Dorf Fortress #3: Admission

When last we left Roughrewards my starting seven were still hewing living spaces from our endless supplies of mountain chert and swapping stories of the one time everybody punched that alligator a lot. It’s been suggested that a shrine be constructed in the pool of alligator blood to memorialise this founding event, and honestly I can’t think of a more appropriate thing to do in Dwarf Fortress. We’ll get to that at some point.

First, though, I need to get this shithole mountain home functional at a basic level.

I have a farm plot, but what concerns me is ensuring I have enough Plump Helmet seeds to endlessly grow Plump Helmets. For the benefit of those following this journal who know little of the game and are merely looking forward to the point when everything hilariously explodes in my hilarious face, Plump Helmets are the stock mushroom that can be grown year-round and eaten as well as brewed into beer. Dwarfs may get sick of ’em, but they won’t die so long as there’s Plump Helmets. Well, of starvation or thirst, anyway. Unless they get sick. Or–

From what I recall from a fuck-up some years ago, to ensure you have a continuous supply of these mushrooms, you need to ensure that some are eaten and they’re not all brewed. Eating leaves seeds; brewing does not. Or the other way around? My final decision is fuck it, let’s just plant everything and see how we go.

Dwarfs carving out a large room to the east of some bedrooms.

The grand hall to the east of my initial bedrooms is underway. As soon as there’s just enough space to do so, I set the meeting area in here and all my idle dwarfs and animals head straight down and try to squeeze themselves into the same tile. You know, like humans do at house parties.

I’ve drilled the stairwell down a few levels deeper. Partly I’m looking to see what we find: happily, the answer is lots of things that aren’t chert. Different rock, some rough gems, etcetera. No caverns yet, thankfully. A few z-levels below my housing I carve out an area for mining, stone workshops and a stone and gem stockpile. The rationale here is that Dwarf Fortress apparently models noise so I want some distance from the living area, and I want workshop materials close to the workshops. This area will be the central point of our underworld industry.

Above ground, we already have our elf-offending industry (they don’t like it when you cut down trees; I have cut down many). I built a carpenter’s workshop next to the wood stockpile, and it’s been set to making beds and doors for a while now. I also added barrels to the list, because I figured they’d be useful for brewing, but all the barrels that are created are immediately claimed by dwarfs to put in the stockpile so they can store one item inside. O-kay. At least all the bedrooms will soon have beds and doors, as you can see in the screenshot above.

Near the farm, I carve out a space for a still and a kitchen. “Fresh” beer and prepared food for all! It’s the same ingredient either way, but hey: civilization.

I have no idea how much time has passed since the game began. Is it over a year? Probably not, but my dwarfs and I did spend a lot of time with that alligator. I figure traders will show up soon enough, so I mark out an area for a broker’s office, and then try to place the trade depot. After a little trial and error I realise I can’t, and this makes me more conscious of a problem I’ve been ignoring since I began: my top level, and therefore every branch off the stairwell it contains, is too close to the edge of the map.

When I started the game I chose a small embark area, on account of harebrained assumptions concerning the computational capacity eaten by this ridiculous simulation, and when I carved out a tunnel into the mountainside I went right up to the edge, because that’s where the earth was. In retrospect I should have curled a tunnel down and back on itself, or just dug straight down at a central point in the map. It’s whilst thinking about this that I also admit I’m already thinking “when this fortress fails, I’ll do a better job with the next one.”

Sorry dwarfs. Mentally, I’ve already written you off.

Anyway, I’ll persevere until something goes wrong. And I certainly shan’t do anything to hasten that!!

The top layer of the fortress, with several new rooms added: a trade depot, an office, a still and a kitchen.

I eventually carve out a new room for my trade depot, opposite the original location. I leave the latter empty. I’ll have a nameplate for it engraved, simply reading “Folly”. Or perhaps I could use it to store the dead lungfish remains which, for some reason, are scattered all over the place above ground. I file this under “harmless Dwarf Fortress weirdness” and move on.

