Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category:

Exploring Dwarf Fortress’ Legends Mode

Dwarf Fortress is a phenomenon in the world of procedural generation, creating worlds, simulating rivers, aquifers, travel, tree growth… It’s as well known for the awesome complexity of its generation and simulation as… The awesome complexity of its simulation, its bugs, some of which (like “Now that animals no longer wield weapons”, a bug we sadly never got to witness before it was fixed) are as hilarious as they can be game breaking… And its steep buy-in for new players.

But one thing isn’t really talked about all that much: Its Legends mode. Containing the history of the world you create (well, most of it. The rest is to be discovered in its other less talked about mode of Adventure Mode), it’s dry, but it contains many stories of interest, if you look hard enough.

And so, I created a world: The Eternal Realm of Omens. And I decided to explore some of its Legend Mode. Here are some notable stories.

The Folly of the First Dragon

Idräth Pearlgold was the first Dragon. Indeed, he was the only Dragon. A Red Dragon, he was associated with, obviously, Wealth, and Fire. And he died in the first Winter of the world. Settling in a cave that would come to be known as Slappedsewer, the Heart of Manges, his first target, his first settlement to raze, was the Dark Tower, the fiendish demesne… Maliceblushed. Assaulting the tower, he was quickly confronted by the Gecko Fiend, Ongul Cancerburies… Who he slew, with no difficulty. Seventeen goblins and the leader of the Dark Tower were killed, before he was slain by… A goblin who had never earned a name. And never would.

Indeed, the one he slew was more notable. Pearlgold died without even a description of him surviving. While Ongul was known, a bloated, one eyed fiend, with close scales and deadly webs, the creator of Healergriffon and The Skull of Witches, an artefact that should have made him immortal, bound him to this plane. Alas, it failed, but even them, he won a wrestling competition in nearby Armordrinker, a merchant fort celebrating its first ever festival, aptly called “The Festival of Gold.” He beat three dwarves, one a necromancer: Stukos Keyheaven, the necromancer Sarvesh Regaloar, and Kûbuk Quakedoaks.

From this one folly, and Ongul’s successor, the goblin Stozu Dreadallied, we already have six leads to further stories.

Taking Up The Leads

The Skull of witches is the simplest: A garnierite tablet, it read “I am Xungôon, Pukedgutters, once of the Underworld. By Lural, I bind myself to this place.” Healergriffon was an ancient vault, and it is stored there to this day, the year 250. Lural, his creator, is a death goddess of the human civilisation calling itself “The Realms of Winding.” She created one other fiend, who began worshipping another, and is worshipped by precisely one person, a necromancer known as Tequil Faithbuttered. But she has otherwise been silent. Perhaps her summoning of Ongul was merely due to her black humour, an object lesson in her other domain: Fate. Her only artefact, a scroll of necromancy called Windmirrors, the Momentous Terrors, was bequeathed to Tequil. Another lead, and one that often bears interesting fruit.

After all, necromancers live a very long time, if they succeed.

But what of the wrestlers? Well, the very first already has quite the history. Living 96 years on from his wrestling match, and dying of old age, his history is defined by two things: Serial adultery in his younger years, and wrestling. He lost precisely 2 of his many matches, although the majority, occurring in the yearly Cobalt Celebration, were with three people: Sarvesh, the necromancer, Kûbuk Quakedoaks, and Vabôk Kindledpaint. Both of the matches he lost had more participants, who weren’t these three. He was strong right up until the end, participating in many assaults on the dark places of the world, fathered four children with his first lover (the only son, Kumil Relictender, being killed by a cyclops, Nikuz Conteststrains, the Robustness of Rays), another daughter with his second lover, and one daughter and son with his eventual wife. He survived both of his sons, one of his daughters, one of his lovers, and his spouse, who he had divorced in the year 79… Returning to his first lover, Udil Channeledunites, three years later. He worshipped many deities, but only one that he truly cared about: Kåtâk Eagleleaf, the Yearling of Bears, the goddess of hunting.

He was a bookkeeper. And looking at just one of his wrestling partners, Kûbuk Quakedoaks, it seems they competed in more than just the ring… A milita commander, it seems the two competed for the affections of all three women in Stukos’ life.

So far, we have followed a chain just three links away from the first dragon, and already, we have a goddess with only one worshipper, the rivalry of a bookkeeper and a milita commander, and a tragic death. And we haven’t even gotten to the necromancers. Hell, we haven’t even seen the symbol of the dwarven civilisation to which these last two both belonged, the dwarven civilisation of… The Organised Dagger. That, we’ll get to last, for reasons that will become clear.

