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On Being ‘The Other’: Thoughts on the Witcher Series

I’ve commented before here and there about ‘The Witcher’, the blockbuster game franchise developed by gamer darling CD Projekt Red.  It’s a game series that I have tried time and time again to sit down and play and I just never felt invested in compared to games like Final Fantasy, the Dragon Age series, or even the Fable games.  And it usually always boils down to me sitting there and asking myself why?  Why are these games so difficult for me to immerse myself into and enjoy?  When by all critical and gamer opinions they are superior to all three of the aforementioned franchises?

It’s not that I think that they are bad games.  In fact, the one place I would compliment them above all else is in their gameplay design – especially the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt which is often cited as one of the few games to do ‘Open World’ right.  And while I honestly felt many of the side quests in Wild Hunt were tedious and dragged on for far too long (I know we all are supposed to hate ‘fetch quests’ but going to fetch some milk doesn’t need to be turned into the Lord of the Rings either.)  Though I will note that the combat can sometimes feel overwhelming in the number of options for the short span of time you are given to utilize them that I tend to just end up smacking things with the wrong sword until they die.  I can honestly say that the gameplay is solid and enjoyable and quite often trims the fat from superfluous busy work.

The story itself was the next point that I thought about.  It’s not lacking in any way, far from it.  In many ways it often feels like there’s too much to take in.  Rich histories that you are merely gleaming the edges of as you partake in your focused quest.  I know the game series was based on a much larger series of novels, and it shows in the fact that characters often regard each in familiar ways even though you only being introduced to them.  It honestly had me wishing for a codex of some sort like in Mass Effect or even Final Fantasy XIII that I could refer back to.  While the game has something similar, it’s less a datalog or codex and more of a “there are tons of books lying around” and much like the Elder Scrolls, you might stumble upon a book explaining the rich backstory, or maybe just a recipe for cheese soup.  Who knows?  The setting was honestly probably the hardest swallow for me.  It’s just such a depressing world.  Death, disease, monsters, bitter hatred, murder, backstabbing, and of course a lot of war – these are the back bones of the Witcher world.  It’s not a happy place nor time to live in.  But it’s not like I haven’t played in settings that were bleak before.  Mass Effect 3 was literally the apocalypse and starts with you watching as thousands perish on your home world.  You watch world after world die, and things go from bad to worse and then discover it was all because an AI figured a periodic galactic extinction would be the simplest way to solve the problem it was given millions of years ago.  THAT’S bleak.  So what was it?  What have I not looked at?  Well,  there’s always Geralt.

Yes, Geralt of Rivia.  The titular Witcher of the series.  Who – no matter how much you choose the ‘nice’ or ‘good’ dialogue options – will remain a steadfast asshole in the cutscenes.  But I’ve played assholes before.  I’ve played characters that are even worse than Geralt in that area *side eyes my Sith Inquisitor* but I think we are close.  In fact, I don’t think it’s so much that Geralt is a jerk that it is WHY he’s a jerk.  I mean, wouldn’t you be a jerk if everyone hated you for pretty much no reason?

Yeah.  And here’s the crux of where the plot, the setting, and the characters all intersect to create the real reason that I just can’t enjoy the Witcher games:  Everyone hates you.  It doesn’t matter how many good deeds you do in the game, and how many individuals you win over to your side, in the end there is a societal hatred of Witchers.  Not just Geralt – though his reputation as “The Butcher of Blaviken” doesn’t help – but all Witchers are regarded in mass as being soulless blood-thirsty mercenary monsters that should only be interacted with if you have to.  There’s no changing that.  Oh you can choose the good options and decide to not take money from the people, but the next person you talk to will be back to the same old prejudices.  Even worse, it doesn’t change when you go to a different location.  This stereotype that you have no choice but to endure over and over with the sole exception of spending time in Kaer Morhen with the few other Witchers in your neighborhood.

