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!

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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: http://scibbe.com/?p=219

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!

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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.

Intrinsics:
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.

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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.

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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.

Enjoy!

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Binding of Isaac is good, now

Over two years ago, when The Binding of Isaac was new, I compiled my thoughts about the game into a blog post (which you can read here). That post was pretty scathing, and I had lots of negative things to say about the game, despite it being a mostly good experience. I stand by everything I said there: the game was too random, the controls were bad, and the faultless deaths were too demoralizing. I played for about fifty hours before finally hanging it up. When the expansion, Wrath of the Lamb, was released I had no desire to go back for more punishment.

Skipping the expansion turned out to be a mistake. Since taking the plunge a couple months ago, my Steam dashboard reports I’ve logged about 150 hours of Isaac. I have no desire or intention of slowing down. The game has its hooks in me, and it’s all because Wrath fixed the game’s most glaring problem. Pre-Wrath, winning was primarily a function of your luck, tempered by your game knowledge and physical dexterity. Post-Wrath, knowledge is by far your biggest asset, and your luck is (usually) only as bad as you allow it to be. The difference is night and day.

Before I talk about what they actually changed, I want to give a grim description of what the expansion could have been. When Wrath first came out I had no faith whatsoever that Isaac‘s developers even understood the cracks in their game, let alone had any desire to spackle them. Reports started coming in that the expansion piled on about a hundred new items, new bosses, new pretty much everything. For people who already liked Isaac, an expansion that added big buckets of Stuff was a really exciting proposition. But for folks like me, who were turned off by the game’s random failure rate, Lack-of-Stuff was not Isaac‘s problem.

The expansion does have loads of new Stuff. But all that is just icing. The really important additions to the game are all the new ways you can find Stuff. A typical run in the vanilla game might have, say, twenty opportunities for you to find Stuff, contingent on what resources you have, how good you are at dodging, which bosses you run into, and loads of other variables. Whether that’s enough for a skilled player to reasonably win every run is debatable. In Wrath, with all the new room types and trinket slots and guaranteed drops, you have more like forty opportunities. Even removing player skill from the equation, that’s twice as friendly.

I’m writing this post for two groups of people. The first are fans of vanilla Isaac who take issue with high randomness being a problem. These are the dudes I argued with back in 2011, who mostly claimed that the game was already winnable and that making it “easier” would ruin the experience. Since Wrath did make the game “easier”, and since the game doesn’t appear to be ruined, that appears to be that. I was right and now I’m smug about it, neener neener, no take-backsies.

The second group are the Isaac players who didn’t get into the game until after Wrath came out, and don’t even know how good they have it. Next time you botch your Polaroid invinciblity, ye dudes, pour one out for all us wretched souls who didn’t have one to begin with.

These are all the ways the game is better now:

  • Two Secret Rooms on every floor. In vanilla you could find a Secret Room by bombing seemingly-random walls. This room usually contained money, but sometimes had a good item. And as you might suspect, its location wasn’t actually random; it was governed by a set of rules you could learn and apply. Still, even with an abundance of bombs it was possible to get through an entire run without finding anything game-changing in a Secret Room at all. As of Wrath, though, there is also a Super-Secret Room on every floor, which is generated by its own set of rules. It’s usually harder to find than the regular Secret Room, and you still might go the whole game without hauling anything worthwhile out of one. But diligent searching is much more likely to pay off.
  • Curse Rooms and red chests. Vanilla had Treasure Rooms and Shops, which required keys to open, as well as Arcades, which required coins. Wrath adds Curse Rooms, which require life. Stepping into the room damages you, but inside is a red chest. This is a new kind of high-risk, high-reward chest which sometimes contains spiders or explosions, but can also warp you straight to the Devil Room or simply contain a great item. Red chests can also spawn out in the main dungeon as well, in place of the typical brown or gold ones. In addition, Curse Rooms have a chance of spawning next to the Secret or Super-Secret Rooms, giving you access to them even if you don’t have any bombs.
  • Trinkets. There is a new type of passive item called a trinket, which sits in a slot at the top-left corner of the screen and provides some benefit. You can only have one at a time, and the effects are often slight (and sometimes dubious!)… but a slight benefit over a long run can really add up.
  • Dimes and gold keys. Coins now sometimes spawn as dimes, which are worth ten cents. Keys sometimes spawn as gold keys, which allow you to unlock any door or chest on the current floor. These items are rare, but their inclusion means that over many games you will average more coins and keys than in vanilla. The shop you can now afford, or the gold chest you don’t have to pass up, has the potential to change your game.
  • Eternal hearts. There’s a new kind of heart, too: the eternal heart. This is a white heart that sits between your red ones and your blue ones. If you find one, and manage to complete the floor you’re on without losing it, it turns into a permanent red heart. As a result, every heart that spawns has a chance to be a permanent health up.
  • Playing cards. There’s also new kinds of cards, all of which add more resources to the game. The first four double your consumables (keys, bombs, coins, and red hearts). The fifth one teleports you directly to the Devil Room, giving you a chance to buy devil deals even if you suck at dodging and haven’t “earned” the chance.
  • Devil Rooms in general are more accessible. In fact, let’s talk about Satan for a bit. In vanilla, some of the most powerful items in the game were obtained by finding a Devil Room at the end of your floor and paying for them with your life. Your chances of seeing a Devil Room were better if you could clear the floor and the boss fight without getting hit, though, so they didn’t often turn a bad run around since the worse your run was going the less likely you were to see one. In Wrath, though, you can get into the Devil Room by opening a red chest or using a Joker card, and these methods are accessible to all players regardless of how their run is going.
  • Devil Room items outside of Devil Rooms. Even if you never get into a Devil Room, though, you still might get your hands on one of those sweet items. Curse Rooms sometimes contain them, and even if they don’t, methods of spawning items inside Curse Rooms (usually by using a Judgement card to spawn a beggar) will pull from the Devil Room pool instead of the regular treasure pool. This is sort of an advanced tactic, but it’s precisely this kind of knowledge-based trick that roguelike players love to use to make their own luck.
  • God Rooms. Of course, the biggest problem with Devil Rooms is that sometimes you just can’t spare the health. Some of the characters start with so little health that taking a devil deal was suicide. Now, if you enter a Devil Room but don’t take anything the game will start spawning God Rooms instead. God Rooms have a different pool of items than Devil Rooms, but they are all great, and best of all they don’t cost any life. Even better, if your floor has a God Room on it, the above Curse Room trick will work to spawn godly items instead of devilish ones.
  • Fortune Teller Machines. Vanilla had slot machines, which you could play for a chance to get coins, keys, bombs, hearts or pills. These were super useful and many runs have been saved by a lucky pull. Now there is a new type of slot machine which tells fortunes instead — as well as dropping blue hearts, cards and trinkets. In addition, there’s a trick that potentially turns a slot machine into a fortune teller, if that’s what you needed.
  • Boss Challenge Rooms. Vanilla had Challenge Rooms, which were locked unless you had full health. Inside might be a useful item or a handful of bombs, but if your run was already going badly you likely couldn’t get inside to check. Wrath adds Boss Challenge Rooms, which are only open if you’re about to die (one or fewer red hearts). These rooms always have a boss drop inside, which usually means a stat-up item. If your run is about to fail, this room might give you the edge you need. And if it’s going well, it might still be worth taking the risk.
  • Libraries. This is a new room type that spawns two books. Books are only moderately useful in and of themselves, but Libraries have three properties which make them really good. First, picking up a book (even if you don’t use it or keep it) increases the chances of seeing future Libraries. Second, Libraries can spawn even in late-game levels after Treasure Rooms and Shops are no longer possible. And third, the pool of Library items is pretty small. Once you’ve seen every book in the game — a likely possibility, if you’ve visited several Libraries — you’ll start seeing Treasure Room items instead.
  • The Cathedral. The game has a new ending. After beating The Womb, you have the choice to go down into Sheol and fight Satan (as in vanilla) or to go to the Cathedral instead. This alone breathes a lot of new life into the game, since the two bosses are very different. Lots of builds that would have failed in Sheol back in vanilla are actually feasible in the Cathedral, and vice-versa, increasing your odds of winning if you know what you’re doing.
  • The Chest. Going to Sheol, though, is reserved usually for the poorer runs. If you’re strong enough to survive the Cathedral, you continue on to the game’s final floor: The Chest. The first room of the chest spawns four guaranteed items, and every box (regardless of color!) that spawns thereafter has a guaranteed item as well. So even if your build is shaky, and even if you make it to the Chest by the skin of your teeth, you might luck out and get exactly the Hail Mary item drop you need to go the distance.
  • The Polaroid. This one thing could be an entry all to itself. The Polaroid is a trinket that always drops off after killing the sixth floor boss — it’s Isaac‘s one and only guaranteed item. It takes up your trinket slot and is actually required to finish the game. (If you complete the Cathedral but don’t have the Polaroid, you can’t continue on to the Chest.) Holding the Polaroid makes you invincible if certain conditions are met, and knowledgable players can force those conditions or at least make them a lot more likely.That’s a lot of ways players can improve their run which weren’t present in vanilla Isaac, and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few of the less drastic ones. And it doesn’t even really touch on all the great new items and toys you can play with.

