• Retrospective, Part 1

    List of games played taken from Backloggd.

    For those of you following along on Twitter, I’ve spent most of the last year — from June 19, 2022 to June 19, 2023 — playing through as many games from my backlog as possible.

    I had two main goals:

    1. Pay attention to narrative.
    2. Actually finish each game.

    Easy enough, even if not entirely quantifiable — although I did decide early to differentiate between “finishing” and “completing” (i.e., 100%) for the sake of my own sanity. I also eventually found myself paying attention to other elements like level design (e.g., Deathloop) and score (e.g., Hades, Wolfenstein: The New Order) and decided to keep those in mind as loose subsets of the first goal.

    And, overall, I think I was fairly successful. There were a few rough ones, most of which I’ll get to below, but after years of pretty much never finishing any games, I’m pretty happy with the final stats:

    • Played: 41
    • Finished: 35
    • Abandoned: 4
    • In Progress: 1
    • Shelved: 1

    I didn’t exactly set out with the idea of doing any kind of “formal” post-mortem, but right around the halfway point, I did happen to catch Rob Mostyn’s latest yearly wrap-up. I was especially fond of his concision — something I’d do well to emulate! — and have toyed with the idea pretty much ever since.

    In the interest of space, the challenge, and not completely stealing his formula, though, I’ve limited myself to a Top Five and Worst Three:

    Top Five

    BioShock Infinite
    [17h 9m]

    The conclusion to the series that started the entire year for me. Although I’ve since learned that its ranking in the trilogy is a matter of controversy, Infinite was my awakening to the potential power of narrative design. That being said, Elizabeth’s arc is somewhat incomplete without Burial at Sea — one of the few times I’d ever argue that the DLC is a necessity — and I’m curious to know if it’ll all hold up in the face of a fourth entry. I’m also willing to wager that nothing in a sequel could ever surpass the Lutece Twins, the visual nod to Le ballon rouge (1956), or the tactile pleasure of catching the coin that Elizabeth always throws to you at just the right time.

    A kinetoscope video showing a human, two red demons, and three crows. A caption reads, "Narrator: Press to summon murderous crows!"

    Prey (2017)
    [22h 16m]

    A fever dream in the best way possible. I played this immediately after finishing BioShock Infinite and it only solidified my newfound love for immersive sims. It was definitely strange to switch from such a linear experience to the relatively “open” world of Talos I, but the sheer size and verticality of some of the levels really intensified the tension and fear of being (effectively) alone: There was no shortage of hiding spots for the Typhon. In terms of high marks, the zero-gravity movement system was appropriately nausea-inducing and the found narrative collectibles were surprisingly delightful. This is absolutely one I wish I could wipe from my memory and play again from scratch.

    Breaking a window-mirror in Prey.

    [85h 54m]

    My first roguelite. I had low expectations for this game because I knew next to nothing about it — or the genre — but it didn’t take very long to hook me at all. And while the combat was undoubtedly a fantastic selling point, I think I was even more invested in the piecemeal structure of the narrative. (It must’ve been 60-70h before I finally figured out the name of the warrior shade in Elysium!) At the end of the day, it’s a simple and old story at its core, but I’m still extremely impressed by the extent to which Supergiant was able to revitalize it for a modern audience. Let’s not talk about the fact that I put more than three days into it, though.

    Hermes thirsting for Aphrodite.

    Wolfenstein: The New Order
    [10h 12m]

    Wolfenstein absolutely blindsided me. I played this after The Old Blood, so technically out of release order, and I’m so grateful I did: Where The Old Blood is irreverent and superficial, The New Order is lovingly crafted and deeply moving. It doesn’t shy away from the ridiculosity of its predecessors, but it also never takes its own hypermasculinity too seriously. In fact, I said it at the time on Twitter, but it bears repeating that Ramona’s diary is an example of found narrative done right — and its introduction near the end of the game only further reinforces the weight of everything you’ve seen up to that point. If I could forever teach one game to student developers, it’d be this one.

    A low-angle shot of B.J. Blazkowicz's head and shoulders. A caption reads, "I'm on the motherfucking moon."