And I know some are reading this right now and wondering if I’m saying all this with this particular phrasing to build up to some manner of a political point about the real world.  While I won’t deny that there is definitely meat on those bones that can be picked on for some interesting thought, I don’t believe I am the one to do it.  I don’t have the tongue for such impassioned speaking and I have a foot far too eager to slip into my mouth at times.  So I will leave it at that.

That said, that is truly the core of why I can’t get into these games.  Because I don’t find pleasure in playing through a world, fighting for a world, that actively and quite universally hates me for no reason.  It’s why despite all the claims in the world that the Witcher 3 is a superior game to Dragon Age: Inquisition, I will be playing my eighth playthrough of DA:I before even finishing one of the Witcher 3.  I’m not saying that the Witcher 3 is a bad game.  Or that it’s bad writing.  Or bad anything really.  It’s just…  not the right fit for me.  As a question I’ve had percolating in the back of my mind for years now, I figured I’d share the results of my thoughts.  Thanks for the read.

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Welcome to the Machine

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Continuing in my grand “Seriously, I don’t give two damns about Garrosh and seriously SoO feels way to grindy even on LFR” vacation from MMOs, I decided to finally boot up my copy of RPG Maker VX Ace.  I bought it on a steam sale over a year ago for like 60% off or something, and never really got around to using.  In fact my girlfriend was using it most of the time making seriously awesome stuff that would just make my jaw drop.  So I decided, Hey I like to run D&D campaigns, I’ve spent more time in Final Fantasy games than I have homework over the course of my life, why not give this thing a try?

Like being zapped by the MCP and taking my first few steps out onto the Grid, my life was forever changed.

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RPG Maker is like handing a kid the world’s biggest LEGO construction kit and just saying have at.  It has a ton of power, lots to learn, and great deal of freedom.  It comes with everything you need to start making your own role playing game and even comes with built in pre-sets that allow to start tinkering as soon as you open the box.   I started with just using the basic tutorials that are on the website, which sadly appear to be incomplete.  You get to the last lesson and it just stops, teasing you with a “In our next lesson” bit that dangles a juicy fruit of useful information just beyond reach.  Luckily the web is vast and infinite and full of other non-official tutorials that offer thorough explanations of both the basics as well as the more advanced features of the game.

While the advertisements for the software will boast that no programming is required, some basic knowledge of programming is incredibly useful.  Knowing how concepts like loops, if…then…else’s, and variables will prove vital in working your way through making your story come alive.  Luckily they’re not the hardest programming ideas to grasp.  But yea, the more experience you have with programming the more you’ll be able to do.  You can also add scripts to your game to add additional functionality using the Ruby based RGSS3 engine.  For instance, I’ve added a World of Warcraft like Reputation system as well as a crafting system with the scripts in the game.

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Still the sheer amount of power you wield to tell any kind of story you wish complete with cutscenes, characters, classes, monsters, etc from the get go is an amazing feeling.  Once I finished the tutorial I began work on a slightly more sandbox-y style game, where you would find clues and tips about where to go next but no clear goal or marked areas.  For instance, someone in town mentions that the statue in the park had the gem stolen from it.  That’s it.  Where is the gem? Dunno.  Maybe you’ll find it.  Maybe you’ll find more clues.  Maybe an unrelated clue will actually lead you to the same thieves that stole the gem.  It’s awesome and fun to just lay clues down.  Especially since this allows me to do a sandbox style adventure when I don’t know if I could ever accomplish one in my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

However, even more than a D&D game using RPG Maker requires a lot of planning ahead of time if you don’t plan on using the built in pre-sets for everything.  Just testing a formula for how much damage a character can take or dish out was a long process of trial and error.  Then planning things like stat growth, abilities, experience rates (which are somewhat limited by the software itself.  Like you can’t set it to take more than 90 XP to get from level 1 to 2. Though you might be able to change this with a script.  Probably can.  There hasn’t been much I’ve found that you CAN’T change with a script.)  So before I’ve gotten too far in the game I’m already buried neck deep in spreadsheets.  But hey kids, let this be a lesson. Learn Excel.  It can be used for fun someday!

