Red Dead Redeemed

While most people might now be moving on from Red Dead Redemption 2, or exploring Red Dead Online, I found myself fervently digging through the original game earlier this year.

There was, obviously, considerable critical praise at the release of the original Red Dead Redemption in 2010, and it performed well commercially. At some point toward the end of or just after law school, about 2014 or so, a friend whose gaming tastes I trust recommended this game. (He also recommended Shadow of Mordor, which I loved once I finally got around to it.) I got a used copy and gave it a try. It was engaging for quite a while. I loved the wide-open Western vistas, the mechanics of riding a horse and using a firearm, the cast of Western archetypes and subversions of the form. The story of a bounty hunter pursuing his old outlaw gang associates to clear a debt and get his family back was expected fare for the genre, but then again, Westerns have long lived on familiarity. And the game clearly had things it wanted to say about law, liberty, and justice. Not only did it provide commentary on our history of exploiting the peoples and natural resources of the American Southwest, but it also offered moments of philosophical reflection and debate between characters that were clearly meant to echo contemporary concerns about overreach by law enforcement and the federal government. I played through the assault on Fort Mercer, and the predictable escape of the game’s tertiary antagonist. I played as John Marston crossed over into Mexico, and I took delight in the poignant, melancholy lyrics of one of the rare songs with vocals that punctuated that arrival. But as the game continued to bloat, inserting winding and irrelevant quests for both sides of a revolution into the main narrative, and as the plot continued to beat the drum of its now over-performed and ultimately shallow themes, I lost interest. I stopped playing.

Since then, I’ve attempted to play the games many times over the years. Each time, I gradually lost interest, typically before I’d left the first act in New Austin. I liked the storytelling and characters introduced in that first act, but it was grating to know that the game would derail itself with a soggy middle designed to draw out open-world play. What could have been a tightly executed story about the cycle of revenge and one man’s effort to break the chains of fate became too much, trying to throw every Western plot point into a single game. Alas, that is the fate of too many AAA games: wanting to be something for everyone, wanting to keep people playing, they throw in so much (story, gameplay, open-world exploration, etc.) that it becomes too much.

Well, cut to this year, and in the wake of a few months of reviews, critical essays, and hot takes surrounding the prequel, I felt the urge to mount up for one more rodeo. Shockingly, this became the time that I finished the game. I didn’t just finish the game–I reached 100% completion!  (A little disclaimer: that’s per the stats for the base game; it’s certainly not all the console achievements, and I have never played Undead Nightmare, and I don’t ever intend to do so. I’m rather fond of Westerns but don’t much care for the zombie genre.)

Partly, my completion of the game came down to having a clear goal in mind. I have amassed a vast back catalog of games over the years, especially by way of Steam, and I’ve been trying to be more mindful about trying games, and “completing” games, before purchasing more. Given that I’ve been considering the purchase of a current-gen console in addition to the Switch, or even holding out for the purchase of an early next-gen console, it dawned on me that I should get through some of the last-gen installments in franchises I’d be interested in playing before spending even more money on a machine and additional games. Red Dead Redemption was on that list, since I typically enjoy Rockstar games and would likely want to try the second title in the series at some point. Finishing The Witcher 2 (since I’d played through the original game and rather enjoyed The Last Wish, and since the third title has often been hailed as one of the Best Games Ever) and at least Dragon Age: Origins (since I’ve burned out by the third act in the past) are also on that list.

There were other changes in my mindset when I approached the game this time, though. Primarily, I decided to focus on the gameplay over the story. I knew that the story would disappoint me in the middle act, so as long as I focused on having fun, I’d get more out of the game. After all, a game should be fun or rewarding to play, if not both, and the interactivity and reactivity between game and player are a good part of what make games so unique as compared to other entertainment/art forms. This focus on gameplay improved my skills with the game considerably, and in two ways. First, I myself got better with the game as I spent more time playing it, especially performing side quests and unique challenges that tested my abilities and forced me to engage with the game world more. Second, completing those aforementioned challenges often netted me an in-game boost to abilities. I focused a lot of my time, starting early, on completing the ambient challenges, for instance, which improved my stats (and unlocked stat-boosting outfits) as I reached particular levels in the challenges. Once I tackled the main story, it was easier to advance as a result. In example, enough random quests to save some poor sap’s wife or brother from the noose and shooting challenges to outdraw my opponents on the main streets of cities improved my use and management of the time-slowing, target-marking Dead Eye ability considerably, such that its required use in main quests was often surprisingly easy.

