewarding, versus designing a game to just eat quarters. Pac-Man got your quarters by being fun and addictive, with simple gameplay and a steady drip-feed of minor in-game rewards. When the ghosts caught you, they didn’t apologize and offer to let you go for a dollar (and two dollars, next time).

Thank you for reading this post about mobile games nobody cares about!

None of Them are Pilots

None of Them are Pilots
That Podcast We Did

 
 

00:00 / 1:02:41
 

1X

 

Brick & McClain discuss flat-Earth People, the first Flumph campaign, lightsaber construction, a terrible Idris Elba doll, the minimum baldness threshold, Harry Potter’s magic mirror, Rick Grimes’s exit, Pony Island, and holiday logistics.

Subscribe to That Podcast We Did:
▶ iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1391927970
▶ Google Play: https://play.google.com/music/listen#/ps/Ikfr5vm6pmp5o5rxdefzm3q2sq4
▶ YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJaCM0fQ67ZYbv-rfGnaqZqDE0D5QKtXF

Show Notes:
• This $1,100 Idris Elba Doll Looks Nothing Like Idris Elba: http://time.com/5453341/idris-elba-doll/
• Pony Island on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/405640/Pony_Island/

Answers to 15 More “Unanswered” Metal Gear Questions

I wish I had seen this video back when it was first uploaded, which was around the time I was compiling questions for my own smart-aleck-y list of answers to “Unanswered” Questions in Metal Gear. Alas, the timelines just didn’t work out that way. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago the video butted into my Related Videos feed, and now that I’ve seen it, I feel like addressing it. (Or, at least, address the parts I haven’t already, in my previous post.)

I invited folks to leave new questions in the comments for the previous post, but I don’t have the most popular blog in the world, so I don’t even know how many people saw it. (Most of the feedback I get for blog posts comes from my Discord channel, and most of that was “Brick please stop talking about Metal Gear, we are begging you”.) The only actual question I ended up getting there is the first one I’d like to tackle now, because it’s an example of another eye-rolling class of question that’s kind of unfair to even ask. To wit:

How did the Cyborg Ninja get to Shadow Moses Island?

The for-real answer to this question is, “Somehow.” He got there somehow. Solid Snake arrives by submarine, Liquid Snake arrives by Hind D, Otacon flies there a decade later in the Nomad. The point is, people get there. The island is reachable. The actual logistics of each individual character’s journey — including scientists, soldiers, terrorists, FOXHOUND members, intruders, spaghetti western-loving quadruple agents, and Cyborg Ninjas — just don’t matter much.

To me, this is a disingenuous question. Someone seeking to untangle the plot isn’t going to get bogged down with minutiae like this, for the same reason we don’t wonder who does Rey’s laundry, what restaurant Cipher and Agent Smith are eating at, how many different sorts of carrots Farmer Maggot grows, or what the thread count is at the Galdin Quay hotel. Someone seeking answers in good faith will wonder why the Cyborg Ninja went there, or who the Cyborg Ninja is, or what the Cyborg Ninja did upon arrival. And we know all those answers, because they’re a part of the story.

But why care how he got there? He got there somehow, is what’s important.

“Snaaaaake! I took an Uuuuuuuber!”

And now, on to the clickbait listicle video! A few of the questions therein were addressed in my first post, so I’ll just skip over those.

Why didn’t Solid Snake or any of the hostages ever recognize George Sears?

Big Boss and Solidus Snake aren’t actually identical.

During Metal Gear Solid, George Sears is president of the United States. He is forced to resign after the Shadow Moses Incident. A few years later, during Sons of Liberty, it is revealed that George Sears is really Solidus Snake — third clone of Big Boss. However, Solid Snake doesn’t seem to notice the resemblance at all. Is that weird?

Here are the best visuals we have for what Solidus and Big Boss look like when they get old:

Left: Snake. Right: Also Snake.

To my knowledge these are the most recent graphical renders of each of these characters, at an age where Solid Snake would know them. (Big Boss has newer renders, but of a younger version of himself, which Solid Snake wouldn’t be familiar with.)

The first thing to address is… ah… these men don’t look exactly alike! Despite having the same genetics, Solidus only sorta resembles Big Boss; their features are different enough that they could be different people. So the easy answer to why Snake didn’t see George Sears on CNN or whatever and be all “Hey that looks like Big Boss!” is the guy on CNN didn’t look enough like Big Boss for Snake to jump to conclusions. If you’re in line behind a guy who kinda looks like Joe Pesci, you don’t later tell the story about how you met Joe Pesci at the gas station. The reaction would be more like, “Hey that looks kinda like Big Boss, if he were ten years younger, and clean shaven, and had both eyes!”

There’s also the fact that Snake spent most of George Sears’s presidency hiding off the grid in the Alaskan bush, probably not watching much CNN.