The sheer joy is in the creation though.  You’re making something.  Something new and yours.  It’s the kind of feeling that ignites your passion when you built the Three-Headed Dragon Super Space Ship With TWENTY Lasers So It Can Totally Blow Up Mark’s Ship Yes It Can Mark Shut Up Mark III with building blocks when you were a kid.  I have no idea if anything I make will ever turn out to be decent, or even great.  Nor does it matter if I can or can’t monetize it.  For now, I’m having fun with it all.  However, I might upload a copy of the first city as a ‘demo’ or something.  I’d love to hear what people out there in the Interwebs might think of it and get some feedback. Who knows?

I Swear Blizzard is Reading My Post Drafts

Guess I spoke too soon?

Your Garrison will be woven deeply into the storyline of Warlords of Draenor, beginning when your faction leader commissions you to establish a beachhead on this alien world—but the ultimate fate of your personal fortress on Draenor is entirely up to you.

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I don’t have the slightest clue if this is going to tackle some of my issues with the story telling mechanics that I discussed in my previous post, but it definitely seems to be pointing in a good direction.  Hears hoping.  I’ll have my full thoughts on the Warlords of Draenor posted later, but I really wanted to point this one out!

The Hero of Your Own Story

With my recent return to Star Wars: The Old Republic, I keep finding myself mentally comparing things to World of Warcraft.  I have no ill feelings toward WoW in my heart, and it still stands as a fun game.  In fact, I will be one of the first to defend Mists of Pandaria in a conversation.  After all Mists has done wonders for the way that Blizzard has decided to portray story in their games.  However, there is something that has been gnawing at me since I’ve come back to SWTOR.  Where do I fit in the story?

Dating back all the way to the Ruins of Ahn’qiraj, WoW has had an ever shifting sense of perspective that seems to draw less on the player characters being heroes and more that they are the upper echelon of the nameless grunts.  More and more the stories, especially for raids, have focused on large organized armies assaulting the dungeons/bosses/whatever to accomplish the goal, with you simply being the tip of the spear (or in some examples the rest of the arrowhead with an NPC being the tip).  No longer are you the hero, but simply the ones more likely to survive out of a massive attack by a hundreds if not thousands.

For example, the Shattered Sun Offensive’s assault on the Sunwell, the Ashen Verdict’s battle in Icecrown, the Guardians of Hyjal in the Molten Front and assaulting the Firelands, backing Thrall and the Aspects during Deathwing’s Fall, The Sunreavers or Kirin Tor breaking through the Thunder King’s walls, and the entirety of the Alliance or the Darkspear Revolution during the Siege of Orgrimmar.

In each of every one of those examples, you are not the heroes or saviors.  You are simply one part of a much larger effort to defeat the enemy.  This has even extended into questing in Mists of Pandaria, where it no longer matters if you’ve killed C’thun or defeated Kel’Thuzad the master lich twice, you are just another nameless faceless piece on the board along with so many others.  Now this isn’t universal either.  There have been raids and dungeons throughout the expansions that have you and your group as a small team working your way into a dungeon to silence a dark big bad all on your own.  Historically, these usual are the first tiers of raids in each expansion.  Karazhan, the Molten Core, Blackwing Descent, Mogu’shan Vaults…  there’s no army with you for these.  It’s just you against the dark.  Imagine if all of Ironforge joined together for a massive assault against Ragnaros with an army that took over the Dark Iron cities with Magni leading the assault.  Magni who steps on Majordomo Executus’ tail and demands to be let into the Firelord’s chamber.  Magni who proclaims victory once the Hand of Ragnaros is firmly planted in the earth and the enemy vanquished.  Would that be better?