    Hollow Knight
    [26h 22m]

    My second metroidvania after Ori and the Blind Forest, which I found rewarding to finish but infuriating to play. Hollow Knight had a much shallower learning curve, even if it did eventually take significant practice to down some of the mid- to late-game bosses. I briefly uninstalled near the end of the game — mostly out of sheer boredom from my inability to make any progress — but I couldn’t let it go after about a week. Something about playing as a creepy-cute little bug steadily gaining power in a dead world appealed to me, I guess.

    The Knight trapped in webs above the ground.

    Worst Three

    Gotham Knights
    [20h 48m, Abandoned]

    I’m actually sad about this one. I wanted to like it. After weeks of negative reviews, I thought they had to be overblown — and even now I’m convinced that I was at least half-right. As I see it, Gotham Knights was clearly meant to be a “live service” game, but it never found its footing. Although I was especially fond of the characters (and stuck to Jason Todd / Red Hood my entire playthrough), the repetitive side quests and monotony of the core loop, coupled with the burden of managing a gear score, took away from the entire experience. Even so, I was able to put up with it until one of the very last missions, which tasks the player with hunting three mini-boss-like Man-Bats in a single night. In the midst of my mad rush to the endgame, I’d largely neglected gear score without any real repercussions — but here it caught up with me, halted any forward momentum I’d gathered, and completely shattered the pacing of the final act.

    Jason and Barbara play a dancing game in the Belfry in Gotham Knights.

    Thief (2014)
    [10h 28m, Abandoned]

    Thief was guilty of a similar crime, albeit in a slightly different way. By the time I’d abandoned Gotham Knights, I’d reached my last few missions with Garrett and, once again, thought I could push my way to the end. I completely hit a wall in the second-to-last boss fight: Set in a closed circular arena-like space, it forces the player into a direct, unavoidable conflict with the opponent at hand. I’d enjoyed much of the level design and gameplay to this point, but the very existence and structure of the battle immediately undermines the “freedom” of choice offered to players from the start. It just felt wrong on all counts.

    Sketches of Garrett's face on a stone wall in Thief.

    Jedi: Fallen Order
    [Approx. 3-4h, Abandoned]

    I wanted to like this one a bit less than the previous two, but I was excited at the start. I’m not a fan of Star Wars, so I thought this might be the one that would really pull me into the world — and, again, it almost succeeded. After a few hours, though, I had to give it up because I just hated the platforming elements and puzzle design. I think both are incongruous with the setting, and I’m not convinced they added anything to the experience. The combat was phenomenal and the story seemed extremely promising, but I didn’t have nearly enough stamina to slog through the levels themselves to get anywhere meaningful.

    Alien pilot pointing from Jedi: Fallen Order.
    I don’t remember his name. From StarWars.com.

  • Day 180 – Money Woes, Part 1

    Six months into the free trial and I’m slowly discovering that its most daunting obstacle is also an achingly familiar one: Capitalism.

    Surprisingly, though, there are two sides to this coin.

    [No pun intended, but I have few regrets in life.]

    The first is obvious: The real-world subscription required to unlock access to the “complete” game. It’s only fifteen bucks, but it’s always been fifteen bucks — and spread across even a few million active subscribers (down from an all-time record of twelve million), it still adds up to a significant sum of money for the publisher.

    And this makes sense. Activision Blizzard has a vested interest in maintaining World of Warcraft’s status as a subscription-based game: Anything less (i.e., a free-to-play model) would effectively be a “loss,” irrespective of the fact that the total number of active subscribers has largely declined over time.

    So, the decision to lock content, including everything from levels to access to the Auction House, behind a paywall is a logical one. It provides players with a carrot to continue to chase after they’ve had a taste of the early gameplay.

    But locking content behind a paywall can quickly — or, perhaps, inevitably — lead to a micro-managing of that same content as publishers are forced to weigh the economic viability of every seemingly inconsequential element of gameplay. Features that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by players with subscriptions thus find themselves turned into hurdles for their free-to-play counterparts.

    And there’s the flip side of our coin: Weird stuff starts to happen.

    Dalaran Merchant's Bank.
    The Dalaran Merchant’s Bank.