But okay, why doesn’t Solidus look like Big Boss, if they’re supposed to be a perfect genetic match? And the answer is, Solidus is not Big Boss’s perfect genetic match. Big Boss was a human man who aged naturally over many years. Solidus was genetically engineered to age rapidly. (In the shot above, Solidus is only 37… about my age!) This, combined with any physical alterations they added to the mix, plus whatever effect you get from cleaning him up and putting him in a nice suit, produces two men who look similar but not identical.

As for why the hostages in Big Shell don’t recognize him… they’re hostages. They’re wearing blindfolds and Solidus doesn’t interact with them directly at any point. Even if one of them happened to catch a glimpse, they have Snake’s problem from the other direction; there’s no indication an average citizen in 2009, however-many years into the Patriots’ lockdown on information, knows who Big Boss is or what he looked like.

Where was Solidus during The Phantom Pain?

The Patriots had him.

The video’s next question after this is “where was Grey Fox?” which I covered in my 30 Questions post, but these “where was so-and-so” questions all have the same answer: they were wherever they were, and where they were wasn’t here.

The video’s Grey Fox question gives the game away: people wonder where Grey Fox was, not because there’s some burning hole in the story that needs addressing, but because Grey Fox was cool and influential in that one chapter. So why oh why isn’t he in this other chapter? It’s a Pure Fanboy question (and, of course, I have deep respect and sympathy for other Metal Gear fanboys). It’s not a stupid thing to ask, it’s just that there’s not an answer and isn’t going to be, because the answer wouldn’t affect anything.

The wording in the video is something like, “Grey Fox did important stuff in this story, so it would make perfect sense for him to do important stuff in this other story.” Yeah, okay, but it also makes perfect sense that maybe he didn’t do important stuff in that other story. Kojima can only write it one way. It’s fine to wish it was written another way because you dig on some Grey Fox, but that’s not the way it went.

You can see the silliness of this question by asking a reverse version of it. Where was Quiet during Metal Gear Solid? She doesn’t die onscreen, she isn’t mentioned later in the chronology… what happened to her? We know the answer is something like “Phantom Pain was a prequel, and Quiet hadn’t been invented yet.” And we leave it at that. We don’t trouble ourselves with an in-universe version of the question because one simply isn’t necessary to make the story work.

We can of course speculate. It’s possible Quiet retired from military life and opened a flower shop in Bruges, and nobody bothered her ever again. Or maybe she slipped on a banana peel and fell into the ocean and dissolved, and Venom wiped the resulting sludge all over his face in a dramatic cutscene. Point is, she wasn’t at Shadow Moses. And Solidus wasn’t on Mother Base.

As with any absent character, we can infer what Solidus was likely up to in the early 1980s. He’s younger than his brothers, but aging faster, and we know from Sons of Liberty that by the late ’80s he was “old” enough to be a twisted father figure to Raiden on a battlefield in Liberia. The whole point of Solidus’s existence is to be a military and political tool for the Patriots, and we know he eventually fills that intended role, at least for a time. During the early ’80s his apparent age is probably in the mid-to-late teens, and he’s probably spending his days receiving the harsh training that would eventually carry him to Liberia, the presidency, and Dead Cell.

What happened to Diamond Dogs after The Phantom Pain?

They died, disbanded, and rebranded themselves, in some combination.

D-Dog got to keep the helicopter.

From our perspective, because our protagonists were the dudes in charge of Mother Base — and it certainly does look super impressive — the Diamond Dogs were a special and influential player in world events during the 1980s. Our perspective is biased, though. In reality, Diamond Dogs was just one of many mercenary armies dotting the globe. They were a blip on the map.

This is the in-universe reason for The Phantom Pain‘s PvP element. When you infiltrate another player’s Mother Base, what you’re actually doing is attacking a rival PMC in order to steal their soldiers and intel, disassemble their nukes, and piss in all their flower pots. We don’t know how many such groups there are. Probably lots and lots.

We also get a very grim depiction of what life is like for the men of these PMCs, both from Big Boss himself (especially during his various speeches in Peace Walker), and eventually from the creation and manipulation of the War Economy in Guns of the Patriots. These men drift from battlefield to battlefield mostly in a haze. When one group breaks up — as Diamond Dogs inevitably must — the component parts end up somewhere else. They join other PMCs, to fight in other battles, and that is the story of them. EVA has quite a lot to say about this during her big “war is bad” exposition during Guns.

In practice, most of the Diamond Dogs hardware and personnel probably ended up at Outer Heaven, which is where Venom Snake eventually plants his flag on soil. Outer Heaven wasn’t just another PMC, it was a new nation, which is why the US government took such an interest in it. But that’s a story for another time.

What is the VOL2 tape? Is there a VOL1 tape?

It’s an easter egg.