Another change was a special challenge for myself: the decision to explore and to genuinely accept the consequences of my actions. (I’ve often fallen back on save points and wanted to do things exactly right, or exactly within the bounds of how I saw a character or story as developing, and the experimentation and embrace of failure, and learning from failure, in Breath of the Wild was a turning point for me.) Often, failing to achieve a side quest, or accidentally shooting an innocent, or dying, or missing out on a mission objective that would require beginning again from a checkpoint, or simply encountering a glitch that resulted in a bizarre cutscene without breaking the game would result in my quitting the game or reloading to a previous manual save point. It was partly simple frustration, sure, but it was mostly an effort on my part to force a cohesive narrative vision on the game world. I wanted my John Marston to act in a certain way, not to be someone who died from falling down a cliff or accidentally shot a woman in a gunfight with bandits. But forcing myself to play on often presented wild new deviations, and even continuing from death became something I was comfortable with. That was especially hard to adjust to, though, because unlike games with free saving, the use of world-state autosaves that didn’t accurately capture a particular moment often dumped me into unusual situations that did not reflect my previous predicament. It was tempting to want to reload to a clean, manual save slot, but it would have come at a loss of time, accomplishments, and experience. Overcoming that urge for a clean reset, and accepting sporadic skips and jumps in time, enabled me to better enjoy the moment-to-moment experiences of the game (plus, losing hours of progress to hop back to the last save you made is an easy way to grow frustration even further).

The biggest change was the simplest: I opted to turn off the minimap at the beginning of the game. That proved to be incredibly freeing, helped with immersion, and made me focus more on what was happening in the game world as visually represented instead of relying on raw metadata to determine inputs. There were moments where the lack of a minimap was frustrating or disorienting, but its presence was certainly never required. And again, it made me stay focused on Marston’s physical presence in the game world.

So, those changes in mindset and interaction with the game gave me the push to finish the story. I was surprised to realize how close I had been to making it through Mexico way back in my first, long-lost attempt to beat the game. I was unsurprised to find that the Mexican-set second act was largely a long, ambling diversion from the main game. When you finally track down Bill Williamson for the second time, that confrontation feels unremarkable, rushed, and insignificant. You’ve already caught another gang member (in one of the few moments of choice in the story, however irrelevant to the plot outcome, you can choose to capture or kill Javier Escuella). You already know, through gradually emerging references in dialogue, that you’ll have to go after your long-missing gang leader as well. By the time I got to Williamson and put down the local Mexican tyrant as well (would it have been a choice to spare him? I didn’t give the monster a chance), I was already long past caring about that section of the game. And I was more than a little frustrated by Marston’s staunch, defiantly ignorant refusal to pick a side in the fight. Given that you could play most of the missions in any order you chose, and it was easier to play the quests for each faction, geographically centered around one of two hub areas across the map, in a batch, the story ultimately felt dissonant and lacking clear cause-and-effect to me. Plus, even outside of my efforts to play Marston as mostly honorable, defining character traits in the story were Marston’s disdain for tyrannical government and respect for women, meaning that the crude, violent, corrupt governor/serial-rapist didn’t seem like a reasonable figure for Marston to associate with–especially since the governor’s actions were always so clearly on display, so Marston couldn’t turn a blind eye to it, the governor himself was so obviously untrustworthy, Marston never got any useful information or resources from that work, and the rebels actually made more of a clear effort to help Marston. Even before the “big” twist that “revealed” the governor’s deceptions at the end of the act, Marston should have jumped ship and never looked back when the governor’s right-hand man set an ambush for him.

The third act was interesting but rushed. The game really starts to barrel you toward your final confrontation once you’re out of Mexico. The introduction of Native American rebels resisting the government as part of Marston’s old leader’s new gang could have been an interesting development and a bigger chunk of narrative if handled carefully and with consideration, but it was not.