The Necromancers

Necromancers, as you might have guessed, live a very long time, if they ever actually die. And they lead very active lives indeed. Sarvesh Regaloar is a prime example of this, having lived throughout the recorded history of The Eternal Realm of Omens.

The three dwarves of Ongul’s wrestling match were all high ranking members of their Fortress, with Sarvesh… At the top. A manager, he was already crooked, embezzling funds for 40 years of his 67 year tenure as a manager… He only got caught after 40 years. Not bad for a dwarf. Imprisoned for eight years, he very quickly realised how short his life could be, and plotted to outlast everyone, as a necromancer. Worshipping the dark goddess of death and suicide, Vesh (he was, in fact, her first worshipper), he was, a year later, gifted with a slab, that shaped itself from his stone bowl… Burieddies, carried with Sarvesh for 70 years until he eventually sealed it in his vault.

On a spousal visit, Sarvesh corrupted his wife, bribing her with promises of money and power, and she, in turn, bribed the Captain of the Guard to let Sarvesh free. He stole an artefact of legend, a scepter known as Systemscribed (and lost it three years later), attempted to intimidate Kûbuk (Good job, Sarvesh. Unsurprisingly, he screwed up), and became a prophet in Armordrinker, preaching Vesh’s words of hopelessness. Eventually, he became a monk, part of The Faith of Goals. Several times, he and his wife completely failed to bribe or intimidate members of Armordrinker, including one of his own fellow monks. Settling in Tenderlenses in 139, it took him another year to become the abbot, and has spent his entire time writing books.

The blackly funny part is that he is now the abbot of a god of courage… A necromancer in an abbey, writing self indulgent works about his explorations, himself, his previous books, and at least one on his wrestling (which he always lost.)

Tequil Faithfulbuttered, the only worshipper of Lural, on the otherhand, has been a master spy, funded by several people, lieutennants of several groups, and owning many judges since her 63rd year of age. At first the corrupt leader of The Chocolate Beginnings, the criminal organisation of her first home of Roundtarget, she ruled it for another 62 years after she became a necromancer. Driven from several townships due to her not aging, she has nonetheless failed in only two things: Keeping hold of Grovebelches, a holy artefact (a hood. Go figure), and attempting to assassinate, for some reason, a dwarf called Etur Channeledattacked, head executioner of Roundtarget. Always contracted by the goblin bandit leader Ûsbu Chunkdevils. Etur herself was corrupted by the goblin Damsto Wraithred in 169, the corrupt beastmaster of Roundtarget.

Let us now return to The Organised Dagger, and look at one of the more annoying aspects of exploring a world’s culture and history in Dwarf Fortress: Seeing what dwarves in the culture look like, and what their symbol looks like.

Oh, and working out who their gods are. That’s a minor pain in the ass too.

The Organised Daggers

The Organised Daggers themselves arose in the southeastern part of The Eternal Realm of Omens, and, very quickly, clashed with two groups: The kobolds of Gabatlaylmus (who were also being assaulted by The Walled Pick, another dwarven civilisation, and obliterated in 33 by a hydra), and The Dungeon of Clashing, goblins. Rapidly encompassing both, they expanded quickly, making inroads into The Walled Pick’s territory by the year 70, and just then meeting The Silken Confederation (a human civilisation) in their own, more moderate expansion. But other organisations were making inroads. By the year 250, they have expanded over most of the southeast of the continent, but share their territory with many other civilisations, including The Hideous Evil, another goblin civilisation. Considering the enmity between dwarves and goblins, they may well have stretched themselves thin.

But this is easily told through the maps. What about their gods, their symbol, how the average dwarf of the Organised Daggers looks? Well… That’s harder. Because for the first, there is no link from civilisation to their deities or sub-organisations. And for the second and third, the only way is to look in adventure mode. So, obviously, I began with the deities. And this may still be an incomplete list. Six definitely female deities, five definitely male… And two insect deities. The domains of the male deities are Truth (The Angelic Honesties), Courage (Ator, the Goal of Rapidity), Rebirth, birth, and youth (Lir), Fishing (Råluk, The Nuts of Soaking), and finally, day and light (The White Twinkle. Cute.) On the female deity end, there’s… Oh boy… Thralldom (Belar), wealth, jewels, and minerals (Doren the Diamond), metals (Kadôl), salt (Migrur Bluewater), and mist, deformity, and disease (Zekrim Mazemirror.) Finally, Avum, the worker honey bee, controls the wind, the sky, the stars, the night, and the moon… And Bål, The Cloudy Dell, is the soldier ant deity of revenge, the rain, and plants.

