Blips: D&D 5e Rules Variant (XP for Roleplaying)

There are lots of carefully-codified rules in Dungeons & Dragons for awarding experience points (XP) for combat encounters, but the material is pretty loosey-goosey about rewards for roleplaying encounters. Here’s what I came up with for Flumphscape, my 5e Planescape campaign that ran for two years. My players were level 17 at the end of the campaign, and I estimate about half of their total XP was from roleplaying, using these variant rules. Maybe they’ll work in your campaign? We’ll see!


I had a few goals in mind when I designed the rules for blips.

  1. Codify the “XP for roleplaying” rules, because I am a lazy DM and don’t want to painstakingly balance XP rewards for every non-combat encounter, which by their nature tend to happen spontaneously and require improvision. I wanted a formula I could plug in quickly and not think about too much.
  2. I wanted to empower my players to be able to do cool things. I like giving my players “plot tokens” they can use to take the DM seat for just a moment, just long enough to direct the story in a way that wouldn’t be possible through simple character action.
  3. In specific, Planescape as a campaign setting is very focused on philosophy. A character’s identity is more important than simply a few sentences written on their characters sheet. In Planescape, belief is power. I wanted to incentivize my players to constantly think about their characters’ thoughts and beliefs, pay attention to the beliefs of others, and to change and grow over the course of the campaign.

These are all lofty goals, but blips might still be a good fit for your campaign if you want something as simple as “I want to reward my players for playing their alignment.”

A blip is…

A blip is a game token equal to some fraction of an experience level. In Flumphscape a blip was worth 1/20th of the XP the highest-level character in the party needed to reach their next level. In my new campaign, where I’ve re-tooled the rules a bit, they’re worth 1/30th.

Left: Blips = 1/30th. Right: Blips = 1/20th.

That’s really it. If all you’re after is a kind of nebulous, scaling amount of XP to award players for doing cool roleplaying things, that might be all you need. Award a blip any time you would award Inspiration.

Blips as Player Rewards

I wanted something a little more detailed, though, and I wanted some incentive for players to both do cool things and acknowledge their fellow players for doing cool things. In my game, you can earn DM blips and player blips each session.

DM blips are just what I described above: award one when a player does something cool while playing their alignment, ideal, bond, or flaw. I limited these to one blip per trait per session, but you don’t necessarily have to.

At the end of the session I allowed the players to award each other blips. There are four of these, and I didn’t allow my players to cheap out on them. No splitting blips in half, no passing, no shenanigans. The group decides who deserves each of these each week, by answering these questions:

  1. Creative. Who had the most creative solution to a problem this session?
  2. Assist. Who furthered the party’s goals the most this session?
  3. Badass. Who did the most badass thing this session?
  4. Intangibles. What else do you want to award a blip for?

Then, because I stream my sessions live on Twitch, I set up a strawpoll and let my viewers vote on their favorite player that session.

Belief Points

In addition to blips, players in Flumphscape could accumulate Belief Points. I don’t think these mechanics are appopriate for every D&D game — I’m not using them in my new campaign — but they fit right into Planescape and you still might like to try them. If you do, I recommend using these rules to replace the base Inspiration rules. You might also consider disallowing the Lucky feat, since there’s a lot of overlap.

Each player could earn up to three Belief Points each session, by affirmatively answering these questions:

  1. Did your character act in accordance with his belief?
  2. Did your character learn anything new about his belief?
  3. Are his beliefs changing?

(In Flumphscape, characters had a Belief trait instead of an Ideal, and were not able to earn blips by playing their Belief.)

When players answered “yes” to any of these questions, I asked them to justify their answer. If their justification made sense, they got a Belief Point.

Players could only bank 6 Belief Points, and they could cash them in during a session to augment their rolls.

For 2 Belief Points, you can gain advantage on any roll. Essentially, this is how Inspiration works.

For 4 Belief Points, you can automatically succeed on any roll.

For 6 Belief Points, you get to “DM for one moment”. This is accompanied by a change in the character’s Belief. (In Flumphscape, this was skinned as the character’s belief being strong enough to literally change reality.)

Blips as Belief Points

Belief Points worked great in a Planescape game, but they weren’t appropriate for my new campaign. I also wanted to cut down the amount of time we were spending on end-of-session rundowns, which could take upwards of twenty minutes.

Characters don’t have Beliefs in the new campaign; they have Ideals, as is standard for 5e characters. In addition, I added Class Aspect as a new roleplaying trait. (These are the “personal touches” added to the character class sections of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. They’re really cool and I strongly recommend encouraging your players to think about them.)

You still earn blips for all your roleplaying traits, and for the player awards at the end of each session, and for being the crowd favorite in my chat. The big difference is, instead of being automatic XP, blips are now game tokens that work the way Belief Points used to. At the end of each session you can choose to keep your blips as tokens (and spend them later on rerolls or auto-successes), or immediately cash them in for XP. You can still only bank 6 blips; if you gain any above that, they automatically roll over into XP.


There is no conclusion. Off you go. Thanks for reading!

The Warts on Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild was a good game. It wasn’t a great game. It wasn’t a 10/10, definitely not GOTY 2017. It’s not the best Zelda game, or the best open world game, and I don’t actually know much about the Nintendo Switch’s library but I’m willing to bet it’s not the best Switch game, either. Some parts of the game are fantastic, but others were so awful or so tedious that the game, as a whole, averages out to merely “good”.

I want to spend most of this post harping on one particular aspect of Breath that I hated, but first I want to touch on the one thing I really liked: exploring the open world was very, very enjoyable. I believe I spent ~40 hours just criss-crossing the map, not going anywhere in particular, just taking adventures as they came. I settled on something like this for my routine:

  1. Open the map.
  2. Identify an interesting-looking feature somewhere vaguely opposite my current position.
  3. Drop a pin.
  4. Go.

Pictured: a green circle.


Of course, this is my standard routine in any open world game; I played quite a lot of Skyrim and Horizon Zero Dawn like this. (I also tried a few times in The Phantom Pain, but that game resisted any attempts to make pure exploration fun.) The difference is, in Breath, it really feels like this is how the game is intended to be played, rather than just one possible option.

I want to stress just how good that ~40 hours was, once I hit my stride. In my opinion, if Breath were just that ~40 hours, and contained no other content, it would still be worth a purchase, if you like open world games. I don’t think I’d offer that same praise to other open world games I’ve played.

The problems, then, came largely in the form of expectations not being met. Breath of the Wild is by far the most grossly overhyped game I can think of. (Disclaimer: I have not played No Man’s Sky.) Everyone who said anything to me about the game since its release offered nothing short of glowing praise. I was told you could go anywhere and do anything in this game. I was told the combat never gets old, and rewards creative thinking. I was told the shrines and divine beasts were, pound for pound, worth ten standard Zelda dungeons. I was told the vast weapon variety more than justified their low durability. A few helpful Twitch viewers dropped by my chat while I was streaming Horizon to inform me the game I was playing sucks because Aloy needed specific handholds to climb walls and mountains.

“But you can go anywhere else!”

I realize a lot of this praise comes from the game being in its honeymoon phase, from Zelda fans enamored with the newest installment of their favorite franchise. And I did try to approach the game objectively once I had it in my actual hands… but it’s hard. The positive response was so total, so over-the-moon, that knee-jerk became my natural response. I honestly could not believe how bad very large parts of the game turned out to be. Squaring what I’d heard and what I’d read with the deeply flawed game I was actually playing left me dumbfounded.

The rest of this very long post consists of a break-down of the three worst aspects of Breath of the Wild. There won’t be a lot of positive remarks after this point, so if you’re a fan of the game and you find yourself getting annoyed I invite you to re-read what I said above re: the value of the game’s open world content. I liked this game a lot, I plan on buying it if/when I upgrade to a Switch, and the thought of playing the planned DLC content excites me. I booted up the game to take a few screenshots for this critique and lost three hours orbiting this world I’ve already spent so much time in.

But the more I like a game, the more its flaws sting. And in Breath I got stung very, very badly.

What Not To Do

My friends and I have a little ritual whenever we re-play Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. In that game, you start by stepping off a boat with nothing but your underwear, maybe a stick, and a note telling you what to do. Our ritual is to walk to the nearby creek and throw the note away.

This seemed like a very common way to begin Breath of the Wild. There’s a tutorial area that’s so large some players might not even notice it’s a tutorial area, but once you’ve cleared that, the game just pushes you out the door. You get a dot on your map and the guy says “go here next”, but my impression was that most players gave that guy the finger and just struck out on their own. And that’s exactly how I planned to start my own experience: I was going to throw the note away.

If you haven’t played Breath for yourself, I want to caution you not to make the same mistake I did. Do not throw the note away. Do not tell King Ghost Santa Lumberjack where he can stick it. Follow the quest markers until you’ve been to the lab and met the NPC who upgrades your cell phone. By all means, feel free to explore every inch of Hyrule between here and there. Look at things, blow stuff up, get into trouble. Pick on some moblins. Climb everything in sight. Have fun with it. This part of the game, staying on the critical path, will take a very long time, and be very enjoyable, and will still be only a taste of how great the rest of the world will feel once you’re on your own.

But you’re not on your own until you’ve been to the lab. The game is not as open as you’ve been led to believe. If you strike out with your own explorations straight off the Great Plateau, you are missing out on some crucial game systems.

Here’s how my experience went.

First, I turned off the quest marker. Didn’t need it. Straight into the creek. I looked far into the distance and identified some glowing orange towers. I marked them, thinking they were nearby, but they turned out to be miles and miles away. I struck out, exploring every inch between here and there. I got into trouble, I blew stuff up, I picked on moblins. I spent ~10 hours doing this, and had a blast doing it. Then I got into a fight with an enemy camp where every monster was able to kill me in one hit.

At first this was exciting. After a bunch of hilarious game overs, I managed to scrape together a win by spamming bombs, grabbing every weapon I could get my hands on, scrambling around, eating my entire stash of food, and maybe cashing in some dumb luck. It was exhilarating. It felt like I took down a foe who was way, way out of my league. But it was wearying, too. I think that first fight took 20 or 30 minutes of hard and stressful work, and the reward was not worth the effort. The experience was worth the effort; finally eradicating that first impossible camp was incredibly fun. But in terms of what Link put into that fight and what he took out of it, it was a net loss. I got a Korok seed and a few weapons. The weapons were much stronger than what I’d been using up to that point — the benefits of fighting higher-level monsters — but weapons break. My victory was tangible, but temporary.

Here’s what nobody will tell you about Breath of the Wild: the world levels up as you play. The monsters don’t just get stronger the further away you go from the Great Plateau, they get stronger everywhere. If you’ve played the game extensively and you don’t believe me, load up your endgame save and wander the Great Plateau for a while. You’ll see zebra-striped mobs with dragonbone weapons who weren’t there at the start.

For me, this meant I was in a terrible position. The second impossible enemy camp I came across, which I painstakingly cleared after many retries, wasn’t as fun as the first. The fifth was even less fun than that. By the ninth I stopped trying to fight the monsters, opting to sneak around them instead. This worked sometimes, but it wasn’t satisfying, because it meant there were very clearly places in the world I could not go, and things I could not do, which was counter to all the glowing priase that had been heaped on the game by its fanbase. Shrines within eyeshot of an enemy camp were inaccessible, and I was depriving myself of the opportunity to use the powerful weapons I was accumulating. Since those weapons were the only measurable progress I was able to make, I felt like I was in a hell of a rut.

After banging my head against this for a while, one of my Twitch regulars stopped by and said, “lol is Brick still running around wearing rags?” Which was my indication that something was very, very wrong.

You need to wear armor in Breath of the Wild. There’s a dramatic difference between the rags you start the game with and the first set of clothes you’re able to upgrade to. However, you cannot loot armor off of slain monsters, the way you can weapons. You’ll never find new armor as spoils of war. You won’t get any as a reward for completing a shrine, with very few exceptions. (I found maybe four pieces of armor in shrines, total, and none in the first ~10 hours.) The only place you can get armor is to buy it from an armor shop.

There’s an armor shop in each village, but there are so few villages and they are so far apart that it is possible to play the game for ~10 hours and never stumble upon one. Indeed, this is exactly what I did. Throw the note away, remember? I was purposely avoiding the main quest marker, which was in what I assumed was the main village in the game. I figured striking out in any random direction would eventually bring me to some sort of settlement, but that didn’t happen. All the villages are in the eastern half of the map, and I had struck out to the west.

Eventually I gave up. I decided the “go anywhere, do anything” mantra I had heard repeated time and again wasn’t true, or at least wasn’t working for me. So I admitted defeat and fished the note out of the creek. I turned the quest marker back on, teleported as close to it as I had explored, and followed it exclusively for a couple of hours.

Here’s what I found during that time:

  1. Shops with three full sets of armor, one of which was quadruple the strength of the starting rags.
  2. An entire game system I didn’t know existed which takes your crafting items and makes your armor even stronger. (The first level of these upgrades was super cheap, trivially easy to afford with all the exploration I’d done.)
  3. A special piece of armor that displays enemy HP, helping me to make better decisions about which fights to pick and what weapons to use. (This became a crucial factor in all my combat strategy going forward.)
  4. A new cell phone app that made farming specific materials an option. (I ended up never using this, admittedly.)
  5. Upgrades for my other cell phone apps that made them viable in combat.
  6. An NPC who gave me an arrow that could kill anything (only half true), plus a new quest marker showing where to buy more of these.

I am racking my brain trying to think of another game where my power level increased this much in this short of a time. It didn’t feel like I had overcome a grand adventure that I’d forged for myself, which is the experience Breath fans had been promising. It felt like I had stubbornly ignored half of the game’s tutorial and tried to play an expert-level challenge run as my first playthrough. Like I had somehow played half of Metal Gear Solid with the Soliton radar turned off.

I got really mad at the game around this point. Not only wasn’t the game as open as I’d been led to believe, it wasn’t even as open as the other open world games on my shelf! Horizon‘s world opens up only in stages tied to the main quest, but it also doesn’t let you stumble into hopeless battles with Thunderjaws before you can concievably take them on.

Most of the Thunderjaws are on Death Mountain, anyway.

I realize mine may not be a common experience. It’s entirely possible (and perhaps even likely) that had I picked a different random direction to strike out in, I’d have stumbled into a settlement rather than a canyon filled with one-hit kills. But I can’t judge the game based on an experience I didn’t have. My advice is, if you’re reading this and planning on playing Breath of the Wild, don’t start exploring until the tutorial is over. Listen to Ghost Santa. Go to Kakariko. Get some armor, find the big fairy, get your cell phone in order. There will be plenty of time to go to every nook and cranny of the world once you have all your available resources. Don’t give yourself a reason to hate some of your earliest experiences with this game.

Towers, Seeds, and Purplies

I found the reward structure in Breath of the Wild to be incredibly unfulfilling.

It took quite a long time for me to reach this conclusion. After I’d got my armor situation sorted I spent the next ~30 hours resuming the explorations I’d already started: marking distant towers, forging paths towards them, stopping to take in anything interesting along the way. For much of the early game, as disastrous as I beleive the weapon durability system is, the steady drip-feed of new types of gear did feel pretty rewarding. I developed a respectable playstyle with each of the four weapon types available, and–

Well, let’s stop there a second. Yes, there’s really only four weapon types in Breath. There are one- and two-handed weapons, spears, and bows. There’s a huge variety of make and model within these four types, but the core playstyle stays confined. Everyone’s going to have a preference, and there’s definitely some gameplay to be explored in using the right tool for the right job, and making decisions that assure you have all your tools available at all times. But by the time you leave the Great Plateau you will have seen just about everything Breath‘s weapon system can do.

So finding new weapons just wasn’t that exciting, and this is the most common kind of reward the game gives out. You get new weapons from monsters you kill, and from treasure chests in monster camps after you clear them, and from almost every shrine. These are the rough equivalent of those annoying chests in previous Zelda games, the ones with paltry amounts of rupees, which you can’t open because you already have max rupees and there isn’t anything to spend rupees on anyway. They’re technically rewards, in the sense that your character is better off having them than not, but they aren’t exciting or particularly worth your time.

That leaves towers, Korok seeds, and the purple spirit coins you exchange for health and stamina upgrades. Initially, these are the game. Each tower you climb unlocks an area map, and with it the promise of another enormous region of Hyrule to explore. Each Korok you find brings you a step closer to increasing your weapon carry capacity. Each shrine you complete gives you a purplie that makes your base stats a little better.

Towers are by far the most important of these. The actual act of climbing a tower is pretty dull, but you’ll often have a grand adventure fighting your way towards it and figuring out a way to claim the top with what little stamina you have. There’s a lot of variance in how these towers can be approached, and a lot of gameplay to explore here. Nothing feels better than watching a huge area of the map fill in, stuffed with interesting geographical features to pick apart. It’s the promise of the game given form.

Problem is, there’s only fifteen of these towers. Marking these, and enjoying all the distractions and shiny things along the way, is how much of my initial ~40 hours of the game were spent. The majority of those shiny things, as it turns out, were Korok seeds and shrines. The former are hiding in virtually every interesting place you stumble across as you traverse Hyrule. The latter can be spotted by the handful from the top of each tower, and be picked up by radar as you’re gliding around.

0.111% complete!

My experience was — and again, this may not be typical — by the time I had climbed all fifteen towers, I had found enough Koroks and turned in enough purplies that my inventory, health and stamina were all good enough to finish the game. (This is in part due to the way healing works in Breath. I won’t go into it in this post, but it’s pretty dumb, and it devalues heart containers immensely.) There was nothing else the nooks and crannies of Hyrule could reward me with.