All of the above is quite a lot of work to be getting on with, and my dwarfs are busy. I tinker with the job settings – I’m still doing this manually in the game – pretending I’m optimising things, as if I know what I’m doing. Most of the dwarfs are veeeeeery slowly lugging rocks around, or much more rapidly hacking holes in the earth. One lucky individual is making more doors and barrels, and another – who I have also made my broker – is cranking out stonecraft goods. I plan to trade these with everyone, especially the elves, because they’re stonecrafts and contain no wood. Theoretically.

The text reads, "Some migrants have arrived!"

It’s during this levelling-up period for the fort that my first migrants arrive! This is traditionally the point at which a DF diary or let’s play moans about bloody migrants complicating things, but I’m really excited. I want more workers to grow my fortress faster, and there’s plenty of work that needs doing. Let’s see who we got!

The new arrivals are a Planter, a Thresher, and a child.

Oh, fuck off.

[Next time: more migrants, some with useful skills but mostly not! Traders, with more goods than anyone could need or indeed desire! An artifact befitting this fortress! More things I don’t understand, and a growing, anticipatory sense of failure! DORF! FORTRESS!]

Dorf Fortress #2: Overreaction

It has come to my attention that in the previous instalment I neglected to name my fortress. Welcome back, therefore, to as-yet unglorious Roughrewards, newest colony of the Sunken Attic.

If you’re thinking the fortress name is pretty good and the civilisation name is a little underwhelming, you’re not alone.

When last we left our brave and stupid dorfs, they were busy attempting to punch to death a fully-grown if unconscious alligator and making little headway against its thick scales.

Screenshot of the description of the beaten and bruised alligator.

Fearing that they might expire from exhaustion and dehydration whilst flogging this dead horse, I created a second squad containing my miners, reasoning that they might attack it with their picks. Nope: they too joined the punching party. Presumably they also gouge rock and soil from the very earth with their bare hands.

Screenshot of the miners heading for the alligator, which lies in a pool of its own blood between the wagon and the river.

One of the 39 pages of combat logs describing an alligator being punched and acquiring bruises.

Eventually I gave up, disbanded all military squads and set a burrow. This worked, in that the dwarfs stopped punching the poor reptile. After a short period, during which the alligator neither expired nor moved, I cancelled the burrow and marked the wagon to be dismantled. A few dwarfs got a little spooked by the beast but this didn’t seem to stop their efforts to fetch items for our new stockpile.

I spent a little while designating new areas to be dug out and watching as my dwarfs lugged items back and forth. As you can see from the above screenshots I’m currently playing the game vanilla – no custom tilesets or fonts – but it remains compelling just to watch the simulation tick.

When I next checked on our scaled friend, I paused the game in sudden horror. It was gone. Reassuring myself that there were no new combat reports, I tracked it down using the Units list and found the creature slowly limping southwards. I watched it as it exited the map, and felt a brief moment of regret for what might have been.

In retrospect, looking at the incident from the reptile’s perspective, it was wronged in all this. First our idiotic expedition leader sticks their hands into the river right in front of it, inviting attack whilst attempting to pillage the creature’s own food source. Then when it does what instinct compels it toward, it does little more than gash a dwarf in the leg and a dog in the… in the false ribs? Okay. Sure. And then in response it is punched at least 700 times whilst it fades in and out of consciousness. During all this three of its toes explode in gore and its neck is somehow ripped open.

Dwarf Fortress: never proportionate, ever.

Anyway, how about a few shots of the shitty hovel that is Roughrewards?

Here is the entrance with a ramp going lower, west of the wagon, river and memorial alligator bloodpatch:

A screenshot of the entry area to the fortress, with other feature points to the east.

The entryway tunnel precedes to an area I’ll later use for a trade depot, a stairwell leading down, a farm plot and a stockpile.

An unexciting screengrab of a stockpile, stairwell, farm plot and corridor.

Two levels below we find an initial set of what will become bedrooms. I have plans for a grand hall to the east, which will be used as meeting area and dining room.

Eight 3x3 bedrooms, arranged either side of a west-east corridor.

Whilst digging this lot out we struck chert and bauxite, two of the bajillion different kinds of rock that the game’s terrifyingly broad or deep – how would I know which? both? – geological simulation features. I also remembered to make a wood stockpile and to allow corpses in my refuse pile, which almost immediately results in this:

A screengrab of text from the game reading "fluffy wambler remains"

I have no more idea than you do. I guess the cats got ’em.

