The Plot of Metal Gear (as concisely as possible)

One of the defining Metal Gear series is its incredibly dense and complicated storyline, a military fantasy epic filled with betrayals, amazing coincidences, pratfalls and switchbacks, double- and triple-crosses, supernatural and technobabble elements, and yes, a plot hole or two. It’s so difficult to keep all the schemes and players straight, in fact, that Kojima Productions released an exhaustive interactive document alongside Metal Gear Solid 4 which reads as a sort of Cliffnotes to the series. Even with that resource, though, it’s quite difficult to explain in short terms what the series is about.

My goal in this blog entry is to provide a concise resource people can point to explaining the series in the broadest strokes possible. Each individual game has a plot unto itself, of course, filled with fiddly details and twists and connections and references and retcons… but I’m not concerned with any of that at the moment. Let’s leave aside for a moment all the things that happen throughout the series and look at what it all means.

In the beginning, there was The Boss. For the purposes of the Metal Gear universe, we can safely say that The Boss is a symbol of perfection. Her ideal of a world without boundaries greatly inspired those who served with her, and her manipulation and death at the hands of her government had a deeply profound impact on those people. They formed an organization dedicated to preserving and fulfilling The Boss’s vision for the future. This group was The Patriots, and it was headed by Major Zero and Big Boss.

But neither Zero nor Big Boss were perfect (unlike The Boss), and so their interpretations of The Boss’s will was perverted. As a result, their methods deviated both from The Boss and from each other. Zero saw a world united through force, and worked to expand his military control and influence to that end. Big Boss, meanwhile, became obsessed with the idea of freedom from governments and other manipulating agencies. They had a falling out, and began working at cross-purposes.

Both Zero and Big Boss inflicted great evil upon the world. Zero became corrupted by absolute power, eventually leading to the creation of self-propogating AI systems that could control people down to the genetic level. Big Boss became the leader of several private militias, instilling in an entire generation of soldiers and mercenaries the dream of battle without adherence to a specific flag or ideology. Both men lost control over the systems they had created. Those systems took on a life of their own and began warring against one another with the help of nuclear-capable walking battle tanks.

One of Big Boss’s sons was Solid Snake. Snake had no knowledge of Zero’s machinations, nor did he share Big Boss’s obsessions. The world was a much simpler place, by Snake’s reckoning: regardless of country, creed or ideology, the world deserved to live without the fear of nuclear-capable walking battle tanks. Snake devoted virtually every moment of his life to saving the world from the disasters constantly brought on by his forebears. In this way Snake (and several of his close allies) fought for The Boss’s beliefs despite never being made aware of her existence.

In the end, Snake brings down the AIs and the private militias, leaving the world in a state much like what The Boss would have liked to see in her own lifetime. He bears witness to the deaths of Zero (who is too infirm to realize what is happening) and Big Boss (who is repentant of his course of action), and then exits the battlefield for good.

Whether or not the story has a “happy” ending depends on whether you consider Metal Gear Rising to be canon, I suppose. Other than that, I hope I’ve cleared it all up for you. Thanks for reading!


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The Science of BONK: A Methodology for Quantifying the Violence in River City Ransom

Today I put the finishing touches on River City Ransom, which Dan (KefkaFloyd) and I played back in December. Please to be enjoying the playlist:

Throughout the LP I kept a running tally of how we were dispatching each dude. What sorts of violence were Dan and I most drawn to? The people had a right to know.

I had to go through each episode frame by frame and keep track of what was used to attack each dude. I was less interested in the actual number of dudes dispatched as the method of attack. Because of this, you can’t just add up the stats and get a final tally of dudes dispatched. As far as I know, Dan and I used every type of attack and weapon at least once. They are:

  • “Dudes punched”: dude is struck with the hand or fist, including the combo-ending uppercut
  • “Dudes kicked”: dude is struck with either foot, including jump kicks
  • “Dudes bonked”: dude is struck with a stick/bat
  • “Dudes trashed”: dude is struck with a garbage can
  • “Dudes whipped”: dude is struck with a chain/whip
  • “Dudes boxed”: dude is struck with a box/crate
  • “Dudes stoned”: dude is struck with a rock
  • “Dudes knucked”: dude is struck with a brass knuckle
  • “Dudes rolled”: dude is struck with a tire/wheel
  • “Dudes clobbered”: dude is struck with a pipe

Each of these methods of attack were counted once per dude. On the frame in which I confirmed the dude was attacked (that is, he makes his BARF! face), I incremented that particular counter by one. If the dude is later attacked again via the same method (e.g., a dude gets kicked by a player, then later gets kicked by the other player) the counter is not incremented a second time. However, if a dude is attacked via a different method (e.g., a dude gets kicked by one player, then bonked by the other) the counter is incremented once for the second attack.

ALEX and RYAN — the players — are not considered dudes for purposes of the count.

The origin of the attack does not matter, though this only comes into play when considering thrown weapons. Usually, dudes cannot hit other dudes, although once a weapon is airborne it will always damage its target, regardless of who threw it. A dude hit by a thrown chain counts as +1 “dudes whipped”.

In addition to the methods above, there were three more counters I felt were worth keeping:

  • “Dudes thrown”: dude is picked up and thrown (regardless of whether that dude sustains damage)
  • “Dudes glitched”: dude somehow clips into an obstacle and becomes un-targetable
  • “Dudes beaten with other dudes”: dude is struck by another dude, which one of the players has picked up

I don’t well understand how the game determines whether a dude is thrown or jumps free of the player’s grasp, so I counted all instances of a picked-up dude leaving the player’s hands as being thrown.

Technically, the “beaten with other dudes” counter should by necessity be incremented by two in each case, since beating Dude B with Dude A by definition also means Dude A is being beaten by Dude B, depending on your frame of reference. In the end I decided that a picked-up dude being used in this way temporarily counts as a weapon, and therefore “not a dude”. A thrown dude striking another dude would have counted +1 “thrown” and +1 “beaten with other dudes”; however, this case did not come up during any of our trials.

There were cases where two dudes were struck by the same method on the same frame. In these cases, the counter was incremented by two.

There were also cases where two attacks were launched by different sources at the same dude on the same frame. As far as I can tell the game does not allow two sources of damage to connect at the same time, so only one counter was incremented. Determining which one sometimes meant carefully measuring the direction and trajectory taken by the dude after being stricken.

This is all I have to say on the subject of dude science. Thanks for reading!

South Park, and Solving RPG Combat

There’s little point in reviewing South Park: The Stick of Truth. I can neither recommend it nor not recommend it. If you like South Park, you want to play this game, full stop. And if you don’t like South Park, you’re going to be so turned off while playing it that you might actually throw up in your mouth. It’s a sixteen-hour-long episode of the show with turn-based RPG combat. That’s either your dream game or a dripping, horrible nightmare.

Personally, I mostly loved the combat and was pleasantly surprised at how often the game featured environmental puzzles requiring more of me than “find the key then find the door”. I did run into a problem, though. I hesitate to even call it a problem, really, because I know a lot of players strongly feel it belongs in the “feature not bug” category. I know that because this same problem has cropped up in a lot of turn-based games recently. Just off the top of my head, I remember encountering it in Persona 3, the first two Paper Mario games, and all three Final Fantasy XIII games. I’ll describe it to you, and see where it gets me.

About halfway through the game — maybe a little less — I realized I could win every random encounter with this sequence of actions:

  • Get the first strike by hitting the monster on the map.
  • Use the attack that causes Bleeding (South Park‘s version of Poison) on all the bad guys.
  • Use Jimmy’s bardsongs to restore some PP and then put all the monsters to sleep.
  • The monsters all wake up from heavy Bleeding damage, but not before losing their turns.
  • Combine my “do shitloads of extra damage to Bleeding enemies” attack with my passive “take another turn when you kill an enemy” ability to mop everything up.
  • ???
  • Profit!

Okay, so I couldn’t resist sneaking in an Underpants Gnome joke. It’s not really appropriate here, because there is no “???” step. I had a perfect formula for winning every fight without 1) ever allowing any monster to have a turn and 2) ever using most of my player characters or special attacks. Indeed, there’s an entire type of magic I never used once in the entire game, until the very last battle where it was required to win.

Sometimes I would screw up the formula. Like, I’d be using some non-Jimmy character for their map ability, and forget to swap him back in. Or I’d botch the first attack and let the enemies get a free opening round on me. In these cases it was actually faster to just reload my save and start the fight over than to just play it out.

I don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand I never really got bored with the combat. I mean, the game just wasn’t long enough to wear out its welcome. And the game goes out of its way to let you skip a lot of combat by exploiting environmental hazards, which was fun. And, I don’t know, maybe the Killer Formula only exists on the character class I chose, and 75% of players don’t encounter it. Or maybe the fights don’t boil down so well if you play on Hard Mode, rather than Normal.