There are 120 shrines in Breath, and every four purplies can be exchanged for a heart or a stamina chunk. By the time you finish 40 of these you’ll have enough of both to comfortably coast through any of the game’s content. There are 900 Koroks (no, that’s not a typo), and by the time you find 50 your weapon inventory will be large enough to carry more swords and bows than you can possibly use. You can keep searching for Koroks and shrines as long as you want, for the pure completionist satisfaction of it, but that’s all you’ll ever find.

Hmm, I’m not being fair. You will also find the beauty of the world of Hyrule, the little hand-crafted places that someone put a lot of love and hard work into. You’ll stumble on a lot of places that make you smile and hide a Korok. But you know, there’s also an awful lot of nothing out there. Lots of bare rock faces, vast empty snowfields, and the same couple trees over and over. Sometimes you find a darling little secret that makes the world come alive, but there are also long stretches of time where you’ll be climbing and gliding over not much in particular.

There’s something to be said for game content being its own reward. You don’t really “get anything” for beating World 6 in Super Mario Bros. except the chance to play World 7, and in that game it’s enough. I’ve never found this argument to be very compelling in regards to open world games, though, because these are games you’re meant to play for 40, 50, 100 hours plus. You just can’t put that much time in a game and still be impressed by each new place you discover, even a place as wonderful and lovely as Hyrule.

It’s not all bad, though. By the time I’d reached this point in the game, I still had most of the main quest ahead of me. The four divine beasts each involved exploring a section of map I hadn’t been to yet, visiting a new village, enjoying a unique action setpiece, and solving what passes in Breath of the Wild for a dungeon. At the completion of each of these you are rewarded with a powerful magic spell which will change the way you approach the remainder of the game. This part of the game was wonderful, and included a ton of content unlike what had come before.

There are other slivers of structured content to enjoy, too. There’s a town you can build. There’s an island that strips away all your equipment and forces you to play naked for a while, living off the land. There’s an accordion-playing birdman who tantalizes you with riddles. But the rewards for these things, in terms of tangible in-game benefits that increase Link’s power level, always come back around to Koroks and purplies. And those just aren’t exciting.

There are treasure chests out there, in the wild. More than you can possibly imagine. You’ll find them buried in sand, submerged in riverbeds, hiding behind ruined brick walls, guarded by wizzrobes. Hundreds and hundreds of them, each with a pointless silver rupee. L-l-lucky!!

The Biggest Disappointment

I didn’t like a lot of things in Breath of the Wild, but you know, I’m a charitable guy. I can file most of them under “no big deal”. Every game has flaws, and most flaws aren’t dealbreakers. It’s stupid that all Link’s weapons are made of styrofoam, but it’s a game system you acclimate to, and eventually you don’t even notice it. (I mean, that didn’t stop me from complaining about it non-stop on stream every day for a week, heh heh.)

There’s one aspect of Breath that made me real buttmad though, and I think it’s the most damning part of the game. It’s something I never got used to while playing, and I doubt will ever get over as long as I continue playing Zelda games. The idea that people at Nintendo did what they did makes me actually sad, because I think it really for-real means the things I loved most about The Legend of Zelda are, at long last, well and truly dead. This sounds overly dramatic but it’s how I honestly feel. I’ll just come right out with it.

I love Zelda dungeons more than anything else the series does. A well-crafted Zelda dungeon is among the top experiences a man can have with a video game. I am, right now, looking at my shelf full of games, NES through Xbone, and I am seeing exactly zero examples of Zelda dungeons outside of Zelda games. Nobody does this specific kind of experience the way Nintendo does, with this specific series. Nobody even comes close; the games that come closest aren’t even in the same ZIP code.

When the first trailers started appearing for Breath of the Wild, I voiced my concern about the suspicious lack of dungeon content. “Don’t worry,” I was told by fans and well-wishers, “they’re just holding it back to build suspense.” But then reports came out that the game, in fact, didn’t have traditional dungeons at all. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “there’ll be plenty in the game that’s dungeon-like.” Then the game came out, and with it descriptions of the bite-size shrine puzzles and the four divine beasts. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “there’s enough great content in those shrines and beasts to fill two Zelda games!”

There are no dungeons in Breath of the Wild. The divine beasts are not dungeons. They are great fun, each one being built around a few minor puzzles wrapped up in the core mechanic of moving and shaping pieces of the structure you’re exploring. But they’re short. I took my time with each of them, and barely scratched an hour in each one. There are only four of these, and aside from a map, none of the traditional Zelda dungeon trappings made it in. You don’t find a new toy, there’s no sense of building on puzzle concepts, there are barely any enemies to fight. Ocarina of Time‘s Ice Cavern, a six-room area of the world that is generally not even counted among the game’s dungeons, is far more dungeon-like than these divine beasts.

I say all that, and the divine beasts were still my favorite part of Breath by far. I am not against change; I realize that games need to grow and evolve over time. If this is the future of Zelda dungeons, so be it; but four tiny bites just isn’t enough. An open world of this scope, with the wonderful tower-based exploration, and maybe ten divine beasts would leave me with absolutely nothing to complain about.

But the shrines. Good lord the shrines.

The shrines are warts. They suck, plain and simple, and they are in a very real sense the “goal” of Breath of the Wild. Yeah, it’s an open world, explore on your own terms, yadda yadda, but it’s really hard to make the case that these shrines are optional, except in the sense that no particular shrine (outside of the first four) are required. The reward for completing shrines is more health and stamina, and you need health and stamina to explore the world. I said earlier that after fewer than half of the shrines you’ll have more than enough of both, but that’s still a large number of shrines you will need to complete on a typical run.

Every single second of development resources spent on building shrines for Breath of the Wild was a profound waste of time.

There are 120 shrines in the game. I completed 81 of these, and seven of them were good. I do not mean that most of the shrines were okay and there were seven I really liked. I am saying there were 74 shrines that were boring, pointless, or worse. The seven I liked were structured very much like mini-dungeons in previous Zelda games. Not quite as substantial as something like the Ice Cavern, but decent enough that if there all 120 were like this, or even only half of them, I’d have nothing to be disappointed about.

“Franklin did what to a kite? Hold my beer.”

The first four good shrines are the ones on the Great Plateau, in the tutorial area. These are the only shrines that give out what might be called a traditional dungeon item; you get bombs, a magnet, a stopwatch, and a block of ice. In each of these shrines you receive your gift, are taught how to use it, and then are tasked with a few simple interactions using your new power to reach the end. If you’re familiar with Link to the Past, think of the Swamp Palace. You find the hookshot in a room with lots of hookshot targets. You learn what it will connect with and what it won’t. You fight a few monsters with it, and before long, the hookshot is required to advance. When you make it to the end, you use the hookshot to help kill the boss. You get a satisfying toy, are taught a few things to do with it, then the game doesn’t let you win until you demonstrate you’ve learned your lessons. The four tutorial shrines are a lot like that.

The fifth good shrine involved babysitting a blue flame from beginning to end. Link has a few ways to transfer fire; he can light a torch and throw it a fair distance. He can nock an arrow and hold it to a flame, then fire it across the room. You have to do both of these things and more to complete this shrine. You have to figure out how to maneuver your precious fire through a gauntlet of running faucets. Careful aim and careful timing are required, and failures can have hilarious consequences (at least, mine did). At the end you need to perform a cool move that lights six torches at once, a great end-cap that fits the theme of the place. With a little filler and a few monsters, this would make a great early dungeon based on the idea of using fire.

The sixth good shrine involves bombs. Link gets round bombs and square bombs in this game, and 99% of the time they are interchangeable. In this shrine (and, aside from I think one other interaction in the game, only this shrine) the differences between the two types of bombs matter quite a lot, and the shrine doesn’t let you win unless you know them for sure. I was stuck on the final puzzle of this shrine longer than any other puzzle in the game. It took a bit of trial-and-error to figure out the sequence of events the shrine wanted, and then a few tries on top of that to get the sequence right. It was satisfying to solve, and the puzzle is designed in such a way that the solution is satisfying to watch, as well.

The seventh (and, as far as I know, last) good shrine involves electricity. Link finds an electrified block that he needs to manipulate in order to get platforms to move and doors to open. There’s a section where he can throw this block on a metal floor, frying a bunch of bad guys. There are lots of opportunities to accidentally bump into the block, resulting in electrocution and a potential tumble into a bottomless pit. The puzzle value of keeping electric circuits lit is slightly devalued since one of the divine beast dungeons is entirely designed around the idea, but it’s a cool idea and this shrine does stuff with it that the divine beast doesn’t. If this shrine had been rolled into the divine beast and presented as part of that whole, it would feel right at home.

The rest of the shrines were not worth the time it took to load them in. A large portion of them were “Tests of Strength”, where you fight the robot spider. The robot spider is the worst enemy in the game. It might be a worthy mid-dungeon boss, if you only fought it once, but you will fight it over and over again, until you can remember nothing but the robot spider. I mentioned earlier that you can buy arrows that can insta-kill monsters. I bought lots of these and used almost all of them on the robot spider, not because it was a difficult fight, but because it was a long fight and I was so sick of it.

Combat challenges are great, as long as they’re challenges. Most Zelda games play around with this idea; many of the recent ones have dedicated challenge towers where you fight gauntlets of foes, one after the other, in large groups or in novel combinations. You fight a darknut, then two darknuts, then a darknut flanked by moblins, then a wizzrobe flanked by darknuts, and on like that, yeah? That’s not what this is. This is one monster, individually, repeated again and again. There are twenty of these shrines, out of 120 in the game.

It gets worse. Many of the shrines are empty. No puzzle, no interaction, no nothing. Loading screen, treasure box (which is probably garbage you don’t want), and a purplie. Nothing to think about, nothing to do, nothing at all. Some of these empty shrines can be forgiven, because they’re tied to interactions out in the world. Accordion-playing birdman gives you riddles, and interpreting these riddles leads you to shrines, for example. Or you play a little minigame, or put a block on a pedistal at a particular time of day, and — poof! — shrine. These aren’t my favorite kinds of Zelda puzzles, but I see the merit in them. They’re similar to the little tasks you accomplish on the tiny islands strewn across Wind Waker.

But sometimes there is no quest, no riddle, and no world interaction. You stumble on a shrine, go inside, and nothing. Dead air. I don’t know how many of these there are in the game; it’s hard to judge because I can’t know how many are just “naturally empty” and how many are tied to NPC quests I didn’t initiate. But that doesn’t matter, these empty shrines always felt like a gut-punch, no matter how I found them or what I did to open them. I think the only way I could have hated these more is if I went inside one and an old man demanded I pay him for door repair charge.

It gets worse. The majority of the shrines I found weren’t empty, and weren’t the robot spider… they were just flat out insulting. The very lowest of the low in video game puzzle design. Think of any classic or modern Zelda dungeon where you find an important item in the big chest. Usually, you need to use that item to get to the next room, and usually, that interaction is the most basic form of the item’s use. You grapple across a gap, or dominate a statue and bounce it out of the way, or fire an arrow into an eyeball switch. Then the door opens, and you do the rest of the dungeon.

Most of the shrines in Breath of the Wild fall into that category, except replace “do the rest of the dungeon” with “finish the shrine.”

You step into a shrine, there are leaves everywhere. You use one of your many firestarters to burn the leaves. They were blocking a door; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are wind gusts blowing across a gap. You glide across; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are two metal blocks with ladders on them. You stack them and climb up; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there’s a raft floating on the water. You jump across effortlessly, and now there’s another raft, except this time there’s an obvious cracked wall. You blow it up; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are balls arranged in a pattern and a sign saying “put this pattern in the other shrine.” You leave, and across the gorge is another shrine, with a second pattern and the same sign. You swap the ball patterns; that’s it, two shrines over.

You step into a shrine, there are balls rolling down a ramp. You use your stopwatch to freeze the ball and now it’s safe to run up the ramp; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a ball dangling from a rope. You shoot the rope with an arrow and it falls on a switch. The next room has two balls dangling from two ropes, so you do the same thing again; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a ball bouncing back and forth in the air. You use your magnet to grab it; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a thing. You do the immediate obvious thing without thinking about it, because why think about it, who cares, it was the right thing; that’s it, shrine over.

Folks who say Link “only” has four toys in this game (magnet, stopwatch, bombs, ice) are selling him short. He has a bow with lots of arrows, a torch, a boomerang, a wind-generating korok leaf, a glider, a camera, a fifty-foot vertical jump, a massive electricity-generating swirl attack, various passive equipment, bananas, the list goes on. More than enough to fill an entire inventory screen, and even more than that when you take into account his basic movement is vastly expanded over previous games. There are countless great gameplay concepts that could be explored with these items, or combinations of them, and with 120 shrines you would think these would get explored. But they never do. Not even close. There are “bomb shrines” and “glider shrines” and “ice shrines” but they simply don’t achieve a level of complexity beyond “do the immediate, obvious thing”.

I had been told by so many people who had played Breath of the Wild that these shrines were awesome, that they could stand in the place of traditional Zelda dungeons and maybe even surpass them. I was so excited at the prospect of 120 of these things, even forewarned with the knowledge that some number of them would be combat challenges or NPC interactions. To say I was disappointed is a massive understatement. Virtually the entire game I was looking forward to, that I was expecting, simply wasn’t there.

Oh yeah, and you know how Link can climb anything? One of the game’s major selling points, leading to the sense of freedom and exploration that is Breath‘s core experience? You’re not allowed to climb inside of shrines. For some reason. A major key feature of the game, easily the most iconic new thing Link can do, and there are zero puzzle shrines designed around the idea. But don’t worry, there are four (that I know of) designed around motion control gimmicks! Have fun!

I admit, I am overstating this point for dramatic effect, but only slightly. I can recall a handful of shrines I didn’t like, but also recognize weren’t absolutely pointless. There was an observation puzzle, which I cracked after three minutes of mulling it over, that didn’t amount to more than simple counting. I didn’t like it, but I can see how someone might find the process enjoyable. There were a few shrines I simply bypassed by using some piece of equipment. Some designer cooked up lots of interesting ways to move fire around, but these “puzzles” were always thwarted by fire arrows, of which I had a functionally limitless supply. Maybe if I went back to those and solved them “fairly” I’d find something to like, but I doubt it.

Some shrines had hidden treasure boxes to find. (Well, all shrines have treasure boxes to find, but only some have boxes hidden with more thought than “look up” or “pick up the metal treasure box with your magic magnet”.) These boxes were, on average, more cleverly secured than the shrine exit. Some required grasping a genuinely clever twist on the shrine’s main idea to reach. Outside of the seven good ones, this was the most fun I was able to eke out of the shrines, but of course the boxes only ever contained weapons or rupees that I didn’t need.

Pictured: a shot from the upcoming Zelda/Final Fantasy XIII crossover.

I liked Breath of the Wild a lot. I also didn’t like it a lot. And I’m worried. This is the most popular Zelda game to come out in a very long time, maybe since Ocarina of Time. If this is what Zelda is changing into, the future looks like a Zelda without dungeons, or at least, with only the most trivial of dungeon content. This isn’t like losing Mega Man or Castlevania, where passionate indie developers are ready to pick up the slack with spiritual successors. Only Nintendo does Zelda dungeons, and it looks like the overwhelming majority of Zelda fans are happy to see them go away.

I’m glad people love this game, I’m happy so many people have exactly the game they want. I’m not a monster (usually), I don’t want a world with less joy in it. But it’s still a bummer for me, because nobody’s got my back with Zelda dungeon content.
I play a lot of adventure-ish games that almost get it, you know, your Tomb Raider and your Ittle Dew and maybe even Beyond Good & Evil if that sequel ever comes out. But these games don’t have Water Temples. I can’t eat a picture of a sandwich.

Thank you for reading many thousands of words about Zelda!

13 Weeks of Final Fantasy: FFXV Catch-Up

Week One: Personal Experiences
Week Two: Our Heroes
Week Three: Best Song Ever
Week Four: Gameplay Wallbangers
Week Five: The Big Bad
Week Six: Ridiculously Broken Attacks
Week Seven: Title Logos
Week Eight: Chocobos!
Week Nine: Battle Music
Week Ten: Eye-rollingest Plot Elements
Week Eleven: Craziest Fashion Sense
Week Twelve: Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes and Ports
Week Thirteen: That Airship Guy, What’s His Name, You Know Who I’m Talking About

Final Fantasy XV Catch-Up

SPOILER ALERT!! This feature by its very nature contains spoilers for every Final Fantasy game. If you don’t want your cherry popped, make sure to skip the bits about games you haven’t played yet.

337 weeks after the final entry in my 13 Weeks of Final Fantasy series, Square Enix went and released Final Fantasy XV. After spending nearly 70 hours with the game I feel there is no better way to welcome it to the family than by adding two more weeks, tying it all up at a nice classy 15. Before we can do that, though, we need to get FFXV caught up with its older siblings. In this post I’ll run the game through the gauntlet of the original 13 Weeks articles and see how it stacks up. At the top of each entry I’ll show where FFXV would stand in that week’s ranking.

XVWeek One: Personal Experience
“You guys… are the best.”

The first week was my chance to summarize my experience with every game in the series, and rank them in order of how well I knew them. At the time FFXIII was brand new, and I said something like “It’s all clear in my head right now, but I’m sure that will fade with time.” That’s precisely what happened, but it’s not where I’m at with FFXV. The difference is FFXIII was a fairly shallow game that made itself out to be complicated, whereas FFXV is a very dense game that presents itself simply.

I purposely try to avoid hype about games I’m anticipating. Going into FFXV all I knew for sure was that it was about some kind of open world road trip, that the main hero was a prince and the other PCs were his bros, and that the macro-focused combat of FFXII and FFXIII had been jettisoned for some kind of hybrid action/command-based strangeness. My brain kept orbiting back around to “FFX-2 with boys and worse combat”, which is not remotely what I got.