Interesting lot! Migrur actually makes a lot of sense, so long as you remember that the most horrific areas of Dwarf Fortress’ worlds have fogs that corrupt and convert all to the undead (or worse), and that rotting bodies create the dread Miasma, clouds of disease and noxious stench. Otherwise… It would actually seem as though the culture values women as the breadwinners, the smiths, the creators, while men… Well, men can go fish, be cheery, be brave, and, generally, stay out of the way.

Alas, finding another aspect of the culture, their symbology, is, to put it bluntly, a fucking nightmare. The symbol of the civilisation and the symbol of the fort you make are two different things, and Legends Mode doesn’t, unfortunately, go into detail about the symbols of a civilisation (which, generally speaking, symbolise the culture of that civilisation), and finding out which is which means using explorer mode. In a busy dwarven citadel. Which lags the game to shit.

Nonetheless, this is a good example of the stories that happen in Dwarf Fortress’s legends mode, a mode that, on its own, can be worth exploring for the ideas about the world the game creates for you. And, apart from trying to find the civilisation’s symbol, before giving up… I enjoyed going through my own Legends to write this.

Let’s Talk Adult Only Games – Is Writing All That Important?

Content Warning: While no imagery requires content warnings beyond “Not Safe For Work”, the article mentions mind control content, incest, and nonconsensual sex.


Let’s Talk Horror

I always feel nervous talking about game design, because, even as a critic who has examined, not just consumed, a lot of games, there’s always this voice saying “Nah, mate, you know noooothing.”

But y’know what? Fuck that voice, it’s time to talk horror. Specifically, how horror games are hard to do well, and some of the most common pitfalls.

No Individual Element Will Make A Game Horror

This is one of the most common ones, and, honestly, a flaw which many game designers can fall into even at the best of times… Your ingredients won’t work well if they don’t mix well. In fact, when adding a tool into the toybox, it can be very important to consider what it does. Let’s take, for example, the staple of many first person horror games: The Shit Light. The Shit Light (be it matches, oddly ineffective flashlights, or the phone-as-flashlight), just by the virtue of its addition, constrains you. And it constrains you, in many cases, more often than it frees you. You do, in fact, still have to pay attention to not just being empty rooms, or rooms that make no sense, or rooms that are fucking hard to navigate even without this inconvenience. You do, in fact, have to still pay attention to your gribbley, beastie, ghost or ghoulie, because they’re going to be lit up at some point. But now, everything you want the player to look at has to be easily covered by… Your shit light.

Conarium has, to be sure, its creepy moments. Unfortunately, only one of them really *relies* on your flashlight dying as an effect.

Now, here’s a question: Do you, in fact, need that shit light? Why is it there? I ask, because, funnily enough, this shit light ends up conflicting with another facet that often goes together with Shit Lights… The Highly Scripted Scare. A scare is, sadly, no good if you can’t experience it. Oh no, the… Er… What was that again? I couldn’t really tell, my light was too shit, and so it wasn’t scary. Was it sudden? Was it a jumpscare? Oh, er… Couldn’t really tell you.

Am I saying the Shit Light has no place anywhere? Well… No. In some games, it serves as a risk reward mechanic (The monsters can see you more easily, but you can interact with things.) In others, it’s a warning sign (The monster makes the light not work right.) In others still, it’s a light, but it’s not shit.

Sadly, just as there are ways to make a Shit Light useful, you equally have to take care not to turn it into arbitrary difficulty… Tattletail being a good example, as well as one that conflicts narratively. Not only is it a pretty shit light, not only does it have a nasty habit of winking off whenever Mama Tattletail is nearby… Turning it back on is noisy as hell. So, when are you most likely to recharge it? Er… When it winks out. When Mama Tattletail is going to speed her Furby ass toward you from nowhere. Because yes, occasionally it will just wink out on its own too.

Here’s the thing: It’s being wielded by a child. How many kids have you heard of who wouldn’t look for a different light, any other kind of light, that maybe doesn’t make noise which every kid knows is fucking asking for boogeyman induced death?

This, funnily enough, is a good segue into the next portion.

Because Reasons Doesn’t Cut It

A lot of both STASIS and its sequel CAYNE have major story elements that, sadly, fit very much under this category. This, for example, happened because a serial killer was knowingly employed by the captain of the ship, and his mulching the corpses somehow led to a sentient fungus that taints everything it touches. Because reasons.

One thing I see a lot of is a terminal lack of critical thinking on the part of the protagonist (Both by the writer/designer, and, as a consequence, the protagonist.) Tattletail is, as we’ve noted, an example, but it’s not the only one by a long shot. Part of this is, again, the use of an element of games design without thinking about the consequence (No, I do not, in fact, have to give a flying fuck about your amnesiac blank slate. Especially if they talk, cementing that they are not me.) But, unfortunately, horror is less horrific when you either don’t care about the protagonist, or think they’re… Well, candidates for a Darwin Award. Oh, hey, I’m in this haunted mansion… Why am I in this haunted mansion?