Or maybe not. Sometimes, if I didn’t reload after a botch and the monsters actually got a turn off, I’d find myself pretty deep in the shit. South Park is similar to a Zeboyd game in how quickly battles can turn against you. One bad round and you’re on the mat. Good thing for those friendly reloads! It very much feels like the game intends for you to find and apply the Killer Formula as early and often as possible.

I remember thinking of this as a flaw in Persona 3, where battles either went 100% in your favor, or 100% against, with very little middle ground. You either got the first strike and scored an All-Out Attack on the first round, or the monsters shoveled so much rapesauce onto you there was no way to recover. What that game, and South Park, and much of the back half of my beloved Final Fantasy XIII fails to convey, is a sense of heroes actually fighting monsters. Instead of going up against bad guys and having a damage/buff/heal back-and-forth, you are instead presented with a puzzle. Once you solve it, the game tests you by making you solve that same puzzle, repeatedly, for as long as you can stand it.

I want to stress that South Park doesn’t have enough combat for this to become really tedious. It’s a rare dungeon that has more than four or five encounters, as opposed to several hundred like in Persona 3. But I did notice myself reaching that point where I felt like, okay, I already know which six buttons to push, and in which order, and it’s not really engaging anymore. The game never challenged me to look beyond my Killer Formula.

Maybe the lesson game developers ought to learn is “don’t make your turn-based RPGs longer than sixteen hours”. Which… yeah, I could get behind that. We’ll go with that. Thanks for letting me think this one out, guys!

Kinetic Cipher Questions

Today some nice fan left a few questions about the plot of my old RPGMaker game, Kinetic Cipher. I worked on that game for about five years and never finished it. Since it’s a dead project, I see no harm in answering those questions now.

1. Who is the final boss of the game?

Erin, Karen and Nero’s guildmate from the first few scenes of the game. The backstory gets a little too complicated to summarize in this short space, but it boils down to: an evil monster was planning to possess Karen’s mind when they were both girls, so Erin killed the monster to protect her, and part of the monster took root in Erin’s mind instead.

My buddy Holbert always used to pick on me for how close the plot and theming of KC drove to Star Wars, so he’d get a kick out of learning this, because in retrospect the end of the game would have been a very Luke-and-Darth-Vader moment.

2. What was the final uber-dungeon going to be?

The Quevari Realm is that crystalline world parallel to the real one. Eventually the party would have been able to use it as a sort of quick-travel system, like the Nether in Minecraft. In the middle of the Quevari Realm is a sealed hole leading to an ancient, Lovecraftian dimension of untold horror etc. The idea was that the quevari seeped through the cracks in this hole and into the real world, where people harnessed their energy to power psionics. Grandmaster ciphers called the seal over this hole “The Veil”, and so the final dungeon was going to be “Beyond the Veil”.

As for how that dungeon was supposed to be structured, it was so far away that I hadn’t put much thought into it yet. One idea I had was to make it like the Rift from Final Fantasy V, where it used bite-sized chunks and combinations of old dungeons. I probably would have invented something new for it instead, though.

3. What is the background of Insandru?

He doesn’t really have one. Insandru was a red herring, and not the story’s true villain. His deal was, as a tatheril, he knew of ways to use the quevari to build material weapons rather than to fuel magic powers. The bomb he used to blow up Darmenia was such a weapon, as was the device he used to erase Karen’s defenses in the opening scene. Eventually Insandru recruits Cor and Erin to his cause, but they each had their own goals outside of “help Insandru” and were independently planning to double-cross him and neutralize him as a threat.

He doesn’t really need a backstory to fulfill his role in the plot, but if I had to put a pin in it I would just say “he’s some terrible guy who wants to control people because that is what terrible guys want.”

Steam Winter Sale Breakdown

I nabbed a ridiculous number of new games during this winter’s Steam sale. The perfect storm of insanely low prices, credits from selling virtual trading cards, Steambux in the Christmas stocking and (this is the part that really blows my mind) gifts from YouTube and Twitch viewers, I walked away with more games than I could play in a reasonable amount of time. However, I have finally finished making the rounds and thought I would share a few half-formed thoughts I had about them.

Bioshock Infinite

I’m only about halfway through this one, but so far I like it for all the same reasons I liked the original Bioshock, and then some. The story, setting and characters are intriguing. Combat is fairly painless, even for poor players like me who suck at FPSes. (If you’re a game developer, by the way, and you want to accomplish that: include viable melee options and special abilities that don’t require aiming.) What I really need is a day where I have six or eight consecutive hours to sit down and complete the rest of it.

Borderlands 2

I decided to take a chance on this after watching a buddy play Poker Night at the Inventory and falling in love with Claptrap. The game so far is charming and funny, and it really pokes that part of my brain that painstakingly loots every barrel and crate in Elder Scrolls games. The guns are easy to aim and fun to use (unlike Fallout 3, which really should have filled my quota for “Skyrim with guns”, except I found it impossible to play). Where I left off the other day was a string of demolition derby quests which were just good, clean, stupid fun.

My main complaint so far is that the game is really, really hard. I haven’t completed a story mission yet where I didn’t die five or six times. Enemies soak up unbelievable amounts of damage and spend most of their time running towards you, unloading their weapons. I’m playing a sniper class, which I figured meant I could pick bad guys off from a distance, but they don’t actually seem to spawn until I’m inside their range of vision. At which point, of course, they spot me immediately and shoot me with perfect accuracy.

That said, respawning is instant and cheap, and I’m solving a lot of problems by just throwing my sack of meat and bones at them repeatedly. I’ll probably play this one in short spurts over a long period.

Costume Quest

A charming little RPG about kids in Halloween costumes. Unfortunately it’s also boring to play. One afternoon was about all I needed out of this one. Combat isn’t varied enough, is the problem. When it takes two minutes to resolve a battle, and there’s always an obvious move to make on every combat round, the formula has a kink in it. I feel bad for not finishing it, because I want to spend some more time with the characters and learn how the story plays out, but I’m too old to boot up games that don’t respect my time.


Overrated. Attractive to look at, but not fun or interesting to play. Perspective gimmicks are a tricky wicket. Yes, they’re clever and visually impressive — but they’re also trivial to solve. You spin the thing until you see the thing and then you get the thing. I played this for about two hours, and that time didn’t involve anything deeper than “jump to platform” or “spin world”, so maybe that’s all there is.

The game was also pretty chatty at the outset, though it didn’t have anything interesting to say. It seems to think fezzes are inherently funny. I don’t know if it’s going for a “lol monkey cheese random bacon” internet meme style of humor, or what, but it didn’t work for me. At first I wanted it to shut up and let me play it, and then it wasn’t that much fun to play. Oh well.


I can’t recommend this game highly enough. It has a freeform world structure like Shantae, and intense air-dash/double-jump/world-switch platforming challenges like Giana Sisters, and crazy melee combat like… well, like nothing else, really. (Maybe They Bleed Pixels?) You pummel, grab, throw, and slam enemies together in a gloriously violent ballet. That kind of gameplay is thrilling, but doesn’t usually have any staying power with me. Using Metroidvania elements to glue the fighting sequences together is just what the doctor ordered.

I could write an entire article about how much I liked the structure of Guacamelee!‘s post-game.

I’m interested to see how well this game holds up on replays, but I gotta say, the fact that I’m considering replaying it all so soon after completing it already speaks volumes.

Hotline Miami

About as fun as any high-end browser game that sells itself on retro graphics and gratuitous violence. That said, I had more fun with this than I usually have with games this shallow. It’s carnage for a few hours, and then it’s done, and then you can forget about it. At first glance it almost looks like you can examine a game level and execute an effective strategy. That is doomed to failure. Embrace the chaos and restart a lot, and you’ll be more successful. I do wish it had been that game of plan-and-attack, though; I don’t feel the random weapons or split-second instakills did it any favors. Many of the game’s fans have embraced it for exactly the reasons I shrugged it off, though, so what do I know.

Just Cause 2

I, ah… crap. I thought I had played all these! I’ll get to it later, I guess. I bought it because it has a grappling hook, and I fully expect to spend one night trying to grapple everything in sight, then never touching the game again. Does that sound about right?

Long Live the Queen

The trailer for this game made it sound a bit like if Princess Maker 2 were a black comedy. It is neither of those things, though. Outside of the adorably tragic death cards there is nothing funny in the game at all — it is played achingly straight, and slathers the drama on three inches thick. It also lacks the elements of randomness of Princess Maker, and all but one of the gameplay modes. All you do is pick your school schedule and then make choices during pre-written cutscenes. Instead of watching your princess’s growth and having her logically or intuitively react to things that pop up in the game world, you are rewarded for taking painstaking notes so you can make a more correct set of decisions next time you play. Or, I suppose, you could keep an incredibly large number of carefully labelled and categorized save games in conjunction with your notes. Either way, it’s paperwork.