Dorf Fortress #1

A few weeks back I grew obsessed with Dwarf Fortress. I blame one of my workplace proximity associates, because he started talking about the Villain Update when we were at lunch. Thoughtless bastard.

After a few weeks of watching YouTube Let’s Plays (mostly by Kruggsmash) and re-reading diaries (mostly Glazedcoast and Onionbog) I decided it was time to actually play the game. Last time I tried it didn’t go so well. Dwarf Fortress’s interface is famous for two things: being extremely difficult to get on with, and being functional and logical once you’ve become accustomed to its many idiosyncrasies. It is an interface that flies in the face of contemporary ideas about user experience. The game also uses pseudo-ASCII art so, like, who cares?

After generating a new world and searching for the recommended newbie embark site – soil or clay, shallow and deep metals, serene or calm surroundings, some woodland or trees, and most importantly no bloody aquifer – I embarked with the default loadout. Strike the earth!

The first thing one should do when beginning a game of Dwarf Fortress is check out your immediate surroundings. My dwarfs were clustered on a hilly plateau, apparently many z-levels above sea level. The hill towered upwards still further to their west, which is great as it gives me some soft soil or rock to dig into for an initial entrance. To the east of my dwarfs lay a fast-flowing river, perfect for fresh water.

Elsewhere there were plenty of trees dotted about, and the grass looked like normal grass rather than, say, eyeballs on stalks. All good. The list of creatures in the area was slightly more concerning: seven hippos and an alligator. The hippos worried me as these animals can easily kill humans if they are disturbed, and I figure that they could pulp an idiot dwarf without breaking their stride. The alligator, listed as an ambush predator, worried me less. It was sat in the river nearby, but so long as no one went near it I should be fine.

Another thing it’s recommended that new players do with the default embark loadout is disable everything to do with fishing or hunting while you get your initial rooms dug out. This prevents dwarfs wandering about and, say, aggroing ambush predators in the nearby river. It’s a good tip, so I disabled everything that was recommended. I also made my fish cleaner work as a miner, as the fish cleaner is generally considered the most useless worker in the default loadout, and two miners makes mining faster.

Next I designated a 3 block wide corridor with a sharp turn in it – wide enough for a trade caravan, long enough to give me some room to assemble defences – leading to a 5×5 trade area, a 3×3 area for use as a stairwell, and a 12×12 stockpile. Once that is dug out I’ll move on to a dormitory or rooms, farms, and space for various workshops and stills. Baby steps, though. Finally, I designated a bunch of trees to be chopped down. There are as yet no elves to tell us off for this.

With everything designated, it was time to unpause the game and let my dwarfs get to it!

It all went rather well, until about three seconds had passed and my fisherdwarf walked right up to the river and was attacked by the alligator. For fuck’s sake, man. Didn’t I– oh. No. No, I didn’t disable his fishing labour.

Like I said, the interface is pretty complicated. But this screw-up was on me.

I decided to react by assembling a military squad, aka. a crack team of loyal dregs. I allocated a couple of dwarfs – everyone except my miners and woodcutter was standing about uselessly anyway – to a squad and ordered them to kill the alligator. After unpausing, they enthusiastically attacked the creature. Unarmed.

It turns out that a dwarf is entirely willing to punch an alligator repeatedly, and indeed is capable of bruising every single part of its body and even knocking it unconscious. Unfortunately, it is also rather difficult to kill an alligator this way. And even an unconscious alligator will interrupt the task of any dwarf who came anywhere near it. Did I mention the stupid bloody reptile had hauled itself onto the land and was currently sprawled in a pool of blood right next to my wagon?

At this point my “military” have been punching the alligator for what must be several in-game weeks, and it’s no closer to being dead. There are thirty pages of combat logs, each line stating that the alligator has a new bruise. I dread to visualise this. But my biggest concern is that whilst unarmed dwarfs can’t kill a creature like this, they will not stop trying. If they keep at it for long enough, they can actually die of dehydration. Whilst punching a freshwater reptile. Next to a river.

Smells like Dwarf Fortress!