On the subject of Native Americans in the game…it must be said that as usual, Rockstar was less than sensitive in its portrayals of women and minorities, often relying on stereotyped depictions and lacking in meaningful counter-examples to justify the presence of those tired race and gender tropes. Race issues often came down to the adoption of stereotypes rather than actual engagement with those issues or even coherent character development. There’s a lot of ironic commentary in the in-game newspapers that suggests that the developers have a contemporary, conscientious sensibility about the plight of minority communities, but it’s rarely on display in the plot, leaving the impression that they just wanted to have the opportunity to laugh about it all. The one Chinese character in a side mission becomes an opium addict. The one prominent Native American character who is not a gang member is portrayed as slow-speaking and of noble temperament; he talks about how white people are destroying the Earth and gets killed pretty early on, after serving as a guide and sidekick to Marston and an over-the-top racist anthropologist character. Said anthropologist is in the game way too much, having no impact on the plot and present mostly just to say racist things in a way Rockstar apparently felt they could get away with–haha, we’re not saying the racist things, that obviously offensive guy is, and it’s clear that we think you think it’s offensive, so it’s funny now! There are a lot of Mexican characters, and it seemed like the background characters spoke naturally in accurate Spanish (though I’m nowhere close to fluent, so I just picked out what I could understand), but the main Mexican characters were thugs or fools or scoundrels all, save one heroic yet naive rebel girl who is ultimately killed for the narrative purpose of mildly pissing off John Marston. There are black background characters, and that’s about it. The few prominent female characters are mostly in need of saving at least at one point, and early Marston ally Bonnie MacFarlane has a role largely defined by her growing fondness for Marston and his ability to help her, even as they talk about how tough and independent she is. That role is later replicated by Marston’s wife. Rockstar seems to want to have things to say about race and gender roles, but it too often decides to settle on cynical, shallow sarcasm and apparently ironic depictions that fail to really challenge the stereotypes they channel. As per usual, the studio produced a showcase game for exactly why greater representation is needed not just by way of depiction but in the creative stages of development.

But to focus back on the conclusion of the game: the third act is a section where the main plot is picked up with earnest again, but it takes several missteps. It was at its best when it provided slower moments that let John examine the cycles of violence he was caught up in, and in the quiet before the storm at the end when he is attempting to return to a “normal” life with his family (even though those “normal” scenes were often too long to the point of being boring, with cattle-herding and stallion-roping segments I hoped I’d escaped after the MacFarlane quests in the first act). The disdain of the modern law enforcement agents from out East, the suicide by Dutch in an attempt to escape the narrowly defined fate laid out for him, the bonding between John and his son Jack and the heavy foreshadowing of John’s fate on his trips with his boy, and the lyrical songs that punctuate some of the most powerful bridges in the story are what I’ll especially remember the end of the game for. John’s death, which I’d spoiled for myself years ago, was not very powerful to me; after so many impossible fights that we’d overcome, getting taken out after an especially weak Dead Eye moment felt cheap, and John’s grotesquely bullet-riddled body was disturbing but not especially moving. Still, while I know a lot of people were annoyed with Jack, I found the epilogue of the game to be very rewarding.

I’d already spent so much time on achieving side quests and challenges that by the time Jack arrived on the scene, I’d decided that I’d seek out 100% completion. But I found that just spending time with Jack added powerfully to the narrative of the story. You can play Jack as you could John, honorable or dastardly, so the true conclusion of the story is in many ways in your hands. I chose to play him honorably, with the suggestion that he’d taken in some of the values that John tried to instill. The game itself suggests this, as well, through Jack’s possession and use of John’s property, suggesting a replication of personality: Jack wears John’s clothes, has John’s guns and cash, and has access to John’s safe houses. Additionally, Jack makes offhanded remarks in fights and other situations that reflect the lessons he’s learned from John–and a lingering desire to make his papa proud.

In a great touch, to truly close out the game, to cap off the story, Jack must hunt down the agent responsible for his father’s death. It’s not a mission that pops up on your map automatically. It’s a Stranger mission, a side quest that appears to you as you wander through the “big” city of Blackwater. There’s nothing to compel you to keep following the thread, other than a gamer’s completionist impulse. You could elect to have Jack walk away from revenge entirely, to finally course-correct and be anything he wanted, something other than the outlaw and bounty hunter than John was. To do that would be to fulfill everything John hoped for. To do that is to stop playing, though. To keep playing, to keep Jack operating in the game world, you’ll continue the cycle of violence that John hoped he could end with just one more government job, one more bounty, one more death.