I was surprised at how easily I slid into the game’s systems and how much the open world engaged me. In a typical open world game I start experiencing sidequest fatigue somewhere around the 20 hour mark — a little more for Grand Theft Auto 5, a little less for Just Cause 3. But in FFXV 40 hours went by in a blink, and I was bummed to see the sidequests were starting to wind down.

There’s a lot left to do and a lot left to learn. The strategy guide (which I didn’t crack open until rolling the end credits) is a monstrous hard-bound 350 pages. I have no idea how I’m meant to begin earning the thousands and thoudands of AP required to complete the Ascension Grid. I can only land the Regalia Type-F successfully about one in five tries. There are two entire types of sidequests I missed my first time through. Despite all that I don’t feel like I played the game wrong, or badly, which is a sensation modern FF titles often leave me with. Mastery over FFXV’s game systems is not a requirement for feeling comfortable with the game — and that’s high praise. I want to replay the game immediately, which is something I haven’t done with an FF title since high school.

XVWeek Two: Our Heroes
Prince Noctis

In the same way my Commander Shepard will always be a woman, my Prince Noctis will never not be wearing his baseball cap.

It was hard to get a read on Noct early in FFXV, armed only with my preconceptions of how teenaged royalty typically acts in these games. Was Noctis going to be an entitled brat, tended to by long-suffering retainers? Or would he be regal and stuffy, unable to properly connect with the people as he journeyed across his kingdom? Or would he suffer his crown begrudgingly, in an “I never asked for this” sort of way? There’s a grain of all these things in Noct, but he’s a lot more than that. I don’t think I’ve seen another video game protagonist quite like him.

Most of the time, Noctis is just one of the guys. So much of his personality comes to us filtered through his companions it can be difficult to separate them all out. It can be quite jarring when, after several in-game days of inconsequential adventures and casual, friendly banter, one of Noct’s dudes will suddenly remind him of the destiny he bears. Noctis, the scrawny millenial who doesn’t even look old enough to shave, is expected to unearth ghostly artifacts and consort with gods. The unthinkable power Noctis weilds as a fraction of what is afforded to him as the last king of Lucis would give Princess Ashe a lady boner the size of the Pharos.

Whether Noct is ready for the planet-eradicating power that falls to him by blood is one of the main themes of the game. At times he struggles with it, and he needs his friends to prop him up. At others he crumbles beneath its weight, as any of us would have at 20 years old. But the failures are meaningful, and his friends are steadfast. At the end of Noct’s journey, when he defiently insists the usurping jester vacate his throne, the transition from listliss youth to badass king feels earned. That makes the journey feel all the more impactful to the player.

XVWeek Three: Best Song Ever
Stand By Me (listen)

When Stand By Me started playing during the intro, accompanying a group of knuckleheads pushing their broken-down car down the road, I chuckled with glee. It was a weird moment, my new Final Fantasy game crashing so violently against such an irreducible pillar of pop culture. I enjoyed the song, but I couldn’t help feel like the game developers were using it as a sort of bludgeon. “FEEL WAYS ABOUT THINGS,” thundered the game as it faded into its opening logo… and I wasn’t sure if I was willing to oblige it. Indeed, the game quickly transitions into its comfortable loop of hunting and camping and running down quest markers, leaving the hamfistedly emotional intro far behind. I was ready to settle into yet another FF game where I didn’t have to think much about the story or characters.

When the song plays again during the end credits, though, accompanied by photographs of the adventure you and the boys shared together, it becomes clear no other song could carry the weight. Looking back over the game, at what the boys endured, their bond is very worthy of the familiar ballad of youth and friendship. The inclusion of a classic off our own Top 40 doesn’t feel so out of place in a setting filled with miles of what could pass as contemporary rural America. And those lyrics, so ingrained into all of us, are an almost literal description of what happens during the game. “When the night has come” indeed.

The haunting touch of the traditional FF Prelude just ties the package together. (Or maybe I’m just hearing things.)

Picking this song for the list almost feels like cheating, since it’s so dissimilar to the rest of the game’s soundtrack. But it’s such a good distillation of what the game is that I had to at least consider it. Upon re-reading the old 13 Weeks entries I reminded myself that I wasn’t just trying to pick my favorite song from each game’s soundtrack, but the best one, and that meant giving a great deal of weight to each song’s connection to the game which featured it. In that vein, Stand By Me is similar to FFVI’s Searching for Friends and FFIX’s Something to Protect. It connects so closely to what’s meaningful about FFXV that I can’t imagine another song in its place.

XVWeek Four: Gameplay Wallbangers
The Not-So-Open-Anymore World

FFXII had a massive open world that seemed to sprawl endlessly in all directions, and feeling lost and overwhelemed was a frequent occurence. So many possibilities dangled over the player’s head at all times, in the form of hunts and sidequests and rumors of Espers and tantalizingly unguarded map exits, that it was a bit like bottling an ocean. Lots of lessons have been learned since 2006 about how to wrestle an open world game down to size, which FFXV takes closely to heart. Using the now-familiar system of quest lines and map markers, it’s possible to attack FFXV as a checklist rather than an atlas.

What FFXII was very good at, though, was opening its arms and welcoming you back to the critical path when you were done a-sidequestin’. There were two tracks in that game, and you were always on one of them. You were either engaging in optional hunts, or you were pursuing the main storyline. The tracks were far apart, but changing between them was easy, and that remained the status quo all the way until the “maybe you should use a new save slot” warning before the final battle.

FFXV has two tracks too, but they aren’t parallel, and changing them relies on a bizarre plot contrivance. The first half of the game — eight of the games fifteen chapters — are the open world, with all that entails. Then, abruptly, in a main story mission called “A Brave New World”, that part of the game ends and the main story track begins. From then until the endgame, you are whisked from location to location at a breakneck pace, with all the open areas closed off to you. Bing! Now you’re in a swamp. Bing! Now there’s a snow goddess. Bing! Now you’re hopping between flying platforms. It feels like Disc Two of Xenogears.

Yes, you can call your magic ghost dog anytime you want to warp back to “past Lucis”, and pick up the open world stuff where you left off. But it’s not satisfying to do so; the game couldn’t be more clear that it’s no longer an open world the player inhabits with any kind of agency. And that “Brave New World” we were promised? It is cruelly snatched away from us not once, but twice, as the player is introduced to new gigantic world maps they are never able to explore more than a tiny fraction of.

The open world part feels fine, just like FFXII. And the super linear part feels fine, just like FFXIII. But those were very different games, almost polar opposites of what can be done while still staying inside the JRPG genre, and smashing the two styles together so inexpertly was a huge mistake.

XVWeek Five: The Big Bad

Ardyn may well be Final Fantasy’s most justified villain since FFIII’s Xande, which is kind of funny considering their grievances couldn’t be more different. Xande’s immortality had been stripped away from him; Ardyn had immortality shunted upon him and cannot be rid of it.

Throughout much of the early game Ardyn acts as a lukewarm ally of the player, helping the boys get into places they shouldn’t be and supplying them with information they shouldn’t have. There’s something off-putting about his arrogant swagger, though, and even in-game the characters are never fooled. It’s clear Ardyn wants something, but it’s not clear as to what, and by the time that clarity arrives Ardyn has already taken everything from them and destroyed the world for good measure.

What Ardyn wants is Noctis, specifically. Ardyn is, himself, a king of Lucis from time immemorial, who was granted indescribable power by the gods to combat the evil that had engulfed the world of a thousand years ago. To spare his dying kingdom Ardyn took the darkness of legions of daemons into himself, saving countless lives. However, the process left his soul tainted, and the gods proclaimed him to be Accursed, barring him forever from their halls.

In order to slake his thirst for revenge, Ardyn had to wait until the crystal chose another. This eventually turned out to be Noctis, which means FFXV has perhaps the strongest personal link between hero and villain in the series, even considering the likes of Cloud/Sephiroth and Zidane/Kuja. Sephiroth and Kuja both have lofty goals, but for Ardyn, Noctis is the goal. First Ardyn creates a necessity for Noctis to power up in a way no Lucian king has for centuries, by manipulating the Niflheim Empire into obliterating Noctis’s hometown and murdering those closest to him. Now Noctis has incentive to forge pacts with gods and former kings, absorbing the crystal’s light into the Ring of the Lucii. Only then can Ardyn finally enact his revenge by killing Noctis and destroying the ring.

This is a horrific position for Noctis to be in. He needs to consolodate all this fantastic power to have a shot at standing against Ardyn and his army of daemons and darkness, but doing so enables Ardyn to get his wish in the end. Dawn breaks at last, but Noctis and the line of kings — including Ardyn — is dead. This is a level of “I manipulated you into doing what I wanted all along!” that Barthandelus would cream himself over.

XVWeek Six: Ridiculously Broken Attacks
Armiger Chains, Probably?

Man, I don’t even know anymore. Used to be you picked “FIGHT” off the combat menu and your little dude would swing his whatever around and you’d get bouncing numbers. I could make sense of that.

Quantifying big damage numbers gets harder and harder as the series wears on. In the earliest games it was “hit for as much as you can on your turn”. Then FFV comes around and now it’s “hit for as much as you can, as many times as you can, on your turn”. Then FFXI was an MMO and kind of didn’t count. Then FFXII and FFXIII had their macro-level combat systems which kind of didn’t(?) have turns(??), so battles were more about sustained damage-per-second than actual barrels full of numbers. Even so, in the original 13 Weeks series I was able to squint and get something like “hit for as much as you can, as many times as you can, and take your turns as close together as possible”.

But FFXV has a real-time action combat system and the numbers are mostly vestigial. I think the closest I could get to even start quantifying what the single biggest attack might be is “hit for as much as you can, as many times as you can, on as many enemies as you can, and take your turns as close together as possible, and do that as often as you can”. And this is even before factoring in the half-scripted boss battles which blur the line between command entry and blatant QTE, where Noctis is dealing effectively infinite damage to a locked-on target.

So who knows what the biggest damage output is, if you group up lots of enemies and hit all their weakest body parts with a weapon type and element they’re susceptible to, while everyone’s attack power is maxed out, and their Limit Breaks are unlocked, after a good strength-boosting meal. My best guess is it beats similar strategies in FFXII in terms of sustained damage, but doesn’t quite match the 9999×8 that is possible with a single command selection in FFV.

XVWeek Seven: Title Logos
Lunafreya Sleeping

Knowing so little about FFXV in the run-up to its release, I half expected the sleeping magical angel lady in the logo to be Cosmos, imported freshly from Dissidia. It would certainly have to be some sort of savior/mother/goddess figure, since the game itself was going to be all about a bunch of dudebros on a road trip. As it turns out, FFXV continues FFXIII’s tradition of giving away the ending right there in the title logo. FFXV is far more blatant about it, though. The last shot in the game is Lunafreya and Noctis falling asleep on the throne of Lucis, with Luna laying her head on Noct’s arm, and as the camera pulls back from her contented smile the logo is literally sketched overtop of her. Then, the empty space to her left is dramatically filled in with a reclining Noct, taking his rightful place in the logo just as he did the throne.

It’s a powerful endcap to an already powerful ending. It’s just a shame the logo is, uh… kinda ugly? The dark bluish-grey hues work wonderfully in the redone FFIV logo, but that’s because it’s Golbez, Clad in Darkness. Why is Luna clad in darkness? Why is so much of it dominated by flowing cloth and spiky bits? Gabranth’s armor dominates the FFXII logo because the Judges of Ivalice are larger than life. The swirling colors of the FFX logo represent the water that is Spira’s life, and the pyreflies Yuna is sending to the farplane. By contrast, Luna going to sleep is a singular point in time. A small measure of serenity after storms of chaos and darkness. A more reserved image, a little less flamboyant, with brighter colors would have done the game more service.

Who am I kidding, I’m just sore the logo isn’t one of Gladio’s sick tats.

XVWeek Eight: Chocobos!
(♪♪ Chocobo Theme)

As your party nears the chocobo ranch towards the center of FFXV’s world map, the always-excitible Prompto can scarcely contain his excitement at meeting the adorably fluffy birds in person. And that’s the first thing the FFXV of the noble chocobo has going for it: these birds have never been fluffier. But that’s just one in a long line of reasons FFXV’s chocobos top my list.

Pretty much every nice thing I said about every game’s chocobo in the original 13 Weeks series holds true for FFXV’s chocobos. You get the sense of it being your buddy, as you name and color your chocobo early on and then stick with him for the whole game. You can call your chocobo absolutely anywhere and ride for as long as you like; none of this “limited to a few maps” nonsense that has sullied the series since FFX. There’s a fun racing minigame with prizes to be had, including secret treasures that spawn in on the racetrack itself. Your chocobo levels up as you ride it, giving a steady progression to the bond between bird and rider. Plus, he’ll help you out in combat, both by providing a quick egress if things are going south, or just gods-honest jumping in and pecking monsters to death if need be.

Every night, when the boys make camp, Ignis fixes the birds a meal of greens. Because the chocobos are a part of the gang.

And my goodness, has the chocobo-ridin’ music ever been better? Hurry up and click that music link, before YouTube nukes that guy’s channel. (If that’s already happened, search for the song manually and thank me later.)

The real reason FFXV’s chocobos are the best in the series, though, is just how 100% necessary they are to gameplay. They’re not an afterthought and they haven’t been thrown in for the sake of tradition. In this game chocobos aren’t a thing you use once in a while, or maybe only exactly once as dictated by the plot. You will reach for your chocobo whistle on practically every single overland quest as you crisscross Lucis, and the boys will always be happy to see the big ol’ birds trotting up.

XVWeek Nine: Battle Music
Stand Your Ground (listen)
Day Exploration Battle (listen)
Cleigne Battle Theme (listen)

FFXV has a lot of individual battle themes. In addition to a unique theme for each of the three overworld provinces of Lucis (linked above), there’s a theme for fighting Imperial forces, one for hunts and dangerous game, one for the daemons that climb up out of the earth at night, and several more for plot-relevant battles (and battle-like cutscenes) throughout the course of the game. Most of these are okay. Some lean a bit too hard on those overly-epic choruses that are so popular nowadays.

Personally, I feel like FFXV missed the boat on battle music. In the original 13 Weeks I awarded FFXII top billing because, by and large, its area music was it’s battle music; the world transitioned seamlessly from exploration to battle and back, and so didn’t need to interrupt the flow with new music every few moments. FFXV has seamless transitions into and out of battle, but the game still recognizes two distinct game modes, sometimes with humorous results. Twice while playing I got myself into a situation where a monster’s attack pushed me out of the designated “battle zone”, ending the epic music and calling up a results screen, even though the monster was still two feet away from me. Strange.

As for the individual tracks, some are better than others. Of the “main” three I feel like Stand Your Ground is too frantic for what will be your first combat encounters in the game, that Day Exploration Battle is too passive. Cleigne Battle Theme strikes a decent middle ground, and is probably the best example of “normal battle music” FFXV has. The problem then is, every FF battle theme since 2010 has to be stacked up against Blinded By Light. Does Cleigne Battle Theme stack up thusly? Why no, I see that it does not. That’s about it, then.

I didn’t bother measuring the loop in any of these tracks, since the dozen or so battle songs switch back and forth so often that none have a chance to really hook into your brain. Besides, much of the time the music is drowned out by sound effects, monster roars, and witty party banter. While the individual tracks are decent there is too much in the way of really letting me identify one particular melody with the core of the combat system. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just something the game could have done better.

XVWeek Ten: Eye-rollingest Plot Elements
Can Ignis see or not?

FFXV’s storyline is shockingly straightforward for a modern FF game. The events of the adventure can be summed up in two paragraphs, which is something the series hasn’t been able to do since the SNES era. The mid-game does try to manufacture some character drama for each of Noctis’s companions, though, and it comes off as more than a little forced. Prompto falls off a train and the other heroes lose track of him. Gladio gets moody and yells at everyone a lot. And Ignis sustains an off-screen injury that results in his lack of eyesight.

This is ground the series has covered before. In FFIX, Princess Garnet becomes so overcome with despair that she loses her voice. This has immediate gameplay reprecussions since Silence as a status ailment is particularly nasty for spellcasters like Garnet; losing her voice means losing her magic. The other members of the party have to pick up her slack until she can get it together.

FFXV almost pulls it off, except it doesn’t have a Blindness status ailment to permanently apply to Ignis, so he’s just hard-coded to stumble around for the one dungeon immediately following the injury, tripping over things and swinging his cane at empty space. It’s fun for a while, but it does strain credibility. This guy is so blind he needs a cane to walk, but he can hike over muddy monster-filled terrain? There’s a short discussion later about whether or not he’s a burden to the group and then… that’s it. Ignis is perfectly on form forever after, no worse for wear, eyes or no.

The lore of FFXV precludes magical eyesight or miraculous medical recoveries short of receiving an Oracle’s blessing, which Ignis doesn’t. He is clearly portrayed as being blind for the entire rest of the game. He doesn’t act that way, though, and his behaviour is indistinguishable from before the accident. So either blindness doesn’t matter in this world (in which case the guys really shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it), or Ignis is Daredevil (in which case Square Enix owes Marvel some royalties). Either explanation is stupid.

XVWeek Eleven: Craziest Fashion Sense
Aranea’s Dragoon Armor

In the original 13 Weeks, on the subject of fashion, I said that there was a fine line between “crazy-awesome” and “crazy-ridiculous”, and that Lulu’s belt skirt from FFX was straddling right on that line. At the time I figured Lulu’s visual design was a kind of benchmark: silly and impractical, but also kind of rad, and quintessentially Final Fantasy. (Of course, had action-fantasy dress-up RPG Lightning Returns been out at the time, I would have put that on the awesome/ridiculous line instead, pretty much by definition.)

Now I have a new pick for straddling that line: Aranea Highwind’s armor. Her ensemble of tight-fitting black leather bodice, high-heeled boots, flowing double cape and full-visor knight helmet would be right at home in pretty much any other game in the series. It looks like she found the Dragoon dressphere before the Gullwings did. One of my secret hopes is FFXV gets a spin-off game starring Aranea and an Assassin’s Creed-style combat system. Or at least for her to be playable in the next Dissidia.