The tape in question is collected during a non-canon side op in Ground Zeroes called “Classified Intel Acquisition”. Once collected it appears on the menu as “Classified Intel Data”. There’s only one track: “Data Cassette (Do not use in music players)”. Of course, inside Ground Zeroes the only thing you can do with tapes is listen to them in your music player, which just results in about five seconds of static.

Now, the first couple Metal Gear games were released for an 8-bit computer called the MSX, which was able to read data from cassette tapes. Some cheaper games came on cassette, but Metal Gear and its sequel came on sturdier, more expensive cartridges. In fact, Metal Gear 2 uses MSX cartridges as a plot element, when some important data winds up encoded on one. There being precident for this kind of chicanery, some enterprising hackers figured out how to boot the static from Ground Zeroes in an MSX emulator. The result is the phrase “VOL2” followed by a bunch of garbage code.

In one of The Phantom Pain‘s thirty endings, we get to see what might be VOL1: the cassette Venom Snake has that’s labeled “Operation Intrude N313”. That’s the code name for sending Solid Snake into Outer Heaven. The implication here is that Venom’s tape is the mission data for the first Metal Gear game, and the tape Big Boss recovers in Ground Zeroes, VOL2, is the data for Metal Gear 2.

But it can’t possibly be, because there’s no way the planning for Zanzibar Land could have ended up at a Cuban black site in the 1970s, ten years before a computer that can read it even makes it to market. Metal Gear is crazy, but it’s never dipped into time travel.

The VOL2 tape is just a macguffin. It only exists to justify your running around in that one side op. It was just a neat place for Kojima to hide a little wink for fanatical players to discover.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the “VOL2” thing may not even be true. I haven’t verified it myself, others have reported not being able to boot the data at all, there doesn’t seem to be any video of the data being booted, and the only reference to VOL2 I can even find on the internet outside of the listicle video are some reddit posts discussing it. (The video doesn’t even seem to know why it’s called the VOL2 tape, or at least, doesn’t mention it.) Reports indicate that the “VOL2” text is followed by lots of garbage data, so it could even be coincidence that the static, when converted to MSX data, just happens to output something legible for the first four characters. The whole thing might just be an urban legend. Either way, it doesn’t need an in-universe explanation.

How do we know the Ground Zeroes side ops aren’t canonical?

Big Boss only visits Camp Omega once: the Ground Zeroes main op.

In the side ops, Big Boss visits Camp Omega again and again, to accomplish various tasks. In one he sits in his helicopter and sprays the whole base with a machinegun. In another he erases a bunch of Metal Gear game logos. In another he extracts Hideo Kojima himself, who is held in the base as a prisoner. Some, like Classified Intel Acquisition, are plausible in-universe adventures; others clearly aren’t.

The crucial tell here is, at the beginning of the main op, it’s Big Boss’s first visit to Camp Omega. Kaz’s briefing as Big Boss climbs the cliffs up to the site make it pretty clear neither of them have been there before in person. So we know he didn’t complete Classified Intel Acquisition before now.

As soon as Big Boss leaves with Paz and Chico, he arrives back at Mother Base during Skull Face’s attack. During the commotion Big Boss is wounded, and enters his nine-year coma. So we know he doesn’t complete Classified Intel Acquisition later, either.

The only other read, if you’re willing to really stretch, is that Big Boss went back to Camp Omega at some point in the 1980s to complete these side ops during or after the events of The Phantom Pain. The problem with this read is it would have to be Big Boss, and not Venom Snake, since the man doing the infiltration doesn’t have any forehead shrapnel. But it couldn’t be Big Boss, because Kaz doesn’t work with Big Boss any more after Mother Base is destroyed.

The side ops are fun little missions, and some of them even make sense as canon if you take Ground Zeroes in isolation, but they’re not a part of the series chronology.

Are all easter eggs non-canonical?

This gets real muddy real quick, but basically no.

Some easter eggs are clearly just for fun: Snake demonstrably did not run around Shadow Moses in a tuxedo. Others are fun, but also fit in-universe: EVA probably did have breast augmentation done as part of “charm school”.

Metal Gear likes to dabble in magical realism, so when Snake tells Raiden his bandana gives him infinite ammo, and then fires thirty thousand rounds at ninja attackers in the following scene, I’m willing to take his word. When something like this happens during the course of natural gameplay, or is directly called attention to by one of the characters in-universe, we can probably put it down as having happened, even if what happened was weird.

On the other hand, it’s really hard to believe that Snake has a “Making of Metal Gear Solid 4” podcast on his iPod. I mean, who carried an iPod around in 2014!?

There’s this intuitive understanding of video game storytelling where it’s not necessarily true that every bit of gameplay “actually happened”. If you spend an hour punching Emma in the face, you wouldn’t consider that part of the story’s canon. It’s just Some Dumb Thing You Did. Kojima is really, really good at finding those spots and acknowledging them, though; if you do punch Emma in the face, your codec team knows you did it, and will yell at you for it. The codec team reacting makes it “more real” than if they hadn’t, and it becomes part of “your” Sons of Liberty story, but it’s still not part of the shared canon across all players. (E.g., when you boot up Guns of the Patriots, Otacon won’t be like, “Hey Raiden, remember that time you spent an hour punching my sister in the face?”)