All these great new ways to accumulate Stuff are balanced in some clever ways. For one, the new floors and monsters and bosses added in Wrath are just plain harder than the ones you would see in vanilla. The overall difficulty is higher, not lower, and your skill in dodging and aiming is even more important than before.

More importantly, though, you’ll notice that all these new opportunities come with an asterisk. They’re higher risk than the methods of finding items in vanilla Isaac, or they are far more subtle, or they require a bit of knowledge to leverage properly. Nothing quite as dramatic as just granting access to more Treasure Rooms or Shops, certainly. It’s the inclusion of all of these things, together, that create more decision points and put more power into the game. Situations are weighted less towards “what did I find?” and more towards “how can I make all these pieces fit together?”

I’m told that FTL, another roguelike I quit in disgust because I got tired of losing randomly, has an expansion on the horizon. Here’s hoping it gets fixed in the same way Isaac did. (And here’s hoping the Isaac remake doesn’t take two steps back!)

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How to Breed a Gold Chocobo in Final Fantasy VII

I have played Final Fantasy VII to completion probably a half-dozen times since it came out, and I have bred a gold chocobo each time. It’s kind of like a rite of passage in that game. Even my first time doing it, though, way back in high school, the process of catching and rearing chocobos was an obtuse and mystical thing that most players didn’t figure out without a guide.

This week I once again went in search of a guide, and like any popular fifteen-year-old game, found several. And I needed several, too, because a lot of the superstition and misinformation that crept into the process way back in 1997 is still floating around today, and the people who have cracked the game down to its barest chunks tend to go a little overboard explaining all the mechanics involved. So if you use an old guide you are likely to end up doing way more work than is required, but if you use a new one you are going to have to plug your nose and wade through a lot of number-crunching to find the information you need.

I thought I would help future generations of FF7 players (and re-players) by providing a complete, concise guide in an easy-to-follow step-by-step process.

When can I start?
You can begin the process after you gain control of the Highwind on Disc Two, but you can’t actually complete it until Cloud and Tifa rejoin the party. The earliest you can have a gold chocobo, plot-wise, is before going to the Underwater Reactor in Junon.

How do I raise the money?
The biggest hurdle in the breeding process is going to be your wallet. At bare minimum, you will have to account for the following expenses:

  • Four pens at the Chocobo Ranch (40,000 gil)
  • Three trips to Gold Saucer (9,000 gil)
  • Chocobo Lure materia (2,000 gil)
  • About thirty Sylkis Greens (150,000 gil)

The total comes out to 201,000 gil. Fortunately this is not as bad as it sounds; you do not need to get everything all at once, and the money you need for each step will come naturally by completing the previous one.

The up-front cost is around 73,000 gil. You will probably have this in your wallet just by progressing through the story and selling off your unused equipment and materia.

Can I get the money all at once?
Yes, and it’s actually rather easy. When Cait Sith joins the party on Disc One, he comes equipped with a Transform materia. This materia is basically useless, but it is easy to master. Keep it in your active party (taking advantage of double growth weapons when possible) and it you are very likely to have it mastered by the time you get the Highwind. Mastered Transform sells for 350,000 gil, which pays for your gold chocobo and probably anything else you could possibly need at that point in the game.

How long does this take?
The process involves gathering materials, manipulating luck, killing time, and racing. The amount of time will vary but you can always thread it in between your story progression. From beginning to end it will take something like 2-3 hours.

Bare-bones Gold Chocobo Guide:

  1. Catch two great chocobos from the Rocket Town area.
  2. Steal three Carob Nuts from Vlakorados near Bone Village.
  3. Class B Great + Class B Great + Carob Nut = Blue or Green.
  4. Class B Blue + Class A Green (or vice-versa) + Carob Nut = Black.
  5. Catch a wonderful chocobo from the Icicle area.
  6. Steal a Zeio Nut from a Goblin in the forest on the tiny island at the corner of the map.
  7. Class A Black + Class A Wonderful + Zeio Nut = Gold.

More Detailed (but still pretty concise) Chocobo Guide:

Step One: Purchase your chocobo pens.
Each pen costs 10,000 gil. You need at least three. You can buy the fourth one later if your funds are thin.

Step Two: Catch two great chocobos.
Fly to the chocobo tracks near Rocket Town. Fight battles on the tracks until a chocobo appears with two Valrons (purple gargoyle things) or two Kyuvilduns (green grasshopper guys). Chocobos that appear with these enemy formations are “great”. Send any great chocobos you catch back to the ranch.