    The Virtual Economy

    Before going any further, let’s take a look at the basics:

    To start, the economy in Warcraft is fairly simple.

    Currency consists of gold, silver, and copper coins, and it’s all typically created or destroyed through one of a set list of scenarios. If you finish a quest that rewards gold, for example, the gold you earn is created “from scratch” — i.e., the NPC isn’t pulling from a central reserve. If you delete a character with gold on them, the gold is destroyed.

    Now, gold can be traded to other players, but it’s most frequently spent at NPC vendors. The overwhelming majority of these vendors sell junk with little real value, such as common (“white”) gear with mediocre stats. Others offer consumable items or materials for leveling a profession, which are relatively more valuable, or collectible toys or mounts, which appeal to the completionists among us.

    The most important, though, are the Auctioneers.

    Located in each capital city, as well as a few other neutral and semi-neutral locations, Auctioneers provide players with access to the Auction House, a network of listings not too dissimilar from any other online marketplace. By posting a non-soulbound item and paying a slight fee, players can sell any loot they’ve acquired in their travels; in much the same way, they can bid on or buy outright the loot others have posted. Although the profit from these transactions largely goes to the seller, the Auction House does takes a five percent cut — as above, the cut is destroyed and effectively functions as a “gold sink” to regulate the economy.

    Equally important is the fact that Auction Houses are linked by faction. This means that a member of the Alliance in Stormwind will see — and have the ability to buy — the same items as another member in Ironforge. The audience for each auction is consequently larger, thereby making it more likely to sell and in the process remove a small amount of gold from play.

    [Note: A couple of Auction Houses function across factions, but they’re located outside of the major hubs and take a fifteen percent cut from each sale. Otherwise, they’re functionally the same.]

    A picture of the old Auction House window, which was updated and removed in Patch 8.3 (I think).
    Honestly, I miss the old Auction House. Credit to TheLazyGoldmaker.

    There’s more we could talk about here, of course, but most of it’s tangential to the point at hand.

    For now, then, a recap: Warcraft rests upon something like an open economic system in which gold can be created (i.e., introduced) or destroyed (i.e., removed) through a set number of processes. Currency is spent at NPC vendors, but the most valuable of these vendors simply serve as access points for a faction’s Auction House. The Auction House, in turn, offers players the greatest selection of items for advancement, as well as a significant means of making money themselves.

    Economic and Social Capital

    And there’s more to it than just money, too.

    By its very nature, the Auction House is a social institution. When you list or purchase an item, you’re necessarily interacting with other players. It’s not as direct as joining a party, raid, or guild, but there’s an implicit assumption that you’re selling to someone or buying from someone else. It doesn’t happen in complete isolation, even if it might feel that way on occasion.

    These connections consequently bring with them a different kind of power.

    This power, which Pierre Bourdieu called “social capital,” differs from the economic capital comprising material wealth and instead stems from the social network(s) we weave throughout our lives. You can think of it a bit like friend or follower lists on social media — a “follow” from Keanu Reeves would appear to have more social weight than one from your greasy neighbor in Apartment 2B. In effect, it makes you look cool.

    [At least until you learn that Keanu Reeves doesn’t have social media, in which case you can assume that it’s a fake account, possibly belonging to your greasy neighbor, after all.]

    The Auction House doesn’t offer followers or a visible means of tracking social capital, but that’s not really a problem. Even in the real world, social capital’s a matter of social perception (i.e., image) and the views that people hold of those around them. Wealth is a marker of economic success, but it’s one that has the potential to manifest in very visible ways and can quite easily translate into — or be acquired from — its social counterpart.

    Warcraft isn’t any different in this regard. In the Auction House, players are represented by their postings and purchases. Listing an item for thousands of gold may or may not say much about someone, but listing thousands of items suggests that they have the time and space to dedicate to gathering salable loot. Conversely, buying an item for thousands of gold may only represent a single “splurge” purchase, but buying dozens of items for the same price (or one of the official subscription tokens) suggests at least slightly deeper pockets.

    To engage with the Auction House is thus to engage with one of the most accessible and most effective means of earning social capital in the game.

    Auctioneer Chilton's disapproving gaze.
    Auctioneer Chilton disapproves of your poverty.