Compare this to Star Wars: The Old Republic where you are cast in the role of the hero for the entirety of the narrative.  YOU the Jedi Knight confronts and battles the Sith Emperor.  YOU the Bounty Hunter who wins the Great Hunt and goes after the Supreme Chancellor single handedly. YOU the brave imperial that freed the Dread Masters from their prison.  The game devotes itself to you and you alone being the central figure of your tale.  Compare Rise of the Hutt Cartel Imperial Side to the Horde side start of Mists of Pandaria.  In both, a small tactical squadron lands in the area to cut a swathe of it and get what is of interest to their respective faction.  The big difference is that in Mists, you are a lackey to General Nazgrim who is leading the team.  You report to him and he tells you what to do.  In the Rise of the Hutt Cartel, you are the leader of the small team.  Mostly guiding the narrative and giving the orders to your subordinates who provide support and information to you, their leader, to help carry out the mission.  Star Wars: The Old Republic goes to great lengths to make you feel like you are the star. Even in the Operations (Raids) and Flashpoints (Dungeons), you are treated by the NPCs like they HAD to get you because you are the best of the best and only you are capable of handling this problem, not because hey, you’ve got a better health pool than the grunts, so you make it to the end.

However, that’s not without it’s drawbacks either.  When you see five bounty hunters rocking the ‘Champion of the Great Hunt’ title, it breaks the illusion a bit since your brain stops for a second and goes, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t I win that?” And the answer is yes, yes you did. This isn’t the worst thing ever, but I will admit it’s a drawback to the immersion.  But ultimately it comes down to experiencing the story and the feel of leading the narrative along.  I say feel, because honestly there are no dead ends, and no real way to break off the rails that Bioware has laid down for you.  This may cause issues with role playing a character when everybody has followed the same path, but I’m not a real hardcore role player in game so I am not even gonna attempt to go down that road.

So which one is better?  Well that’s for each to decide for their own.  I personally enjoy feeling like the hero and leading the story forward, but I can see that there’s an allure to the whole thing.  And honestly, when you sit and look at all the NPCs that are aiding in raid boss kills or massive armies tackling the citadels of evil, that’s really our fault from the get go.  Since I can remember I’ve heard things like “It’s ridiculous that X boss can be killed by 10/25 nobodies.”  Well, okay then. We’ll have a somebody do the killing. You just help.  And it’s not for me. I won’t lie, it makes World of Warcraft – a game I LOVE the lore to enough to create an entire site like the old Oddcraft blog and do things like the Warchief Election – a little bit harder to get in to and enjoy.

So what about you?  Which form of storytelling do you prefer and why?  I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, Internet.

Who Are Heroics For?

WARNING: This Post May Contain What Some People Might Consider SPOILERS for Cataclysm.  Mostly this is a discussion of game design, but there are a few faction names,  location names, and some of the current mechanics from the expansion mentioned here. Again, I’m not in the Beta, there’s nothing exactly ground breaking-ly new or shocking, but if you consider a few proper nouns without a lot of context to still be spoiler-ish, you have been warned.

So their been a bit of a buzz as of late revolving around the Heroic Dungeons in Cataclysm.  From what I can piece together from the various bits of Cataclysm news I actually look at (I try hard to avoid spoilers) it seems that the heroic dungeons are now available for testing in the beta and apparently they are quite hard.  Now of course, this is still the beta and that difficulty can be whittled away through the course of continous testing or even after launch via patches and what not (Helloooo Oculus), and it may stay just as hard or even increase in difficulty as more instances get added to the game in later patches.

The discussion has mostly been centered around the idea of whether ‘to nerf or not to nerf’ the heroic dungeons.  Some people really want to see us return to the days of the Burning Crusade in terms of Heroics, a focus on strategic pulls, crowd control, and those who don’t know what to do will have a hard time faking it. Others enjoy the model adopted by Wrath of the Lich King, in which heroics were an easy means to get some low level epics and badges to purchase even better epics.  Most conversations I’ve seen debating this make casual use of labels such as “casual” (ie “Casuals killed heroics”) or “hardcore” (ie “Heroics should be for the Hardcore players”) and excessive use of the terms “noob” and “bads” (which has apparently has become a noun right under my nose.  Hooray for an ever evolving language!  …and thank goodness for Urban Dictionary.)