So maybe, when you point a camera at one of the Beauties and she wiggles her butt at you, it’s because the Beauties canonically wiggled their butts. Or maybe it was just Kojima winking and saying, “I knew you’d try that, you perv.”

“I knew you’d try this, too, and the authorities have been notified.”

How did the Philosopher’s Legacy end up with Ocelot?

He took it.

The Philosopher’s Legacy is a colossal amount of money in Colonel Volgin’s possession during Snake Eater. Anybody who’s anybody in Groznyj Grad is there to get their grubby mitts on the Legacy, in the form of a microfilm containing its location, and turn it over to their respective government. Lots of stuff happens, but it all shakes out with Ocelot telling his boss, the director of the CIA, that the Legacy is “safely with us, in America’s hands.” In that same conversation, he says only about half the Legacy made it back, and speculates that the rest must still be in the USSR, with the KGB.

Every reference to the Legacy after this point involves it coming to Major Zero, and being used to establish the Patriots. The nuts and bolts of where the money actually went requires delving into Portable Ops, which many players (including me) do not consider canon. In that game, Ocelot explicitly recovers both the KGB and CIA halves of the Legacy, and turns it all over to Zero.

While Portable Ops isn’t canon, I think we can safely assume those particular events played out more or less as they were depicted. This sort of duplicity is exactly the kind of work Ocelot is suited for, and he was well-placed in both the KGB and CIA at the time. Betraying both for a new organization that benefits himself and Big Boss sounds right up his alley.

Do Ocelot and The Boss know they’re related?

No.

The Boss is Ocelot’s mother. In The Boss’s long sad story about giving birth during the landing at Normandy, the baby she lost to the Philosophers grew up to become Ocelot. During Snake Eater neither character gives any indication they know about their connection, and while The Boss is mentioned quite a lot by other characters later in the chronology, never by Ocelot himself. So that’s the answer: no, they don’t. (Or, the more complete answer: no, probably not.)

The more interesting aspect of this question is, to me, that neither of these characters are the type to have behaved any differently if they had known. The Boss wasn’t going to jeopardize her mission in Groznyj Grad because she happened to be reunited with dear old Sonny Boy, and Ocelot just flat out doesn’t respect authority. Most likely there’s no family reunion scene because neither of them knew, but it’s possible one or both of them knew, and didn’t act.

Where was EVA between Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots?

Wherever she was.

No, Brick, come on, this one is actually important!

Okay, fair enough. We actually know quite a lot about EVA’s timeline between the two games she appears in, but we have to put it together from several different sources. The only direct evidence we get about her fate following Snake Eater is from the ending crawl. In 1968, she “disappeared without a trace in Hanoi”. A few lines later, in 1972, “the sons of Big Boss are born.”

At the time Snake Eater came out these looked like two disconnected events, but as of Guns of the Patriots we know that EVA is the mother of Big Boss’s sons. So it follows: when she disappeared in Hanoi, she disappeared into Patriots custody, for use in Les Enfants Terribles. This project caused a schism in the Patriots; it was the event that caused Big Boss to break away. EVA was conflicted; she didn’t want to work against Big Boss, but she also cared about her sons. (She tells Snake, “Your father never wanted you… but I wanted you.”)

From here the games lose track of EVA until she turns up again in Guns, as the leader of the Paradise Lost Army, working against the Patriots.

EVA never worked directly with Big Boss during his private army years. There was some contact — she sends him a bunch of tapes about The Boss in Peace Walker — but as far as we can tell they never met again face to face. However, Ocelot also wasn’t working directly with Big Boss during this time; he was still ostensibly a loyal Patriots agent. It’s not until Skull Face blows up Mother Base and draws Zero out of hiding that there’s any indication these characters still share a personal connection. It’s at Zero’s behest that Ocelot look after Big Boss’s double, as an extra security measure.

One more important clue: when EVA lay dying on the Volta, she makes one final emotional appeal to Liquid Ocelot by using the first code name she knew him by: ADAM. She even gives him an apple, just to drive home the ham-handed imagery. This is the only time during Guns when a character addresses Liquid Ocelot as Ocelot instead of Liquid. She’s asking, is the Ocelot I knew still in there? And she dies before she gets the answer.

Remember, the man Ocelot is masquereding as at this point is her other son, who she wanted. That she’d try to appeal to Ocelot, rather than her own son, is very telling. She had a connection with Ocelot, before he disappeared into Liquid.