    The Poverty Line

    But here’s the kicker: If you’re playing a free trial, none of this matters.

    Like I said above (and previously), Warcraft locks the Auction House behind a paywall: Players running a free trial can’t use it. They also can’t send in-game mail, trade items with other players, or even join a guild, and they’re even restricted from using most of the public chat channels. It’s an isolating experience only exacerbated by the fact that players can do nothing with the loot they’ve acquired short of hoarding it like some kind of low-rent Smaug.

    So, aside from questing, there’s not really any way to earn or spend a significant amount of money. And without the ability to interact with other players in any meaningful way — and thereby buy, sell, or trade with them — there’s not really any way to cultivate the social capital that comes with that significant amount of money.

    This would perhaps be less of an issue if the game emphasized solo play as a viable alternative to party-based gameplay, but at the end of the day we’re still talking about an MMORPG. Grouping for dungeons, raids, and battlegrounds still takes priority over the single-player end-game experience. (Although I will admit that Shadowlands provided an interesting option with Torghast, Tower of the Damned.)

    With all of this in mind, then, I’ve found myself asking: What does it actually mean to play an MMORPG when the game itself tries to keep you away from other players?

    [To Be Continued]

  • Day 150 – Free(dom)?

    Leaving school’s a weird experience.

    After four years of college, and assuming all’s gone well along the way, you feel a bit like you’re leaving home. Your friends have become like family, you’ve slowly cultivated your favorite spots – for coffee, dinner, post-hangover brunches – around campus, and you’ve probably learned a few tricks for sneaking into places that the administration forgot about a long while back.

    Whether you’re moving or staying in the same place, there’s a definite break: You feel like you’re finally becoming an adult. No more teachers, no more books, you know?

    Now, try taking that feeling and doubling it. Instead of four years, think eight – or, hell, twelve. If you’ve seen Groundhog Day, pretend you’re Bill Murray, but with more books. The end result is roughly the same.

    When you’ve lived and breathed something for so long, the thought of leaving it is borderline terrifying. And not in the Texas Chainsaw sense, but more like that jolt you get when you’re falling asleep and think you’ve missed a step on the stairs. Your brain recognizes the danger, but it’s not fully processing it yet.

    That’s leaving grad school.

    But, gradually, you start to realize that your body’s tricked you. The danger’s not real – or, at the very least, it’s overblown. You’re fine.

    Maybe you don’t find a job at first, but once you learn that your skills actually are transferable, it doesn’t take long. You also realize that you have more free time than you have in years. In the process, you reconnect with old friends or family. And, sure, the dreams of missing deadlines keep up for a while, but they gradually become less frequent.

    In effect, you realize that you’ve survived and you’re free.

    One thing sticks with you, though: Money. After eight, ten, twelve years of higher education, you’re used to living on a pittance. Tuition waivers are nice, but it’s all imaginary money at the end of the day; stipends are the real key to your survival, but survival is a deceptively broad term. There’s a reason everyone still jokes about college kids and ramen.

    With that in mind, you continue to scrimp and save as you wait for the other shoe to drop. Although you know you haven’t had it nearly as bad as so many other people, you figure it’s better to be cautious for the foreseeable future.

    And, yet, there are strange knock-on effects to this attitude. Not necessarily bad ones, but things that you wouldn’t expect — like guilt over extraneous purchases. When you’ve tracked every penny you’ve spent for the better part of a decade, you know when you’re pushing the limit of “reasonable expense.”

    Of course, Warcraft rarely felt like a reasonable expense.

    A subscription was always hard to justify, especially in light of some of the weaknesses I’ve talked about previously. Limited free time in grad school made it even more difficult: The grind is already bad enough without having to stretch it between a few spare hours every couple of days. Even when I re-upped for nostalgia’s sake, my wallet still felt the pain – and that’s a hard feeling to shake.

    An in-game pop-up prompting players to upgrade their free trial accounts with a subscription plan.

    So, when I picked Warcraft back up for this series, I went with the free trial for the same reason.

    It was a semi-rational choice, or so I told myself at the time. I figured I’d power through to the cap (i.e., Level 20), delay payment for a few weeks, and then restart a normal subscription at some point over the summer. I was always slow with the first few levels anyway. Why rush into it and potentially waste the money?