The formula would have worked if the writing were spectacular, and if there were a user-friendly system built in to rewind the game to any previous state you’ve had it in. That game still wouldn’t be much fun to play, but it’d be a worthwhile read and wouldn’t actively punish you for not having Excel opened in another tab. I played quite a lot of Queen, carefully mapping out its plot graph, before I got irretrievably bored and looked up the solution to get the ending I wanted.

Mirror’s Edge

I played through the training mission and hated it. Why would anyone make a first person jumping-and-climbing-things game? The game would say things like “press LB to jump then LT in the air to coil yourself up and avoid the barbed wire ahead”. And I would push those buttons, and then die, because I jumped too early or coiled too late or who knows why. And then on the fourth or fifth try I would succeed and go on to the next bit, which told me to press some other combination of buttons, so I could fail four or five times on that. (And who’s idea was it to map jump to a bumper in the first place? And who decided we’d want two logically-opposed actions on one side of the controller, rather than on opposite sides — especially considering those two buttons would have to frequently be held together? Blah!) It was irritating as hell and I simply could not shake the feeling that the game would be so much smoother if I could just see my character’s position and orientation in the level. I hate feeling like I have to wrestle a game rather than control it, so that’s about all I was going to put up with.


Pure liquid fun. The solo game is something like a thoughtful puzzle experience, tempered with just a touch of adrenaline. You carefully plan a route through each level, leveraging your crook’s special abilities while dodging guards and pocketing loot, and you have enough tools to salvage the mission should things to sour. In that sense it’s a bit like if Hotline Miami dialed back the insanity just a few notches.

The multiplayer is the same song, except things will almost immediately go to shit, and you and your teammate will be left frolicking through waves of hilarious, boisterous chaos. Clever cooperation is rewarded, but so is fast thinking, resource management and even stupid risk-taking. We’ve watched entire levels melt down, come through them anyway, and then were totally unable to discuss what happened because we were laughing too hard.

It’s intense and wonderful and beautiful. Highly recommended.

Risk of Rain

I was so excited about this game that I couldn’t even wait for this post to break down what I liked about it. Go read this big, gushing blog post about how challenging and rewarding this game is. I can’t wait for them to fix the multiplayer!

Super Hexagon

I got this for like $0.69 — which I earned by selling Steam cards in the first place — and immediately wanted my money back. Loud, flashy garbage.

Famous Plot Holes That Aren’t Plot Holes

I’m a grotesque nerd, so plot holes bother me. I have lost sleep over movies with logical contradictions. This is a mental deficiency that will likely plague me until my dying day. It would not surprise me if my last thought upon exiting this world is something like, “…but Aladdin wished that he was a prince, not to pretend to be a prince, dammit!”

That said, spotting plot holes can be fun. It’s a side-effect of over-analyzing a work of fiction, which is a worthwhile pasttime in and of itself. Nothing makes you feel smart quite like noticing something super obvious that a writer missed. It’s especially satisfying in this day and age, when you can run off to your social media outlet of choice, share your amazing discovery with all the world, and allow others to bask in the warm glow of your smugness.

You know what makes me feel even smarter than that, though? When some dude comes along complaining about some plot hole he discovered, and it turns out it isn’t a plot hole at all. Because sure, it takes a little creativity to spot a plot hole in the first place, but sometimes it only takes a tiny bit more to close that hole in a logical way. If you’re going to overthink things, overthink them.

There are a few dozen infamous plot holes the internet likes to flip its collective shit about. They get recycled a lot as Top Ten lists on Cracked and Buzzfeed. I find a lot of these popular examples to be objectionable, though. For one thing, it seems that I operate under a much narrower definition of “plot hole” than most people do. I only count plot points that are logically inconsistent, whereas the internet at large seems to prefer a much broader interpretation like “anything in a movie that doesn’t immediately make sense”. So before I get to my list of famous examples, here’s a short list of things that don’t qualify as plot holes at all.

Things That Are Not Plot Holes

1) Unanswered questions. It’s not a plot hole if a movie fails to explain in detail something you wish had been explained. What’s in Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase? Something expensive and of great value to Marcellus Wallace, probably. More information than that is not required to make the plot work. Pretty much every problem anyone has ever had with Lost falls into this category.

2) Stunning coincidence. It’s not a plot hole if a thing happens that is vanishing unlikely. I didn’t see the Star Trek reboot, but apparently a bunch of people were up in arms at a scene where a young Kirk crash lands on an ice world and just so happens to run into an elderly time-traveling Spock. Pointing out the unfathomable odds against this encounter isn’t identifying a plot hole, it’s just identifying that the writers chose to have a billion-to-one event happen in their story. (Presumably, having Kirk crash on an ice world and then die of exposure would have been preferable.)

3) Obvious executive meddling. Sometimes there is a perfectly good explanation for a plot hole, albeit not a satisfying one. People have agonized for years about why the machines in The Matrix needed humans as batteries as opposed to, say, just building nuclear reactors. The answer is the writers had a much better explanation in mind but the producers thought we were all too dumb to understand it. Oh well.

4) Hollywood writers aren’t scientists. This is a different flavor of #3. The more familiar you are with science, the more often you will notice physically impossible things in film. These technically count as plot holes, but neglects the simple fact that writers tend to focus more on telling interesting stories than making sure all the chemistry and physics check out. The answer to “How come the microwave weapon in Batman Begins doesn’t vaporize people, who are 70% water?” is “You need to re-calibrate your Disbelief Suspension Module, you grognard.”

5) Pedantic bullshit. The previous two examples are both about plot holes that involve questions with reasonable, if unsatisfying, answers. This one is about plot holes that involve questions the viewer shouldn’t be asking in the first place. “Who built the cars in Cars!?” Maybe it’s an animated kid’s movie about talking cars and you’re a creepy weirdo for speculating whether or not their exhaust pipes are genitals.

And now, a list of things I decided aren’t actually plot holes, even though most of the internet still seems to think they are. I’ve placed these in the rough order of when I figured them out.

Brick’s List of Plot Holes Which Aren’t Actually Plot Holes

1) How did Jeff Goldbum upload a virus to the alien mothership?Independence Day

I loved this film when it came out in theaters. I saw it with a friend of mine, who was a bit of a computer nerd, and who had already seen the movie once. On the way to the theater, he told me to watch for one thing at the end of the movie that was totally impossible. At the time, we were both young enough that “planet invaded by aliens” didn’t qualify as such an event.

At the climax of the film, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith travel into outer space to dock with an alien mothership. While there, Goldblum uses a laptop computer to upload a virus into the mothership’s main computer, thereby disabling the force fields on all the smaller dropships on Earth’s surface, so rednecks and inspiring presidents could blow them up.

After the film, I admitted to my friend that I didn’t see the impossible thing, and I thought he was kind of a genius when he explained it to me. And so it was until high school, when we revisted the topic in one of our incredibly nerdy movie discussions. We concluded that, really, it made perfect sense that the laptop could interface with the mothership.

Earlier in the movie, it is revealed that Earth had contacted these aliens before, when one of their scouts crash landed at Roswell and was subsequentially impounded at Area 51. This was in the 1940s, and was immediately followed by fifty years of unprecedented advances in computer technology. We reasoned that, after years of research, American scientist simply reverse-engineered the alien ship and then marketed the resulting achievements. Ergo, Goldblum’s laptop was the same technology as the mothership it was attempting to interface with. The bigger question is why he programmed a cute skull and crossbones into his virus.

Upon arriving at this conclusion my friend and I decided we were both geniuses.

2) Why doesn’t Bruce Willis know he’s dead?The Sixth Sense

This glaring plot hole was hotly debated when The Sixth Sense was brand new, and even way back then, I had no idea why. The answer seemed so obvious to me and to this day I am kind of surprised so many people continue to miss it.

The premise of the movie is that Haley Joel Osment (who is 26 years old now, holy crap) can see ghosts, and Bruce Willis is some kind of paranormal psychologist who specializes in helping kids who can see ghosts. The big twist at the end is — surprise! — Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, and only Haley Joel Osment could see him. The issue people had with this twist is the great lengths the movie takes so Willis is never seen actually interacting with anyone but Osment. This makes sense at face value, but fell apart as soon as people started thinking about it a little more. How did the guy not know he was dead the whole time? Did he think it was normal that his wife didn’t talk to him all year?

But creepy sees-ghost kid offers us an explanation to this exact issue partway through the film. He tells Willis that ghosts “only see what they want to see”. Even on my very first viewing of the movie, I took this to mean “ghosts perceive reality differently from people, and that’s how they don’t know they’re dead.” There are lots of reasons Bruce Willis might not know he’d died. Perhaps, as a ghost, he experiences time differently from us, or perceives events out of sequence. Perhaps his ghost brain selectively forgets anything that would reveal its own true nature. Perhaps the mind of a ghost becomes so laser-focused on one obsession that anything not immediately related to that goal simply gets glossed over. Hell, this happens with people sometimes.