From all of this we can extrapolate EVA’s timeline. She was working closely with Ocelot for many years, though covertly. Ocelot was still inside the Patriots; EVA at some point breaks away. They kept working together to get hold of Big Boss’s remains and bring down Cipher. You can picture EVA receiving a secret tape (well, probably a CD or a thumb drive by this point) with Ocelot saying, “Hey, this Big Shell nonsense is going to be a real cluster. Don’t get close, I got this.”

At some point, she forms Paradise Lost.

I don’t think it’s really important to pin down when this happens. A secret covert organization devoted to fighting another secret covert organization nobody knows exists? Makes sense there are no breadcrumbs. Cipher and the Patriots have lots of fingers in lots of pies. While Ocelot was working the direct military conflicts — the sort of thing Solid Snake and therefore the player would be involved in — Paradise Lost was doing different sorts of work. Rescuing VIPs, shuffling and hiding finances, planting and acquiring secret intel, maybe keeping tabs on Huey Emmerich’s kids.

Eventually Ocelot is “lost” from EVA’s perspective, and at that point she’s the last one left still fighting the Patriots. It’s not until now, maybe 2010 or so, she needs to become more involved militarily. She recruits Raiden and, eventually, makes contact with Solid Snake.

So, where was she between Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots? She was wherever she was, doing whatever she could.

Why was Shadow Moses left unattended for so long?

This is a very, very interesting question that gets right to the heart of a lot of the themes of information control the series likes to drone on about. I’m actually surprised — and a little impressed! — that it showed up in someone’s clickbait video.

And it was left unattended because they knew they’d want to make this scene a decade later.

After the events of Metal Gear Solid, Nastasha Romanenko, a loose end the Patriots failed to tie up, published a tell-all book entitled In the Darkness of Shadow Moses: The Unofficial Truth. This is an accurate recounting of the Shadow Moses Incident. You can read the full text off the main menu in Sons of Liberty, where it serves as a story recap. When it comes to Shadow Moses, the truth is out there.

So tell me, what did you just think of when I said, “the truth is out there”?

One important distinction between the Metal Gear universe and our own is, over there, there exists a shadowy illuminati organization that controls everything the citizens think and feel. It’s rare that the Patriots goof enough that the public gets any wind of their machinations. (Indeed, these incidents tend to be the scenarios we play through!) But even events that are too big to cover up can be spun, and nobody is better at doing that than Cipher. Remember: the Patriots’ goal isn’t to suppress information, but rather to control it. They don’t need to erase Shadow Moses, they just need the citizenry to not believe it. As long as they paint Romanenko’s tell-all as sensationalist conspiracy claptrap, well, job done.

How would you feel about a movie called Obama’s Birth Certificate: The Unofficial Truth? (That movie kind of exists, by the way.)

Shadow Moses was left unattended because the only public account of what happened there wasn’t credible. And besides, we don’t actually know it was left unattended. Maybe Cipher had a dude out there in a yurt whose job it was to catalog all the comings and goings. Maybe black helicopters showed up in 2013 to disappear the film crew of the In the Darkness Netflix documentary series.

How did the Patriots AI give orders to people?

Agents. Until nanomachines were invented, anyway. Then, nanomachines. Except those people that don’t have nanomachines. For those, the AI uses agents.

How do nanomachines get installed?

A needle goes into your skin, and the nanomachines are injected, and now you have nanomachines.

These two questions, taken together, fall into the category of “So wait,” for me. “So wait, the Patriots really have basically infinite resources?” Yeah, that’s really what’s up. If the Patriots want you to do a thing, you’ll get your orders somehow. If they want you to have nanos, you’ll get nanos.

There are numerous examples of the Patriots AI establishing control over people without them ever knowing it. Meryl Silverburgh spends an entire game doing their bidding, and she doesn’t even know they exist. Raiden goes into live fire on an anti-terrorist infiltration op because a voice in his head tells him to. Solid Snake lets a doctor give him an injection of what he thinks is an anti-freezing agent, but is actually a revenge-fueled nanovirus.

The Patriots AI is an infinite computer brain that lives in space, has been in constant development for 40 years, backed by an all-powerful world-spanning organization with unlimited funds, whose very mission statement is to control everything. Eventually it’s not even possible to fire a gun unless the AI says it’s okay. The logistics of these day-to-day tasks are just trifling details.

The AI is imperfect, and by Sons of Liberty it has also gone crazy, but it’s still functionally all-powerful.

Why does the Patriots AI allow Liquid Ocelot to rise to power?

Because it can’t not.

The AI isn’t equipped to deal with Liquid as he’s amassing wealth and power. Imagine coming home to find your kitchen burned down, and asking your goldfish why it didn’t put the fire out even though it had all that water right there.

The Patriots AI is infinite in resources and global reach, but it is stupid. At the end of Guns Big Boss describes the AI as being an “oppressivly uniform system”. It’s capable of doing only what it was designed to do: control information. That’s an incredibly powerful tool, but as of SIGINT’s death in Metal Gear Solid, nobody is weilding it anymore. The AI is left unsupervized, and its code eventually mutates into what we see in Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots.