    That was five months ago, and I’m still running the free version.

    But now there’s no reason for it. I’m more financially stable than I’ve ever been in my life, and subscription services are the least of my concerns. I’m not gaining experience, I’m unable to use the Auction House, I can’t receive mail (or gold) from my other characters; in fact, the trial caps your wallet at 1000g, so I don’t even have the option to build up my reserves.

    The thing is: Now I’m committed. All of my characters are locked except for this one, and something about that makes it special. The minute I re-subscribe and gain another level, it’ll be locked, too. I’ll have to start the experiment over and, in doing so, “lose” the progress I’ve made over the past few months.

    Like my love for Elwynn, it’s absurd.

    But while I first made the call because of lingering worries about money, it’s gradually become something else. I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of pride — I’ve since learned that there are quite a few folks in the free-to-play community, so it’s not like I’m unique in this regard. I also remember the heyday of the PvP “Twink,” which was more or less a variation on the same theme (i.e., not leveling beyond a certain point).

    Nevertheless, the entire experience has transformed into something else. It’s certainly a product of my curiosity, plus maybe a test of my stubbornness, as well. And I’d honestly be lying if I said it wasn’t fun: I think there’s something to be said about pushing boundaries set by the creators themselves.

    I know it won’t be possible forever, but I doubt I’d be upset even if it ended tomorrow. Five months really isn’t too bad of a free run.

  • Day XX – An early interlude

    I’m not really sure where the summer’s gone.

    After my last post, I put a solid couple of weeks into the game and queued up a few topics for posts here. Those are still in the works, but I definitely lost the thread somewhere along the way — maybe it was the mad rush of our summer program, maybe my newfound obsession with immersive sims, or maybe some kind of mix of the two.

    Realistically, I just got bored.

    But why?

    I wrote last time about this disconnect between the Demon Hunter’s narrative and early-game power progression, and I definitely think some of that’s still at play here. Maybe I’m just not entirely invested in the character.

    It might also be the fact that I’m playing without a subscription, which started more as a joke born of financial necessity and has since become a bit of a challenge for myself. Not unsurprisingly, Warcraft isn’t meant to operate as a free-to-play (F2P) game. (But more about that some other time.)

    Still, I think it’s easy to just point at a game and say, “That part’s broken.”

    Perhaps it’s the optimist in me, but it’s hard to believe that Warcraft is broken. It continues to work, even if it’s continued to bleed subscribers since its peak — and therein, I think, lies the real problem: If subscribers are leaving, most are probably going somewhere else.

    So, again, why?

    I remember hearing speculation about “WoW killers” and talk of “WoW clones” throughout much of high school and college. Some were expected to have better graphics, others were shaping up to have more dynamic gameplay, and a few actually planned to buck the subscription model entirely. None ever managed to usurp the throne.

    More recently, though, I think it’s safe to say that both Final Fantasy XIV and Genshin Impact have come extremely close. And while their graphics are different and they each bring some new mechanics to bear, it’s difficult to say that those make them better than Warcraft or objectively more likely to draw new players — a love for Veera or anime-style art don’t really apply across the board.

    In fact, the thing I keep hearing about both games is that they have fantastic stories. Some will say that you need to get past content from A Realm Reborn in FFXIV or be prepared to play solo in Genshin, but it’s still the narrative design that really seems to capture players’ attentions.

    I haven’t put more than a handful of hours into either of the two, but I think the reviews say something… And, more importantly, I think they give us a way to reorient the situation. Instead of insisting that Warcraft is losing players because of its own narrative struggles, a fact that’s not entirely untrue, it could be worth asking: At what point do other games with more captivating worlds and stories become more of a draw for players?

    Or, better yet: Am I actually bored? Or did everything else just do a better job at holding my attention?

  • Day 1 – Demon Hunters and Candle Thieves

    It turns out the hardest part of getting back into Warcraft is starting a new character.

    Not deciding on one. That’s easy enough for me — I always stick with Night or Blood Elves and typically default to DPS before anything else. (This time around, I’m going Alliance and running with a Night Elf Demon Hunter named Tetsuri.)