Most of the time there is, in my opinion, a major component of the heroics discussion goes unmentioned.  Wait. Stop.  Don’t finish those eye rolls. I am NOT going to say that heroics were hard back at the beginning of WotLK.  In fact, you’ll never find me argue that the heroic dungeons of WotLK were very easy compared to their Burning Crusade cousins.  But note how I say cousins and not incarnations.  Because that’s what we need to be looking at, as well as how we look at the Heroics of Cataclysm.  These ‘variants’ of Heroics, in my eyes, are not an evolution of content but rather more like different flavors of ice cream.  Vanilla and chocolate are worlds apart, but are both technically ice creams.  The difference between these ‘flavors’ of heroics is not one of ‘difficulty’ but of purpose.  Allow me to look at the “history” (for lack of a better word) of Heroics in depth:

The Burning Crusade Design: Off Time for the Raiders

Way way waaay back in the savage age that was 2007, WoW’s first expansion – The Burning Crusade – was delivered unto a player base that was raised on grinds, super coordinated fights, massive dungeon crawls, and where only the best of the best would find themselves at the gates of raiding.  Burning Crusade, to say the least, did a fair job of cracking that world view into many little pieces that you’d have a hard time sweeping up and then would occasionally step on as you stumbled through the kitchen in the dark to drink milk from the carton even though your not supposed to and cause you to yell in pain, drop the milk, and then kick the cat because it sits there mocking you with its low light vision…  what was I talking about?  Oh yea, Burning Crusade.

Burning Crusade introduced smaller raids, shorter dungeons, and a token system that made getting your tier equipment much more bearable than taking it in the unmentionables from the RNG machine (I’ve run Molten Core dozens of times since starting to play, never seen Garr drop my warlock horns ONCE.  Thank the spirits for reskinned models.) This too was considered “catering to the casuals and the bads” at the time and was a sure sign that the game was dead (Spoiler: it didn’t die) but the one thing the game brought that was definitely not for the ‘casuals’ was the introduction of Heroic Dungeons.

Heroic Dungeons brought with them a massive leap in difficulty and access to epics outside of crafting and raiding. It also was the only way to get epic gems until Tier 6 was introduced.  But with the difficulty brought with it a hefty cost to enter.  The generalization usually given was that you had to raid to get the gear to do the heroics.  That idea is the key of figuring what Heroics were back in Burning Crusade.  They offered Badges of Justice to get raid level gear, they offered a variety of epics that could fit in those few slots you didn’t have the DKP or good enough rolls to score raid gear for yet (because as  D&D player, I understand the subtle art that is ‘getting better at rolling dice’…   I’m not lying…  nope…), and they dropped epic gems you could place in that slightly more permanent epic gear.

Heroic Dungeons were something for raiders to do when they weren’t raiding. Plain and simple.  It had a shorter lockout, it gave rewards that helped you out as a raider and it was more or less tuned to assume that you had some raiding experience.  It wasn’t designed to ‘prepare’ you for anything.  The entry costs for Lower Karazhan (that’s everything up to Curator in case you’ve never heard that term, which is likely because I’ve never heard it before and probably just made it up) could roughly be achieved by getting top end blues from normal dungeons, the better quest rewards from the long chains in Netherstorm and Shadowmoon, and crafted epics.