I should point out that I didn’t actually see the twist coming. I’m not that smart. All I did was pay attention when the movie established its ghost rules.

3) Why doesn’t Scar kill Simba?The Lion King

This came up as the topic of discussion in a creative writing I took at my one year of college. The topic of the discussion was how to fix famous plot holes. One of the girls in class pointed out that, in Disney’s The Lion King, the evil villain Scar chases the young Simba away rather than just killing him, and I was shocked that so many people in the class agreed with her. I’m shocked all over again when this one pops up in internet discussions.

The answer is, Scar does want to kill Simba, and he does try. He sings about it during his big villainous musical number. He purposely concocts a situation where Simba is almost sure to die. When Simba miraculously survives, Scar sics his ravenous hyena goons on him with explicit instructions to kill him. And when Simba shows up later alive and well, Scar expresses surprise and irritation at said goons at that fact.

How can this be interpreted as “Scar kills Mufasa but lets Simba live”? Scar was banking on Simba dying in the stampede or, failing that, being mauled to death by hyenas. It’s not as though he’s going to kill Simba with his own claws; that’s not Scar’s style. Scar’s problem wasn’t a sudden change of heart, it was his overestimation of obviously incompetent henchmen.

4) Why doesn’t Marty’s mom recognize him?Back to the Future

My mom’s three favorite movies are the Back to the Future trilogy, which as far as I’m concerned is irrefutable evidence that my mom is cooler than your mom. When the films first came out on DVD I sat down with her and marathoned all three, back to back, in a particularly heartfelt example of mother-son bonding. And while the BttF movies are ripe with low-hanging fruit as far as spotting plot holes is concerned, my mom said this is the one that bothered her the most.

In the film, Marty McFly travels back in time to 1955, where his own mother promptly falls in love with him. Why, then, does she not recognize him in 1985, after he’s all grown up? Wouldn’t she immediately notice that her son is the spitting image of a guy she fawned over in high school?

So I asked my mom, can you honestly say you remember, with perfect recall, someone you haven’t seen in thirty years, and don’t have any pictures of? And she said, huh, no, I guess not. Good point.

Mrs. McFly no doubt has fond memories of her one week with the mysterious teenage heartthrob who dropped in out of nowhere, but human memory is a funny and fallible thing. On the off chance she did notice some resemblance between her spring fling and her teenage son, it’s not likely her first thought would be time travel. More likely she’d just conclude that her son grew up to look maybe a little bit like some guy she knew, and isn’t life funny?

Focus on the parts with the inconsistent alternate timelines, guys. At least those plot holes go somewhere fun.

5) How did Andy Dufresne hang his poster back up?The Shawshank Redemption

I don’t recall exactly who first pointed this out to me. It bugged me until I re-watched the movie, upon which I immediately spotted the solution. It’s another favorite subject of internet lists, and I can’t help but shake my head in dismay every time I see it.

In the film, Andy escapes prison by digging through the stone wall of his cell with a rock hammer, and covers his progress with a girly poster on the wall. The morning after he makes his escape the prison warden angrily rips the poster from the wall, revealing the hole underneath. Everyone stands in utter amazement at the feat, but nobody thinks to ask how Andy hung the poster back up after crawling through the tunnel.

Answer: he’s a wizard.

No, actually, the answer is he’s a normal person with, like, half a brain. Any thinking person could solve this problem in a manner of minutes. In Andy’s case, the poster is normally secured to the wall with tacks or nails. On the night of his escape, he simply secured the top two nails, carefully climbed into the hole underneath the poster, and that’s it. If he climbed through the hole backwards, he could have done a passable job of putting the bottom tacks into the wall by reaching underneath and pushing them in, or attaching the sharp end of the tack to a piece of string and pulling it in, or whatever. Or maybe he didn’t do any of that, and everyone was too focused on the missing prisoner to notice the poster was just hanging freely at the bottom.

Shawshank Redemption is one of the best films ever made, and I’ve seen lots of comments to the effect of “the movie would be perfect if not for this one thing!” Worry no more, for I have fixed everything and now the movie is just plain perfect again.

6) Why don’t the Eagles just fly Frodo to Mordor?The Lord of the Rings

I admit I cheated on this one a little bit, because I actually read The Lord of the Rings long before the third film came out and set this question on everyone’s lips. The solution involves extrapolating information about Middle-earth which is trivial with the added context of the books, but is not so obvious just from the movie.

The story goes, Frodo has to carry an evil ring to an evil volcano and throw it in. This took three four-hour-movies, endless trudging hardship, thousands of dead goblins, and some eleventh-hour rumination about the taste of bread. Once the ring is destroyed, Gandalf the wizard sends in his magic giant bird friends to retrieve Frodo so he doesn’t have to walk all the way back.

So why couldn’t the eagle just take Frodo in to begin with, and spare everyone the hike?

There are actually several totally reasonable explanations for this, and I’m sure die-hard Tolkien fanatics could come up with a few more. Here are the top three most relevant ones to the events of the film.

First, and most obvious, is that the bad guy has flying shadow demons guarding his lands. Any eagle that flies into Mordor is going to be spotted immediately — after all, the bad guy is literally a giant, unblinking eyball — and set upon by indestructable witch-lords.

Second, and maybe somewhat less obvious, is the evil ring is, in fact, evil. Its very nature corrupts whomever carries it, rendering them unable to destroy it. This happens even to Frodo, in the end, even though Hobbits are known to be somewhat resistant to its effects. Handing the ring to an eagle would not result in the ring being dropped into a volcano — it would result in a corrupt, invisible eagle coming under the power and influence of the Enemy.

And third, it helps to remember that the eagles of Middle-earth are, in fact, capital-E Eagles. They are a sentient species akin to Elves and Dwarves and Ents. They have their own Eagle society which may not have an immediate interest in this whole ring-destroying folly.

7) Who jacked Cypher into the Matrix?The Matrix

I’m stretching a bit on this one, because it’s more a personal “What If?” theory than a full-blown plot hole debunking. But it’s far more satisfying to think about than why robots need human batteries, so try and stick with me here.

At one point in the film, we cut away to see Morpheus’s crewmate Cypher having a steak dinner with Agent Smith. He gives a little speech about how ignorance is bliss, and sells out the entire crew in return for being plugged back into the Matrix, because he would rather dine on fake porterhouse than real snot-gruel.

The problem is, we’ve already established that you can’t jack yourself into the Matrix. You need a spotter on the outside to plug you in, monitor your position and, when you’re ready, pull you back out. So who jacked Cypher in, so he could have this conversation in the first place? It couldn’t have been anyone on the crew, or the betrayal wouldn’t have worked. It couldn’t have been an evil robot, because such an intruder would have been detected right away.

Cypher provides us with a clue, though, during one of his first conversations with Neo. He has been monitoring the cascade of green pixels and glyphs that make up the Matrix for so long, he can actually decode it in real time. He doesn’t even see the code, he says; he just sees “blonde, brunette, redhead”.

My theory: he’s not in the Matrix at all. He’s watching his screen. He knows how delicious his steak is because he’s that adept at reading the code. His entire meeting with Agent Smith, where he hammers out all the details of his betrayal, happens during his graveyard shift at the monitors on the ship.

I’m not a programmer, but I’ve dabbled enough to know strange things start happening to your brain when you stare at code long enough. You can see it compiling before you run it. Now imagine a world where that code is literally your only stimulus. That’s the place Cypher lives. Honestly, I can’t say I blame the dude. I’d want to be jacked back in, too.

8) Why did Dr. Manhattan kill Rorschach, but not destroy his journal?The Watchmen

Most people who read The Watchmen despised the film. I’m not one of them, though. I think both versions of the story have their own merits. Not having been a comic book geek back in the 80s, most of the nuances of the graphic novel were lost on me during my first reading, but I did think the ending was pretty brilliantly played. I can see how a lot of people misinterpreted it — and then misinterpreted it again in the movie, where it was unchanged.

The broad strokes of the ending are as follows: Rorschach, the crazy vigilante, twigs to the evil plan of the villain Ozymandias, and writes all the details down in his journal. Before embarking to help stop the villain, he deposits the journal into the inbox of his favorite crackpot right-wing slander rag. That way, if he fails, he reasons, his story will still get told.

The villain ends up going unthwarted, though, and the heroes decide it’s for the best that the rest of the world is kept in the dark as to the particulars. All but the fanatical Rorschach, that is, who plans to go back home and tell everyone. The the omnipotent and omniscient Dr. Manhattan prevents this by exploding Rorschach all over Antarctica.