She just looks so alien alongside everyone else in FFXV, who look like they shop at Old Navy and haven’t done laundry in a minute. Maybe she’s a holdover from when the game was still in development, and closely related to FFXIII. During the one adventure Aranea accompanies the boys into a dungeon I kept expecting Noctis or Prompto to ask her, point blank, “Hey, what’s with the armor?” It is ceremonial Niflheim dragoon gear? Are the Highwinds medieval war re-enactors? Is it sexy King’s Knight cosplay? Aranea’s not saying, and maybe that’s for the best.

XVWeek Twelve: Sequels, Spin-Offs, Remakes and Ports
Platinum Demo / Kingsglaive / Brotherhood

It was very difficult to resist the urge to re-order any of the original 13 lists, and the Sequels/Spin-Off list was more difficult than most. So many new FF spin-offs have come out since I wrote the original piece that I could stand to re-write the entire post. In particular, FFXIII would move way up in the rankings on the strength of its eventual sequels. FFV and FFVI would have to move down, just out of principle, thanks to the reprehensible iOS ports with their smudgy and mismatched visuals. FFX had already placed pretty well, but I’ve since played and fallen in love with the Mystery Dungeon-inspired Last Mission. And, uh, I still haven’t played Crisis Core.

Despite being brand new, FFXV already has an expanded universe. Your digital streaming service of choice serves up Kingsglaive, a feature film set in the game’s universe which details the invasion of Prince Noctis’s home city and the fate of his father, King Regis. I found the movie to be largely disposable, personally. Not as fun or fanservice-y as Advent Children, not a product of its time like The Spirits Within. It’s pretty blatantly marketing material. The movie doesn’t fill in any gaps left by the game’s story, except in a pedantic corners-and-cruft sort of way. It tells the story of how, exactly, the Ring of the Lucii found its way out of the Crown City, but that’s not something I was burning with curiosity about. Rotten Tomatoes has been unkind to the feature, and I think that’s fitting.

Then you have Brotherhood, a six-episode anime about Noctis and his pals doing whatever. I don’t watch anime, as a rule, and I just finished playing a 40+ hour game about Noctis and his pals doing whatever, so I’m going to give this a miss.

Something you’ll want to check out, though, is the Platinum Demo available for free on your Xbone and/or PS4. This is a short combat tutorial for the main game, introducing you to features like auto-attacking, spellcasting and warp-striking. What’s cool is it’s not just a scene from the game transplanted into a smaller package, the way FFVIII’s demo had you running around Dollet with Rinoa and too many summons. Instead, it’s a little stand-alone story that takes place in Noctis’s childhood dreamworld while he lay wounded in a coma. He fights with a cartoon hammer and can transform into monsters and dump trucks. In one of the levels, he is shrunk down to the size of a mouse and forced to navigate a playland filled with toy blocks, stacked books, and platforms made of silverware. The whole time he is accompanied by cuddly FF mainstay Carbuncle. If you’re on the fence about FFXV, it’ll help you decide whether the combat and general tone of the game are in your wheelhouse. If you’ve already played FFXV, it’s a charming little experience that adds something to the game world and fleshes out the hero a bit. Either way, it’s free, so go nuts!

XVWeek Thirteen: That Airship Guy Girl, What’s His Her Name, You Know Who I’m Talking About
Cindy Aurum

FFXV has a Cid, but he’s a boring old man who spends the whole game sitting in a lawn chair and taking too long to upgrade equipment you aren’t going to use anyway. The real spark of the series’s most enduring character is in his granddaughter, Cindy. This may well have been the original intent of the designers; the game’s credits give her an alternate name of “Cidney”, as though she were meant to be the main Cid all along, but someone lost their nerve at the last moment. I’d call it a missed opportunity, but we still got Cindy in the end, and she is delightful.

Unlike her grandfather, Cindy spends the game tinkering with and upgrading the Regalia, the party’s primary vehicle. She pimps out the prince’s ride in opulent colors and catchy decals, installs new fuel tanks and high-intensity headlights, and does it all amidst cheesecake cutscenes worthy of the pin-up calendar hanging in your uncle’s garage. Eventually she lives up to the legacy of her forebears, gracing the Regalia with wings and giving the player the first hands-on flight experience in this series since FFIX. And whenever you’re in the area, Prompto gushes adorably about his puppy love for the garage goddess who is, sadly, forever out of his league.

It’s not because you’re not good enough, Prompto. It’s just that you don’t have spark plugs and mud flaps.

Cindy is the most endearingly campy character in FFXV, with her daisy dukes and over-the-top country accent. She’s the only character who really pulls off the questionable “I don’t own a hairbrush” look that is so pervasive throughout Lucis. She always made me feel guilty for rolling up to the garage in a car covered in dings and dirt, but she’d get me fixed up with a cheery smile in no time flat.

And so, from wallbangers to Cids to chocobos, FFXV now has a place in the 13 Weeks feature. We can just pretend I made all these observations back in 2010, right? The next step is to expand the feature to a full 15 Weeks, taking an in-depth look at all of the series installments on two new topics. This will give me the opportunity to fix what I consider one of the original feature’s most glaring flaws: I didn’t get to talk at all about Balthier.

Next week, Mr. Leading Man. Next week.

Thanks for reading!

KTANE Mods I Don’t Use (And How I’d Fix Them)

Mod support was recently added to Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a fantastic multiplayer and party game available on Steam. The game requires at least two players: one person has a bomb filled with tricks and puzzles, and another person (or team of people) has a manual with all the information on how to detangle those tricks and puzzles. The bomb guy (defuser) isn’t allowed to see the manual, and the manual guy (expert) isn’t allowed to see the bomb. From there, the game is all about effective communication.

The base game comes with about a dozen different types of modules to play with, and we had a blast (literally!) when the game was new learning how to solve them. That accomplished, though, the game sort of lost its luster. With mod support, though, new modules are popping up all the time. We’ve easily tripled the number of modules we have to worry about, making the game fresh and fun every night we play it.

We don’t like using every mod, though, and this article explores the reasons why. Let’s start with a line or two about the mods we do use, and what makes them great. Keep in mind that I’m usually on the bomb, which means I don’t know how a lot of the mods work on the manual side of things — and that may skew my opinion of them. (But then, that’s part of the game!)

Here’s a link to the KTANE workshop page:

Mods We Love

Piano Keys
Piano keys are planted firmly in the weird-video-game-puzzle headspace, so they fit in nicely on the bomb. I’m surprised it didn’t make the cut as one of the base game modules. They look great and are quick to assign to an expert. Takes a bit of time and dexterity to input the solution, so I like to get piano done maybe halfway through my bomb.

Crazy Talk
The whole game is about effective communication, so a module designed to make communication ineffective is a no-brainer. There’s a bit of a trick to cracking this one, but once you crack it a few times it becomes second nature. All big bombs need a couple easy modules, and Crazy Talk is frequently hilarious, so I’m glad to have it.

A solid module that takes a few failures to understand. This is one that defuser and expert need to have a system worked out for ahead of time, or it’ll become a real time sink. I suspect there are more efficient ways to solve this than the way we’re doing it, but we haven’t explored new methods thus far.

Color Flash
A module based on the Stroop effect. As the defuser, I love this module for two reasons. One, it’s just fun to read out! And two, the module can’t be stopped or slowed down once you’ve started reading it, so it’s a great way to whip slower experts into shape. “Wait, hold on, go slower–” “SORRY CAN’T, THE BOMB WAITS FOR NO MAN.”

A handsome module with a unique solving mechanism. Sometimes they’re simple, sometimes they’re a real bastard. Good either way.

Emoji Math
For this module the defuser reads off ASCII emojis like 🙂 and =|, then the expert translates those into numbers and solves a simple math problem. It’s a quick and easy module, but demands the defuser’s attention to read out properly.

Connection Check
I have no idea how to solve this one, but it’s super easy to read out and keeps the experts busy for a while. Kind of ugly on the bomb, though.

Two Bits
An excellent “back-and-forth” module, where the defuser and expert take turns passing two bits of information before finally getting the solve. Working a few seconds of Two Bits in between all your other modules tests your time management skills on the bomb, and is one of my favorite parts of being the defuser.

A short, sweet module where the expert needs to resolve a pair of logic equations. The module would be better if it randomized the AND and OR operators, and if the tiny displays were a bit more readable, but it’s still pretty good as-is.

This module requires the expert to resolve a few statements based on astrological symbols. It’s one of the earliest mods we tried, and is honestly one of the first ones I’d consider getting rid of. It’s an example of a type of module I feel we have too many of, where I read some complicated information, the expert applies a bunch of rules to that information, then returns me the result. Which is every module, really, at their most basic, but there’s nothing to Astrology that stands out as really unique. All the experts are used to it now, though, and I’ve actually started learning many of the astrological and planetary symbols, so we’re likely to keep it around out of sheer intertia.

Probably the single best module we have! Chess requires the expert to actually draw out a little chess board, consider some simple rules, and work out how various pieces move on the board. My only real gripe with the module its physical appearance doesn’t at all reflect how cool the solutions are.

Lettered Keys
A super simple module where I read a two-digit number and, thirty seconds later, the expert tells me which of four buttons to push. Again, every bomb needs a few simple modules.

Combination Lock
Another of my favorites, this is actually two modules in one. The lock either references a two factor code that changes every sixty seconds, or references the number of solved modules on the bomb itself. The first kind of lock is a race against time, and a pure test of task delegation and time management. The second kind requires precision, since nothing bogs a bomb down more than an expert who flubbed a lock, causing other experts to pile up solutions that can’t be input without changing the lock. Either way, it’s a hectic way to start a bomb!

Foreign Exchange Rates
A cool module that plugs into the internet and references real world currency exchange rates. The first time we tried this my experts insisted it was broken, but more recent experts report those first experts were just dumb and bad, so I’m turning the module back on and not telling anyone. Shh!

I love the look of this module! So many modules are just collections of lettered or numbered buttons, that big colorful wires are a refreshing change. It took us a while to crack this one, but now that we know how it works and can get it solved it’s become one of my favorites.

After installing so many complicated modules our bombs were getting a little unwieldly. It seemed like the mod-makers were focusing on big, intricate puzzle-modules and neglecting the simpler ones. Alphabet is a nice, simple one that has helped bring our bombs back down to earth. Still, it’s ugly and kind of plain-looking, so I’ll probably uninstall it as soon as someone makes a much nicer-looking simple mod.

Mods We Don’t Love

Round Keypad
One of six “Advanced Base Modules” that have to be installed as a pack, this mod takes the basic Symbols module and juices it up a bit. I actually love the way it looks on the bomb, but can’t use it because of how much I dislike some of it’s brothers.

How to fix it:
Unpack it from the other five, so I can install it individually.

Forget Me Not
A really unique module that involves notating information every time a module is solved on the bomb. Having this on a big, complicated bomb totally changes the way you need to work that bomb, and I would love to incorporate it into my game, but…

How to fix it:
…it needs to be unpacked from the rest of the Advanced Base Modules, first.

I am terrible at reading morse code, and the only reason I don’t frequently choke on the base Morse Code module included in KTANE is because experts can solve the module even with incomplete information. Like, if I flub a dot for a dash, and the expert gets the word “stfak” as a result, they know what I meant was “steak” and can adjust their answer accordingly. With Morsematics, every dot and dash is required; incomplete or incorrect information causes the module to strike, which causes my bomb to explodes.

How to fix it:
The module is ugly, and should probably use a light diode similar to the basic Morse Code module rather than the smaller, faster green LED. Even so, though, the module just isn’t for me and I would still keep it turned off.

We have no idea how this module is supposed to work. I sat down with two experts on three 10-minute bombs, and didn’t even come close. As best I can tell, most of the work needs to be done by the defuser, and most of that work is playing Pipe Dream. It’s also hideously ugly — the worst-looking module in the Steam Workshop by far.

How to fix it:
Simplify it greatly. Instead of four input/outputs, and 36 pipe segments, maybe two input/outputs and 16 segments in a 4×4 grid. It’d still be ugly though, and it’d still be Pipe Dream, so I’m still not sure it’d be good.

Safety Safe
A very cool module where you have to listen for clicks on safe knobs, notate their positions, then pass that info on to the expert. We’re not very experienced with this one, but we were getting more efficient with it as we went. I get the feeling we would use it on the bomb, if we could.

How to fix it:
Easy answer: Unpack it from the other Advanced Base Modules.

Longer answer: A version of this module with three knobs intead of six, and which used the two factor display in some way, would be much more tense. Having to listen for the clicks, relay the information, wait for the expert to do a quick calculation, then input the solution, all inside of sixty seconds, would be simply awesome.

Simon States
A more obnoxious version of the already obnoxious Simon Says module.

How to fix it:
Hell, I’m looking for a way to uninstall Simon Says, not mix in its more annoying cousin. It’s just not something I want on my bomb.

A fun module where the expert uses bomb information and a set of complex rules to get a batch of information for the defuser to input. It’s in the same design space as Astrology, but has a more distinct personality. My issue with it is the icons are very tricky to see on the double-decker bomb; I have to use the Windows magnifier to make sense of the different icons. Additionally, my experts report that it’s a bit too complex to comfortably solve.

How to fix it:
Make the icons bigger and tighten up the manual a bit. Having a vaguely-confusing manual is part of KTANE, of course, but some of the mods take that idea to the wrong extreme, and Laundry is one of them.

The module spits out a scrambled word, and I punch in the correct one. Easy peasy. The reason I don’t use it is because I can’t imagine really needing an expert for it. I’m decent at descrambling anagrams, and it feels outside the spirit of the game to have modules the defuser can do all on his own. A little bit of that is inevitable, as after defusing hundreds of modules you will start to notice patterns and memorize bits of information, but Anagrams seems to be designed with that sort of gameplay in mind.

How to fix it:
I don’t think it can be “fixed”, nor do I think most of the defusers who like this module would agree it even needs “fixing”. Some players like the sensation of solving modules without their experts, and Anagrams is the perfect mod for those players. I’m glad they have it!

Adventure Game
A boring module where I read a whole slew of information — seriously, like sixteen pieces of information — and the expert correlates it into a solution. Similar to Astrology, except it’s thematically boring too. No symbols, no fun references to actual adventure games, not much of anything really. Just two word lists and a button.

How to fix it:
Play Zork, and Myst, and Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango, and then design a clever module around those game ideas while being very carefly not to actually require the defuser or expert to have knowledge of any of those games. (No, I don’t have any ideas on how to do that. Why do you ask?)

I love the idea for Listening, but the implementation made me pretty salty. In theory it’s simple: a casette tape plays a sound, I describe the sound to my expert, my expert looks up the sound on a list and relays a password. In practice, though, it went all too often like this:

Me: It sounds like… a crowd of people maybe? Like a lot of people in a large room with bad acoustics.

Expert: Could it be an arcade maybe? Or a casino?

Me: It could be either of those things. Let me listen again.

*listens again, which takes ten seconds*

Me: There’s definitely some game machine sounds in there. It’s like 50/50.

Expert: Well, pick one I guess.

*bomb explodes*


How to fix it:
Filling the list with purposely similar-sounding noises was a big mistake, since it creates terrible coin flip scenarios in a game that is 100% not designed to have coin flip scenarios. I’m sure defusers who have heard all the sounds and have the list memorized get a good experience from this module, so my advice is to re-tool the module so all players get that experience without requiring memorization.

A module that requires the expert to solve a short cryptogram from A Christmas Carol. Neat idea, but reading several lines of text an individual letter at a time is too much for a game where I can’t afford to spend more than twenty seconds on a module. Also, the letters are so tiny it’s hard to read them on the double-decker bomb.

How to fix it:
I don’t want to say Cryptography has no place in KTANE, but I’m not sure how to square the circle. Cryptograms, to me, are thoughtful and time-consuming puzzles that demand deduction and experimentation. There’s really no time for that in a KTANE module. It I could see the text better on my screen, maybe we could figure out an efficient way to crack the module, but in its current state I’m not even motivated to play with it.

An ugly module where you have to rotate a tiny cube with four buttons by following your expert’s complicated advice. Honestly we didn’t play with this one for too long. It seems to require a bit of work on the expert’s part, in combination with some back-and-forth with the defuser.

How to fix it:
I think the module is pretty bad to look at, and it doesn’t even move around or do anything cool. The expert I was experimenting with reports the manual is unclear and hard to follow. If both of these problems were fixed maybe I’d go back to it, and be able to give more appropriate feedback.

3D Maze
An absolutely insane module patterened after old-school dungeon crawls like Wizardry and Ultima. The defuser and expert need to work together to figure out which maze the defuser is in, where he is in that maze, which way he’s facing, and where the exit is. It was pretty fun to puzzle it out when we did it, but I’m not convinced the module is solvable in its current state in a full double-decker bomb. It requires way too much of my attention to really be viable.

How to fix it:
I’m not sure it really needs fixing. Some modules seem to be designed for smaller, more complicated bombs rather than the huge, fast-paced ones my experts and I like. For players who want the more complicated stuff, 3D Maze is perfect. As it stands, it’s something I might throw on every once in a while for a change of pace.

Turn the Key
This is two modules in one: a single key version, and a double key version. The single key version is pretty neat; it’s just a key I need to turn when the countdown timer shows a particular time. The double key version, however, is an absolute nightmare. The two keys have to be turned — and maybe turned back? — after some modules are solved but before others are. In essence, it dictates the order my experts and I need to solve the bomb, totally wrecking our flow. No thanks!