No, really… Why? This isn’t a question you can answer with “Just Because.” You don’t even have to work terribly hard at it. Let’s take SIREN, for the PS2, as an example of this. A lot of the characters are there because… Well, they live there, and shit’s gone to hell. They’re one of the “lucky” few, so the game quickly defines them, moves on. They’re defined by survival and escape. Kyoya Suda, one of the main characters, is a teenage mystery buff who decided to check out Hanuda because of the urban legends. He can’t leave, because he is, technically, dead. Tamon Takeuchi, similarly, is motivated by the legendry, but what keeps him in Hanuda is a combination of arrogance and professionalism. He will discover what happened!

Not all of them get equal screentime, not all of them survive. But all of them can have their goals, and even reasons why they can’t leave, established in a single sentence each.

The Shrouded Isle works as a horror styled game because there’s *reasoning* behind the evil. And, of course, it’s not *considered* evil by the protagonist. After all, few good villains *consider* themselves wrong.

Similarly, “Because” doesn’t cut it for any element. Why is this house haunted again? Hadn’t they lived there for years with no trouble? Oh, they had? Huh. Why the doll-head jumpscare? Oh, there’s no real connection there? Ummm… Okay, beyond the momentary shock, that’s just confusing me. It’s not contributing to the mood. Now, not every question has to be answered. But at the very least, you want to ensure there is reasoning behind even your gribbley(s). Wobblyhead McSmudgyShadow does not, funnily enough, scare me, because firstly, I know nothing about him, and secondly, he looks silly. Also, why is he walking when he’s made of smokey shit? Why, when he has clearly demonstrated he can run fast enough to get into my face, then down the corridor before I can blink, is he slowly stalking me?

Oh, you didn’t think about that? No. No you didn’t. Consider this, though… The Necromorphs would just be ordinary monsters, if it weren’t for the thought put into their lifecycle. Consider: Not only are they twisted versions of us that are functionally immortal… Not only are they highly infectious and it isn’t obvious at first when someone is infected… You quickly realise that the only major reason limb trauma works so much better than just pumping them full of hot plasma death is because the thing, the thing controlling them as one, decides they’re no longer useful for their purpose… Namely, turning you into them. Conversely, part of the reason The Thing: The Videogame didn’t work is because the idea behind detecting Thingism (An established, pre-thought idea) was ruined, unfortunately without thinking too heavily about the consequences, by Thingism being a plot trigger, making your blood test items completely worthless.

See how these factors are starting to tie together. Oh… BOO!


Sound And Fury, Signifying… Nothing.

I’ve already mentioned how jumpscares, like any other element, can feel completely without context, without reason. What I haven’t mentioned is the noise element. Christ, these things are loud. And while there is a reason for this, it’s a pretty crap one: For shock value.


Shock, funnily enough, is not fear. It’s not unsettling. It’s not disturbing. It’s just “Thatwasloud oh, it’s gone, I can carry on now.”

Like the monsters, like the character, like the setting, like… Well, everything, context is important. I hear a baby giggling in a house, I am, funnily enough, not going to say “Wow, that’s creepy.” I’m going to say “Ah, yes, the giggling baby cry, stock in trade of someone who wants to put me off balance and hasn’t set this up in any way, shape or form.”

Well, no. What I’m actually going to say is “…Huh. [Moves on without further comment]”

However, if I am aware that there was indeed a dead child… Say… A particularly sadistic dead child, who is now a particularly sadistic ghost, then every time I hear them giggle, even if nothing happens, I am instantly in “Primed for bad shit” mode. A jumpscare, or even a cat-scare (so named because very often, a fake scare involved a startled cat in horror movies) works best when you’re already prepped for it by the atmosphere.

Inmates, a recent game I reviewed, decided that it was a good idea to do several things at once. None of them are awful on their own, but together, they added up to unpleasantness enough that I just got annoyed. Firstly, control was taken away so a monster could get me. Okay, this isn’t always a bad thing. Many’s the time a game has ambushed me in an end-of-level segment or cutscene, and mostly, I’m alright with this. It also decided to give the monster in question the most minimal prep-time (a droning infodump from a few minutes ago), so, when the protagonist yelled “OH NO, IT’S ROY”, my eyebrow raise knocked some plaster from the ceiling. The monster in question did that “I suddenly run really fast” thing, screamed in my face, and then… Almost a minute of a high pitched, tinnitus like sound. Also a slow cutscene of being dragged.