Just to be safe, shouldn’t Dr. Manhattan also have destroyed Rorschach’s journal? It’s already established he knows everything and can do anything, so this should be a trivial task even though nobody ever told Doc about this journal sitting on the other side of the planet. So what gives?

What comes across really well in the graphic novel is that Rorschach is, in fact, a crazy fanatic whose journal reads like an insane conspiracy theory. There is literally no evidence to support the incoherent ravings contained therein. The truth gets out, yes, but it’s not a truth anyone is going to believe. Doc knows the journal poses no threat. And when I say he knows it, I mean he knows it. He can literally read the future.

Maybe the nuance doesn’t come across so well in the movie, if you haven’t read the book. I guess I can give moviegoers the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Thus concludes my list of popular plot holes which aren’t actually plot holes. I’d be interested to hear of any plot holes you’ve managed to close on your own, or if you think I’m wrong and stupid about any of the ones I’ve presented here. Thanks for reading!

Monopoly — a follow-up post that’s five years late

Nearly five years ago I wrote a post about the board game Monopoly, which is by far one of my most popular posts, judging by the number of comments it’s gotten. My theory is that every so often it gets linked by a board game community somewhere, causing a new flurry of visitors. I’ve gotten a lot of passionate arguments on both sides of the debate, and most of the comments go into refreshing detail about why the commenter either agrees or disagrees with me. Both the original article and the comments therein are a pretty good read, if you haven’t already. Here’s a link:

It may seem weird to have a follow-up article to a five-year-old post, but since it is one of my most popular articles and there are clearly a lot of people invested in the discussion, I thought I would (finally!) take some time and respond to a few of the comments. Also, I literally have not played a single game of Monopoly since I wrote that post in 2009, because none of the nice people who agree with me about the game’s potential live within Monopoly-ing distance. =(

Know why that’s OK? Because in other games, I’m making choices the whole time. The reason I hate Monopoly is the total lack of choices involved. Why would I play a game where I am essentially feeding one piece of information back into the game (buy/don’t buy), and it’s always better to buy than not to? For the pleasure of rolling two dice over and over again?

I don’t really understand this criticism, because “buy/don’t buy” is not the only choice you make in Monopoly, and it’s certainly not the most interesting one. If you’re playing a proper game with good-faith players who are all trying to win, most of the interesting decisions will come in the form of wheeling and dealing. Who should you trade with? When? What advantages are you willing to give them, and what should you ask in return? I agree the game is boring if you just roll dice, buy property, and pay rent. But the game isn’t designed that way, so why would you play it that way?

The trick is to find people that want to play for fun, not to destroy their opponents and piss on their ruined corpses.

In Monopoly — as in most competitive board games — the goal is to dominate your opponent and eventually win. If you aren’t out to “destroy your opponents” then why are you even playing? The mentality that it was nicer to let people stay in the game is what led to all the house rules in the first place, which in turn led to boring endless games of Monopoly, which in turn led to my snarky blog post.

Not everyone likes a cutthroat game, and that’s totally cool. I own lots of board games that are not as competitive as Monopoly, either because they are cooperative (such as Pandemic or Red November), others because they are far more luck based (such as Yahtzee), others because they are more “social activities” than actual games (such as Apples to Apples). This strikes me as an argument for finding a game that suits you as a player, not changing a game to be something it isn’t.

The namesake of the game, and the primary winning strategy, is to lock up control of all the green houses. There is a fixed number of houses for a reason, and once you control (the exact number escapes me, but roughly..) 24 of them, no one else in the game can build hotels. You now have a monopoly on housing and almost cannot possibly lose.

Because the monopoly is so easy to get, and so difficult to lose once you’ve got it, Monopoly is just a poorly balanced, poorly designed game. The only reason it’s so popular is that probably fewer than 3% of players know the winning strategy.

I like the way this guy thinks, but I disagree with his conclusions for two reasons. One, I am not convinced it’s as easy to get a housing monopoly as he suggests. There are thirty-two houses in the box, and a player needs to control twenty of them to make sure nobody else can develop to hotels. That means you need to get two full color groups before anyone else gets one — an uncommon occurrence in a three- or four-player game.

And two, even if there were a surefire winning strategy, I don’t agree it would ruin the game. If there really is a killer strategy, and every player knows it and tries to employ it, that just means the game is being played at a higher level now. Any game is boring if you’re the only person at the table who knows how to play.

You know who’s to blame though? Definitely not the players. It’s Parker Brothers. Have you seen the rule book? Even playing by the rules takes forever, because every turn, someone asks “can I do that?” and you have to spend 10 minutes looking for a simple statement that applies to the current situation.

This is true of literally every board game I’ve ever played, the first time I play it. Of course the rules are going to be confusing to a group of people who are not familiar with them.

Monopoly is old technology. Someone complaining about others not liking Monopoly is like wondering why people don’t use wax cylinders instead of MP3 players or photostat machines instead of full color computer printers.

A common thread amongst the anti-Monopoly crowd was “Why would you play Monopoly when you could play something newer?” This particular commenter helpfully linked several of his favorite modern board games, as though I had never heard of or played any of them.

I reject this argument out of hand. It’s not as though new games obsolete old ones. I was not required to throw away my Monopoly set the day I bought Ticket to Ride. Why can’t I own and enjoy lots of games, both old and new?

Most of the conversations I have about games involve video games, not board games. In all those many years I don’t think I can recall anyone saying, “Super Mario Bros. is old and bad. Why don’t you play Super Mario Galaxy?”

1. Luck. If you play Euros at all, you will know that luck is something that becomes minimal, if non-existent, with them. Rolling the dice and all of a sudden landing on Boardwalk to complete that monopoly is lucky. There was no skill involved. You didn’t make decisions prior to the game to get to that point. You just landed on Park Place previously in the game and now Boardwalk. You have a big advantage by having these two properties, right? Not really. Because again, it’ll be based on luck if someone lands on your spot to pay you any money. Luck is not fun.

I love this comment because I agree wholeheartedly with its sentiment but disagree with its conclusion. As a rule, I despise luck-based games and avoid playing them. I find them boring and frustrating. Fortunately Monopoly’s luck-based elements are just one facet of the game, and do not define it. Yes, getting Boardwalk and Park Place early is an astounding lucky break — but that is balanced by those particular properties being very expensive to develop. Other players at the table who did not have your luck can counter your good fortune by dealing aggressively with each other. If the game were just about rolling dice and paying rent, yes, it would be all about luck and therefore be really boring. But there’s a lot more to the game than that.

The reason why I dislike Monopoly is the way it stagnates the boardgame industry.
Hasbro manufacture these because shops stock them, shops stock them because they sell, they sell because no one sees anything else & thus we have a vicious cycle.

I think this commenter is factually incorrect. This may have been true during the 70s and 80s, when Hasbro and Parker Bros. were the only game in town, but that just isn’t the case anymore.

the only thing better than monopoly is the equally hated scrabble, and I love both. Thanks to my daughter for sending me this great article. My desire to play and smash my opponents has been renewed. But must get my nipples pierced first.

I like this individual because it’s always nice to see someone who has their priorities in order.

Length of game is NOT the #1 reason so many people hate Monopoly. #1 reason adults hate monopoly is that they have memories of being repeatedly driven to tears by an older sibling or cousin as a child. Chance of a 7 yr-old beating a 12yr-old is about 5%, chance of that 7yr-old growing up to hate Monopoly is 100%. Every person I have ever met who wants to play Monopoly was the oldest sibling in their family.

I think there’s a lot of validity to this sentiment. I was the older sibling in our household (though not by much) and I would do everything in my mortal power to win every board game we ever played, even if it meant making up crazy rules on the spot. Ah, childhood.

It doesn’t logically follow that you should hate the game forever, though. Rather, you should give it another chance now that you know how to play it properly.

What do you think of people doubling as the bank and a player? It’s the role I’m always stuck with simply, because everyone is too lazy to count. Aside from the potential for cheating do you have any major quips with it?

I’ve actually never considered that the banker might not be a player. I’ve pulled double-duty quite a lot over the years. I’ve also played games where the first player who gets knocked out takes over as dedicated banker for the rest of the game.

I don’t really factor in the cheating angle, because I like to assume everyone at the table is playing in good faith. It’s not really that difficult to cheat in any tabletop game, but it’s also not much fun. Why even play, if you’re just going to cheat?

What makes Monopoly boring is when there are only two players left, each controlling half the board. This is usually mitigated when it comes down to the last three, each holding a third or so of the board, this is when corporate mergers tend to occur, two players pool their holdings to crush the remaining player.

This is a serious flaw with the game, because yeah, two-player Monopoly is pretty dull. (Even moreso if it started as four-player Monopoly, and two players have been knocked out.) There’s not a lot you can do about this, though, but accept that the game is almost eighty years old, and therefore was not informed by the many decades of game design that came after.

