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LEVEL GRINDING
Session #7
August, 2015
Lessons Learned

Welcome back to Level Grinding, RPGamer's monthly news industry editorial column. For those readers new to this column, each month we cynically dissect the video game news stories I find most interesting and try to expand on their implications and industry relevance.

August was a rough month. My part of the Great North was so hot and humid that it was hard to sleep at night. There were also a number of personal things that held me back from contributing to the site. I regret that, but this is a new month and (at least around here) it is starting to feel like autumn. So far this summer, I've completed a few of the previous Metal Gear Solid games in preparation for MGSV: The Phantom Pain and Batman: Arkham Knight. I'd be eager to know what you've been playing this summer in the comments.

As per usual, I'd like to highlight a few of my favorite recent videos:

It's no secret that I love JonTron. You should too. His videos are technically video game reviews, but really it's more like starting into a trippy void of absurdist humor and in-jokes. Seriously, I almost always feel like I'm stroking out while watching his videos.

Speaking of stroking out, Fungo's new GET HYPE video for The Phantom Pain is all sorts of great. Watch it more than once and try to pretend that your day hasn't fundamentally changed for the better/worse.

Finally, I just had to show you the original Pokemon intro recreated in GTA V because it's hilarious and random. Kudos to the creator, Merfish, as this would have taken quite a bit of effort to put together.

I recently dropped $15 bucks on the second major piece of Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC, known as The Descent. Mysterious earthquakes have been threatening Thedas, and I was eager to trek into the Deep Roads to find some answers (as well as kill some Darkspawn). I uncovered some neat, albeit somewhat uninspired lore, and one revelation in particular made my mind race over its implications like I had just discovered some massive world-affecting conspiracy. That was exciting, but I walked away from The Descent with a really nasty taste in my mouth — mostly because of its boss.

Boss design is important in video games. Not in the sense that a piece of content needs a memorable boss to be valued, but rather that a boss's design and behavior needs to fit the context of its game. I'm not sure BioWare (Austin?) got that when planning The Descent, because The Guardian is Inquisition's worst boss to date. Depending on your team load-out and character levels, you'll either find this creature to be way too hard (often killing half your party in a matter of seconds) or way too easy (usually indicating that you've played this game too much). Amazingly, game difficulty is irrelevant and switching that difficulty mid-battle will likely do nothing. Sorry, casual gamers.

I can't hit this point hard enough, but The Guardian — which was clearly built more in the vein of an MMORPG — derails the whole DLC. I didn't structured my party with a healer, tank, and two DPS characters because that's not how I play Dragon Age, and this content punishes me for not conforming to its bosses' demands of player uniformity. Although Sam Marchello has already touched on this issue in her impression of the DLC, I had to voice my personal frustrations as well and really echo the fact that this boss and the DLC itself needs to be rebalanced. Numerous gamers have taken to the internet to bemoan the random difficulty spikes in The Descent and (so far) nothing has been done.

EA and BioWare — stop making new Dragon Age DLC and focus on making what you've already released more playable. The good will of Dragon Age fans can only last so long.

Square Enix has somehow made the preorder system that's currently in existence more unbearable by adding a crowdfunding component to rewards. You know, so you can tell your friends to pre-order too. Honestly, it's too gross for me to spell out the program to you in words so I'm just going to casually gesture to this advertisement:

This video has been up for two days and has just over 300 likes and over 25,000 dislikes. No, that is not a misprint.

Share the pain of having no buyer control over what may not actually be a good game! Augment that pain through a tiered system of minor rewards based completely on how many games we sell ahead of release! Ugh. Sure, you get to choose what content you get at each level, but you're still signing up to pay for a game that may not cut the mustard upon release. If Assassin's Creed: Unity, Aliens: Colonial Marines, SimCity, Battlefield 4, and DriveClub demonstrate anything it is that a hyped game doesn't make a good game or even a game worth pre-ordering.

I've been an outspoken critic of Deus Ex: Human Revolution for its illusion of choice, ho-hum story, lack of replay value, and just the way the game pales in comparison to the original. With all of that being said, Human Revolution is by no means a bad game. It's good. Some would even say great. But can we count on the next sequel to be a masterpiece or even a must-buy based on Human Revolution alone?

Eidos Montreal has changed since the release of Human Revolution. During the troubled development of the Thief reboot, key talent departed from the studio. Post-release layoffs reduced headcount even further. I'm sure a many skilled developers still walk the halls of Eidos Montreal, but is it the same environment as before? Is the same enthusiasm there after Thief's flop? Can the team really up the ante for a brand new Deus Ex? Time will tell I suppose, but there is just enough concern hovering Mankind Divided's quality that I can confidently suggest waiting until release before buying. These predatory pre-order tactics only cement my concern for this game.

As E.B. White once said, "Writing is not an exercise in excision; it's a journey into sound." That basically means that a story isn't great because it is concise or predictable — it's all about submerging yourself in your surroundings and seeing where things go. I wish more people got this memo as it pertains to Metal Gear Solid designer and writer Hideo Kojima's work, as I've seen a lot of hate flung over his postmodern approach to storytelling. Strap in kids; today we're going to talk about what exactly postmodernism is and why Kojima's approach to storytelling isn't a simple one.

Postmodern is called such because it came into prominence after World War II, and that's important to mention here because the Metal Gear Solid series essentially represents the fallout of World War II. From a stylistic and thematic point of view, postmodern literature is heavily reliant on the use of highly impossible plots, parody, paranoia, conspiracy, dark humor, and authorial self-reference. These literary conventions are used intentionally to suggest the possibility of events having multiple meanings or even a total lack of a meaning. And that's a stark contrast to the way novels and short-stories work; trying to find meaning in a chaotic world.