On their own, pretty much everything except the high pitched noise (Which just annoys and hurts the ears, rather than signalling a return to consciousness/dizziness) could have worked. If Roy had been prepped better, if I’d had a reason to care about Roy (Sir No Longer Appearing In This Production), if, for example, he was round the corner rather than doing the lightspeed jog the moment the door opened, then it probably would have worked better. As it is… Well, that was it for me, and not because it was too spooky. Mainly because I was just annoyed at how arbitrary it was.

An example of good sound usage comes from Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma, where being showered in acid is left to the imagination… And some particularly gruesome soundwork.

Done well, sound is your best friend. The character’s footsteps echoing in a haunted castle, for example, really drive home how alone you are. But they, like everything else, require context, even if that context isn’t yet known to the player. Why is that wall… Scratching? Why do I hear… Whispering in this library? Like… Not even normal whispering… Bass whispering. Wait, is that gribbley saying things a human would have been saying in their position? Is it… Was it human?!?

Oh nooooooooooo!

A Curated Experience

When you get right down to it, horror seems to work best when it’s a linear, curated experience. In an open world, you have to work so much harder, so much tighter, to keep scaring people. Look at a lot of zombie games like Dead Island or the like. Most of the time, apart from maaaaybe their introductions, the zombies aren’t scary. They’re obstacles.

Pictured: An entire block, in the first of its three flavours, in which you will hunt for the thing you actually need to see.

And yeah, despite what marketing may have you believe, there’s room for linear, curated experiences. They’re fine. Heck, some of the best fun I’ve had in recent years haven’t been sandboxes, or open world RPG extravaganzas. But trying to have your cake and eat it is probably going to cause pain. For example, Joana’s World, another horror game I reviewed, had an entire block of houses and a park. Wiiiith the small problem that the game’s events only involved two of those houses. It also wouldn’t allow you to do things until the plot mandated you do them, such as not being able to pick up your front door keys or flashlight until… Well, you needed them, even knowing that you needed them beforehand. The first because who doesn’t pick up their front door keys before they prepare to go out (unless they’ve forgotten), and secondly because this is a first person horror game, and it is a flashlight.

Equally, though, we tie back to Because Reasons, with the note that when you block something off, there has to be a reasonable, in context explanation for it. My personal favourite for slightly nonsensical obstacles is one that you see time and time and time again… The hospital bed/curtain. Sometimes they’re in piles (You Are Empty, some Silent Hill games), and this is pretty reasonable. But more often, they’re just… There. You can’t climb them, even though they’re short. You can’t move them, even though they’re wheeled.

“But Jamie, not everything can be moved in a videogame, or chaos will ensue! Rains of frogs, cats and dogs living together!” True. But if you’re reduced to “A hospital bed” rather than… I don’t know, a barricade, a big hole in the floor, barbed wire (don’t laugh, I’m sure you could find a context for that!) … Something that isn’t easily moved, but makes sense for what’s going on or where you are, then you’re mostly going to have to rely on that other aspect of subtle game design… Making the bit blocked off with a single trolley and a hospital curtain less interesting.

Remember, you can just block players off from somewhere. It’s fine. Really it is.

Some Final Caveats

Yes, you can turn off weapons. It isn't always recommended.

Example of happily being proven wrong: If you’d told me, pre Screwfly, that this would get my nerves racing, I would have laughed and laughed.

Okay, so I’m picturing some folks getting a little purple in the face while reading this, and others may well have peaced out already, so let’s finish this up with some simple, final points. First up, if you actively enjoy any of the games I’ve mentioned as having unfun elements for me, good for you, keep on doing that! I’m a reviewer, not the fun police.

Secondly, everything I’ve described here are guidelines, not rules. You see a way you think you can make a relatively open game genuinely creepy, cool, work at that, lemme know how it goes. These are, however, guidelines based on both common sense, study, and experience. But, again, I am not the fun police, you want to make a game with a contextless spoop, walking very slowly around an entire block of flats, while hunting for the Eight Random Items We’re Not Telling You About Beyond “Find Eight Thingumajigs” and babies are giggling in a creepy fashion almost constantly, then cool. Just don’t expect me to touch the damn thing.

I hope these have helped. I hope these have illuminated, and I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: Play horror games. Even some of the ones lambasted. Examine how they make you feel, ask why they make you feel that way, and how they’ve made you feel that way. And if you decide to make a horror game, ask whether or not you can apply something as is (You don’t, for example, need your game to be in a dark place), and see what your players feel.

Happy Halloween!