This final main story mission plays out slowly and quietly. Jack tracks the agent to a cottage off a lake in New Austin. Jack deceives the agent’s wife into revealing his current location, on a hunting trip just inside of Mexico. Jack finds the agent’s brother at their campsite, who directs him to the game’s primary antagonist, now a washed-up, retired old man. There’s a quick duel–at this point in the game, an incredibly easy draw. In the aftermath, the great villain of Jack’s life dead before him, Jack thoughtfully considers his firearm, holsters it, and turns away from the riverbed scene of this final fight. As he walks away, the screen flashes red, there’s a recognizable note from the score, and the words “RED DEAD REDEMPTION” appear. This is the game’s true ending. Redemption appears more ironic than ever. Jack has found revenge, but he has not redeemed his father or himself. His father never truly found a way out of the life of violence that he led; other forces wouldn’t let him. Jack, too, has fallen into the same cycle, and this one defining moment could mean that he’s stuck in it until the end. Whether the player ever reaches this milestone, and whether the player plays on after this, as I did, is left to a matter of choice.

The early drumbeat of themes was long lost in the white noise of the game’s Too Much of Everything design philosophy. They were the least interesting themes, too, the ideas that Rockstar loves to keep bringing up without saying anything new: there will always be bad people, bad people are often on the side of the alleged good guys, we should not trust ourselves to large-scale governance so long as those things are true, and so on. But the deeply personal, intimate, yet universal themes of revenge, redemption, fate, and choice swirling around the Marston men that the game manages to tease out in the third act and the epilogue are powerfully and refreshingly done. No matter how familiar the themes may be to fans of the Western genre, Red Dead Redemption still found something fresh to say. But there’s so much baggage, and so much mediocre, dragged-out storytelling on the way, that most people probably never experienced it all. And sadly, so much of what made Red Dead Redemption‘s story powerful and rewarding was actually playing through those moments in the resolution of the third act and in the epilogue, and especially the choice to continue or to abandon the quest for revenge, such that no stream or recording of cutscenes and gameplay could fully capture that unique recognition of powerlessness in power, fatalistic futility, and tragic despair disguised as victory.

Ironically, by focusing myself on gameplay over story, I was able to reach the point where I better appreciated exactly why so many people do love that story. (Still, that story would have been better, more powerful, and appreciated by more people in full if it had been a twenty-hour experience instead of the forty-six-and-a-half hours I spent on it.) And now I feel rather prepared to play Red Dead Redemption 2, especially since I know what to expect. The reviews I’ve read suggest a bigger, longer game, with even more great development in the first act, and with even more meandering loss of focus by the end. One question remains for me above all others: will this newer game provide an ending that makes the slog through the middle seem worthwhile after all, or will it fail to reach the powerful conclusion of Jack Marston’s silent walk away?

In-Universe Detective Fiction

When I was younger, my favorite type of game was the open-world RPG. I could play those for dozens or hundreds of hours. I still do, at times: my Steam version of Morrowind, for instance, has racked up 260 hours of play time since purchase in 2012. And there are other exceptions, of course, like Arena and Shadow of Mordor.

But as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had less time to play video games, and I’ve wanted my time with video games to be more meaningful even in that smaller amount of time, I’ve gravitated more toward shorter, narrative-rich experiences. For instance, while I was never a big adventure game fan, adventure games have taken up more and more of my time. I’m okay with a game that does not require a lot of skill or reactivity, but it’s still important to me that the game offer a sense of choice and diverging paths. There should be a sense of personal investment and consequence.

As a result, I’ve played a few of the Telltale games, though certainly not all. My favorite was The Walking Dead, with an emotionally gripping story and rich character drama. I only played season one, though; the first season alone was so emotionally draining that I am in no hurry to engage with the title further, and I’m not a huge fan of the nihilistic death and violence and gore of zombie stories in the first place. I played the Jurassic Park game, because I’m a huge fan of the original book and film, but that story offered very little sense of real consequences for most of the game, and it was too dependent upon annoying quick-time events. And I played most of the Batman game, which definitely offered the feeling of real choice and consequence, and it had excellent detective scenes that were fitting for the character and excellent character interactions. But I never finished that game, after encountering a persistent game-crashing bug in around the third or fourth episode. It was frustrating to have to give up on the game; I know that a lot of people complained about bugs and glitches and unplayability for the initial releases of each episode, and I suspect that the problem may since have been resolved, but I’m not too eager to get back into that story now.