The Wrath of the Lich King Design: The Ladder to Raiding

Wrath brought a lot of changes to the game again (now beginning to establish the pattern of relearning the game every expansion).  Raids could be done as 10 man or 25 man (catering to casuals), Tier 6 was useful beyond the first quest rewards of Northrend (game is too easy lolz), that the game was dead (Spoiler: still didn’t die), and the biggest change, the one that has haunted WotLK through it’s entire life span was the purpose of heroics had changed.  Most people chopped this up to the previously mentioned ‘game is too easy’ and ‘catering to the casuals’ and that the once mighty heroics were nerfed to this.  But they weren’t nerfed.  Not in the least.  The concept was repurposed.  Kinda like building a target dummy so you can destroy it for easy fused wiring.  Heroic Dungeons were no longer a side activity for the raiders, it was a part of the progression.

I’m often shocked (shocked I say) at how many times this is overlooked by people who complained about the heroics in the current expansion.  I thought it was fairly obvious from the get go.  You get to 80 and do normal dungeons (Stage 1), then once you are geared to the point of doing heroics, you did those to start cobbling together your epics for raiding and your badges (Stage 2) and then your set to go off to the tier 7 raids and start reaping your rewards (Stage 3+).  Wait! Don’t start with the eye rolling again! I know just what your thinking.  Then why would they start giving frosty badges for running them if they were never designed to run once you were at Stage 3 or beyond?  Well, simple, there will still people at stage 2 waiting to get their stuff but there just wasn’t enough people to cobble together enough to run them.  So you had to be given treats to go back and help the stage 2 people in order to prevent the gear gap from solidifying and keep the content flowing.

This plan ultimately I think backfired.  While yes, those at Stage 2 were eventually able to graduate to stage 3 either by drops or by badges (the triumph badge change went a long way here.  The purpose of letting everyone get a chance to at least go into Icecrown Citadel was pretty obvious here I think, so I’m not going to get into it) but it created resentment of the stage 1-2 people by the stage 4-5 people.  They higher ups just wanted frosties, didn’t care about the stage 2 people, and saw them as an obstacle to their frosties.  Resentment leads to hate and hate leads some Yoda quote, yadda yadda yadda.  To be honest, if they had the Dungeon Finder ready to go at the beginning of WotLK instead of the end, I think the whole expansion may have played out much differently (Same thing with the Hardmode rewards, etc) but then again hindsight is always 20/20, right?

The Cataclysm Design: The Mystery On The Horizon

So what will Cataclysm bring in terms of heroics?  Well, the Developers have stated their intent to go back to a “Burning Crusade” style set up.  Not surprising considering the backlash from the ‘Progression Ladder’ style that Wrath gave us.  The question is how far will the pendulum swing in that direction?  Will DPS Warriors become moot once more without a solid form of crowd control?  Will mages and rogues be only ones not to kicked in random?  I doubt it.  Blizzard is too good about learning their lessons to do that again.  I think the real thing to look at with this news is that Heroics are once again going to be tuned for off-the-clock raiders and those of comparable gear level.  Ghostcrawler has made mention that he’d like level 85’s to once more have to turn to high level quest drops and crafted items to start to assemble a raiding set, not just Heroics.

As long as this thought process follows through and normal dungeon drops, quest items and crafted gear can actually get you prepped enough to enter the lowest tier of raids, and heroics don’t start taking on the trappings of the raid markings and CC-or-Wipe filled memories like Heroic Shattered Halls or Heroic Magister’s Terrace, I think Cataclysm could prove to be quite the rewarding experience.  I’m not without my worries though.  Namely in terms of reputation factions (what can I say, I’m a completionist and I like my bars to be full dangit), the tabards currently seem to only reward rep for heroic dungeon runs, and my limited gazings into Cataclysm haven’t revealed any confirmation of daily questions to increase rep like we had in WotLK (Okay, I know Tol Barad has some, but that’s the Isle of Quel’danas aspect of its design, what about the Earthern Ring?).  But these are minor things all in all, and for the most part, mechanically at least, I’m very much looking forward to Cataclysm, even if it means having to relearn everything (Wait… hunters stand behind their pets and shoot?!  WTF!?)

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