How to fix it:
The ability to install the easy version without the nightmare version would be ideal. I do think the easy version is a bit too easy though; I’d recommend a version with different types of keys (different materials or colors, for instance). I tell the expert what sort of key I have, and he correlates that with some bomb info to come up with my target time.

Number Pad
An ugly monstrosity I wouldn’t want on my bomb even it was super fun to solve, which it’s not.

How to fix it:
There are too many “follow all these complicated rules” modules, and I certainly don’t need one more. Fixing this module so it becomes something I’d install would require so many changes that it would no longer resemble its original state. So I guess my answer is, junk it and make something totally new.

Ceasar Cipher
A big letter keypad. Experts report it’s easy to solve. Personally, I think it’s too plain and ugly looking. In addition, the name of the module is misspelled and there’s currently a bug that requires you to disable Emoji Math if you want to use it.

How to fix it:
Fix the bugs (obviously) and make the module mechanism a little more interesting. I have enough plain letter keypads on my bomb as it is.

Mystic Square
An 8-slider puzzle which seems to pack too many ideas into one module. One of the earliest comments on the Steam Workshop page for this module is “page 1 and page 2 could have been a seperate module each” and I agree. On one hand you have the idea of sliding tiles around and uncovering symbols underneath in a certain order. On the other you have the aspect of solving a magic square. Both might be neat modules, but both at once makes it kind of a mess.

How to fix it:
Honestly, I’ve solved a thousand magic squares in my life. The concept is boring and stuffy. The idea of sliding tiles to uncover symbols, though, might make for a really cool back-and-forth module, as long as it doesn’t require too much busywork on the part of the defuser.

Silly Slots
A module based on a slot machine is a good idea, but this module requires so much bookkeeping that it just turns into a slog. The icons are just tiny, faraway blobs on a double-decker bomb, as well, which is too bad because otherwise it’s pretty interesting to look at. This one is another example of “too many good ideas stuffed into one mod.”

How to fix it:
Instead of the current confusing-on-purpose word substitution concept, transform it into a quicker, punchier back-and-forth module. Make the reels bigger and the symbols more distinct. Each phase of the module, I pull the handle and wait for the slots to come to a rest. (The slot sounds are actually really very good!) I read the symbols to my expert, and he tells me which of the three reels to lock. Then I pull the handle again. Once all three reels are locked I push submit, and either solve the module (if the expert got it right) or get a strike (if he didn’t). If each step was comparable to a step of Memory or Who’s On First, it’d be just about right.

Mouse In The Maze
This module is so terrible-looking I didn’t even install it. It seems pretty similar to 3D Maze, in any case.

How to fix it:
No idea. I’d have to try it to know how it works, and I don’t want to do that.

And that concludes our full tour of just about everything in the KTANE Steam Workshop at time of writing. Thanks for reading!

The Process: 2016 (or, “where do LPs come from?”)

Years ago I wrote this blog post summarizing the process of making a YouTube LP series. Recently I was asked by a Twitch viewer if I’d make a video about the process. I don’t think it’d make for an interesting video (plus capturing and editing hours of Photoshop footage doesn’t sound fun), so I’m writing this blog post instead. Since making this content is now my job, and I make so many vague allusions to “doing video work”, it’s probably a good idea to lay out exactly where all your money is going!

Step 1: Pick a game.

You’d think this would be the easiest part of the process, but it’s actually a bit trickier than it seems. It’s certainly trickier than it was back in 2010, when the theme of my YouTube channel was “games I loved in the 90s”, and I hadn’t already LP’d those yet. Not every game I love has the makings of a good YouTube series.

This time, the decision didn’t fall to me. My $50 Patreon reward is an LP series of your choosing, with the caveat that I don’t guarantee to like the game or say nice things about it. (See also: Sonic Adventure 2.) The chosen game was Ori and the Blind Forest, and I made sure to keep careful notes about my LP process.

Is Ori a good game for a YouTube series? I’d say yes. The game isn’t too long, there are lots of varied challenges, and the story is thick and meaty without getting boring. These are all qualities that make a game fun to watch for people who aren’t already familiar with it. The game has a lot going for it, but also some pretty deep flaws, which makes for interesting commentary. And, gosh, but it’s pretty!

Is Ori something I’d have picked myself? That’s a tougher question, and you’ll just have to wait for the live series for a detailed answer!

Step 2: Do a test play.

This is a super-important step that I’m very careful not to skip anymore. The idea is I want to have a good working understanding of the game in my head before I sit down to record. With few exceptions, blind recordings tend to end in disaster, and are to be avoided. Besides, viewers that like to watch the salty frustration of a blind run can always drop my my Twitch stream.

Even short games that I’ve played a million times, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, benefit from a test play. Oftentimes games I remember as being short and breezy turn out longer and more difficult than I remember, and I have to adjust. Or I’ll have forgotten some obscure thing in the game, and it’s better to discover it now than to spend four videos searching for it.

Maybe most importantly, though, is a test play allows me to take notes about the game that turn into talking points during recording. A lot of the observations and stories you hear during a typical series are chosen ahead of time.

In the case of Ori, since I hadn’t played the game before, I decided to stream my test play. The first run of the game was pretty rocky, but it provided enough clarity to learn the game pretty well on my second test run. So before I even pushed the record button for the first time, I had already invested a good deal of time into my Ori series:


Step 3: Record!

The recording process is pretty much what you’d expect: boot up the game and play it with the recorders running.

For console games plugged into my capture card, I do my recording with OBS Studio. For anything else, I use Bandicam. Both of these programs are capable of recording lossless footage, which for an HD game like Ori means 50 gigabytes of raw video to sift through.

I record audio using Audacity, a program so good I can’t beleive it’s free to use.

Test recordings are as important to the process as test plays, and are another important step I make sure to never skip. There are a multitude of audio and video options I have to constantly be tweaking as I go back and forth between recording footage, streaming to Twitch, and using my PC for personal stuff. All it takes is for one box to be unchecked, and a whole session is junked. So before each session I do three quick tests: a Bandicam/OBS test to make sure the game is being recorded at the proper resolution and framerate, and to ensure the audio is coming through; an Audacity test to make sure my microphone is configured properly; and one or two minutes of the two combined.

All recording sessions require a sync point, where I know the audio and video are matched up properly. This is easy to do. I start Audacity first and say “Now!” right when I hit the record button in Bandicam. That way all I have to do is line up the beginning of the video file with the big bright spot in the audio waveform, and I’m good to go.

I try to keep recording sessions between one and two hours. Shorter sessions are more difficult to divide into YouTube-friendly chunks. Longer sessions run the risk of being ruined by corruption, crashes, or interruptions. Nothing’s worse than losing video from a game that auto-saves and keeps only one save slot. (We experienced a brown-out during my recording of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, and I had to play the whole game again from the beginning to salvage my save!)

You can tell where these recording sessions begin and end while watching one of my playlists if the first words out of my mouth are something like “Welcome back!”

Ori consists of three major game areas, plus a prologue/tutorial section, so I recorded it in four parts ranging from 45 to 90 minutes. Then I load up Sony Movie Studio to line everything up and make sure the volume levels sound nice. With that done the Ori directory in my LP folder looked something like this:


Most of these files are temporary, and get deleted once the LP is finished and sent off into my archives.

Step 4: Chop up the footage.

Somewhere back in pre-history YouTube had a strict 11-minute limit on videos. That limit was later raised to 16 minutes, and later still the time limit reserved as a penalty for channels who either weren’t properly confirmed or weren’t in good standing with YouTube’s TOS. My channel is confirmed and in good standing, so I can (and sometimes do) upload long videos, but I find the sweet spot to be between 15 and 20 minutes.

To calculate how many chunks each sessions should be divided into I keep a helpful calculator bookmarked: Time Calculator at This process requires a bit of tweaking and a bit of eyeballing, since I don’t want to chop up a sentence or a thought.

(That sometimes happens anyway, and viewers leave me comments like “Argh! Cliffhanger!” These cliffhangers are never done intentionally, but there’s value in them since, once in a while, it gives viewers a really good reason to want to see the next episode.)

With everything chopped up, I now know how many videos are in the series.

Step 5: Prep the txt.

Each series has a text file filled with notes that mostly get copied over into YouTube descriptions later. As soon as I know how many videos are in the series, I go ahead and prep the text file, like so:


Each entry on the list is filled in later with titles and video descriptions. I also keep post-rendering instructions in this file, such as special rendering or annotation instructions, and the eventual URL of the uploaded video. Since I have to reference this file in order to make the video live, it’ll make sure I don’t miss anything down the road.

For example, in one episode of Ori I mention this blog post. When I go to make that video public some number of months from now, I have a helpful note saying “Don’t forget to put the blog post in the description!”

Step 6: Make YouTube thumbnails.

If I may editorialize a moment, I really hate the practice of making hundreds of identical YouTube thumbnails. A lot of channels have this pseudo-lazy practice, where their channel branding includes a single homogenized look for their thumbnails, so browsing their channel means looking at a hundred identical orange rectangles, or a hundred identical copies of the channel owner making a silly face. I say “pseudo-lazy”, because the lazier practice would just be to select one of the frames YouTube selects for your video, and go with that as the thumbnail. For years that was my preferred practice because at least then you can glance at the thumbnail and get an idea about what the video contains.

That said, there is some value to having some channel branding or information in the video thumbnail itself, to catch someone’s eye as it wanders down a list of same-y videos. My compromise is to superimpose the game’s title and episode number on a still frame from the video.

Movie Studio has a handy “take a screenshot of this frame” button, so I do that once for each episode, and stack them up into Photoshop layers. That looks something like this:


There are “title high” and “title low” layers because sometimes the interesting part of the thumbnail is in the top corner, and sometimes it’s in the bottom corner. The episode number can’t be moved to the bottom corner because YouTube automatically sticks the video length there, which sometimes makes the text there unreadable.

Step 7: Snippets!

Each video in a series ends with annotation links to the previous and next episodes, so those need to be made before I can render anything. I call these “snippets”.

To make the snippets, I just look for fifteen interesting seconds from each episode, chop them out of the main video, and strip the audio. After rendering these out, I have a snippet from each episode.

Step 8: Mock up an outro layout.

Next I have to make the outro, the part of the video with the Subscribe! and Patreon links. In pixel games, such as Clash at Demonhead, I can make a nice-looking static layout to stick everything on. For HD games like Ori, though, I lack the graphical aptitude to make a nice-looking layout. Instead, I’ll take a 16-second video clip of something kind of laid back from the game that I don’t think people will get tired of looking at video after video.

For Ori I chose some footage of Ori frollicking around a nice serene lake. In order to make sure everything looks nice I load a screenshot of my footage into Photoshop along with some contrast-y leftover shots from when I made the thumbnails, then play around with fonts and positioning until I have something like this:


Using the mockup as a template, I can make all the outro overlays I need. Ori’s overlays are pretty simple: a dry brush font and drop shadows for the snippets. After a little noodling with the template I have as many outro overlays as I do videos to put them on; one for every Patreon supporter who gets a shoutout in that series. Which brings us to…

Step 9: Record shoutouts.

…recording shoutouts! This is one of my least favorite parts of the process, just because I feel silly sitting in front of the microphone saying the same sentence over and over again.

Of course, before I can record these shoutouts or finalize the outro overlays, I need to know which of my handsome and intelligent patrons is getting a shoutout for each video. For that I keep a spreadsheet of all my patrons and which LPs they’ve received shoutouts in. I compare my spreadsheet to the list in my Patreon account, making edits as needed. Once you get a shoutout, you don’t get another one until everyone’s gotten one.

I let do most of the work here, although I might re-roll if someone ends up getting two shoutouts in back-to-back series. Due to the way my upload schedule works, though, that ends up not mattering all the time. I think there’s one instance in my upload history where someone got a shoutout two days in a row, because a freshly-recorded series was being uploaded alongside one that’d been recorded months ago!

Step 10: Scour the footage, and take notes.

This here’s my least favorite part of the whole process, because it’s boring and time-consuming. I watch every second of every video to make sure there aren’t any issues in the final product. This is my last chance to fix desynced audio, corrupted video, bleep out naughty words that slipped through, and so on. As I watch, I make a list of funny or interesting things that happen, so I can write a description and video title.

You would think this would take exactly as much time as recording, but it actually takes a bit longer. Since my work computer isn’t quite beefy enough to watch HD video in the Movie Studio preview window, lots of pausing is necessary to make sure I actually see the whole video, rather than just let it lag out.

Step 11: Plug in the outro.

The last thing that needs to be done before I can call it a video is stick the outro in place. This involves layering the overlay I made on top of the snippets on top of the outro footage, then fading the episode into it. That looks like this:


The process of lining all that up to look nice in Movie Studio takes a little while, but once it’s done I can save a preset so subsequent episodes only require a click or two. That done, the video has a nice attractive outro for all my viewers to skip!

Step 12: Render!

The most time-consuming step, in terms of minutes-per-episode, is rendering the file. Turning the raw footage into 720p 60fps .mp4 optimized for YouTube takes about 45 minutes, and it can be difficult to multitask since things can go awry if I don’t babysit. More than once I’ve set the computer to render a file, only to come back an hour later and find it ran into a weird error and needs to start over. Grr!

Most rendering is done on the work PC, leaving the gaming PC free. Sometimes I’ll use the time to test play the next series, or do some D&D planning, or maybe stream, but usually I just queue up something on Netflix to kill the time. I’m terrible at multitasking, so if I get too involved with another task I’ll fall behind on my rendering.

Step 13: Upload and annotate.

Once the watching and rendering is done, I have a pile of finished .mp4 files ready for YouTube! I back these up on two hard drives, and in most cases they just sit there until the morning of the day I upload it. In the case of a patron’s LP, like Ori, I instead upload each episode as I finish rendering and save them to an unlisted playlist. In either case, the annotations get added when the video goes live for public viewing.

(Insert long rant about how much I hate YouTube’s annotation interface here!)

And that’s the process! Start to finish, Ori took just over 38 hours to complete, 14 of which were test plays, and 11 of which was rendering time. Just about a full-time work week, when all is said and done.

Thanks for reading!

The Sigilian Calendar

The Sigilian Calendar

My new D&D 5e game is a Planescape campaign, and I’ve decided to set quite a lot of it in Sigil. Weirdly, none of the official material includes a Sigilian calendar, so I thought I’d take a crack at making my own. The way I figure it, there’s no way the Fraternity of Order hasn’t found a way to mark the passing of days and months. I also figure a significant portion of Sigil’s population has no use of any sort of calendar, and just ignores it. In any case, here’s what I’ve come up with.

A messy example of the calendar can be seen here.

Days of the Week

Just like here on Earth, there are seven days in a week. They’re named after the various wards of Sigil. At one time in Sigil’s history each day had a particular meaning or purpose, but now they all mostly blur together. Some traditionalists grumble about that.

Lady’s Day – A day of rest for Sigil’s government, the Court is closed on Lady’s Day. Many Guvner-owned places of business all over town are dark as well. Prison operations used to be suspended on Lady’s Day as well, but since the current Mercykillers factol took charge, they’re open for “business” 24/7. Superstitious folks are extra careful not to raise the Lady of Pain’s ire on this day.

Low Day – The second day of the week used to be reserved for special projects at the Foundry and other forges scattered throughout Sigil. In fact, there used to be a city ordinance (the Sigilian Smog Reduction Initiative) that limited smoke-producing works to three days each week, beginning with Low Day. The unpopular legislation was nixed once it started to adversely affect Sigil’s economy.

Clerk’s Day – Traditionally, Clerk’s Day was the one day a week where attendance was mandatory for all employees of Sigil’s beaurocracy, in an effort to ensure one day each week where taxation paperwork, licenses, records requests and the like were more expedient. This only resulted in said beaurocrats finding any number of loopholes, however, and now the rule is only loosely enforced.

Guild Day – The middle day of the week is traditionally a good time for the movers and shakers in Sigil’s various guilds and businesses to hold meetings and make all sorts of deals. Agreeing to meet to discuss and finalize a business deal on Guild Day is considered a sign of respect. Offering to meet on any other day might be met with suspicion or disdain by old cutters who remember the way things used to be done.

Hive Day – Every few cycles some berk gets it into his head to single out Hive Day for some kind of long form civil works project; cleaning up The Ditch, rounding up the more seedy Collectors, mobilizing Sigil’s upper crust to volunteer work for the downtrodden, that sort of thing. Even the legally-sanctioned attempts die pretty quick, as their organizers drive themselves barmy trying to impose any sort of order on The Hive.

Market Day – There’re a half million rules and restrictions and quirks of law about who can sell what in the Great Bazaar, and on paper lots of these rules are relaxed each Market Day. In practice, it’s rare for anyone to follow or enforce any of these, unless the Hardheads really have it in for one particular merchant. Lots of informal Indep gatherings do tend to happen on Market Day, though.

Ring Day – The last day of the week symbolizes Sigil as a singular unity, rather than any single ward. It’s the closest thing to a weekend the City of Doors has. Many of the city’s temples recognize Ring Day as a day of worship. Lots of galas and parties happen on Ring Day amongst Sigil’s upper classes, considering most of those bashers have the following day off work.

Astral Days

Eons ago it was theorized that the Astral Plane “cycled” across each of the planes it touched, and that this connection moved once per Sigilian cycle. Seventeen days, one for each of the Outer Planes, then one for the Prime Material. Every nineteenth day the Astral’s connection was strongest in Sigil itself, and so those days were declared Astral Days. Of course, the whole business with cycling Astral connections are pure screed, but the tradition stuck.

Every nineteenth day in Sigil is an Astral Day, and these days don’t belong to any week or month. This creates cases where, for example, Lady’s Day doesn’t directly follow Ring Day. Those weeks tend to be particularly raucous. This means that just about every third week has eight days instead of seven. Some folks like to think of the collection of Astral Days as a short month whose days are spread throughout the year instead of coming all together at once.