My favorite contemporary adventure game was Life Is Strange, by Dontnod Entertainment. I was heavily invested in the choice and consequence of that game. The story was mystical and bizarre. And the time-looping powers of the protagonist resulted in interesting gameplay moments and were fully integrated into the game’s narrative. Narrative and game mechanics fed into each other. The weirdo teens and their interactions with the weirdo adults, and the snapshot of the Northwest, were great (I only really understood the comparisons to Twin Peaks after playing, as I only started watching the cult classic show months after finishing the game). Not that this is much of a feat, given that the achievements involved completing episodes and taking optional photos, but Life Is Strange is one of two games in which I reached 100% achievement completion on Steam (I stand by my final decision in that game, saving the town and reversing everything that happened, even though it is emotionally devastating; the other choice seemed too selfish to me, and I’m glad that 100% completion did not require playing both endings).

I tried Dontnod’s Remember Me, which felt like a fairly conventional action-adventure title although with the fairly interesting gimmick of memory alteration (memory and the past are obviously important themes in Dontnod’s body of work). I look forward to Vampyr, which seems to be quite a different game for Dontnod, and I’m curious to see how memory and the past might influence that experience.

But I’m discovering that there is a very specific form of typically short, narrative-rich game that I especially love. It sits somewhere between adventure game and visual novel. It often, though not always, has some level of consequence due to choice; at the very least, players’ investigative skills and growing familiarity with in-game systems are critical to advancement. And it involves the use of some sort of in-game software, often an operating system. I don’t know that this particular type of game warrants having its own genre, and I don’t know if there is already a genre descriptor, but I’m going to call these sorts of games In-Universe Detective games.

What I love most about these games is that they use the limitations of the genre to actually build a greater sense of immersion. Instead of remotely playing as another character, the game operates under the assumption that you are you. You may have a particular role or function within the game, and “you” can be defined by the player out-of-game. But who “you” are is built out of direct interaction with the game. The game itself, by acting like a software program, allows for easy suspension of disbelief. The world of the game is your world.

I know of three entries in this genre: Analogue: A Hate Story (and its sequel, Hate Plus), Her Story, and Orwell.

In Analogue: A Hate Story (designed by Christine Love), you are a spacer on a salvage operation to investigate an old, abandoned colony ship; the entire game involves reading through archives and interacting with one of two AI programs. You attempt to discover what exactly went wrong with the ship, and in the process uncover a feudal Korean-inspired culture that developed after a regressive societal change aboard the ship. The game has interesting things to say about misogyny and the myth of the forward march of cultural progress. And it has just as many interesting things to say about identity, rebellion, and forgiveness. It’s a short game, but I played the hell out of it; it’s my other 100% Steam achievement completion title. If you’re into anime or visual novels, it’ll be an easy game to get into. If not for some favorable coverage, though, I would have passed; the cutesy anime girl avatars of the AI were a little obnoxious for me to deal with at first, but they prove to be quite interesting quite quickly.

In Her Story (designed by Sam Barlow), you use an old police computer to review archived clips of interviews with a suspect in a murder investigation. You slowly piece together what happened as you find new videos. You have to find ways to draw connections to other videos, as you cannot simply review them all at once. There’s a fun amount of searching and browsing and deduction involved. Even though the case is closed, you feel like you’re doing a lot of detective work in the searching. Plus, there’s very little interaction outside of this searching role–just an occasional text conversation with a third party–so that a lot of the investigation work you do is off-screen, out-of-game, implicit, personal. I took notes on paper as I worked my way through. It was engaging, and the ending resulted in an interesting shift in perspective for me. This is a game that I would have 100% completion in, if I’d ever bothered to play more of the computer application game on the in-game desktop background.

Lastly, there’s Orwell (designed by Osmotic Studios), which I just reviewed on Sunday. Of the three, I found this the least rewarding to play, although it maybe had the most to say. I’d point you to my review if you want more insight there.

You could say that all of the above are basically games from other genres, and that I’m just reorienting them around a gimmick. But if it’s a “gimmick,” it’s holding up rather well for me and inviting a very particular type of immersive experience. I’ll gladly keep playing games like that.

If you know of any games that fit the bill, please let me know. I’m certainly not tired of them yet.

Shadow of Mordor, again and for the last time

So I finished the game.