Step Three: Obtain three Carob Nuts.
Steal the nuts you need from giant dragon monsters called Vlakorados around Bone Village. They take forever to kill, so just steal the nut and then run. You need three.

If you don’t have a Steal materia, you can buy one in Kalm for 1,200 gil.

Step Four: Buy Sylkis Greens.
Visit the Chocobo Sage in a small valley on the northern continent. He sells Sylkis Greens for 5,000 gil per. You will eventually need about 30 of these. Right now you only need eight or ten. Buy what you can, but save at least 3,000 gil to get into the Gold Saucer.

If you absolutely cannot afford any Sylkis at the moment, all is not lost. Go to the next step anyway.

Step Five: SAVE.
Fly back to the Chocobo Ranch and save your game. This is important.

Step Six: Determine the gender of your chocobos.
Tell Choco Billy that you want to move your chocobos inside to the pens. This is when the game decides what gender your chocobos are. If your two chocobos are not opposite genders, reload and try again.

If you find you’re getting the same results every time, take some random junk actions before talking to Billy. Leaving and re-entering the ranch will do the trick, as will getting into some fights or choosing to move your chocobos in a different order.

Step Seven: Feed your chocobos.
Feed four or five Sylkis Greens to each of your great chocobos.

Step Eight: Race your chocobos.
Each visit to the Gold Saucer costs 3,000 gil, and you will need to pay three visits. The goal is to get three wins on each chocobo, advancing them to Class B. This should be trivially easy if you were able to get some Sylkis.

Class C races are possible to win even without having fed your chocobos, but it will take longer because you will have to eat some losses along the way.

You can win chocobo races even against superior opponents by following these steps:

  1. Select the short track. There is no benefit to playing the long one.
  2. When the race starts, immediately press Select to switch to Manual control.
  3. Press and hold R1 and R2 throughout the race to regenerate your stamina. This is your main advantage because CPU chocobos cannot do this.
  4. Hold your dash button until your stamina is about 75% gone, then let it fill back up.
  5. Towards the end of the race, just as you are crossing from the wooden bridge to the outer space area, you should have enough stamina to dash to the end.

Once both of your chocobos are Class B, fly back to the Chocobo Ranch and SAVE.

Step Nine: Breed your chocobos.
Tell Billy you want to breed your chocobos. When he asks for a nut, give him a Carob Nut. The result will be a green or blue chocobo. Note the baby’s color and gender, then go back outside and save again. (If you get a yellow chocobo, reload, perform some junk actions, then breed again.)

Step Ten: Fight some battles.
The game determines when you can breed your chocobos again by counting how many battles you fight. The number varies. My suggestion is to fight five battles, then go back and see if they’re ready. If not, go fight five more, etc.

  • If you funded your breeding adventure with a mastered Transform materia, you want to get the fights over with as quickly as possible. Walk into the swamp near the Chocobo Ranch and let the Midgar Zolom run into you. This is much faster than running circles on the world map.
  • If you need cash, fly to the Mideel Area and fight on the beaches. You will exclusively find monsters called Sea Worms which are total pushovers. They are weak to Ice magic, so load someone up with magic materia and some Earrings and let them lead the charge with Ice3 or Freeze. Each Sea Worm drops 5,000 gil, so fighting five of them will fund your next round of Sylkis Greens.

Step Eleven: Breed your chocobos again.
If you were only able to afford three chocobo pens earlier, this is when you need to buy your fourth.

This is the most frustrating and time-consuming step in the entire process, and is probably what accounts for most of the superstition that has crept into the gold chocobo mythos over the years. Your goal is to breed your great chocobos again, hoping for a baby of the opposite color and gender than the first. Keep resetting until that happens. If you get the same results repeatedly, do a few junk actions before breeding.

Once you have a green of one gender and a blue of the other, the hard part’s over. Tell Billy to release the two great chocobos; you don’t need them anymore.

Step Twelve: Feed your colored chocobos.
Five Sylkis Greens for each should do the trick.

Step Thirteen: Race your colored chocobos.
Race one of your birds to Class B (three wins) and the other to Class A (six wins). Make good use of the stamina recovery trick to make this easier. You will probably have a couple close finishes.

Step Fourteen: Fight some more battles.
Fight five battles, then check and see if your baby chocobos are ready to breed. If not, fight five more, etc. Again, fighting Sea Worms will fund the next round of Sylkis you need.

Step Fifteen: Breed your colored chocobos.
Mate blue to green with a Carob Nut. The result will be a black chocobo. Note its gender. (If it’s any other kind of chocobo, reload, perform some junk actions, and try again.)

Step Sixteen: Catch a wonderful chocobo.
You will find these at the chocobo tracks in the Icicle Area. They appear in battles with annoying rabbit monsters called Jumpings. Send your chocobo back to the ranch.