On Game Design – Cacklingly Evil Corporations! (CONTENT WARNINGS)

CONTENT WARNING: Cacklingly Evil Corporations do things that would be considered triggering, such as forced impregnation, human experimentation and trafficking, wilful use of deathtraps, and other creepy shit that would horrify normal people and cause them to get locked up.

Playing Stasis (a “dystopian sci-fi horror” adventure game that got no small amount of critical acclaim at the time it came out, and is apparently getting a sequel) has reminded me how much CacklinglyEvilCorps piss me off. Not because they’re so obviously evil. But because they’re stupid, badly written evil. Oh, and let’s not forget, often edgy evil too. Because, y’know, nothing says evil like [insert horrific thing because reasons here]!

We’ll come back to Cayne Corporation, and how thickly that got laid on, in a bit. But first, let’s talk about a pair of supposedly massively evil corps in movies: OCP and Weyland-Yutani. It may shock you to notice, but they’re not actually that evil. Doing bad things, yes. But in a way that makes sense. Let’s start with Weyland Yutani, as they appear in the first three Alien films.

At the beginning, they are just The Corporation. The Company Store. Sure, Ash goes murderous, and you have the directive “Crew Expendable” , but up to that point? We can tell they do mining or extraction of some kind, that they have contracts, and employees, and, at worst, they’re penny pinchers.

And then we come to the second film and… Nobody on the board knows, or claims to know, of any such thing happening. In fact, we get a little nuance, because Van Leeuwen, the CEO, mentions that Wey-Yu has quite a lucrative sideline in… Terraforming planets. Shake-And-Bake colonies. Their colonies are apparently safe enough for families to join up (With, of course, the exception of LV-426 and, y’know, all the other LV numbers that get mentioned in the media of the expanded universe), and, before Carter Burke and the assholes he works for stick their finger in? What we see is normal, everyday frontier town analogies. They do medicine. They technically own the Marine Corp… They have nuance, and are not just black and white.

Two different faces of the same corporation. Nuance!

While we’re on the subject of Carter Burke, his motivation? Profit. As it turns out, Xenomorphs have all sorts of applications, and not just in the CacklinglyEvilCorp section of Wey-Yu that is the Bioeweapons division. Wey-Yu, as a whole, isn’t really the villain, so much as an element of an otherwise normal, if penny pinching and exploitative corporation.

Alien 3, of course, throws large portions of that out the window. We never even see Wey-Yu as an organisation, except, of course, the CacklinglyEvilCorp portion toward the end. Even the folks who attract the Bioweapons crowd by alerting them to Ripley’s presence aren’t doing it because they’re cacklingly evil. They’re doing it because a) They consider Ripley a disruptive influence , and b) There’s a reward.

So… Wey-Yu: Not as cacklingly evil as you’d think. But what about OCP?

OCP are an interesting one, because they’re inept, and that’s where the dystopia comes from. They own the police, and their main reason for RoboCop programmes? Again, penny pinching. Their reason for putting all those dumb rules in RoboCop’s brain? Because what he was doing up to that point was considered Bad PR. Y’know, something an actual company would care about. But it’s not until the series hits its nadir that they relentlessly pursue and antagonise. RoboCops 1 and 2, they are, yes, an Evil Corporation. But they act in a very corporate fashion, which is why the parody works so well with them.

The head of OCP, wondering what the hell his HR department actually *does* all day.

But then we come back to Cayne Corporation. Cayne is one of many CacklinglyEvilCorps, from Armacham to Umbrella, and the main hallmark of the CacklinglyEvilCorp is that there is little, if any nuance. In the case of Cayne Corporation, let’s put together a rough timeline of the Groomlake, the setting of Stasis.

First up, way back when, the Eugenics Wars happened. This was apparently some attempt at creating Post-Humans that went horribly wrong.

Then we get the Groomlake. From the beginning, it’s involved in human trafficking and experimentation, and cloning. The head of the ship, Dr. Malan, seems to think he can do Post-Humans better than whatever idiots tried way back when, and hires as his top research staff some highly questionable folks, including a drug addicted serial killing doctor. Because, y’know, nobody bats an eyelid at such things.

The good doctor then encourages his other staff to do incredibly stupid things, including letting the serial killing doctor indulge his hobby, and mulch the experiments, which then turns into a semi-sentient fungus because reasons. This, in turn, affects the mass cloning (Which is at least partially using Dr. Malan’s hybrid babies, created by forced impregnation), and hydroponics, affecting some bees so one turns into a supermutant. Oh, and experimenting on employees, which often kills them.

He also cures and keeps hold of the protagonists’ daughter, for reasons.