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I normally have no desire to 100% complete a game. But this game reasonably rewarded the completionist impulse, the world was easy to explore, and it helped that the game flagged virtually everything (so very little actual exploring was done, and while it did get me to collect all the doodads, I think it hurt the challenge and intrinsic value that exploring an open game world usually has).

Now that of course only reflects all the story missions, side quests, collectibles, and challenges. I completed all sections of the Appendices, as well. But I did not unlock all the Steam achievements, and I didn’t even touch any of the DLC (bundled as it was in whatever Game of the Year-type digital package I purchased when the game was on sale). I don’t think I will. I’m satisfied with my time in the game. I could go back to it if I wanted, but I don’t feel compelled anymore. I’ve exhausted everything I wanted to do with the game. Steam records 34 hours played for this title, so I think I got my money’s worth.

The story, unfortunately, remained abysmal. Part of it is that it is simultaneously a prequel and a bridge between stories, yet not about any essential characters or events. So nothing in it matters, nothing in it could matter, and nothing in it answers anything unexplained or adds anything truly interesting to the lore. Rather than having an interesting question that prompted the game, it feels rather like Monolith started with the IP acquisition, developed the gameplay, and then forced an arbitrary narrative concern (“Ah, you know about The Lord of the Rings–but, uh, who is The Lord of the Rings, really???”) to connect the two. Given Monolith’s attention to detail, excellent game design, and clear love for establishing lore, I think it would have been considerably better if they had simply developed a fantasy hack-and-slash game like this built around original IP. We could have had a much better story that was serviced better by the game mechanics, rather than another boring revenge narrative set in a tiny corner of Middle-Earth that someone apparently felt had not been adequately covered yet.

The clumsy tropes continued in finishing the story, of course (some spoilers follow). We meet Marwen, a sort of pirate queen who appears ancient and half-dead. She is a seer and provides aid. It turns out, though, that she is possessed by Saruman; after the possession is broken, she becomes an attractive older woman. So ugly and old equal unsexy equals evil.

Then we are sent on quests to help out Lithariel, daughter of the Queen. First, we need to help find medicine so the queen can get better (isn’t she better? what’s still wrong with her? the game doesn’t say). Then, we have to break into an orc camp to rescue Lithariel, who has of course gone and gotten herself captured.20170909205543_1.jpg

All the while, Boring Hero reluctantly has to remember his dead family and his need for vengeance so that he doesn’t just follow his dick into another romantic relationship. This last element is played up for dramatic effect. This fails, though, because other than being a Brooding Handsome White Guy and a Pouting Beautiful White Woman, there is no reason for the two to enter into a relationship.

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The revenge narrative wraps up with shocking speed, and the final boss battles are ridiculously easy. The ultimate battle is in fact a series of (actually rather slow) quick time events. And then, after a million lines of credits, we are dumped back into the world to do more stuff. Mostly killing orcs.

That all said, killing orcs remained really fun the whole time! I just completely stopped looking at my moral compass within the first few hours of the game, so there was plenty of murdering and torturing and dominating of orcs throughout the rest of the game (I don’t care how much the game tells you the Orcs are evil and Boring Hero is good, Boring Hero still does a lot of really evil and sadistic things with very little moral reflection or reluctance). And all those mechanics work really well, and the game looks really good while you do those things.

In particular, the “branding” or domination system–capturing and controlling orcs so that they follow your will–is excellent. The politics of the setting rapidly became more complicated with this power unlocked, and in a good way. I had some fun dominating high-level orcs, especially war chiefs. But it was also fun setting up groups of sleeper cell orcs in enemy encampments to help me when I finally took on a captain, or setting up a captain to become a bodyguard of a leader I wanted to take down. Weakening, corrupting, and dominating power structures became the name of the game. So much fun!

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My first dominated captain.

The game was dynamic enough, too, that my bigger plans would sometimes spiral into surprising outcomes, and sometimes a small moment (like a chance encounter with a captain) would lead into something far more advantageous down the line.

Also, older rivalries proved to result in really rewarding spontaneous and organic narratives. Take good ol’ Kaka Prison Master, my hopeless rival. I guess his sheer tenacity (and perhaps his reputation as a survivor of the unlikely-to-stay-dead Boring Hero) eventually earned him a promotion to war chief.