Step Seventeen: Feed your black and wonderful chocobos.
Five Sylkis Greens each should be sufficient.

Step Eighteen: Race your black and wonderful chocobos.
You need to get both birds up to Class A (six wins each).

Step Nineteen: Get a Zeio Nut.
You can Steal these from monsters called Goblins. They appear exclusively in the forest on the tiny island towards the northeast corner of the map. You only need one of these nuts.

Step Twenty: Fight some more battles.
Your black chocobo isn’t ready to breed yet. You don’t need any more Sylkis at this point, so just pop the Zolom a few times and keep checking back. Remember to save your game outside of the Chocobo Ranch.

Step Twenty-one: Gold chocobo!
At this point you will either have to buy a fifth pen or release one of your hard-earned colorful chocobos.

Mate black to wonderful with a Zeio Nut, and the result should be a gaudy (but useful) gold chocobo.

Congratulations! Enjoy your Mime and your Knights of Round and your Quadra Magic and what-have-you.

Why write this guide?

There are hundreds of gold chocobo guides on the internet, but I have found most of them to be lacking. Many of them are written under the assumption you are doing the gold chocobo quest during the endgame, when affording Sylkis Greens isn’t a problem. Others are still plagued with misinformation from the late 90s, and would have you catching extra chocobos or feeding them one Sylkis at a time. Almost all of them vastly overestimate the amount of Sylkis you need. The best guide I was able to fine suggested thirty Sylkis for each bird, and didn’t even mention the stamina trick. (Although if you aren’t regenerating stamina, yeah, you probably do need that many.)

By the time my research stumbled across a six-minute YouTube video entitled “How to get a gold chocobo, part one of four” I realized there was a hole in the internet that needed filling.

I always name my chocobos after characters from other FF games. The ones in my pen right now are Rydia, Sazh, Penelo and Koko. This isn’t strictly necessary as part of the breeding process, but it’s still the right thing to do.

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My first new post in months…

…and it’s about something totally stupid. Ah well!

We have this new YouTube channel, LETS RACING TIME, where the Talking Time dudes get together and pretend to be good at video games. It’s probably just a fad that will die out once we run out of Mario and Mega Man games, but it’s a good way to spend an evening in the meantime. It’s also proven to be an effective way to dredge up long-forgotten childhood memories.

Some of the dudes just did a race of Super Mario Bros. 2. Man, that game takes me back! I was in second grade when it was the new hotness, but I didn’t own an NES, so my only exposure to the game was the Play Choice 10 machine at our grocery store. The Play Choice 10 was a Nintendo-branded arcade machine which had ten NES games loaded into it. It also had a built-in timer, so even if you were great at the game you picked, your quarter only bought you about three minutes of play time. Looking back, the damn thing was more like an interactive commercial for Nintendo games than a real arcade machine, but whatever, I was seven, I didn’t know the difference.

My point is, I only got to play Super Mario Bros. 2 in three-minute chunks while my mom did the grocery shopping. Maybe a little more, if I managed to squirrel away a couple of extra quarters throughout the week. And if I do say so myself, I got pretty good at playing the first few levels. I could consistently make it as far as Mouser by the time Mom rounded the corner with the shopping cart.

Another thing I did when I was seven, in those rare times when I wasn’t fantasizing about playing Nintendo, was attend second grade. The science curriculum that year involved learning all about dinosaurs. Every Friday we learned all about some rare and obscure kind of dinosaur. Not like a tyrannosaur or a stegosaurus — I mean the kind of dinosaurs with names nobody can pronounce. In fact, my favorite part of the lesson was learning to sound out each new name. One of the ones we learned was the velociraptor, which Jurassic Park had not yet made famous. Another was ornitholestes, which is a cool little dinosaur that has backwards-bending forelimbs.

I thought for sure dictionary.com would have an audio pronunciation guide for the word “ornitholestes”, but it doesn’t, which makes the rest of this post pretty dumb. But then it was pretty dumb from the outset, so I’m just going to press on with it. Bear with me, I’m still getting the feel for having my blog legs back.

The cave levels of Super Mario Bros. 2 have this rhythmic, ultra-repetitive song which, if you’re playing the game in three-minute chunks within eyeshot of the supermarket checkout, has a tendency to burrow into your skull and devour your brain. It starts out with this really intense “doot-do-do-doot-dooo” which, if you’re in second grade and learning about dinosaurs, scans perfectly with the word “ornitholestes”.

Bring it all together, and you have me here, tonight, watching Talking Time’s SMB2 race, and I’m singing along to the cave track: “Or-ni-tho-les-teeees, or-no-tho-les-teeeeees!”