Liquid Ocelot takes advantage of the situation, but he didn’t create the War Economy. The War Economy is an abberation, a mutation in the Patriots AI that allows it to propogate itself and bring people under its control faster and more efficiently than the old method of controlling information.

The AI can’t take action against Liquid without damaging its own plots and systems. And the AI can’t — literally is unable to — take action that would damage its own plots and systems. So it’s stuck, if it even sees what’s happening.

However, buried somewhere deep in the AI is a vestigial line of code left over from Shadow Moses, that looks something like:

if Liquid.uppity
  deploy(solidSnake);

Which is exactly what happens. The AI starts turning a wheel somewhere, and before you know it Roy Campbell is touching down in a helicopter with an assassination job on offer. And that wheel touches another wheel which touches another wheel which ensures Drebin and Meryl just happen to be in the area to offer valuable support.

The AI can’t prevent Liquid’s rise to power because last time Liquid rose to power, nobody prevented it. It has no frame of reference. But someone did stop Liquid once he attained power, and so the AI just does the same thing that worked last time: it sends in Solid Snake.

How is the Arsenal Gear crash covered up?

The clickbait video lists this as the #1 question Metal Gear doesn’t answer, but I can’t really figure out why, since to my knowledge this doesn’t actually happen. The cover-up, I mean. The crash definitely happens.

It’s true we don’t know what the public’s reaction to the Arsenal crash is. But then, we generally don’t know a lot about what the public is up to in the Metal Gear universe at all. We are told repeatedly that the events of the games — even the big, flashy public ones — get swept away by some “official story” that everybody buys, and that’s really enough of an explanation. The public believed whatever the Patriots AI wanted them to believe re: Arsenal, because that’s something the Patriots AI is able to do.

They did cover up this awesome boss fight, though.

In Sons of Liberty, Otacon explains that Ocelot sold the technical specs for REX on the black market, and now every “state, group and dotcom” has their own Metal Gear. In such a climate, it would be shockingly easy for the US government to sell its citizens on the idea that, yes, we really do need something like Arsenal to protect us, and yes, terrorists stole it and crashed it into New York, so yes, now we need even bigger and badder Metal Gears to combat this new threat. This is, in fact, almost exactly how the War Economy ends up operating in Guns of the Patriots.

That’s the end of the Metal Gear questions, for now.

If you have a burning question of your own, or even better, if you have another dumb clickbait video for me to dissect, point me in that direction. And as always, thanks for reading!

Denmark is Basically Antarctica

Denmark is Basically Antarctica
That Podcast We Did

 
 

00:00 / 50:22
 

1X

 

Brick & McClain discuss Discord Nitro, the Artifact of Enigma, Telltale and Rockstar, tired old Christopher Lloyd, the quote-unquote media, provisional ballots, and maps of the Shetland Islands.

Return to Return of the Obra Dinn

I’m happy to report that my second playthrough of Return of the Obra Dinn confirmed three things for me:

1) The entire game is solvable through observation, logic, and deduction. There is no point where identifying a crewman or their fate requires any sort of guesswork.

2) The game is even better when played like that than it already was, which is to say, “very plenty good”.

3) If you’ve already solved some percentage of the game through guesswork, like I had, playing the remainder of the game “fairly” doesn’t make you feel like you missed anything. In essence, you’re going back and playing what you skipped the first time.

This is good news! It doesn’t fix the critical flaw of the game — that it naturally guides you towards making guesses and then confirms those guesses magically — but given how difficult it would be to solve the problems this flaw creates, and given so few adventure games actually take measures to dissuade brute forcing, maybe that’s okay. The main point is, I was afraid the ease at which guesswork solves the game meant guesswork was the game. And that’s not the case.

Whether you’ve solved Obra Dinn already or are going into it your first time, you might want to apply what I’ve learned to your playthrough.

The Mechanism

I said in my critique that Obra Dinn has some mechanism by which it knows which crewman you have enough information to identify, and which you don’t. Here’s how the game does it:

The sketch you start the game with blurs out all the crewman’s faces. This is the game’s shorthand for “you don’t have enough to go on yet”, and will tell you that explicitly if you try to name someone. (It doesn’t actually stop you from naming someone, though.) Once you have enough info to pin someone, their face in the sketch comes into focus.

How this works is, many crewmen have x clues you need to find to deduce their identity. These clues are peppered throughout the various memories you unlock as you play. If a crewman’s clues are in, say, memory #3, memory #12, and memory #26, that crewman’s face un-blurs once you’ve unlocked memories 3, 12, and 26.

Other crewman don’t have clues as such; you have to infer who they are through process of elimination. (The game tells you this.) These faces become un-blurred once you’ve identified those men who, once pinned, should leave only space for the one you’re looking for.