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He was also getting far uglier, thanks to all the beatings I’d given him. Well, when I saw he had the promotion, I thought to myself, “Good for you, guy!” Now that I had the ability to dominate and control orcs, there was no reason to outright kill the guy. After all, he’d always been a bit of a ridiculous character to me, more comic relief than any of the forced “comic relief” characters in the main story, and he’d never been a true threat to me. He was a familiar “enemy” without being antagonistic. He was the Master Jr. Troopa to my Paper Mario.

So I sought him out. He not only remembered me, he seemed sort of fond of me, too.

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After besting him in combat, he knelt before me, defeated.

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Okay, so he was getting a little creepy. But he clearly just wanted to be buds! So I spared him (and dominated him), and he’s my bud now. His scars don’t even look that bad anymore! Sort of!

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I have another story for a bit of a contrast. In the final big battle of the story campaign, in which my orcs fought against defending orcs, the game apparently inserts the Boring Hero’s biggest outstanding rival as the commander of the opposing forces. For me, this was a jerk who had managed to kill me once before, while I’d taken him down a couple times, including once, I believe, with fire. The burning seemed to have inspired him to use powerful poisons, and I found him to be quite the nuisance in the past.

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After a slightly-less-than-epic battle between our armed forces, I had subdued this rival, as well. He even begged for mercy.

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Well, I wasn’t so fond of him.

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There are lots of little stories like that I could share. By the end of it, I had all war chiefs in both maps of the game under my control. It was great fun getting to that point.

If you’re okay with playing a game involving over-the-top violence against an objectively Evil Race (and I understand if you would be opposed to that), then I think you’d probably have a lot of fun playing this game (you know, if you haven’t already). There are some excellent game design elements present here. It’s just too bad that you have to push through the most uninspiring, dull revenge story to unlock all of those elements.


 

P.S. Hey, check out this Batman reference from the game:

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“The poison slowly eats at their minds, sending them nightmares of a demonic man-bat who preys on fear.” Pretty good.

Shadow of Mordor

This post is a day early, and there won’t be an Arena post this week. I’m taking a little time off from the game. I suspect I’ll get back to it in earnest in a week or two, but I’ve found that nothing cures my feelings of frustration with the game like time away from it. It helps that it’s so narrative-light that there’s not much for me to forget in-between play sessions (okay, that’s maybe a little too bitter/mean, though true; it also helps that I’ve been blogging my weekly sessions because I have a record to refer back to).

I just wanted to share my thoughts on yet another fantasy video game, this one far more recent (even though, wow, it came out in September 2014, making me three years late to it and eternally behind the times). That’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. A good friend recommended the game to me maybe within a year of its release, but I sat on that recommendation. The game was on sale on Steam sometime recently, I bought it, and then I forgot about it again. Since my wife and I spent Sunday and Labor Day Monday around the house doing chores, I had the down time and decided to try it out. I’m glad I did; it is a remarkably well-designed game. I played for about fifteen hours over the weekend, which is a huge amount of game time for me even for a whole week anymore.

Of course, it’s less that this game does anything shockingly new, and more that it builds on other good games that came before it. Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum are obvious influences in the fluid, fast-paced combination of stealth, ranged attacks, and sprawling melee battles; the open world with towers to climb to unlock full map overviews and fast travel locations; and the heavy use of collectibles, enemies, and minor events to make the world feel packed full of things to see and do. And its deep attention to lore and gradual disclosure of encyclopedic information packets with the unlocking of more and more collectibles certainly echo Batman but also BioWare games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, with those constantly expanding codices. Tolkien’s Middle Earth represents a vast amount of lore–hell, that would be the case if limited just to The Lord of the Rings–and developer Monolith Productions puts that lore to good use.

I’m a little bit of a lore-junkie in general, but I have to say that any sort of collectible in this game is a lot of fun. And there are a lot of collectibles and side events, including artifacts and Elvish symbols and the aforementioned towers, plus runes for your weapons dropped when enemy captains are defeated, plus ability points earned for combat successes that can be paid into upgrading your weapons further and improving your skills, plus side missions to help enslaved humans escape orcs or to build the legend of your weapons or to take down or humiliate enemy bosses, plus hunting and herb-collecting challenges…and so on.

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I was excited because I thought this was a Star Wars reference. Nope, actual mushroom. But the real-world mushroom is very pretty, so I’m happy to have learned about a new thing.