I’ll let you guys know if I come up with a second verse.

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Five More Pony Episodes I’d Love To See

A few months ago I posted five episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that I wanted to see in season three. The main crux of the post was that I wanted to see more of the same quality the writers had delivered in the first two seasons, and that I wanted them to continue surprising me with new things I didn’t know I wanted until I got them.

With season three come and gone, I figured I’d look back and see how it stacked up, and then offer some thoughts about what I awnt to see in season four.

#1: Fluttershy gets something new and interesting. I think Keep Calm and Flutter On took care of this nicely! The interactions between Fluttershy and Discord in this episode, and between Fluttershy and her friends about Discord, are the most interesting things she’s gotten since The Staremaster. What Keep Calm did was take one of Fluttershy’s existing character traits — that she has the patience of a saint — and applies it in a new way: handling Discord. The episode showed that she can be manipulative, and that she can be legitimately hurt or upset without going full-blown-weepy or hair-trigger-rage. As to whether it allowed Fluttershy to grow as a character, well, I noticed in the very next episode that she was confident enough to manipulate Spike… albeit in a friendly and non-committal way. Maybe that would have happened anyway, and I was just more open to noticing it because of Keep calm. But it worked for me, and now I’m not as ambivalent about Fluttershy as I was.

#2: Princess Celestia is the bad guy. Big swing and a miss, but then, I was expecting that. Not only is Celestia still the same boring mascot/mother/godhead, but we have seen the role of Cadence expanded greatly, she who is by all appearances Celestia Jr. Some fans have speculated as to some greater scheme or motive of Celestia’s, given the smattering of metaplot we were subjected to throughout the season, but I think that’s just frantic clutching for meaning.

#3: Scootaloo gets her cutie mark, but her friends don’t. We didn’t get to see the story of the Cutie Mark Crusaders advance in any meaningful way, although they were used appropriately in a few places, most notably in Sleepless in Ponyville and Just For Sidekicks. The other half of my reason for wanting this episode was that I thought Scootaloo was about due for some development of her own, which happened to my satisfaction in Sleepless. That episode was nothing groundbreaking, but it taught us a few things about Scootaloo and left the door open for future developments.

#4: Legends of the Dark Knight, but with ponies. Not only did this not happen, but I’m no longer as convinced as I was that the series is mature enough for it to happen. The whole season was fairly shallow when it came to background characters. Oh well.

#5: A straight-up Daring Do adventure. Dash was reading a Daring Do novel in on scene, so at least the character is still alive. Stil…

In addition to those five things, there were two more I didn’t note which, in hindsight, I probably should have. They are:

#6: Continue supplying great songs. I am a sucker for musicals, and I had every reason to believe the third season of Friendship is Magic would continue the trend. Sadly, it didn’t. Without going into particulars, I have described the songs from this season as “straight-up kidz bop dogshit”, and meant it.

#7: The return of Trixie. This is something a lot of fans were clamoring for, which falls under my umbrella of “fans don’t really know what they want”. (In fact, I used Trixie’s return as a pointed example of the kind of thing I didn’t want to see.) However, Trixie did return, and in a way that actually spoke to the quality of the show’s writing and to the development of her character. The episode was not just “hey look it’s trixie again doing more trixie things”, even though that would have satisfied mostly everyone. Instead, the episode was a logical extension of her previous appearance, and a very natural continuation of her relationship with existing characters. Bringing Trixie back was a great way to put a spotlight on Twilight Sparkle and show just how much she had grown since Trixie’s last visit. In other words, Magic Duel was pretty much exactly what I said I wanted to see out of season three. That they can get Trixie right and yet still fumble with Cadence is baffling to me.

Enough about season three. Season three is, like, behind us, man. Let’s move on to things I want to see in season four. In general, I still want the same things: I want to see the existing characters and setting expanded upon, and I want to continue being surprised with the types of stories the writers are willing to tell.

#1: Twilight’s promotion needs to go somewhere interesting. A lot of fans had themselves a big gushy fansquee at Twilight’s promotion to princess. I mostly just rolled my eyes. Can you blame me? The show has bent over backwards to convince me that princesses are boring characters, and now my favoritest bestpony has joined their illustrious ranks. What do I have to look forward to, then? Is Twilight going to spend the rest of the series being smug and predictable? No thanks.

There were a lot of hints that season three was building up some metaplot, and that Twilight’s wings are only the first part of the payoff. Where the plot goes next will determine whether it was all worth it. Changing the status quo is a bold move, but only if the writers are willing to follow through with it. Rather than speculate on where those wings should take her, I’ll instead point to two places they shouldn’t.