The official faction of the Astral Days is the Athar. The faction tends to increase its proselytize a big more during Astral Days, and many cagers consider it taboo to worship their powers or enter a temple on these days.


The last day of the year is Dabusdan, and is considered to be separate from any month, although it still falls on a day of the week. It’s the one day a year the dabus do no work in Sigil. In fact, it’s very rare to see one out and about on this day. Since it occurs so regularly (once every 368 days), it’s a good way to mark the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.

Ethil Rué

Halfway through each cycle, the calendar is interrupted for two weeks connected with the Inner Planes. Each week includes one day for an Energy Plane, one day for each of the four Elemental Planes, and two days for the Ethereal. These two weeks prove exceptionally busy for the Bazaar, as merchant princes from the Inner Planes come flooding in with their exotic goods.

The first week (known formally as Ethil Rué Fulaan) begins with a day called Life, marking the Positive Energy Plane. The second week (Ethil Rué Rufaan) begins with Death, marking the Negative Energy. To further confuse things, the Earth and Air days switch positions during the second week. This gives official recognition to every possible Para- and Quasi-Elemental Plane, although nobody but the Guvners particularly cares.

If an Astral Day happens to fall in between two Elemental Days (which only occurs once every few years) an offshoot of the Sensates takes it as a sign and puts on a marvelous celebration of the Para-Elemental Plane that results from the combination. This can be fun when it’s Ice’s turn, what with the sledding and snow cones. People are less enthusiastic about Magma, Smoke or Ooze’s celebration, though.

Death, the first day of Ethil Rué Rufaan, is the official day of the Dustmen, although they don’t do anything special. The Doomguard are the official faction of Ethil Rué Rufaan in total. The Godsmen were assigned to Ethil Rué Fulaan, but they have unofficially abandoned it in favor of an entire month elsewhere.

Months of the Cycle

Each Sigilian cycle includes nine months. Four months have 36 days, four have 38, and one (the center month) has 40. The months correspond with the nine alignments, and are named for powerful members of each exemplar race of the Outer Planes. In addition, each month has an official faction. Some factions take their assignments seriously, planning city-wide events and celebrations during their time. Others could care less.

It’s thought that long ago the nine months were much more strongly connected to the outer planes they represented, and Sigil’s overall mood would gravitate in that direction. That’s not the case anymore, if in fact it ever was, but tradition still holds that each month is the best time of year for different kinds of business and actions. Others say that the personalities of those born in Sigil is determined by the month in which they’re born.

Amnizuus – Named for the Amnizu, stewards of the fifth layer of Baator, Amnizuus is also called the “Blood Month”. It has 36 days, and is considered to be a good time in Sigil to make strategic decisions regarding bargaining and warfare. The Blood War tends to spill into the streets a little more during this time, although the fiends tend to behave themselves more often than not. The Blood Month’s faction is the Mercykillers, and the moniker suits them just fine.

Quintember – Named for the Quinton, the Modron record keepers of Mechanus. 38 days long, Sigilians also know it as the “Metal Month”. It’s known to be a good time to undertake long-term planning, or to break ground on new construction projects. Not surprisingly, Quintember’s faction is the Fraternity of Order. Guvner appointments and term limits begin and expire in this month. Most years a splinter group of Guvners appeal to move Quintember to be the first month of the year, rather than the second, to more neatly correspond with the new cycle, but this motion always meets with strong opposition from even inside the faction.

Toma – Named for the hawk-headed Tome Archons of Mount Celestia, the 36 days of Toma are seen as a time for self-improvement and honing of raw physical strength. Sigilians also know it as the “Light Month”, and the three lawful factions traditionally keep their lanterns lit throughout Toma’s nights in recognition. Officially, the month of Toma belongs to the Harmonium. Patrols tend to be larger and tighter during the month, as the Hardheads take great pride in keeping things especially in line when they have the spotlight. This also means recruitment efforts are redoubled during Toma; good news for those looking to join — or infiltrate — the faction.

Ursina – Ursina has 38 days and is named for the philosophical bear-folk of the Guardinals, the Ursinals. Its connection with the plane of Elysium makes Ursina a good month for charity and good works, but also for relaxation and introspection; lots of Sigilians take their holiday during Ursina. Elysium’s connection to the River Oceanus have led Sigilians refer to Ursina as the “Water Month”. The official faction, the Ciphers, have latched onto this symbolism to better illustrate their fluid connection between thought and action.

Cuprilember – At 40 days, Cuprilember (or the “Spire Month”) is the longest month of the year. It is split in half, however, by Ethil Rué, and so is often referenced as “early Spire” or “late Spire”. It’s named for the Cuprilarchs, a subrace of the enigmatic Rilmani known for brash acts of violence in their quest to uphold some cosmic balance. Being the center month, and having no month representing their home plane, Cuprilember has been adopted by the Signers. Jokes abound that having the longest month sooths their fragile egos. In addition, having no month of their own, the Indeps have unofficially claimed Spire Month for themselves, as well. (That is, those among them who care enough about such things.)

Arcanuus – 38-day Arcanuus has an interesting history. Originally it was tied to the Grey Waste and assigned to the Bleakers, who (predictably) didn’t much care about the appointment. At the time the Fated were trying to get their home plane of Ysgard recognized in the calendar, with no success. Instead of fight an eternal losing battle, the Fated seized Arcanuus for themselves instead, and embarked on a lifelong campaign to change its dreary connotations. Named for the Arcanoloths, the month’s new identity was strongly associated with arcane study, and now is known in Sigil as the “Arcane Month”.

Marlithuus – Originally called the “Dread Month”, Marlithuus is associated with the Abyss and is named after those terrible seven-armed demons, the Marilith. Originally no faction wanted to be associated with it, but the Bleakers have been stuck here ever since the Fated grabbed Arcanuus from them. Not content with having such a horrible month in every year, the Sensates, Godsmen, Signers and a few Ciphers were able to re-cast the month’s selfishly chaotic bent into a celebration of the creative arts. Nowadays it’s known as the “Song Month”, although that doesn’t keep some barmies from filling its 36 days with violence.

Graalember – The Slaad don’t have fancy names for themselves, only colors, and there is a lot of debate amongst greybeards over whether Graalember is named for the Grey or Green variety. Most folks find the confusion caused by the name to be the perfect fit for the month associated with Limbo. Officially the month is the domain of the Xoasitects, but they don’t recognize being tied down to one particular box. Instead, the Godsmen have unofficially taken the month for themselves, indulging in the pure joy of creation made possible by the most chaotic of planes. Also known as the “Shape Month”, Graalember is 38 days long and is associated with luck and psionics.

Ghaela – The last month of the year, 36-day-long Ghaela, is named for Arborea’s Ghaele Eladrin, warriors of compassion and protectors of the innocent. Most people in Sigil, however, know it as “Wine Month” and look forward to the many end-of-cycle parties thrown by the Sensates. Ghaela is known throughout Sigil as a time of brotherhood and good cheer. Or, at least, slightly less dismal cheer.

Sigilian Holidays

The number of holidays and special events in Sigil is infinite, but there are a few traditional days, many of which are faction-sponsored, that make it onto just about everyone’s calendar.

New Cycle’s Dawn (Amnizuus 1) – The first day of the cycle is a popular time for parties in all of Sigil’s social classes, from the snobbish galas of the Lady’s Ward all the way down to the fervid debauchery of the Hive. A tradition amongst Sigilian children is to keep count of fiends walking the street on the first day of the Blood Month; whomever spots the most gets a special treat during the evening’s festivities.

Green Beer Day (Amnizuus 9) – An old Spinagon named Rakakkukan has lived in a tiny kip in the Lower Ward for as long as anyone can remember, and just about as long he has been Sigil’s benefactor on Green Beer Day. Every Amnizuus 9, precisely at peak, the lights go on in Rakakkukan’s kip and he begins rolling cask after cask of powerful Baatorian ale out into the street, free to anyone who brings their own cup. The old devil’s reasons for this uncharacteristic charity have never been identified, and makes a lot of folks uneasy, but the bubbers line up year after year all the same.

Wyrm’s Day (day after the first Astral Day in Amnizuus) – The only “holiday” sponsored by the Mercykillers, Wyrm’s Day is a favorite amongst Sigil’s lower classes who just want to see a bit of gore. Traditionally the Mercykillers do a bit of housekeeping in the Prison on this day, offering pardons or executions to large numbers of long-time prisoners. As of late there have been far more of the latter, making for particularly grisly and memorable Wyrm’s Days.

Hashkar’s Address (Quintember 1) – Every year on the first day of the Metal Month the factol of the Guvners publicly addresses the people of Sigil in a very long, very boring speech. A huge variety of topics are discussed, mostly involving the state of Sigil during the previous cycle, and plans for improvement in the upcoming cycle. The speech tends to go far longer than anyone can stand to listen, with the record stretching just past 15 straight hours of Hashkar’s droning, methodical voice.

Forum of Law and Order (Quintember 2) – In theory the Hall of Speakers is available for anyone with enough jink and an opinion to rent out, but traditionally the Signers hand this one day over to Sigil’s triumvirate of law: the Guvners, Hardheads and Mercykillers. (No doubt for a very large fee!) Nobody else gets the floor on this day, and lots of lively debate ensues about the proper application of Sigil’s laws and the enforcement and punishment thereof.

Day of Civil Judgment (last Lady’s Day of Quintember) – While the courts are usually closed on Lady’s Day, an exception is made for this holiday, where the factol of the Guvners himself sits the bench for 24 straight hours hearing grievances. The regular court schedule is wiped clean for the day, and citizens are heard on a first-come, first-serve basis, no matter how petty or delusional their cases may be. On this one day only is the factol entrusted with final authority to hand down judgments without slowly grinding through the usual channels. For many Sigilians, this is their only shot at justice in civil matters.

Toma’s Resolution (Toma 1) – The first day of Toma, a month of betterment and self-improvement, it is customary to make resolutions on how one will make oneself better throughout the remainder of the cycle. Popular resolutions include weight loss, persuing a new profession, and finally hopping a portal out of this miserable place and setting up kip elsewhere ont he planes.

Toma’s Regret (Toma 2) – An inevitable favorite throughout Sigil, Toma 2 is an unofficial, tongue-in-cheek way to celebrate all the short-lived resolutions made the day before. Usually with lots of drink.

Good King Garfareon’s Name Day (Toma 21) – Sigil’s not the type of place where a high-up’s name day is likely to get much recognition, but an exception is made for Garfareon, ruler of whatever kingdom the Harmonium originally hailed from, on whatever Prime Material world that was. While it’s an official holiday and the Hardheads take it very seriously, most everyone else celebrates by rolling their eyes and making fun of the good king’s silly name.

Deva’s Day (Toma 35-36) Towards the end of the Light Month a venue is chosen — usually in the Lady’s Ward — for a large gathering of celestials to come together on neutral ground and share the past cycle’s triumphs and experiences. Bloods from all over the Upper Planes turn up for the two-day event. The first day consists of more formal meetings, discussion of business, peaceful resolution of conflicts, what have you. That all taken care of, the second day is spent socializing and partaking of good-aligned brotherhood of all flavors.

The Grand Games (first full week of Ursina with an Astral Day) – This eight-day-long event is sponsored by the Ciphers and takes over the entire Gymnasium and much of the surrounding area. The days are filled with formal athletics competitions and games of skill, and is the most organized most folks ever see the Ciphers get. Registration is open to anyone who wishes to compete, but only those with the most brutal training regimens have a shot at a medal. Despite the Ciphers’ best efforts to combat the seedier elements of gamesmanship, the Grand Games are the most popular gambling event of the cycle.

Prime Appreciation Day (first Ring Day of Cuprilember) – An official Sigilian holiday no doubt proposed by some greybeard who was kept awake at night by the Prime Material Plane not being recognized anywhere in the city’s calendar, Prime Appreciation Day is considered a joke by the best cutters and an excuse to torment Clueless by the worst. Currently no faction sponsors any events on this day, and by the time most Primes learn the ropes well enough to realize they have a day, they don’t want to draw any attention to themselves by celebrating it.

Annointed Morning (Life) – While not an official holiday, the Hall of Records keeps a formal census of children born in Sigil before peak on Life. Having Life as one’s name day is considered especially lucky, and is a good way of making oneself stand out from the crowd. A non-faction-affiliated group called the Annointed Sisterhood congregates just after peak to announce all the births, and each family on the list receives a small gift of freshly baked bread.

Efreeti’s Court (Fire 1) – All of Ethil Rué, the Bazaar fills with exotic visitors from the Inner Planes, selling all manner of strange wares. Fire 1, however, marks the official arrival of a huge trade caravan from the City of Brass. Sale of slaves is forbidden inside Sigil, but just about everything else that can be sampled from that vast Inner Planes marketplace abounds on this day. Chant is that no small amount of souls gets whisked off to the Plane of Fire, caught up in the swirl of excitement each cycle, never to be seen again.

Ordial Day (Astral Day durin Ethil Rué) – There isn’t always an Astral Day during Ethil Rué, but those cycles where there is, a few of the more creative factions come together to celebrate the mysterious, un-visitable Ordial Plane. This theoretical place is said to connect the Outer and Inner Planes, but has never been observed by anyone who came back to tell about it. Ordial Day is a favorite day to spread conspiracy theories and play pranks.

Para Festivals (Astral Days that fall between two Elemental Days) – More rare than Ordial Day are the Para Festivals, which only occur in cycles where an Astral Day lands between two Elemental Days. Depending on which elements are observed, the Sensates put together a whole day of festivities related to the appropriate Para-Elemental Plane. An Astral Day between Fire and Air results in a Festival of Smoke, where every exotic leaf and weed in the multiverse is collected, rolled, and puffed on. Air and Water result in the Festival of Ice, where Sensate wizards turn the roads to ice and engage in sled races and epic snowball fights. Water and Earth cause the Festival of Ooze, which results in quite a lot of naked mud wrestling. Earth and Fire bring the Festival of Magma, the hardest to celebrate by far, which almost always ends with property damage and a few poor sods sorched to death.

Dead-Book Festival (Death) – The Dustmen don’t much care they only get one day a cycle where the other factions get a whole month. They care so little, in fact, they don’t even sponsor an event on their one day. Instead, the Sensates throw a one-day parade throughout the streets adjoining the Civic Festhall celebrating all the facets of death. Folks dress up like skeletons and other undead creatures, share legends and stories of the various powers related to death, and essentially make mock of everything the Dustmen stand for.

Doomguard Riots (Fire 2 – Air 2) – The Elemental Days of Ethil Rué Rufaan are particularly nasty for folks minding their own business in the Lady’s Ward. The Sinkers sponsor a massive faction-only melee outside the Armory (the second most popular gambling event of the cycle), offering every upstart in the faction a chance to prove their martial prowess. That’d be bad enough, but the more unseemly members of the faction always use the melee as an excuse to cause general mayhem throughout the Lady’s and Lower Wards. Used to be the Doomguard would keep a lid on the violence, but since the newest factol took over that hasn’t been a priority. There’s always a body count by the end of the week.

Day-Again of Foul Luck (any Astral Day that follows or precedes a like-numbered day of any month) – Day-Again usually only comes once a year, and always at a different time. Whenever two days in a row have the same number — say, the eleventh of Arcanuus immediately followed by the cycle’s eleventh Astral Day — everyone spends the day looking over their shoulder for the especially bad luck following them around. Chant is that any misfortune that comes your way on the first day is sure to happen a second time on Day-Again, and any good fortune you enjoy on the first day is a cert to be undone.

Tax Holiday (Arcanuus 18) – Of course the one and only holiday sponsored by the Fated would be about collecting taxes. While its name implies it’s a holiday from paying taxes, Tax Holiday is quite the opposite: all fees, fines, leins, bonds and overdue payments come due on this day, and the faction offers its members a cut on anything they manage to collect. Lots of doors get knocked in on Tax Holiday, and lots of berks get thumped by the Hardheads for inability to pay.

Festival of the Arts (Marlithuus 1-7) – The first week of Marlithuus was seized upon by the Sensates as a celebration of the creative energies inherent in the tides of chaos. Everything from orchestras to puppet shows are lauded in the Festhall during the week, and special consideration is given to pieces that are unique, rather than those which display actual quality.

Festival of Blood (Marlithuus 6) – Sponsored by no one in particular, but practiced nonetheless by no small number of chaotic fiends, the Festival of Blood celebrates all the monstrosities of the Blood War smack dab in the middle of the Festival of Arts. While some high-ups have taken to having mock-parties “celebrating” the Festival of Blood behind the secure walls of their manors in the Lady’s Ward, the Festival proper always leaves a gruesome wake in the Hive. A popular Sigilian joke is that the Festival of Blood is the only holiday the Lady in Pain celebrates herself, as it usually sees a few of the more malicious participants flushed down into the Mazes.

Weeping Day (Marlithuus 33) – Against all odds, one splinter group of Bleakers have actually embraced their official space in Sigil’s calendar with Weeping Day, a day to lament the grotesqueries of mortal existence. Though there is no formal planning, most everyone in Sigil manages to get an earful about poverty, or the high murder rate, or unfair application of law, or this or that injustice at some point during the day. Truly canny alehouse proprietors will capitalize on the day by offering discount swill.

Forum of Chaos (Graalember 1) – Similar to the Forum of Law and Order — and also paid for by the Guvners, Harmonium and Mercykillers — on the day of the Forum of Chaos only members of the Xaositects, Doomguard and Bleak Cabal have the floor. Most see the sponsorship as a cynical PR move; the lawful factions get to claim moral high ground over their enemies by making a cursory attempt to let them have their say. Turnout is generally mixed, and some cycles the Hall of Speakers sits empty all day. Other cycles the Hall is filled with swirling, beautiful nonsense. Many Sigilians fondly remember the year 106 Chaosmen all lined up and each delivered the exact same 8-minute speech about the abhorrent state of rodent meat available in the Hive.