I actually am not normally a huge fan of collectibles in games. Finding them is tedious; the rewards are esoteric; and they’re a distraction from the narrative. But here the collectibles and side quests are a great deal of the fun. Murdering orcs and exploring far corners of the map is the vast majority of what makes this game so addictive. Since so many of the collectibles are oriented around unearthing history or specific memories, and many others actually help to improve your weapons or skills, there is greater narrative significance to even the most frivolous of collections.

Speaking of murdering orcs, though: I haven’t even mentioned Shadow of Mordor‘s heavily promoted Nemesis system. I think I’m still missing out on some of this, because I’m not yet to the stage where I can gain followers, but the rivalries that the game develops–with orcs that I’ve bested or that have fled from me, or orcs who have in turn bested me–really make it far more engaging. I’ve certainly gone out of my way to get revenge on an orc who’s slain me. Plus, I just love the fact that “Kaka Prison Master” is my rival, a big idiot I’ve beaten down three or more times now. He keeps getting back up, uglier and more scarred than before, and seeking me out. He just doesn’t learn. Oh, Kaka.

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And even though I’m not at the point where I gain much of value (besides further power for ability unlocks), I love to interfere with orc politics, humiliating this orc and picking an arbitrary side in a duel with that orc, or just wiping out all the captains in an area I can find and calling it a day.

It’s also fun to pry information from subordinates to learn the strengths and weaknesses of individual orc captains. And for a game where lethality matters, I like that the unkillable wraith-bonded protagonist is an in-universe, story-relevant explanation for how the guy can keep coming back from death to have those rivalries in the first place.

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And that was when I learned that Shigflak had a phobia.

Honestly, the most disappointing element of the game so far is the story itself. Unkillable Ranger, our protagonist whose name is frankly irrelevant, has very little of a personality, reacts inconsistently to people and events, and is only motivated by revenge for the deaths of his wife and son (of course, sigh). More absurdly, he is bonded to an Elf wraith, and their shared connection seems to be that they both want revenge for dead families. Women so far have not had great representation in the story; most have been almost immediately fridged, and one was the impetus for the motivations of a supporting character and had virtually no role after being rescued. I just got to the Queen of the Shore and her daughter in the game, so we’ll see what role they have. But even ignoring the gender disparity, the entirety of the story feels stale and reliant upon boring tropes. I don’t care about the protagonist or anything that’s happening. Other than providing the unkillable magic mumbo-jumbo explanation for our Ranger’s ability to die, come back, and actually have that reflected as an event that occurred in the game world, the story has been good for nothing. I guess your mileage may vary here, depending on how much of a LOTR-head you are, but this story is sandwiched between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so we kind of already know everything important that could happen.

As it is, I think the game would be better if it was simply: Ranger of Gondor is on a quest to murder as many orcs as he can in Mordor. Don’t do cutscenes, except maybe an initial one. Don’t lock areas based on story progression. Just open the damn thing up and let narratives spin out organically with that glorious Nemesis system. Keep the lore to provide a sense of depth and history to the world. But if you don’t have a vital story here, don’t force it. This game is great because of its mechanics; it doesn’t need to be a narrative masterpiece. After all, the best sort of story-telling games can provide is dynamic, emergent, and based on procedurally generated events. Let the players tell a story with the game, and don’t force a lackluster one.

Now that’s actually a problem that applies more generally to open-world games. LA Noire had a super-interesting story that was greatly added to by carefully curated crime scenes and cinematic interrogations, but the open world dragged the story down and diluted the theme. Many are rather fond of Red Dead Redemption‘s story, but I think it’s really the atmosphere and themes (of family, revenge, and government intrusion, for example) that people responded to. The story itself was over-long, told over way too many missions that often amounted to fetch quests or filler with trivial side characters, and themes that were initially clever eventually became repetitive sledgehammer blows of obviousness. Committing to a more compact narrative-focused game or to a true bounty hunting sandbox would have improved the quality of what is admittedly a very good game. And I think virtually any RPG is torn between attempting to tell an engaging narrative involving your character and providing an open world full of choices for you to create your own story. To bring this all back around to Arena, I must admit that the first Elder Scrolls game succeeds in eschewing any sort of required narrative in favor of open world exploration, although when the main narrative nonetheless leaves the fate of the world at stake there is a sense of urgency to it that really does not need to be there.

Anyway. Long story short, I’m liking Shadow of Mordor so far. I’ll probably add another post on the subject when I finish the game, whenever that happens, to reflect on my entire experience and see if any of my opinions have changed or evolved.