First, it would be a shame for Twilight to become a shadow of Cadence the way Cadence became a shadow of Celestia. The last thing the show needs is a third boring princess. We already know the princesses are Twilight’s biggest role models, and that she aspires to be like them. What keeps her interesting is that she has a stable full of character flaws that prevent that. A calm, collected, and always-right Twilight Sparkle would kill the very heart of what makes her so much fun.

And second, it would be cowardly to revert to the status quo. If the first episode of season four is a two-part epic detailing how Twilight loses her wings and everything goes back to normal, I will kick and scream like a frustrated child.

#2: A musical episode with high-quality songs that flow naturally and tell the story. Magical Mystery Cure tried to be this episode, but it failed so spectacularly it’s almost unbelievable. One of the main criticisms of that episode is that it tries to stuff too much story into too little time. The most prevalent opinion on how to fix it is to make it into a two-parter. However, for the breakneck pace the plot has to move to squeeze everything in, the episode’s songs do a surprisingly small amount of work. What My Cutie Mark Is Telling Me and True True Friend (forgive me if these aren’t the songs’ actual titles) each contain a full verse for each of Twilight’s friends, and convey very little information about the action happening onscreen. It doesn’t help that the songs are also bad.

The idea of a fully musical episode has merit, but this wasn’t the way to do it. If the writers want to take another crack at it, they should watch See Me, Feel Me, Gnomey and take notes. They need to get away from the idea that they can work like a Disney movie, where the story alternates between story segments and musical showstoppers. You don’t have that luxury when you’re working inside a twenty-two minute box.

#3: An adventure episode where the goal is not “help Cadence”. Sorry to keep beating this drum, but Cadence is super-boring and I don’t believe her character is salvageable. It made sense that she was featured prominently in A Canterlot Wedding, but that really should have been the end of it; her inclusino in The Crystal Empire felt forced and unnecessary. Oh boo hoo, courageous and selfless Cadence, bestest princess ever, is so tired and weary of protecting the whole blah blah blah all by herself. Gag me. The fun parts of that episode were the same parts that were fun in the season one and two openers: the mane six being themselves in dangerous and exciting situations.

I like the adventure episodes. I don’t want to become more common, because I think they work best as an infrequent part of the overall tapestry. However, because they are uncommon, I feel like the show is in a rut where they are used as excuses to trot out the new mascot. Maybe they work better if you’re a fan of said mascot, but I’m not.

#4: A follow-up to Discord’s reformation. As already stated, I loved Keep Calm and Flutter On. I’m excited to see what the next chapter is. In this episode, Celestia stated that she had a use for Discord’s magic, if only he could be made to play nice. What was that use? And to what degree will Discord play along? And what role will Fluttershy have in all of that? I don’t think the writers would have opened this box unless they were going to pull something out of it, and I can’t wait to find out what.

Part of my fascination with this plot point, I confess, stems from years of playing D&D. The idea that chaos and evil are two distinct concepts is one that not a lot of fantasy literature likes to play with. Things are either nice and orderly and good, or they are dark and chaotic and evil… but that’s only half of what could theoretically be explored. That a mighty force of chaos could be good for Equestria is a great idea. I’m ready to see it in action.

#5: A straight-up Daring Do adventure. Why yes, I’m going to keep saying this every season until it happens. Why do you ask?

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Antichamber

After completing Quantum Conundrum I was immediately ready for another game of that style. Not quite ready for more Quantum Conundrum, though, or I’d have dove into the DLC. And not quite ready to replay Portal, or I’d grabbed it off the shelf.

So I grabbed Antichamber instead.

Let’s get the graphics out of the way first: Antichamber barely has any. Looking at screenshots, or watching the YouTube trailer, you might not even recognize it as a game. It looks like someone’s homework assignment. Everything is stark contrast, straight lines, bright color. The most minimal of the minimalist. There are a few cool-looking rooms, and an art gallery area filled with nifty looking impossible shapes to look at (but not interact with)… but most of your play time will be spent staring at white hallways and white walls.

People will say the graphics work for the kind of game Antichamber is. People will say that the game wouldn’t have been the same without its unique visuals. I call bollocks on these people. For one, the visuals aren’t unique. It’s black lines on white paper. There is a threshhold at which bare-bones visuals are no longer distinct, and Antichamber is below it. And for another, well, M. C. Escher didn’t just draw impossible lines. He drew impossible objects. Looping stairways, tesselation gradients, and so on. There’s (theoretically) no reason Antichamber couldn’t have been set in a haunted mansion, or a dusty pyramid, or whatever. Instead, it’s a computer simulation. That’s what it looks like.