Ysgardian Revelry (first full week with an Astral Day in Graalember) – The plane of Ysgard is no slouch when it comes to drink and debauchery, but the plane has no official recognition in Sigil’s calendar. That didn’t stop a few Ysgardian powers from organizing its denizens to come to Sigil and throw a week-long party, though. To many Sigilians, the Ysgardian Revelry begins a two-month-long holiday season, with the planes of Ysgard and Arborea competing with endless supplies of food and drink. The Ysgardian Revelry tends to be a bit more violent than the Hardheads would like, and a few of them get thumped each cycle when trying to break things up.

Tourney of Chaos (Graalember 11-15) – The Godsmen sponsor various shows and competitions for craftsmanship every year, but the biggest annual event is the Tourney of Chaos, in which a portal to Limbo is opened and entrants from both sides of the door demonstrate their skill with chaos shaping. Githzerai allies on the Limbo side guarantee safety from the dangers of the plane, so the people of Sigil get to see strange and wonderful things from literally beyond their imagination.

Day of Zerthinon (Graalember 31) – A somber day of reflection for the githzerai citizens of Sigil, to remember their liberation from their illithid captors and to contemplate their hated foes, the githyanki. The day means something a little different for each individual githzerai, but informal gatherings tend to pop up all over Sigil, some of which are observed with curiosity by those on the outside.

Bariaurmat (Graalember 38 – Ghaela 1) – This two-day celebration seems to exist only because the bariaur want it to. While most folks can’t participate in the many frequent bouts of head-butting, the vast quantities of drink that spill in from Ysgard and the Outlands during this time is more than welcome. One favorite activity of Bariaurmat is for a bariaur to make a public wager with some humanoid berk, who climbs aboard the bariaur’s back and tries to stay on while the bariaur kicks and thrashes about. Other cutters bet on what sort of injuries are sustained, instaed.

Grand Arborean Festival (Ghaela 1-7) – To many Sigilians, and certainly all Sensates, this is THE Festival of the year. When folks ask each other what they’re doing for Festival, or Fest, they’re inevitably talking about this weeklong celebration of all the finest, most indulgent food, drink, song and sex to come from the plane of Arborea. Especially hedonistic cutters have been known to bankrupt themselves during Fest, all trying to one-up each other in the quest to throw the most memorable feast imaginable.

Celebration of Dead Gods (last Astral Day of the cycle) – The only formal event sponsored by the Athar, this celebration is little more than a faction recruitment drive. Athar greybeards take careful notes throughout the cycle of powers whose grasp on their worshippers is slipping, realms that are shrinking, or clerics and paladins whose power is waning. Cycles where a new godly corpse winds up in the Astral are especially desireable. Most non-Athar participants are those berks who are just looking for any excuse to stretch out the Arborean Festival as long as possible.

Dabusdan (last day of the cycle) – The Dabus day of rest. Most Sigilians note it with trepidation, as the city’s silent caretakers are in very short supply. Depending on one’s faction and belief structure, it’s either a day to take the betterment of Sigil upon oneself, or a day to wreak havoc on the city’s infrastructure without those creepy dabus spoiling your fun. Rumor has it that nobody has ever been flayed or mazed by the Lady herself on this day, and none can recall seeing her form float about the city, either. Some really reckless berks use the day as an excuse to thumb their nose at the Lady’s laws. The Mercykillers are on sharp lookout for such foolishness.

A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Six: You’re pretty good!

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Good ol’ Ocelot. He’s everybody’s favorite gun-spinning, double-crossing, apple-crushing, torture-obsessed, moustache-sporting, trenchcoat-wearing supervillain(?).

Metal Gear Solid has lots and lots of characters, and while most are integral to the contained plot of whichever games they appear in, Ocelot is one of the few that has broad importance to the saga as a whole. While it’s hard to keep tabs on his plots and allegiances from story to story, it hardly matters when he’s chewing on the scenery.

Here are some of my favorite Ocelot moments!

#6: No Ocelot! Waaaahh!!

No one character appears in every single Metal Gear Solid game, but Ocelot comes close; Peace Walker is the only game he doesn’t grace with his presence. If Peace Walker has a bright and glaring failing, surely this is it!

I suppose it could be argued that this is an essential slice of Big Boss’s life story, free from hyper-manipulative agents such as Ocelot. And from a narrative perspective, I will grudgingly concede that three or four more layers of backstabbery wouldn’t have improved anything.

But in his absense there was nobody to spin guns or crack wise. Big Boss just completes his mission without anybody taking the piss. What a shame.

#5: Taking the Tanker

There’s not a lot of context for Ocelot’s actions throughout Metal Gear Solid 2. At first he’s working with Gurlukovich, but then he shoots Gurlukovich. Later he needs the President alive, so he shoots the President. He needs Olga and Solidus and Fortune to help take the Big Shell, so of course he shoots all of them too. At times it really feels like he’s betraying people for the sheer thrill of it. And also he’s possessed by a magic talking arm…? Weird. It all reeks of setup for a sequel, which I suppose was his primary role in Metal Gear Solid as well.

He makes a hell of an entrance, though. First, he emerges from the shadows at the end of the Marine commandant’s speech, complete with deprecating, sarcastic applause. Then he shoots everybody important, acts all smug about it, and proceeds to blow up the tanker you’ve spent the past two hours carefully sneaking around. And while most MGS villains wait until the final act to hop inside of a Metal Gear and start lipping off, Ocelot decides to break tradition and do it right at the beginning. All that’s missing is a bout of maniacal cackling.

Sure, there’s that stupid bit where Liquid Snake’s dead arm is taking over his brain, or whatever. But I choose to believe, within the context of MGS2, that Ocelot is just letting Liquid think that’s what’s happening.

#4: Betraying Colonel Volgin

Metal Gear Solid 3 is chock full of fantastic Ocelot moments. Set during the Cold War, we are treated to a much younger, much cheekier Ocelot. In that simpler time Ocelot still had all the bravado and aplomb he’s so well-known for, but hasn’t yet tempered it with experience. As a result, quite a lot of MGS3 shows Ocelot taking his lumps, not from magically-appearing ninjas or supernatural talking hands, but simply the result of his own lack of humility.

There’s always the question of just who’s side he’s on, though. Very early on Ocelot develops a rivalry with Naked Snake that transcends his orders as a Soviet officer or an American CIA double-agent. While most of the rest of the characters seem to be disciples of The Boss, Ocelot becomes infatuated with Snake instead. As a result we’re treated to a lot of great character moments where Ocelot, dangerous though he is, just so very desperately wants senpai to notice him.

My favorite scene, though, is Snake’s confrontation against the dispicable Colonel Volgin. When Volgin orders Ocelot to stand down, depriving him of the showdown he feels he deserves, you actually feel for the little bugger. Ocelot responds to the situation by abandoning all pretense of being Volgin’s subordinate and openly starts rooting for Snake to win, going so far as to throw his equipment to him and giving him some encouraging finger guns.

The moment when Volgin shouts in exasperation, “Just who’s side are you on!?” is the moment Ocelot becomes the man he’s destined to be.

#3: The Torture Event

Leave it to Metal Gear Solid to make a rote button-mashing minigame engaging and memorable. The rules are simple: Snake’s life bar will constantly drain as Ocelot electrocutes him, and you can mash the button to make the bar goes back up. If you die, the game doesn’t let you continue. If you’re about to die, and you don’t want to replay the last hour of backtracking, you can hit another button to give in to the pain… but then you get the bad ending.

We know the rules so clearly because Ocelot explains them to us, as though it were a game. Which it is, I suppose, to the guy holding the PlayStation controller… but it doesn’t feel that way. While Snake is strapped half-naked to a metal table waiting for the shocks to start, Ocelot spells the situation out in terms that we-the-player understand all too clearly. He taunts us if we haven’t saved recently. Admonishes us for thinking about using a turbo controller. Calls us back to his torture dungeon, over and over, if we can’t figure out how to escape his prison cell.

By the fourth session, when your forearm aches and your hand is cramped up from all the mashing, Ocelot’s offer of making the pain end start ringing all the more true. The way he gets into your head with a combination of total moral depravity and gleeful fourth-wall breaking… it’s no wonder this horrorshow is Ocelot’s most famous scene in the series.

#2: Final Fist Fight

Throughout Metal Gear Solid 4 Ocelot (properly Liquid Ocelot, at this point) remains a step or six ahead of the player at all times. And yet, it still feels like a cheat, because there’s that nagging sense that Ocelot did all the work and got all the character development, only for Liquid to take over his brain at the tale’s end and take all the credit.

Ocelot doesn’t get to take control of SOP by setting off fireworks on the Volta. Ocelot doesn’t get to face off in an epic Metal Gear vs. Metal Gear battle at the docks of Shadow Moses. As great as these scenes are, it keeps coming back to that stupid talking arm from MGS2, and the knowledge that Liquid is stealing the spotlight. If Liquid was going to be the big bad in the end anyway, what was the point of that great after-credits monologue from MGS1?

But then we get to the final battle, not only of MGS4, but of the entire Metal Gear saga. No nanomachines, no weapons, no equipment; just two old men pummeling each other senseless, mano-a-mano. After a few punches, Liquid’s MGS1 character model flashes on the screen, and the name beneath his life bar changes from “Liquid” to “Liquid Ocelot”. A few punches later, the flash displays the talking arm scene from MGS2, and his name switches to simply “Ocelot”. What’s more, Snake’s name changes too — to “Naked Snake”.

Then the realization of what’s happening finally hits home: there never was any Liquid. Ocelot is such a chessmaster that he had to fool himself in order to complete his schemes. The player controls Snake in this fight, but we’re seeing things from Ocelot’s perspective. As Snake clobbers him, he regresses back through the damage done to his psyche over the years until, in his own mind, he’s a kid again, the world around him fades entirely away, and he gets his long-awaited tussel with Big Boss.

It’s a fine and fitting end for the character, but it’s cathartic for the player as well. After many years of cursing the stupid talking arm subplot foisted upon us by MGS2, we get to finish off the series with a real fight against Ocelot where we literally beat the Liquid out of him.

#1: Guess we’ll wait and see…

Ever since his first appearance in the Phantom Pain trailers, I’ve been giddy with anticipation to see what sorts of shenanigans Ocelot gets up to during his time working with Big Boss. This time around he won’t be a villain. Or, at leat, he won’t be an antagonist. It’s a new role for the character, and I’m more excited to see how it plays out than I am about any other part of the story.

Of course, it may all be a ruse, and there’s another heel-turn waiting in the wings to catch me off guard. If that’s the case, though, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Godspeed, you marvelous bastard.

That brings us to the end of Metal Gear Memory Lane, but I have one more little surprise for you tomorrow, just as The Phantom Pain hits our PlayBoxes and X-Stations. Thanks for taking the journey with me!

A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Five: Snake, open the Survival Viewer…

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

The worlds of the various Metal Gear Solid games are very finely detailed. My first exposure to the series was Metal Gear Solid 2, and I recall my mind being blown while watching my friend pick individual bottles of ketchup and mayo off of a pantry shelf with his gun. A few years later I spent a week or so frustratingly plugging away at Metal Gear Solid 3, trying to figure out how the goddamn game wanted me to play it without a radar. Turns out the answer was quite simple: it wanted me to stop worrying so much, and find my own solutions for each map.

As many bullet points as each game’s feature list has, though, excessive replays will leave you with the feeling that there’s a little something still missing from the equation. Here are a few little extras I really wish each game would have included.

#6: Backup on Codec

The gaggle of support characters Snake can ring up on his radio or codec was a huge part of the first three Metal Gear Solid games, and even the 8-bit Metal Gear 2 before that. They provided helpful hints and suggestions about gameplay elements when the player was stuck. They carried a lot of the weight of fleshing out the game worlds with backstory and character development. Sometimes they meta-gamed you, as in one especially memorable case in MGS1 that forced the player to, literally, think outside the box.

But in Metal Gear Solid 4, Otacon and Rose is all you get. Which isn’t to say anything against these two characters; Otacon has always been a personal favorite, and Rose is actually quite pleasant to talk to without the whole nattering girlfriend undercurrent. But two contacts? In the MGS game with the most gameplay features, the biggest cast and the most bloated plot?

There’s a wealth of options we’re missing out on here. We can’t call Campbell to get mission updates. We can’t call Meryl or Raiden to get detailed info about the environment and conflicts we’re sneaking through. We can’t call Drebin to hear how big his boner is over the semi-automatic recoilless carbine we just picked up. We can’t call Sunny to hear about all the fantastic Konami games she’s playing on her PlayStation Portable™.

As a result, a big part of the essential MGS experience is lost, and MGS4 is the poorer for it.

#5: Pause During Menus

The action in the first four Metal Gear Solid games paused while you went into your equipment menus, allowing you a few precious moments to think about the best load-out to clean up whatever problem you just caused for yourself by rolling into that patrolling terrorist’s line of sight. This was necessary because, as big a deal as Snake’s commanding officer makes about going in light, within ten minutes he ends up with an entire garage of weapons and gadgets strapped to his back.

Peace Walker is a multiplayer game, though, and it wouldn’t do for Player 1 to pause Player 2’s action because he’s swapping out his stun rod for his stun grenades. So in that game, instead of pausing the action, the menu screens only pause Snake. While you’re standing there rifling through your, er, rifles, all of the enemy soldiers still have their full range of movement. This has been the cause of more than one frustrating death.

A necessary evil in the world of multiplayer, to be sure, but Peace Walker applies this same limitation even if you’re playing by yourself. The feature isn’t used to create a more realistic or immersive experience, like it is in Ground Zeroes. In that game Snake can only carry a couple of items, and has a clear visual indication of what he’s doing in the game world while the player is dottering around the menu. In Peace Walker the player is carrying around a boatload of stuff, and Snake just stands stock still and upright while his player makes up his mind.

It’s usually not too much trouble to duck around a corner or into a shadow to get your equipment sorted… but the game gains nothing by forcing this restriction.

#4: Start with the HF Blade

Every Metal Gear Sold player who wanted Grey Fox’s sword had their prayers answered at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2 when Snake presents Raiden with the High-Frequency Blade. Suddenly the player had much cooler melee options than punching or grabbing, and a use for that second control stick which mostly just sat there unloved throughout the game. The HF Blade had a very satisfying motion to it, giving Raiden new avenues of offense and defense to explore: he could use it to deflect bullets, he could do wide sweeps or quick stabs, and if he was feeling really fancy he could execute a Zelda-style circle slash. It gave definition to a character who, by design, had spent the whole game without an identify of his own. It felt like the kind of thing the whole game could have been based around.

Unfortunately, all those players who had their prayers answered had them rudely dashed again when the HF Blade was taken away from them after two scenes and a boss fight. But there was hope: it’s MGS tradition to offer new toys to play with on replays. Snake even mentions his magic bandana in the very scene he gifts Raiden his sword! Maybe the HF Blade will be in Raiden’s inventory next time we play, letting us slash our way through screens we had to carefully sneak through previously?

It was not to be. Though Raiden would get his due as Official Ninja Badass in a spin-off game over a decade later, the sword in MGS2 is forever relegated to being an endgame gimmick. This is a pretty serious grievance in a universe where Old Snake can start his mission with voodoo dolls and a solar-powered death laser.

#3: A Way to Skip the Backtracking

Twice during the course of his infiltration of Shadow Moses, Snake has to drop what he’s doing and backtrack to old areas for pretty silly reasons. First he has to abandon his bleeding comrade and return to an area at the very start of the game to find a sniper rifle. Later, he has to criss-cross a screen full of boring, empty catwalks in order to reach old areas so his magic key changes shape. I see what they were going for here. In the first case they needed an excuse to get Snake away from the area so the bad guys could kidnap his girlfriend. In the second, they had sixteen barrels of exposition and needed a way to pace it out over a few extra screen transitions.

On replays, though, all the backtracking accomplishes is forcing me to be very, very bored for a very, very long time right at the tail end of my playthrough.

The Gamecube remake of MGS1, The Twin Snakes, solves both of these problems in really handy ways. There’s still a sniper rifle way back in the armory, if you want one, but there’s a non-lethal rifle in a much closer room, for your convenience. And as for the cardkey, there are handy pipes of liquid nitrogen and hot steam right there in the hangar ready to fulfill all of your magic key needs.

It’s considered an MGS faux pas to say anything positive about The Twin Snakes, though, so for purposes of this article I’m forced to ignore it. Too bad, because otherwise I’d be inclined to give MGS1 perfect marks in this category.

#2: Camo Quick-Change

A big element of Metal Gear Solid 3 was surviving in a harsh, natural environment. In addition to his equipment load-out Snake had to worry about finding food, tending to injuries, mapping his surroundings, and using camouflage. There wasn’t an elegant way to handle all these new features in the standard L2/R2 menus, though, so for the first time an MGS game got a big, obtrusive subscreen to handle it all. The game called this the “Survival Viewer”, but we all knew it was really a “Pause Menu”, and mostly just tolerated it.

For an even mildly-skilled player, all the contents of the Survival Viewer were pretty easy to ignore. There’s tons of food littered around the game world, injuries are few and far between as long as you’re half-decent at stealth, and no single area is really large or confusing enough to require a map. Camo, though, remains important throughout the game, and it gets really obnoxious going into the menu every few minutes so Snake can play dress-up.

The end result: there are a few different strategies for using camo in MGS3, and none of them are close to the probably-intended “pick the best camo for the situation you’re in”. Some players only switch camo when the environment changes drastically. Others ignore the system entirely and rely on distance and line-of-sight shenanigans to remain unspotted. And others put on the tuxedo and zombie face paint and play the entire game like a karate conga line.