I’ve only EVER heard people defend Monopoly as “worth playing” if they have never played — or heard of — ANY of the games in the top 100. If you’d have asked me back in the day, when the only games I had played were Monopoly, Cluedo, Trivial Pursuit et al, I’d have given the same response. But then, I didn’t know what I was talking about. Interesting idea for an article, but the reasoning behind it is deeply flawed I’m afraid.

This is a pretty fresh comment — less than a week old! — so I’m curious to see what this person thinks when they learn that I have indeed heard of board games invented in the last ten years. I do not, in fact, live under a rock in a desolate wasteland with no contact with Amazon or BoardGameGeek. I have Blokus and Carcassonne and Red November and a dozen other modern games in addition to the classics like Risk, Clue(do) and Parcheesi. I own so many board games that my wife actually incorporates them into the living room decor; they sit quite attractively on our bookshelves and under our endtables. First-time visitors often comment on them.

I would call this guy a board game snob, except I would expect a snob to have more respect for the history of gaming.

I simply do not perceive any correlation between my enjoyment of a game and that game’s release date, or its level of popularity, or whatever. I have both old and new games that I enjoy, and both old and new games that I do not. Apples to Apples is a modern darling, but you’d have to pay me to sit down and play it. Munchkin is fast-paced and has endless variety, but I find it to be insipid and pointless. Mansions of Madness is a wonderful experience, but has a crippling design flaw in that once a group has played it like ten times all of its variations have been exhausted.

The flip side of this point is that a lot of the old, timeless classics are timeless for a reason. You can’t beat Jenga for simple, visceral fun. Clue(do) requires the kind of deductive reasoning usually reserved for much more complex games. Dismissing these games because they’re not on a Top 100 list is just plain silly.

My point was never that Monopoly is objectively better than Puerto Rico, or whatever, so arguments that I should play the latter to the exclusion of the former automatically fail. I can play both! When played well by people who like the game and actively try to win, Monopoly is exciting and fast-paced. Conversely, Puerto Rico happens to be an irritating mess when half the players are disinterested and don’t know the rules or the proper strategy. Such is the nature of board games.

So my original suggestion still stands: if you haven’t tried Monopoly lately, and only remember it as being a frustrating disaster as a kid, try it again with an open mind and strictly by the book. I recommend this in addition to feasting on the bounties of the modern Eurogame renaissance.

If you can’t bring yourself to try playing the game again, at least enjoy this excellent YouTube video of a dude wtfpwning seven CPUs in the NES version of the game, which is even older than my original Monopoly post is.

Thanks to everyone who read that article — and this one!

dtsund’s NetHack Overhaul

My good pal and roguelike afficianado dtsund (who sat in with me during a few episodes of Shiren the Wanderer) recently compiled some notes about how he would overhaul the class system in NetHack. He has a lot of good ideas, and a few questionable ones, and this blog post is intended to offer my comments and critiques on the changes he’d make.

I’m quoting some of the notes here, so I can better comment on them, but you can find the full text here: dtsund’s Class Overhaul Notes

NetHack’s class (or “role”) system is in dire need of an overhaul. Too often, there is little distinguishing one class from another; the differences between Valkyrie, Barbarian, Caveperson, and Samurai, for instance, are not so much huge differences in playstyle so much as they are relatively minor technical details. Little thought seems to have been put into determining specific, distinct playstyles and designing classes around these. Rather, the game’s class system seems to have accreted somewhat haphazardly over time.

I still haven’t played all of the classes in NetHack, but I generally agree with dtsund’s sentiment. I think the root of the problem is that basic melee is just too good — or, at least, “good enough” — that any class can resort to melee with the proper gear. This means that classes without exceptional bonuses or starting gear end up playing like “worse Valkyrie” or “worse Barbarian”. There’s a lot of fat to trim.

My first thought upon reading dtsund’s notes were, oh cool, I wonder which classes he’s going to cut? He ended up not cutting any, and while I disagree I suppose it makes sense; his stated goal is to overhaul the classes by making the available ones more distinct, and not by doing any trimming.

Before getting down to business, dtsund proposes a few overall changes to the core mechanics of NetHack, starting with daggers.

Thrown daggers are currently altogether too powerful; they should serve as a comparitively weak ranged option for classes that have nothing else, inferior to dedicated ammo-based ranged attacks like darts and bows. The current state in which daggerstorms can be one of the game’s most powerful attacks, in some cases even more powerful than a volley of arrows, should be rectified. One possible fix would be to remove multishot from thrown daggers.

Magicbane should be effectively useless as a damaging weapon and probably shouldn’t be an endless source of cheap, clean Elbereth either; it’d still be an excellent wielded artifact without these (perhaps it could be turned into a knife).

I’ve never actually played a character that relied on throwing daggers, or on Magicbane, but I have enough working knowledge of the game to understand what these changes mean and what reprecussions they have for classes that do rely on them. I think his assessment here is bang on. The characters best served by these very general strategies tend to have class-specific things that get overshadowed because the easier catch-all option exists. It’s dumb that Rangers can do more damage with daggers than a bow, and it’s dumb that Wizards can walk mindlessly into melee because they have such a good weapon. Weakening strategies that are universally good is a clever way to emphasize the strengths individual classes already possess.

The split between Int casting and Wis casting should be removed. It removes mechanical consistency for the sake of flavor and at the expense of gameplay to boot. Additionally, Wisdom should have a vastly greater effect on Pw regeneration, allowing some classes to restore their magic much more quickly than others at the outset). Maxed-out Wisdom should confer Pw regeneration roughly equivalent to one-quarter to one-half of an Eye of the Aethiopica. Elevating Wisdom should be as difficult as raising Intelligence currently is. Allowing classes to have spellcasting prowess decoupled from Pw regeneration at the start would be a good thing, helping distinguish classes who can occasionally use potent magic from those who can spam, but only with lower-level spells.

My personal feeling is that spellcasting is redundant in a game that already has wands and rings and scrolls and who knows what else, but if you’re dead-set on keeping the mechanic, I suppose this is a good way to go about it. A lot of classes in NetHack already start with spells the designers felt they should be naturally good with, and dtsund continues this trend as he overhauls the classes, but to me it feels artificial. A lot of the starting spells could just be simmered down into class abilities with cooldowns.

While there is some merit to varying the starting inventory, all instances of “you have a 1/5 chance of getting this useful thing, and no compensation if you don’t” should be removed.

This is a good example of updating a game mechanic that made sense in the 80s but not so much today. I could go into detail about why, but hopefully the reasons are self-evident.

Pure Fighter: Valkyrie. Relatively little needs to be changed in this case, save the aforementioned blanket nerf to thrown daggers (which would reduce their ranged combat potential noticeably). As-is, the Valkyrie, from start to finish, already epitomizes the melee game. They may now achieve Expert in any melee weapon type, but aside from the boosts to Two Weapon Combat and Saber, this is unlikely to matter much in practice.

The pure melee class is unavoidable in a game where melee is so good, and any attempts to make melee worse would make the game too frustrating (and, more importantly, make it No Longer NetHack), so taking a very light touch with the Valkyrie is the correct move.

Pure Ranged: Ranger.

Starting inventory:
a +1 dagger
4 +0 daggers (new)
a +1 bow (always, even for gnomes)
50-59 +2 arrows (always, even for gnomes; never initially poisoned)
30-39 +0 arrows (always, even for gnomes; never initially poisoned)
a +2 cloak of displacement (always, even for elves)
5-7 cram rations (always, even for elves; range narrowed somewhat)
a blessed spellbook of slow monster (new)

God gifts: First sacrifice gift guaranteed to be the Bottomless Quiver, a magical tool which provides a number of arrows when applied if it has nonzero charges. The Bottomless Quiver will not be given as a sacrifice gift to non-Rangers; it may be wished for, but gives non-rangers only half as many arrows. The arrows produced will be ordinary arrows 80% of the time, silver arrows otherwise. It can be recharged indefinitely.

Quest artifact: The Longbow of Diana, when invoked, now provides the same effect as a blessed scroll of enchant weapon. +1 multishot over an ordinary longbow. No other changes.

I don’t see why the Ranger needs to start with any +0 arrows. Just give him 80-99 +2 arrows and call it good. The Slow Monster spell here is a good example of something I think could just be a class ability. Perhaps something akin to the way Hunters can mark targets in World of Warcraft to get bonuses against those targets.