Whoops

This does mean, if you’re blitzing the game unlocking each new memory as soon as you can, the game mops up its clues as you progress. Say you’ve found memory #5, but not memory #6. A crewman whose clues lay in memory #5 will come into focus once you see that memory; this is your indication that memory #5 is important to that crewman. If you don’t check your sketch for new faces between memories, though, you can lose that piece of information. Once un-blurred, the face remains un-blurred for the whole game, and you can never again pinpoint exactly when someone “opened up”.

This isn’t a terribly huge problem. The search space for all crewman across all memories is large, but isn’t so vast you can get lost. The game offers lots of good tools for narrowing your focus to just the things you want to look at.

One way to make this a little more elegant may have been, upon penciling in a new memory for the first time, making a little dramatic show of each crewman whose face becomes un-blurred. Draw direct attention to when each man becomes solvable, to guide the player towards factoring these key moments into their gameplay loop, rather than just running from memory to memory.

This would be a minor change and some players might still prefer to just blitz the memories. They’re the most exciting part of the game, after all. The game still works fine as it is and it’s not possible to land in an unsolvable state.

Rules

Here’s how you apply this knowledge to your (next) playthrough. Play the game with these self-imposed rules in place:

1) Don’t place any information you’re not certain is correct, and that you can back with evidence or logical induction.

2) Make careful note of which crewmen become un-blurred during each new memory you find.

3) If you find someone new, resist moving on to the next memory until you’ve placed those men you should already know.

4) At the completion of each chapter, scrub the sketch to see if any background faces became focused that you missed, and apply 1-3 above.

Or, you know, just play the game however you want and find enjoyment wherever you can in this crazy, mixed-up world. Thanks for reading!

The Critical Flaw of the Obra Dinn

This post contains no spoilers for The Return of the Obra Dinn, but I do detail some specifics about the nuts and bolts of the core gameplay loop.

I quite enjoyed my time with Obra Dinn. Steam reports the game took me about ten hours to solve, spread across two long-ish play sessions, immersed in the only fully 3D 1-bit world I’ve ever explored to a cacophony of strings and brass. It’s an enthralling story of monsters, betrayal, and grand adventure on the high seas. From a strictly artistic standpoint, this game is worth the asking price.

I don’t buy games for strictly artistic reasons, though. I buy games to play games. And this is where Obra Dinn has a critical flaw.

The flaw isn’t that it’s a… (groan)… walking simulator. Yes, all you can do in this game is walk around and look at things. Yes, your world interactions are limited to opening doors, waving your pocket watch around, and entering data into your 19th century spreadsheet. This is what separates it from more conventional adventure games; there aren’t any puzzle boxes or strange ciphers, there’s no inventory, no branching dialogue trees, no key-and-lock. It’s neither Monkey Island nor Myst. The actual experience of playing Obra Dinn is much like poring over an artistic puzzle book, clues hiding on every page, designed so that you just “know” you’ve solved everything, because there’s only one way the solution can go.

“My magic pocket watch will help determine who left this gross old skeleton here!”

I’m groaning about nothing, probably. At time of writing, Obra Dinn doesn’t even have “walking simulator” listed as a Steam tag. Although Obduction does. So maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what the term’s supposed to mean. Point is, gameplay that happens in the blob between your ears is still gameplay. And Obra Dinn has that in spades.

The goal of the game is to correctly identify the face and fate of every lost soul aboard the ill-fated Obra Dinn, armed with only a crew manifest and a sketch of daily life aboard the ship. To this end you have a magic pocket watch which, when pointed at a dead person, transports you to a motionless snapshot of that person’s death. One frozen moment in time, with powder and blood spray and sea foam hanging in midair, where you’re meant to wander about and add to your growing book of deductions.

You’re doing detective work. Magical detective work, sure, but still a far cry from plugging a date you’ve read off a plaque behind a breakaway stairwell into a dentist chair to load up a specific star chart. You have to notice things about the snapshots you explore. You have to build a timeline, carefully place who’s who and what’s where. You have to trace ballistic trajectories, sometimes be-tentacle’d trajectories. And slowly, over time, your deductions and logical guesses will start to bear fruit, as you check names off your list and match them up with their tragic fates.

The game warns you that, sometimes, you have to make inferrences based on partial information. Just as an example: there are only four women aboard the ship. Two are identified by name, and that’s your lot. I spent a lot of the game waiting for a second clue to split the other ladies apart, before having a sudden “aha!” moment and realizing the clue I was waiting for was in front of me all along. I plugged in my deduction, and was right on both counts. A clever and illuminating moment! The important bit — the bit that makes me clever here — is that while it was an inferrence on my part it was a deductive inferrence. I logically decided which woman was which, and knew I was right before I placed them. It wasn’t a guess.