    No, my real problem, I think, seems to be with the story and power progression at lower levels.

    You’ve probably heard or thought about this before, too. It was one thing back in Vanilla or The Burning Crusade when you’d level your character and throw down with Onyxia or Kael’thas. Even Arthas and Deathwing weren’t that much different as “big bads” in Wrath of the Lich King or Cataclysm. But now, the stakes have become increasingly absurd — as have the power differentials between new and veteran characters, level squish be damned.

    And in the case of a Demon Hunter, the narrative disconnect is particularly jarring.

    After all, they have a long history. You can’t really understand a Demon Hunter without knowing at least something about Illidan, the Burning Legion, the Well of Eternity, or other large swathes of in-universe backstory, all of which date back beyond The Burning Crusade and Warcraft III. Maybe you pick one for the glowing eyes or glaives, sure, but the glowing eyes and glaives are themselves part of the lore of the class.

    Illidan the Betrayer stands in the foreground. Behind him is a shadowy army of naga. The sky is sickly green and meteors rain from darkened clouds.
    Illidan the Betrayer. Art by Wei Wang.

    Nor were things made any easier by the real-world production schedule. When Blizzard announced that they’d introduce the first hero class, the Death Knight, in Wrath (2008), players immediately began to speculate about potential future additions. The Demon Hunter was an obvious one, not least because of the depth of the aforementioned lore — and yet it wasn’t for another eight years that Blizzard finally sent them live.

    So, when you decide to roll a Demon Hunter, you’re rolling a character that has a bit more depth than any other amateur Hunter, for example, and you expect Big Things.

    And Blizzard delivers for the most part. The introductory questline for Demon Hunters puts you amongst the ranks of Illidan’s army years before his defeat in The Burning Crusade. You fight some demons, find yourself imprisoned, and then join forces with your captors to fight some more demons. Maybe not Big Things, but not too far off.

    The issue is that when you’re dropped into Stormwind to join the Alliance (in my case), you’re dropped back into a world in which the most dangerous things around are wolves, a boar named Princess, and rat-men with a strange affinity for candle hats.

    It’s perfect for a fresh-faced adventurer. The stakes are much lower, if they even exist at all, and quests are a matter of harvesting wolf pelts or delivering meat pies or love potions. Dragons and world-ending plots don’t have a place here. Unfortunately, the same can be said for battle-hardened demon slayers.

    Somewhere along the developmental highway, they got left behind — or, more accurately, were overlooked and never fully reconciled with the layers of narrative worldbuilding. Demon Hunters might work well in Legion when the fate of Azeroth depends on their cooperation, but they don’t need tutorial questlines anymore. They farmed their own wolf pelts and moved on long ago.

    Northshire Abbey at night.
    Northshire Abbey, Elwynn Forest.

    To be fair, though, all of this is a problem of my own making. I could pick a different timeline and level up there instead, maybe exchanging the rat-men for snake-men or dragon-men in the process. And there’s definitely nothing stopping me from just playing through Legion and continuing to fight demons until I get “back up to speed.”

    But then that raises another question: Without player choice, does narrative continuity still actually mean anything? Or does it matter at all?

    You see, here’s the thing: When I was kid, I loved Elwynn Forest. It was absurd. I hated the human character designs, but I loved their starting area. No matter which other race I rolled, I’d run to Elwynn Forest just for the sake of spending the first few starting levels there.

    Almost twenty years after launch, I still want to do the same thing. It’s the nostalgia factor. I want to try to remember things I’d forgotten, or uncover something new I’ve overlooked over the years. If I have to give that up just to have a coherent narrative (i.e., a linear progression in strength and development that leads me to stronger enemies), I’m not entirely sure it’s worth it.

    And so I’m seemingly stuck without a viable solution. On the one hand, I ignore the underlying story for a trip down memory lane. On the other hand, I give up the past in an attempt to follow a semi-cohesive thread into the future. The Demon Hunter doesn’t get to have it both ways, at least not without abandoning the narratives that birthed it in the first place.

    Until that changes, I guess I’ll just keep killing kobolds and taking their fucking candles.