I think what dtsund was shooting for re: Bottomless Quiver and Longbow of Diana was a way to ensure the Ranger has a free way to generate and enchant arrows. I don’t think this is necessary. Heavily-enchanted blessed arrows already have a low chance of breaking, and even if they didn’t, the multishot bonus afforded to the class still makes it a powerful weapon. I think what players would do here is just use the Quiver to enchant an artifact melee weapon, and use that instead. In practical terms I can’t see a Ranger needing to re-enchant stacks of arrows very often. One stack of maybe 100 blessed +5 poisoned arrows should be enough to last the game, once the player has the resources to make them.

Pure Magic: Wizard. Much of the Wizard’s design is cruft left over from the days before the Wizard Patch was incorporated, introducing the modern spellcasting system. The result is a class which, despite ostensibly being the game’s magic specialist class, is optimally played with rather little magic early on. The changes here are intended to give focus to the class, and in particular both allow and require it to lean harder on magic in the early stages of the game.

I don’t much like the Wizard class. What dtsund has done is removed most of the random magical trinkets they start with and replaced it with increased spellcasting ability. This would make the class more distinct, but I’m still not sure I would like it, and having never played a Wizard I’m not overly qualified to comment on it anyway.

It is my understanding that a lot of the play this class sees is from players doing challenge runs, because the starting trinkets allow for specially-crafted challenges and conducts. Removing the starting gear changes that aspect of the game a lot, but dtsund fixes that problem later.

HYBRID CLASSES: These classes combine the elements of the pure classes in various ways.

This is where dtsund loses me a lot, because I don’t think many of NetHack’s hybrid classes can really be salvaged. For example, he classifies Samurai as a hybrid melee/missile class, and does his best to really try an emphasize those two points… but every class is already a hybrid melee/something. It’s a problem that the current Samurai is just a crappy Valkyrie, but I’m afraid the overhauled Samurai would just turn out to be a crappy Ranger.

The best hybrid classes in NetHack are the one with interesting or helpful gameplay mechanics that are totally removed from melee or spellcasting. The Priest’s knowledge of beautitude, for example, or the Monk’s aversion to weapons and armor. From this angle, dtsund’s best work was taking some hybrid classes and making them “specialist classes”, as we’ll see below. Unfortunately I think Samurai and Barbarian are just hopeless and redundant, unless you’re going to introduce a cool game mechanic for them to work with.

Ranged/Magic Trickster Hybrid: Rogue.

Quest: In addition to being difficult to reach, the Master Assassin should be nearly impossible to kill via conventional means – not because he’ll kill you first, because he certainly won’t, but because he’s too durable and tends to spam self-healing magic. His stoning resistance should be supplemented by poison resistance. The level’s leprechauns should be replaced by nymphs and moved closer to the nemesis, for reasons that will be clear shortly. Rogues are expected to take the Bell of Opening and the Master Key of Thievery via more underhanded means. Unlike most quest nemeses, the Master Assassin should be generated asleep, rather than meditating, giving players the opportunity to teleport him off of the items (especially since Rogues have intrinsic stealth). Failing this, polymorphing into a nymph, taming some nearby nymphs, or putting the nymphs under the influence of conflict will allow the player to steal the key items from an awake nemesis. If the player must resort to direct combat, it is essential to disable the nemesis with sleep or paralysis to prevent him from healing. If nothing else, death rays should still work against him.

I haven’t played a Rogue, and while I think dtsund’s idea for a quest overhaul is really cool I am skeptical that it is a compelling reason to play the class. The quest is a very small part of the game, after all.

Avoidance: Archeologist. Archeologists are poor fighters, but excel at avoiding combat.

Alignment: Lawful, Neutral.

Race: Human, Dwarf, Gnome.

Starting inventory:
a +2 bullwhip
a +0 leather jacket
a +0 fedora
3 to 6 uncursed food rations
a +0 pick-axe
an uncursed wand of digging
an uncursed touchstone
an uncursed sack
an uncursed oil lamp
12 to 15 +0 grappling hooks (new; see below)

Other details: Grappling hooks are now much lighter and may stack with one another. Archeologists specifically may apply them to nearby holes to create “climbing shafts”: two-way passages between floors, effectively serving as alternate staircases. The destination square for the climbing shaft, and the square from which the Arc can climb back up, is the closest square on the next floor down in X/Y coordinates to the shaft. Shops are ineligible to be destinations. Archeologists may dig through walls using a pick-axe in a single turn, and through a floor in three. When breaking through the floor, an Archeologist with a nonzero number of grappling hooks in his or her main inventory is given a y/n prompt to throw a grappling hook up to the edge of the pit. TODO: Give Archeologists some means of gaining experience aside from fighting.

Archeologist is already one of my favorite classes, and I think the changes dtsund makes here really do them good. I love the idea of a class that can make his own paths through the dungeon at will. My thinking is this is would be a good place to scavenge some of the attributes from Rogue: a class that can move unhindered, carefully pick his battles, and use the element of surprise to his advantage.

Item User: Tinker. Wizards, above, lost much of their domination over the item game. As no other class fits such an item-heavy theme either, the game has room for an additional class to fill the niche. They have basic melee skills, since they can’t kill everything with wands.

Alignment: Lawful, Neutral.

Race: Human, Gnome.

Starting inventory:
a +0 quarterstaff
a +0 leather armor
four random scrolls (not fire, amnesia, identify, or blank paper; all of different types)
a blessed scroll of identify
five random potions (not hallucination or acid; all of different types)
three random rings (not aggravate monster, hunger, levitation, or +0 chargeable rings)
a random powerful attack wand (fire, lightning, or cold)
a random other wand (not fire, lightning, cold, wishing, polymorph, or nothing)
an uncursed magic marker with 70-90 charges
a sack

Initial Basic skills: Quarterstaff.

Skill caps:
Restricted: Attack, Defense, Enchantment, Pick-Axe, Saber, Club, Mace, Morning Star, Flail, Polearms, Spear, Javelin, Trident, Lance, Bow, Shuriken, Whip.
Basic: Escape, Knife, Axe, Broadsword, Two-Handed Sword, Scimitar, Sling, Crossbow, Dart, Two Weapon Combat, Riding.
Skilled: Divination, Short Sword, Long Sword, Hammer, Boomerang, Unicorn Horn, Bare Hands.
Expert: Matter, Quarterstaff, Dagger.

Intrinsics: Shock resistance (level 1), Fire resistance (level 7), Polymorph control (?) (level 20).

Stats: Low Strength; high Constitution to help them carry all their equipment. Good Int, decent Dex, lousy Wis.

God gifts: First sacrifice gift guaranteed to be a very heavily-charged wand of polymorph (think 15-20 charges).

Quest: I got nothin’. Average rooms-and-corridors, nemesis of average difficulty, perhaps.

Quest artifact: The Pen of Shakespeare (Lawful by default). Artifact magic marker that writes the desired spellbook or scroll without fail, charges permitting. Starts with 99 charges, is recharged to 99. Grants double wand damage when carried, can be invoked for charging as from the PYEC.

Other details: None.

I’m pretty cold on this class. I understand the idea: take the great starting gear from the Wizard and make “put great items to good use” its own class. But putting great items to good use is one of the core features of every class. By the mid-game you have a huge collection of a variety of things regardless of role, which I think would cause the Tinker to lose most of its identity rather quickly. By DL20, everyone is a Tinker.

However, I do see a hole in the game caused by the Wizard’s overhaul that we can fill with a new role. Without a class that starts with lots of random magical gear, how will top players seed their crazy conduct runs? To that end, I make this role suggestion:

Challenge Seed Class: Adventurer

Alignment: Any

Race: Any

Starting inventory:
a +0 dagger
a +0 leather armor
a 1:2 wand of wishing

Initial Basic skills: Dagger.

Skill caps:
Everything can be #enhanced to Skilled. Three skills can be further #enhanced to Expert.

Upon reaching L2, L7, L13, L21 and L30 the Adventurer receives a prompt asking what intrinsic he should gain. This works just like wishing for an item. The list of legal options is limited to the following: any resistance except stoning and magic, searching, stealth, speed, warning, see invisible, teleport control and polymorph control. An Adventurer that loses an intrinsic upon being level-drained my select a new one when he levels up again.

Stats: Average across the board.

God gifts: First sacrifice gift will be selected from a short list of ascension kit items not already in the player’s open inventory. A cursory list of potential gifts is: boots of speed, gauntlets of power, helm of brilliance, amulet of reflection, cloak of magic resistance and wand of death. Upon receiving one gift the game will start cycling through random artifact weapons and/or spellbooks, as normal.

Quest: Randomly selected from the list of possible quests, similar to how Priests randomly select their deities. The game will not generate a quest if that quest’s artifact already exists. Once the quest generates, that quest artifact cannot be wished for. If all quest artifacts exist before the quest generates, no quest generates and the game becomes unwinnable.

Other details: The Adventurer doesn’t break wishless conduct until making his third wish. (Wishing for artifacts breaks both conducts immediately, though.)