Welp. I’m sure this will turn a profit for the Cayne Corporation, no two ways about it!

Nobody bats an eyelid at Cayne Corporation. Except to send a spy who will hopefully steal Dr. Malan’s research, in the name of profit.

The clones and hybrids start wearing people’s skin and taking their Personal Data Tags (Which are grafted to their spines because reasons), so as to get around the ship to murder people. The fungus starts mind controlling everyone. A nurse realises they’re involved in human trafficking, tries to get a family off ship, and is shot.

Nobody bats an eyelid. Sometime during this, the protagonist’s wife has been put into Dr. Malan’s programme. You remember, the one about trying to breed post humans, forcibly. Because reasons.

John (J) Maracheck, living Aliens reference and punching bag of Stasis, is one of the few survivors, along with Dr. Malan, Te’Ah the corporate spy, and John’s small child, who is still being cared for by Dr. Malan because reasons. After witnessing the after-effects of Dr. Malan’s fuckery, having to do horrifying things, he confronts Dr. Malan. Who then kills the child he’d been taking care of and cured, right in front of her dad, because reasons. Then everyone dies.

How much of this, do you think, could the Cayne Corporation actually call a profit on, even assuming their sole motive is profit? At what point, do you think, did anyone on any corporate board ever think “Yes, this is a good investment, and will surely not be a sinkhole of money and death?”

No, it’s villainy for the sake of villainy, stupidity pretending to be smart, and at least two fridgings because let’s hurt this guy who, against a corporation, probably wouldn’t matter in the god-damn slightest.

Meanwhile, a second game featuring the Cayne Corporation is in the works. I don’t have terribly high hopes, especially after seeing this screenshot.

Ohhh boy. I can’t wait to see how what looks like a neural whip is explained… *sigh*

Yeaaaaaahhhh… Because that makes all the fucking sense. Periodic reminder: The setpieces are in the writing, not the writing being around the setpieces. Forget this, and you have setpieces that end up being “because reasons”, and large swathes of your plot being the same.

On Game Design: Optional? (SPOILERS)

We’ve all seen games where there is “optional content that adds to the story.” Similarly, there are games where playing again introduces new things. But there are times when the execution of these features can harm perception of a game. For this mini-essay, I’m going to be picking on two games: Arkham Knight, and Zero Time Dilemma. In both cases, I’m going to be presenting a before and after seeing this. On the Arkham Knight front, we’re dealing with “optional content” , and for Zero Time Dilemma, it’s a second playthrough thing. Let’s start with that.

Zero Time Dilemma: Before

Omigod, how annoyed I was when Delta got revealed. “It was me all along, the pretend deaf, blind man in a wheelchair I don’t need, who’s been watching you and controlling your every move! All for the best of motives, of course, and all this pain and suffering you’ve personally experienced? Means jack shit because I, personally, didn’t do anything. It was all those other Deltas in other timelines!”

This man lies at the root of both the story... And the problems.

This man lies at the root of both the story… And the problems.

I was all ready for a rant about ableist writing. I was all ready for talking about how the reveal was poorly foreshadowed. Here, we have a deaf and blind man who’s ignored, who you have no clue about his existence before a certain scene involving twins being copy-pasted through time-space, and then it turns out it was all a cheap trick. Even when we get to the “After”, Delta is an asshole. But this rant? Technically unjustified.

Zero Time Dilemma: After


As a side note, the sound design in this scene is extremely gruesome. Kudos.

Because then I looked up signs for Delta’s existence. Oh, they’re there alright. But many of them are super ambiguous, and only a few am I kicking myself for missing (The Q-Team death shower, for example, has three puddles of flesh. Except Sean is a robot, and doesn’t have flesh. Then again, there’s no wires or electronics either.) Shadows on the camera that are actually Q/Delta/Zero and his wheelchair. That one scene where Sean and Eric look like they’re talking to the dog (via a cut between Eric and the dog, Gab), but are actually talking to Q/Delta.

There’s just one problem. A lot of these require a second playthrough, or even a third, if you’re even halfway good at Zero Escape games. I finished the game in one solid block, one night, all achievements. And that hurt my perception of this particular plot point, because, with ZTD, there are no other outcomes. It is a Visual Novel in the purest sense because you get all the Bad Ends along the way, and there is one, True End. So, for many, the question would be “Why go back?”

He's not looking *down* . There's your clue.

He’s not looking *down* . There’s your clue.

There’s your answer. You sort of have to to properly understand how you’ve been led by the nose. And there’s no incentive to when you think you’ve had a Not Twist pulled on you. It wasn’t. It’s just a lot of the foreshadowing was ambiguous enough that you thought it was.