Point is, the ability to hot-swap between the two or three most useful camo options would have gone a long way to making the mechanic feel useful, rather than vestigial.

#1: A Boss Fight

Steam says I have 120 hours played in Ground Zeroes. That can’t be right. A counter must have glitched out somewhere, or maybe I accidentally left the game running in the background for a couple days. Or, well, maybe I really have sunk that much time into the game. For as little content as Ground Zeroes has, there’s a tantalizingly huge combination of ways each of the missions can be solved, and lord knows I’ve put in the time to explore them all. I shudder to think what my playtime is going to look like after a year of The Phantom Pain.

For all the fun to be had, though, Ground Zeroes is missing what is, for me, one of the defining elements of the MGS series: a boss fight. For a demo that is supposed to show the breadth of what the Fox Engine is capable of, that’s a pretty huge and glaring omission.

Maybe, with the incredible amount of freedom afforded to the player, there just isn’t room in the MGS5 games for a more narrowly-structured one-on-one combat experience? If that’s the case, it’s incredibly saddening. But if it’s not — and I have faith that it’s not — why not put a little taste of that in the prologue?

The main mission, Ground Zeroes itself, isn’t the place for a boss fight. It’s pure infiltration and extraction, and stopping things partway to force a gimmick fight would have felt very weird. But the two Extra Ops missions are non-canonical sillyfests, and would have been just perfect. Instead they tease a Psycho Mantis rematch which never materializes, and makes Raiden fire rockets at helicopters for ten minutes.

Alright, that’s enough bitching. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at my favorite character from the MGS saga, relive some of his most memorable moments, and look forward to his triumphant return in The Phantom Pain. Thanks for reading.

A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Four: Do you want to hear the quetzal call again?

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Metal Gear Solid games always have large casts of colorful characters. You have the player character, his radio support, a squad of elite soldiers for boss fights, a scientist or two what needs rescuing, an NPC helper buddy who usually needs babysitting, a character or two of ambiguous allegiance with mysterious hidden agendas, the big bad, the real big bad behind who you thought was the big bad, a shadowy figure from the US government who is only mentioned in passing, and then a sprinkling of cameos and references to characters elsewhere in the series.

With such a huge population of folks and only so much spotlight to go around, you’d think there’d be no room for characters who don’t pull their weight in the story. You’d think that. Alas, you’d be wrong.

#6: Johnny

Strictly speaking, Johnny isn’t a new character. In the first two Metal Gear Solid games he’s a generic soldier with unforunate stomach problems who has bad luck with the ladies, and in Metal Gear Solid 3 he’s that guy’s grandfather. As a fun little easter egg, the character is fine. He offers a sorely-needed humanizing element to the generic soldiers Snake spends so much time teabagging and/or shoving into lockers. We all wanted him back in Metal Gear Solid 4, but… just not like this.

We first meet Johnny as part of Rat Patrol 01, Meryl Silverburgh’s PMC oversight unit. This already stretches disbelief rather thin. I’ll buy one of the Shadow Moses terrorists falling in with the Gurlukovich mercenaries, considering the tenuous connection through Ocelot and the fact that he’s presented as a silly offscreen cameo in MGS2. But Meryl’s group is an official arm of the US military. Didn’t anyone do a background check? Doesn’t Meryl recognize him?

Anyway, the character is played for laughs for a couple of acts, which I originally took as just another example of MGS4 overdoing itself a bit. But no, in the final act it turns out we’re supposed to take the character totally seriously, as he’s one of the three soldiers hand-picked to be launched into the heart of Liquid’s base. Even more ridiculous, we discover that Meryl takes him seriously, and I honestly thought she had more sense than that.

Don’t get me wrong, combining a massive violent shootout with a romantic marriage proposal between a woman who insists she has no interest in men and a dude whose only defining trait for ten years has been “he poops himself” is hilarious and wonderful. But it’s such a stark, comedic contrast to the overly-serious tone of the rest of the endgame that all I can do is roll my eyes at it.

#5: Major Raikov

Lots of MGS fans spent the years between Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 hating Raiden, the anime prettyboy who replaced Solid Snake as the player character. So when MGS3 begins and Naked Snake has a Raiden mask in his inventory, everyone just thought it was one of Kojima’s little meta-pokes at his own canon. If that’s all it had been, we could have just chuckled at it and gone on with our lives, but no. It turns out there happens to be an enemy officer who looks exactly like Raiden, and you just happen to have your face in his inventory, and using said mask to disguise yourself as said officer is an actual gameplay objective.

Well, okay, now that there’s a lampshade on it we have to stand up and take note. Is there an in-universe reason why this Russian officer just happens to look exactly like an albino Liberian assassin who won’t be born for another twenty years? Did the Russians have their own version of Les Enfants Terribles ten years before the Americans thought of it? Who decided an American CIA agent needed a mask of this officer on what was supposed to be a two-hour extraction mission?

There’s a lot of fun stuff you can do with the Raikov disguise, once you have it. But man, the game has to do some pretty crazy gymnastics to justify what otherwise is just a quick visual gag. I’ll admit it’s ultimately worth it, though, to hear The Boss call Raiden a fairy.

#4: “Mr. X”

Metal Gear 2 has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden who turns out to be Grey Fox. So, of course, Metal Gear Solid also has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden who turns out to be Grey Fox. And since MGS2 was written as a subversive version of MGS1 it, too, has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden, only this time it doesn’t turn out to be Grey Fox. Whoa!

This time, the player’s shadowy benefactor turns out to be Olga Gurlukovich, the leader of the Russian mercenary group patrolling the Big Shell. And I’m certainly not arguing that Olga is at all unnecessary, or that her agenda of secretly helping Raiden from behind the scenes is a worthless plot element. Just the contrary! Olga’s plot is one of the high points of the series, and her reasons for aiding Raiden ring particularly true amongst a cast where everyone is backstabbing everyone else.

What I don’t get, though, is why she needed to literally dress like Grey Fox to accomplish her role in the story. Yes, the Patriots were attempting to re-create Shadow Moses as closely as possible, but that didn’t translate literally in most other parts of the exercise, so why just this one thing? The real reason is because Kojima wanted us to have a “wait, Grey Fox is back!?” moment, and a scene where Ocelot almost loses his arm again, and a reason for Raiden to use a sword in the final act. But it still feels flimsy, and cheapens the role of an otherwise great character.

#3: Nastasha Romanenko

In a game about the evils and dangers of nuclear weapons, Nastasha Romanenko’s job is to repeatedly inform Snake about the evils and dangers of nuclear weapons. Campbell initially informs Snake that Nastasha can provide him information on the weapons and hardware he comes across in his mission, but nine times out of ten she instead serves up dire and possibly dubious factoids about nuclear stockpiles around the globe. These conversations are never useful in the context of Snake’s exploits in Shadow Moses. In fact, it’s entirely possible to complete Metal Gear Solid without ever adding her to your codec screen.

Nastasha does serve a quasi-important role in the plot, at least inadvertantly. Much of the back half of the story involves a game of Spot the Spy, where Snake has reason to suspect there’s a spy amongst his support team. In that sense Nastasha is a bit of a red herring, a warm body in Snake’s phone book for the real traitor to hide behind. Maybe some players spent a good portion of the game suspecting her…?

Still, it’s a pretty flimsy justification. Nastasha herself is so unimportant that she’s the only living character from the first two MGS games not to come back for Metal Gear Solid 4. Heck, even a few of the dead ones miraculously made an apperance!

#2: Cécile

In Peace Walker, Snake doesn’t have a support team, per se. Instead, characters will chime in on the radio at various points in the mission to offer advice or encouragement. Cassette tapes that unlock between missions offer a bit of background and development, but Cécile’s tapes come across like… well, like a birdwatcher with a bad French accent taking up space in a Cold War story.

As far as I can tell, Cécile serves three minor purposes in the plot of Peace Walker: 1) to mimic bird calls for one mission where Snake has to identify the song of a particular jungle bird, 2) to dwell a little too much on how Dr. Strangelove likes the ladies, and 3) to provide a “girl time” entry in Paz’s diary. Other than that, it seems incredibly forced that a birdwatcher from Paris would want to hang out with a scruffy military organization after escaping with her life from a mad scientist.

Actually, there is one more thing. In one really bizarre conversation, Kaz Miller points out that Cécile’s full name sounds a bit like “Kojima is God” in Japanese. That’s probably just a coincidence. After all, just how self-absorbed would you have to be to invent a character for the sole purpose of a juvenile power trip?

#1: Hideo Kojima


I probably have to come clean at this point: I really am a huge fan of the MGS games. I tease them because I love them, but also because as great as the games are, they’re far from perfect. It’s just more fun to complain than to praise. Tomorrow, let’s complain about some features missing from these otherwise highly detailed and feature-rich games! Thanks for reading.

A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Three: Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Innovative gameplay ideas are one of the mainstays of the Metal Gear Solid series. When detractors poo-poo Kojima’s narrative style by saying he just wants to make movies, it’s pretty easy to shut them down by pointing to any number of creative gameplay sequences such as Psycho Mantis or The Sorrow. Or by pointing to game mechanics which open up opportunities for interactive storytelling, like stamina bars or the Metal Gear Mk. 2.

When you pitch enough things at the wall, though, a few of them aren’t going to stick. Each game has a few stinkers that I dread just about every time I replay the games. These are their stories.

#6: Intel Operative Rescue

Including the Side Ops from Ground Zeroes in these lists does seem a bit disingenuous, but considering you can clear the main story mission in under ten minutes by adopting a fun-loving devil-may-care attitude to gunning down marines it’d be kind of slim pickings otherwise. In truth the Side Ops make up quite a lot of the game’s meat and potatoes, each offering slight twists on your mission objectives in the great big sandbox of Camp Omega. They’re a big part of the game, is my point, and dismissing them because they don’t “count” is short-sighted.

The Intel Operative Rescue mission, however, is a shining example of the worst gameplay the Fox Engine has to offer. Instead of being a variation on the scout-and-sneak gameplay of the main mission, it instead boils everything down to a linear rail shooter. A series tradition, to be sure, but a kind of bland and frustrating one. I don’t play these games so my guy can mow down everything in sight with infinite machinegun. I like for that option to be available as a way to mess around on replays, but it’s just not what Metal Gear Solid is good at.

I admit I’ve been biased against rail shooter segments in ever since the original game had me shoot through Liquid’s invincibility frames for five straight minutes. These segments simply aren’t engaging to me; they are the lowest possible form of action gameplay. That being said…

#5: Motorcycle Chase

…the rail shooter segments are very rarely the worst parts of the game. That I picked them as the worst example of bad gameplay from Ground Zeroes and Metal Gear Solid 3 speaks to the high quality of the rest of those two games.

The motorcycle chase scene at the end of MGS3 is a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping escape sequence… the first time you play the game. As early as the first replay you see the scene for what it really is: an incredibly long, barely interactive cinematic. It’s broken up by a short sniping segment and one of the most exciting boss fights in the series, sure, but once you have enough MGS3 experience it just becomes a chore you have to do to make the game let you win.

There is a silver lining, though: by equipping the Cold War camo you earn by stamina killing Colonel Volgin, the motorcycle soldiers won’t shoot at Snake as long as he’s facing them. Instead they just drive along saying “Damn it!” over and over. This turns the scene into a weird parody of itself, a kind of Scooby Doo chase. Once that stops being funny, it at least gives you a chance to put the controller down and take a bathroom break.

#4: Oil Fence Sniping

Sniping scenes in video games have to be done very, very well, if they’re going to work at all. Done well, they can be very tense and exciting, like the battle of wits against The End in Metal Gear Solid 3. Done badly, they turn into arduous experiences like the battle of suck against Crying Wolf in Metal Gear Solid 4. Somewhere in between is Metal Gear Solid 2‘s oil fence sequence, which is neither tense nor arduous. It’s just kind of… there.

Raiden’s NPC helper buddy moves automatically along a long, dangerous path with no cover. His job is to stay behind and clear her a path by taking out enemy soldiers, mines, and flying robot machineguns along her route. The solution is to put on the thermal goggles, pop some pentazamin and shoot anything that lights up bright white.

Resource management isn’t an issue, since the ammo box near Raiden’s position magically grows back every few seconds. Messing up is unlikely, since the targets are so obvious and your NPC helper has enough health to survive several encounters. Plus, Solid Snake is hanging out in another vantage point and will fire on anything you don’t, just in case you absolutely can’t be arsed.

The gameplay isn’t challenging or engaging, but it sure is long. There are a couple of neat easter eggs to discover along the way concerning Raiden’s silly hair and an enemy soldier who poops himself, but that’s about it. And in the end a vampire jumps out of the ocean and kills your NPC friend anyway, just to make sure you don’t even accomplish anything.

#3: The Infinite Staircase

Without the intention to spark off a discussion about how Metal Gear Solid games are “supposed” to be played, I offer this statement: MGS3 was the first game in the series that you could approach as an action game and really succeed. It has large environments that offered better movement and positioning options than MGS2’s angular corridors, a robust hand-to-hand combat system with a close-range insta-kill option, and a health bar that regenerated once things cooled down and you found a toilet to hide in for a few minutes. In the first two games any run-and-gun gameplay was essentially a punishingly long Game Over screen, giving you time to reflect on your poor life choices before throwing you back so you could play through the section properly.

Unfortunately this didn’t stop MGS1 from having a bunch of run-and-gun scenes anyway, and that game doesn’t even have the benefit of an aim button that lets you score headshots. Over and over again Snake finds himself in scenes where the best possible course of action is to equip his rations and spray FAMAS bullets everywhere until the encounter music goes away.

One such scene stands out as being particularly bad, though: the staircase leading to the top of the communications tower. After triggering a forced alert that any player with good sense could have avoided, Snake has to climb more flights of stairs than there are atoms in the universe. From what I can tell this sequence only exists because everything in MGS1 is culled wholesale from Metal Gear 2, which had a similar stair-climbing sequence, complete with an endless supply of soldiers firing from all direction. Except that was a 2D top-down pixel game that offered a decent range of movement and a clear view of your playing area, while MGS1 limits your movement to “forward” or “die and try again”, and soldiers can fire at you from outside your field of vision.

So what can you do? Equip the rations, hold the d-pad, maybe throw a stun grenade now and again. Close your eyes and count to one hundred, it’ll all be over soon. If you’re a very good boy we’ll reward you with a cool boss fight before locking you in your next spray-and-pray setpiece.

#2: Vehicle Battles

If the Metal Gear Solid games have one clear and shining high point, I’d say it’s the boss encounters. They’re almost always wicked fun and highly inventive, requiring the player to think outside the box and use techniques or equipment in surprising ways. Often the bosses have weird quirks or gimmicks the player can exploit, winning the fight with a bit of lateral thinking. The best of these gimmicks develop the boss’s personality through gameplay in a great example of storytelling in ways only an interactive medium can accomplish.

Peace Walker didn’t have any of those. Instead, it has Snake facing off against tanks and helicopters every few missions. These vehicle battles make use of Peace Walker‘s RPG elements, by which I mean the only viable strategy is to equip an RPG and fire rockets until you win. I also mean you can earn better weapons with higher damage stats by grinding old missions for cash. Eventually your numbers are big enough to win the fight in twelve shots instead of fifty, and you can move on with the game.

The first time I faced off against an armored vehicle in Peace Walker I approached it as a typical MGS boss fight. I failed over and over while looking for the trick. The most powerful weapon I had found at that point in the game barely scratched the boss’s overbloated health meter, and there didn’t seem to be any attack patterns to learn or weaknesses to exploit. Clearly I was missing something… but what?

It turns out these missions had been designed with Peace Walker‘s multiplayer gameplay in mind, and taking them on in single player without grinding for better weapons is an act of futility. The solution really is to just stand back and whittle the boss down over the course of a long battle of attrition. Sure, you can replay the level later on when you’re better equipped and extract the same bit of satisfaction you get from killing a blue slime with Erdrick’s Sword. That’s just not much help to you on your first pass, when the stubborn tank is blocking off your route to the next level.

#1: Trailing the Whistling Rebel

You might have noticed a running theme in these infuriating gameplay sequences: Ground Zeroes aside, they’re all things you have to complete in a very specific way in order to finish the game. Their real sin isn’t that they’re boring (though they are) or that they’re frustrating (though they can be)… it’s that they’re devoid of the freedom and alternate solutions the MGS series is known for. These are games that are meant to be replayed again and again, trying new strategies each time. This wonderful freedom allows you to evade guards or carefully tranq them, to bring The End down with cigarette spray, to pick where to land your extraction chopper.

Act 3 of Metal Gear Solid 4 has not even one whiff of that kind of freedom. You start out by tailing a man walking through the streets of an occupied European village after curfew, and… that’s it. That’s your life for the next hour or so. You have to stay far enough behind him that he can’t spot you if he turns around suddenly, and there are a couple places where you need to take out PMC troops to clear his path, but outside of that it’s just a matter of walking behind the NPC and listen to him whistle a jaunty little tune with twelve notes.

At one point the rebel ducks into an alley and changes into a PMC disguise, so there’s a slight uptick in the action as the game shifts from “follow the only guy who isn’t a soldier” to “figure out which soldier you need to follow”. But even that little bump of excitement flattens out when a support character chimes in on a codec with, “There’s something strange about that soldier. Do you hear whistling?” Why yes, yes I do! I hear it over and over, forever! It haunts my dreams!

There are no shortcuts and no way to speed things up. Even if you memorize the path and know exactly where to go, the door at the end won’t open unless the rebel has walked his entire route. Ignoring the rebel and going off to explore the town isn’t any fun either, as there’s nothing of note to do or see outside of the critical path. And your reward for finally making it to the end? A goddamn rail shooter. Joy.

And there you have it: six gameplay sequences which the series would just plain be better off without. Say, aren’t there a few characters who fit that same bill…? Thanks for reading!