The goal of this class is to offer a lot of very early game versatility for players who want to create specific challenges without doing lots of savescumming. For example, a player attempting a foodless run might use his wishes on a ring of slow digestion and an artifact weapon. I do not believe Adventurer would be a good class for starting players; even wishing for the three best items in the game in the first room is not enough to carry an unskilled player very far — a lesson every seasoned NetHack player knows all too well!

Anyway, that’s enough from me. Let’s get back to dtsund’s class changes.

Berserker/Tank: Caveperson. Caveman/Cavewoman, in vanilla NetHack, is yet another of those “basically Valkyrie but worse” melee classes. This would be fine if it were intended as a challenge role, but Tourist and (in some variants) Convict both fit that better. Here, I propose to change it into something dramatically tankier and stronger, but with severe restrictions other characters don’t have to deal with.

Intrinsics: Sickness resistance (level 1), Speed (level 7), Warning (level 15). Sickness resistance is new. +2 innate AC per level up to level 8, and +1 thereafter. +1 damage per attack every three levels.

Quest: Given their new restrictions, they could certainly do with a good attack, even despite their added intrinsics. It should be possible to find at least one trident during the quest, as that’s one of the best options a Caveperson has for twoweaponing; perhaps horned devils are common Quest foes.

Quest artifact: Unchanged.

Other details: Cavepersons are incapable of communicating in modern terms. This means they are incapable of reading scrolls or spellbooks (the Book of the Dead’s ancient runes are contemporary for him, though), cannot engrave Elbereth, cannot chat except during the Quest, and cannot name creatures to genocide or items to wish for. When given a wish, a Caveperson may only indicate what he or she wants by gesturing to an existing item in his or her inventory, duplicating it. They can, however, pray. Owing to their primitive nature, they have a pet-like ability to sense curses; this may help them find naturally enchanted armor.

I really love all these changes, and I think the Caveperson is dtsund’s best overhaul. Here we have a class predominantly defined by its drawbacks. We already know that is fun and interesting, because Monk. The intrinsic protection and damage neatly offset the loss of enchant scrolls and E-squares. The restrictions on wishing offer a unique but not insurmountable challenge. This is a Caveperson that would actually be worth playing.

Petmonger: Healer. Healers are designed to rely on pets, and for the most part this is already true of their early-game play. It could stand to be encouraged a little bit more later on, but this is pretty much already accomplished by the spell school reorganization allowing them to cast Create Familiar.

God gifts: First god gift guaranteed to be a blessed figurine of a decent but not overpowered pet, like a gargoyle.

Other details: Healers might be given the ability to use cursed figurines as uncursed, uncursed as blessed, and blessed with 100% reliability, flavored as healing a cursed being.

These changes both go in the right direction, although I think it would be better to scrap the Healer entirely and invent a new pet class from the ground up. Just off the top of my head, a class for which taming is an ability rather than a spell (similar to how Priests can turn undead) would be an interesting and challenging way to cater to that playstyle. Instead of taking the Healer as the base, take Warcraft’s Hunter or Final Fantasy’s Summoner.

Cavalry: Knight. Knights are already designed effectively as mounted fighters; as with the Healer, all they really need are a few minor tweaks to help encourage this throughout the game.

God gifts: First god gift guaranteed to be the Lance of Longinus, an artifact lance. Identical to an ordinary lance, save that it cannot be broken.

Quest: Unchanged.

Quest artifact: The Magic Mirror of Merlin, instead of telepathy, magic resistance, and double spell damage, confers reflection and controlled flight to the bearer and any steed he or she may be riding.

Having just played a Knight myself, I love these changes as well. I might even go so far as to replace the Magic Mirror with a powerful artifact Lance that can be #invoked to convey resistances and lifesaving to whatever mount you’re on. My beef with mounted combat is that it always felt like a nice perk when I had it, but it just wasn’t quite powerful enough for me to actively go out of my way and make it work.

Back-loaded: Tourist. Tourists already have a weak early-game paired with a somewhat versatile late-game; no significant changes need to be made here, as the class is already working as intended and has a unique identity.

I agree wholeheartedly here. Tourist might be the most unique class in the game, in fact.

So that’s a lot of notes. I think these are all wonderful ideas from the standpoint of making the existing NetHack classes more enjoyable.

I really, really don’t think that’s what the game needs, though. These are the kinds of changes you arrive at if you start with taking for granted you’re going to have a Samurai, and then trying to figure out how to make the Samurai distinct from the Knight and the Valkyrie and the Barbarian. What I think the game needs, here in 2014, is for someone to really question whether or not we need a Samurai. Take a chisel to everything and build something modern, but still fundamentally NetHack. To use a D&D analogy, dtsund is trying to revise 3E, when what we really need is for someone to design 4E.

Risk of Rain

Risk of Rain has the most exhilarating learning curve I’ve experienced in a game since I started learning NetHack in 2006.

I don’t mean to say it’s the most fun, mind you. It hasn’t always been fun. I’ve said a lot of bad words at my computer this past week. But it’s been worth the work, and it’s been quite a rush.

And yes, I realize that praising the learning curve is a pretty weird way to start a gaming blog, so let’s explore it a little bit.

People are touting Risk as a sidescrolling shoot-em-up roguelike, but it’s only a roguelike in the same sense that BioShock is an RPG. It has some superficial similarities to roguelikes — random item drops, random spawn points, and the like — but the level layouts and character classes are always fixed. One of the defining elements of a roguelike, to me, knowing how to use what you find, where the defining element in Risk is knowing how to play your class. The items you find certainly help, and the random spawns force you to mix up your tactics, but the best way to advance in the game is to just practice and get better. This is not a game you will pause every few minutes so you can check a wiki. That’s where the learning curve comes in.

The first time you boot up Risk of Rain you will probably kill some monsters, get a couple items, kill some more monsters, start feeling pretty good about your ability to kill monsters, then get overwhelmed by like ten monsters at once. And you’ll go, “Okay, well, next time I know to be a little quicker, and not let so many monsters spawn. Let’s try again.”

The second time you will maybe escape the group of ten monsters, maybe apply some hit-and-run tactics and kill them all, maybe feel like a badass for a minute. Maybe you’ll say, “I know how to kill big groups now! Yay!” And maybe you’ll get to level two before learning that in Risk of Rain ten monsters isn’t a big group. Not even a small group. Hardly a group at all, really.

And you’ll say, “Wait, does this game just spawn hundreds and hundreds of monsters on top of me constantly? How the hell am I supposed to ever deal with that!?”

But you can deal with it, and that’s what’s so exhilarating. The game starts hard and only gets harder. The key to surviving, at first, is to pay close attention to what your class skills actually do. You start the game with only one class unlocked, and he has three different gunshots. You need to know the difference between those three gunshots. You need to understand that you can’t just smack the ability the moment it cools down. You need to know when to use them and when not to — and you need to know a few different ways to use them, too.

You figure all that out, though, and now you’re killing more efficiently. You start learning the layout of the first few levels. You wonder how you ever got killed by a measley group of ten monsters. You fill up an entire row of items, giving you so many passive buffs that you can’t imagine ever losing. You feel like you’ve got the hang of it. And then a boss you’ve never seen kills you with one shot.

Somewhere in there, though, you unlocked some new classes! You try them, thinking maybe they’re stronger than your starting guy, but they’re not. They’re just different. And you die in the first few minutes, to the first ten mobs, all over again, like you’re some kind of noob. It feels like starting over.

In a sense, it is. Every time you you carve some small victory out of Risk, it throws something new at you. It empties a bucket on you, then a bathtub, and before you even finish drying off from that you look off in the distance and see a tanker headed your way. You have to keep honing your skills and developing new strategies. When those don’t work, you start developing contingency plans. Then with all that — and maybe a little luck — you finally get to the last boss.

Who then one-shots you, because of course he does.

Even that challenge is not insurmountable, though. After the second or third victory over him, you’ll have reached a new level of mastery. And you’ll have nine more classes to go.

There’s a lot more to say about the game — the graphics are gorgeous, the soundtrack is sublime, the multiplayer is fun (but unweildly and buggy) — but the learning is really the best part. Not many modern games try to sell you on a sense of accomplishment, but gosh, it feels real nice. Each time you clear a new hurdle in Risk of Rain you’ll know you’ve earned it, because you’ve worked for it. And maybe said a few bad words along the way.

I recommend it, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Grab it on Steam and try not to pull all your hair out.

Merry Day-After-Christmas

I can’t imagine anyone reads this blog who isn’t already subscribed on YouTube, but just in case, I added a widget to display my most recently-updated video. That was really difficult and took all day, and I think maybe it doesn’t work all the way, because it doesn’t look like it’s displaying my Little Nemo Christmas Special. So I’ll go ahead and put it here in this post and then get back to eating the rest of this box of Hickory Farms.