Does that sound like Metal Gear to you? It should. Metal Gear Solid 2 was hailed at one point as the first true example of a postmodern tragedy. That being said, I would argue that the original Metal Gear Solid was just as infused with postmodern conventions and most people just didn't notice. Thematically, each game's plot — as different and the same as they all are — wraps around five postmodernist concepts:

  • Widely held ideals (such as peace, control, and power) which are passed down through the ages are just that — ideals. It is only human agency that lends them power.
  • Truth and facts are contrived illusions, misused by everyone to gain power over others.
  • Traditional authority tends to be false and corrupt.
  • Who is right and wrong is a matter of perspective. Morality is personal and tradition irrelevant.
  • The only way to peace is through international unity. Nationalism causes wars.

It doesn't take a genius to spot these elements in the Metal Gear Solid games. Almost all of the game's themes as well as the way that dialogue and exposition are delivered are with postmodernism in mind. Ever wonder why the Patriots exist? Why Big Boss started his own military nation (three times)? Why Ocelot got Liquid Snake's hand grafted to his arm and started acting like him? The answer to all of these questions is postmodernism.

Kojima wasn't going out of his way to write an overly complicated and confusing plot for no reason at all. He isn't a bad writer, contrary to popular belief. It's just that the people who hold that popular belief don't get the point of postmodernism. The man wants you to reflect on the world around you and not just take things at face value. He does this by making you ask questions. It's his way of rebelling against the hollowness of modernism — a spit in the face of happy endings, easy answers, and a government that can be trusted. None of those things really exist.

I can't say whether he wanted to use postmodernism because it fits so well into the setting of a post-Cold War series or because he himself was raised in an era when postmodernism was taking flight. Hell, maybe the use of this literary approach simply relates to his love of postmodern movies (The Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, Full Metal Jacket, etc.). What's important is that postmodern themes are at the heart of each game in this series. They are concepts that cannot be well communicated in a paint-by-numbers plot. The reality is that Kojima's work is not an example of bad writing so much as it is a tool for him to get across some important ideas. You may get that if you take the time to notice the patterns that appear in each game.

This past weekend was awash in Minecraft headlines. The apparent sadness success has endowed on its creator is now a news item. Markus "Notch" Persson has suggested over social media that he has never felt more isolated, after selling Mojang to Microsoft for billions of dollars. The press has since embraced that narrative through paraphrased headlines which paint him as a miserable, depressed, and lonely game developer who just can't stand being a billionaire. Disregarding my disdain for overdramatic headlines, I have to ask: is anyone really that surprised that Notch is not in love with his new lifestyle?

Step away from all the headlines speculating on his depression, an aversion he hasn't even validated, and instead look at what's happened to the man in the past five years. An indie developer who had made games since the age of seven (on a Commodore 128 no less), made Minecraft. It was a sandbox survival game that played kind of like LEGO building meets zombies, and for many it was a creative outlet that transcended age. But did Notch believe it would become as big as it did? Of course not; he had already made seven games with little fanfare. There's no way he could have been prepared for its explosive success.

Minecraft changed Notch's life. Yes, the game sold well and he was about to quit his full-time job to work on it each day. That's good. Yes, the game was a success and he was respected by gamers for being as vocal about industry issues as he'd always been. That's also good, though it has a dark side (more on that shortly). The game got bigger, Mojang hired more developers, and eventually he passed the lead developer role on. Minecraft launched on multiple new platforms, the player base grew like a viral infection, and eventually Microsoft approached him to buy Mojang — for $2.5 billion. If being an indie developer was itself a game, some would suggest that Notch was the rare winner.

Success has its problems though, and Notch's recent string of tweets echoed that fact. As a billionaire he is now living in a different world. "In Sweden, I will sit around and wait for my friends with jobs and families to have time to do shit, watching my reflection in the monitor," he said. "When we sold the company, the biggest effort went into making sure the employees got taken care of, and they all hate me now." He continued, "Found a great girl, but she's afraid of me and my life style and went with a normal person instead." Minecraft's success singlehandedly changed so many core facets of Notch's life and not necessarily for the better.

While his statements over Twitter were revealing, he's already taken to other forums to reflect how success and notoriety among the gaming public has negatively impacted the way he develops games. From Notch's blog on his cancelled game 0x10c, "What I hadn't considered was that a lot more people cared about my games now. People got incredibly excited, and the pressure of suddenly having people care if the game got made or not started zapping the fun out of the project. I spent a lot of time thinking about if I even wanted to make games anymore." Notch has since resolved to work on smaller games that can act more as experiments and can fail without the world coming down on him.

I'm not going to suggest that Notch has a harder life than a fish at a sushi bar, but to the same token I don't think it's quite fair to contend that being a billionaire is all sunshine and rainbows. It has deeply affected his personal life, the way other people look at him, and the way he looks at video games. For a person who at his core has always been an indie developer, I can't imagine a harder thing to go through.




At this point, I'd like to thank my Editor-in-Chief, Michael Cunningham, for his continual support, our beloved readers for taking the time to indulge my abrasive opinions, and of course all of the commenters in RPGamer's forums for engaging in the conversation. I'll now ask that you do the same.

If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:

  • How important is boss design?

  • What do you make of pre-order tiering?

  • Is Kojima really a bad writer?

  • What are your thoughts on Notch's tweets?

I'll see you next month. In the meantime, stay tuned to RPGamer for all of the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.

Your dork from the Great North,

Trent Seely

Stalk me on Twitter: @InstaTrent

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