And this brings us to the critical flaw at last: I could have guessed. And gotten it right. And then I wouldn’t have felt clever at all, just… well, unsatisfied. Guessing isn’t fun, but it’s how I solved a decent percentage of this game, just as I imagine most players will. Across all players, Obra Dinn is probably 30% guesswork by volume.

“I’m gonna guess… the kraken did it.”

Obra Dinn isn’t so mean as to require you have every soul bagged and tagged before allowing victory. Instead, when you have three people correctly marked, the game “locks them in”. This is two very important pieces of information: one, it’s the game telling you point blank, “Hey, here’s three you got right!”. Information puzzles need checks and gates like this, it’s nothing new. You know you have three pieces of information right in Myst when you plug the three symbols you got from those dentist chair star charts into a machine and it does something good.

The other piece of information you get, though, is, “Everything else you have penciled in is wrong!” And this is a lot more information than the game should probably give you. (It’s certainly more information than our intrepid watch-weilding insurance agent would have, in-universe. Muh ‘mersion!) Part of the thrill of this style of game, for me, is the realization that I’m on the wrong line of reasoning. It’s the creeping sense of bewilderment that sets in after playing with a dentist chair for an hour, abandoning what I thought I knew and setting out to scour for more information. You never get that in Obra Dinn, though, because the game explicitly tells you what you’re wrong about, constantly.

Adventure games are always open to brute forcing eventually. If you only identify two of the three needed star charts, you can figure out what the last one is just by running down the remaining possibilities. That’s in Myst, of course, but it applies to other adventures as well. In Monkey Island you can get unstuck by rubbing every inventory item over everything in the game world. This isn’t fun, by the way, but it’s how everyone plays Monkey Island because it becomes the most efficient way to progress, very quickly.

And you can play Obra Dinn like that. There are four women, three Russians, three midshipmen. If you can’t figure out which is which, just keep swapping their names around until the game tells you you’re right. The way this worked for me, in practice, is I’d scour the ship for clues of whatever deduction train I was currently following, and when something clicked I’d go in and switch around all my Russkies and Chinamen. Instead of locking in three well-researched souls at a time, I’d lock in one plus two mostly-lucky freebies.

“Can you hurry up and switch us quick? All I have is a pair of 3s.”

So this sounds like a failing on my part. It’s not, for two reasons. First, you kind of stumble into this “strategy” by necessity. You have to pencil in guesses sometimes, because you have enough information to apply a name to, say, one of three faces, but not enough to definitively pin someone. Maybe there is more information out there, some obscure clue to find, but the game doesn’t let you find it because it turned your “maybe” into a “close enough!” without your consent.

And second, well, I still ended up doing a lot of really tricky detective work. By the end of my voyage I was down to following individual crewmen through their timelines, one snapshot at a time, building a mental map of where they were in relation to the action of every scene. This was quite taxing, but also very rewarding. The freebies weren’t really freebies so much as, like, a BOGO sale.

But the guessing is still a critical flaw, because it meant the game ended before I was really done with it. I felt like I had reached the second layer of required detective work in Obra Dinn, and only identified the third. If the game hadn’t been so diligent about locking in stuff I hadn’t started focusing on yet, I would have had to dig deeply into that third layer. It would have entailed correlating timelines across multiple characters and groupings of characters, and who knows what enjoyment I may have found there? What little character moments and plotlines and details?

This would be a very, very hard problem to solve. If the game did make you fill the information in for all crew before checking your work… what then? Well, there are a few details I know I would have gotten wrong, that I only knew were wrong because the game didn’t lock them, and had a great amount of fun going back to check what I missed. There’s a big difference between looking at a scene, looking closer, and looking really close, and I’d never have done the latter unless I knew I was in a failure state. I was also happy to get the little encouraging victory moments as I progressed, getting a little closer to my goal with each investigation. If I’d had to take the game as one giant lump I would have probably plugged away for ten hours, been unsure about a lot of my deductions, and then gotten many of them wrong anyway. And then I’d be writing a post about some neat-looking but really stupid game I’d played.

Perhaps you could add a third criteria. You pick the names and causes of death from drop-down menus in your spreadsheet; maybe if I’d have had to prove I knew whow was who by pointing to specific evidence, and then lock it in, the guessing problem would’ve be averted. There already is some mechanism by which the game determines whether you “know” enough to determine a person’s identity… but you’d need a dropdown with hundreds of keywords to provide enough red herrings that the list itself doesn’t provide clues. And then I’d still probably just read the whole list anyway, and correlate it with keywords I’d recognized around the ship, and attacking the game from a list of keywords doesn’t sound any more fun than guessing.

“Wait, they all died of old age?” “Yeah, it was a very old ship.”

Yeah, hard problem. But I hope somebody solves it someday, because The Return of the Obra Dinn was a really memorable C+, and I’d love to see this concept turned into an A.

Last detective game I said that about was L.A. Noire, and nobody’s solved those problems yet either. Maybe detective games are just hard to make.

Thanks for reading!