Well, okay, there’s one reason: Antichamber is designed to challenge and subvert your expectations about what a game is. It only wants you to succeed if you are able to second-guess every convention you’ve ever learned. It wants you outside of your comfort zone. The game does feel cold and clinical… discomforting, even. So it does work. It’s just, by my reckoning, it would have worked better if the “second-guess your conventions” convention were re-cast as, say, “it’s ghoooosts!”, and the hallways were creaky wood and cobwebs.

Make ye no mistake: “second-guess your conventions” is just a convention. It’s a gimmick. The best puzzles in Antichamber are designed so you have to forget what you know — or think you know — in order to advance. But then, so were the best puzzles in Portal, and Quantum Conundrum, and RHEM, and Ocarina of Time. It’s, ah, kind of the definition of the word “puzzle”, isn’t it? If a game challenge conforms exactly to your expectations, it isn’t a puzzle challenge. Antichamber is really no different.

It’s a little different. Just a bit. Before you can even start solving puzzles, you have to solve the world. The game is first-person, WASD-and-mouse (no gamepad support, tsk tsk). You can run and walk and jump. That much you know. But you are dropped into the game with no introduction, no motivation, no goal and no help. You set off into the maze, disoriented, and because you are disoriented, little things like changing hallways and endless staircases seem more confusing than they really are.

But Antichamber is not random. There are rules to how the world works, and once you learn them, the game is no longer discomforting. I won’t give any examples — finding out what they are is part of the puzzle, after all — but the game has an internal logic that can be unraveled.

Actually, I’ll give one example. Sometimes, a hallway or doorway will lead to two different places depending on whether you’ve turned to look back through it since you entered. You might turn left, walk to a dead end, then turn around and find a stairway leading up has materialized behind you. You know, Escher stuff.

Except none of these quasi-dimensional connections really, well, fit. They follow no logic, internal or otherwise. So, no, not Escher stuff. The walkways and drop-offs aren’t mapped to any clever, impossible topography… they’re simply impossible. They’re just coded to work the way they do. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s hub room. On one wall is a giant map of everywhere you’ve been. The map is just nodes and arrows. You click a node to warp immediately to the room it represents. Then, from anywhere in the maze, you press Esc to warp back to the hub.

That works brilliantly for navigation. It’s a great concession to gameplay. But it damages the sense of “impossible place” they were aiming for. There is no cohesive whole. There is no seventh-dimensional superstructure. It’s easy to make an impossible hallway if you cheat. I’ve done it in RPGMaker. Not a game-breaker by any means. Just disappointing.

As you wander around the world, learning how it works, you will make note of many locked doors. Doors are locked with configurations of colored cubes. At the end of your wandering you find a gun that can manipulate colored cubes. That gets you into a few doors. Later, you find a stronger gun that manipulates them differently. And on from there. The strongest gun opens the door leading to the exit. All very… conventional, really.

The gun/cube puzzles were mostly smart. There were some really clever ones, although none were as fun as simply working out what each new gun does in the first place. (Or learning to use an old trick in a new way.) Unfortunately the designers cheated here, as well, and most of the cube puzzles are set in piped grids in the walls. Find a door, look at the nearby piped grid, solve the puzzle, door opens. At this point the game is reduced to a series of what are essentially browser puzzles. Match the colors, arrange the grid, drag the line, block the laser. Very disappointing, considering how cerebral the initial “wander around an impossible place” phase of the game is.

Some of these cube/pipe/lock puzzles were very difficult. I rapped my knuckles on a few of them until I forced myself to step back and consider what I wasn’t seeing. Often, and truly, I was only able to succeed after letting go of my pre-conceptions of what the rules were. The theme of Antichamber, in other words, working as intended. Again, though, this is exactly how I solve the best puzzles in any well-designed game.

Is Antichamber a well-designed game, then? Well, sure. Just… incoherent. At first it’s a game about learning the rules to an impossible place. Then it’s a game about learning to manipulate cubes. Then it’s a game about solving stand-alone wall puzzles. Then it’s a game about… uh… whatever the hell the endgame was.

I enjoyed it, but I noticed all the spackle. Kind of hard not to, when you’re constantly stepping in it.

The game starts you with a timer. I don’t know what the timer starts at, because I didn’t notice until I had already wandered around a while and Esc’d back to the hub. Eventually the timer hit zero and nothing happened. Presumably something happens if you complete the game quickly enough. Or maybe that one un-openable door I found would have responded if I’d reached it in time. I’m not really motivated to replay the whole game just to find out, nor am I confident I could do it quickly enough. I guess a speed run mode in a puzzle game is a progressive idea, but it still baffles me.

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