Of course, it doesn’t stop Delta being an asshole, in any of the timelines he’s in. He’s not a hero for what he does. He’s not an antihero for what he does. He’s a villain who, in his world (and only in his world), technically won. We’ll leave aside the question of “Well, how the hell does Delta exist in all those timelines when he was only born in one and copied to one other?” , because the narrative does leave room for saying he was copied to a lot of timelines, not all of which we’d see.

Reminder: Things like this happened. But in different timelines, so it's *perfectly fine*

Reminder: Things like this happened. But in different timelines, so it’s *perfectly fine*

So what about Arkham Knight?

Arkham Knight: Before

Ohhh boy. Arkham Knight kicked up one hell of a stink, not only for its shoddy PC port, but for its treatment of women characters in the games. Of particular note would be Barbara Gordon, whose suicide raised many an angry cry of “FRIDGE FRIDGE FRIDGE!” , and, in the DLC, Francine Langstrom, wife of the man who would become ManBat, who is just… Dead. Before the story even begins. Now, for those who don’t get what the cry of “FRIDGE!” means, it refers to a somewhat sexist piece of comics writing called “Women in Refrigerators”, where the death of a woman character is used purely to motivate the hero or otherwise affect him. If you guessed that the original, trope naming example was of a woman being hacked up and placed in a hero’s refrigerator, you’d win an imaginary cookie.

Yeaaaah... Not lookin' good...

Yeaaaah… Not lookin’ good…

It’s not the only example of writing perceived as shoddy in Arkham Knight, and not the only shitty character treatment. Poison Ivy, despite being a Chekhov’s Immune Person, spends most of the game in jail. She doesn’t, to my knowledge, plead with Batman to be let out, and, until a pivotal scene, she doesn’t mention how her plants, the supposed core of her character, will also die if Scarecrow releases his fear toxin. After this pivotal scene, she sacrifices herself for Gotham. These treatments were bad enough that even male writers, such as myself, Evan Narcisse (Kotaku) , and Elijah Beahm (Gameskinny) noticed.

Of course, things could get missed. And they do. But does it make it any better?

Arkham Knight: After

In the case of Barbara Gordon, the words “It gets better later!” have been used often, in one form or another. Barbara didn’t really die, it was a Fear Toxin hallucination. She saves her dad, Batman, and distracts Scarecrow, throwing herself off a building because she knows the Bat will save her. She helps in one of the final fights, hacking an army of drones.

"It gets better."

“It gets better.”

But, as AnnotatedDC (Among many others) points out, this doesn’t change the fact that she spends the majority of the game either a captive (Damselled) or with Batman and Gordon both being manipulated into distrusting each other, leading to this “It gets better later!”, by said fake suicide, which, sorry to say, “Gets Better” crowd, still makes it a Fridging. Similarly, Francine Langstrom, if you go back to the Langstrom lab after doing the Manbat quest, has vanished, leaving a message behind in blood that deeply implies she has become a (Wo)ManBat also. Batman is still emotionally affected into doing the thing. Batman still does the thing. And, to make things even more fun, this is an example of something you most likely will miss, because you’re given no reason to go back there that I’m aware of.

Oh, and Poison Ivy may not have actually died, because there’s a plant where she fell. That one you at least have a chance of spotting without knowing that it’s there… But it’s extremely ambiguous whether that’s a good sign, or a monument to the sacrifice that, unfortunately, doesn’t make the writing of that arc any better. Nor does it make her design in Arkham Knight any less sexualised. People have seriously said to me that the design in Arkham Knight is less sexualised than The Animated Series. Here’s the two side by side for comparison. One of them is slightly better.

One is a Victoria's Secret model. The other wears a leotard and leggings. Oh, let's not forget the crossbow.

One is a Victoria’s Secret model. The other wears a leotard and leggings. Oh, let’s not forget the crossbow.

Catwoman, who you may have noticed wasn’t talked about until now, does, genuinely, get somewhat better. She’s freed somewhere around the halfway point, and, providing you get all the Riddler Trophies, gets her own back on Mr. Edward Nygma. Of course, you only get the “freed” part unless you do get all the Riddler Trophies (And not even that until you do a certain proportion), and, while the trophies are easier to get, and in smaller numbers than Origins, it’s still a collectathon task that not every Arkham Knight player has done.

So, Arkham Knight: Not quite as badly written as folks say, does have its high points… But still not great.

It’s important, when designing a game, to be aware that tying your story to optional content, or a second playthrough, may not necessarily be a good thing, because if it’s something important to that story, like Dr. Mrs. Langstrom not actually being dead, then perception of your game can become somewhat negative.