Next time: how to defeat an unconscious alligator, I try not to fuck up channelling, and possibly some screenshots of our mountain hovel.

Uranium fever, it’s gone and got me down

God help me, I started playing Fallout 4 again.

I wrote about Fallout 4 for Arcadian Rhythms some three and a half years ago. I was, broadly, positive. After writing that rambling screed I soured on the game in the same way that I did with Bethesda’s Skyrim. I also wrote about the latter falling out of love experience, and much of what I say about Skyrim is applicable to Fallout 4, for all that my 2016 piece dissembles over my volte-face.

And yet here I was, a scant few years later, playing again. Why, Shaun? Why?

The initial impetus is easy to explain: I bought an Xbox One X, I own a 4K TV, I wanted to check out some pretty games, Fallout 4 has dynamic 4K support and some other rendering bells and whistles, and was free on Xbox Game Pass. So I downloaded it and pootled about a bit in the opening area, expecting I’d soon uninstall.

I didn’t.

So there I found myself again: forty or more hours into a playthrough, with that teeth-grindingly tedious Bethesda core loop (go place, kill shit, collect junk, go home, dump junk, repeat) having sunk its blunted teeth into my skin. It couldn’t draw blood, but somehow it left an impression. Damn it, Shaun. Why?

There’s a lot about Fallout 4 I actively dislike. Fallout‘s RPG DNA is non-existent at this point in the series. The dramatic gore of ‘cinematic’ VATS doesn’t look good, mainly thanks to the camera’s idiot behaviour. Somehow, melee combat is even less interesting than the game’s limp gunplay. Repeating the same quests I dimly remember from three years ago is immediately dull.

Let’s not even talk about the writing. Most characters feel as dead as the world around them. The main story is completely at odds with everything else in the game. Rarely is an interesting choice offered via dialogue. Said dialogue is at best passable, and typically tedious. Most quests have a bare minimum of narrative context wrapped around them, meaning even the quests which aren’t procedurally generated often feel as if they are.

So what do I like? Well, I tried Fallout 76 for a laugh, and Fallout 4‘s a masterpiece in comparison to that dead-on-arrival nightmare.

Wait, no, that’s not a thing I like.

I enjoyed spending time with systems I’d largely ignored previously. I built up my settlements by constructing ramshackle buildings, lighting systems and defensive chokepoints. This was actually rather fun, although there’s little purpose to it and the interface spends more time being irritating than enabling creativity.

Sometimes an area evidences care invested in the story of that place and its long-dead residents. Typically assembled by reading logs on computer systems, this can occasionally be an engaging part of exploration.

I like the music. The Fallout series’ juxtaposition of classic pop with the post-apocalyptic has always worked well, even if it’s moved from dramatic irony to pure kitsch as the series has gotten stupider.

I think that might be about it.

I was even stupid enough to buy the DLC, wondering if what it promised might actually feel more “fresh”. Not particularly! It’s the same familiar gameplay loops and absences. In terms of the broad strokes, I’d seen it all before. There’s no longer even a trace of novelty to justify my time spent. And yet there I was, spending money to try and justify playing Fallout 4 again.

Maybe I was doing this because I’m often tired. My job takes up a lot of mental energy most days and I don’t take many breaks, so when I get home in the evening my brain just wants to slump. Fallout 4 could not be more of a junk food game. No matter the session length, that bitty core loop and the secondary gameplay loops mounted to it like fascinators provide a sense of progression: stuff acquired, new place explored, experience points gained, settlement improved, etcetera. I could play it for fifteen minutes or one hundred and fifty. I might not even notice the difference.

Is that it? Is that really it? I played Fallout 4 again because it’s mindlessly comforting for me, because my brain is dulled and craves the comfort of the familiar and unchallenging? If true, is that how I want to spend my time? I’m approaching forty, for fuck’s sake: is this truly who I want to be?

Even while I was playing Fallout 4 I was eagerly anticipating when I stopped and moved on to something better. Now I have. So if you see me mindlessly indulging again, like a lapsing addict, please call me on it. I can’t see any other reason why I might go back again beyond feeling so weak that the empty pleasure of that mindless core loop is all I feel capable of seeking.

Some thoughts around Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3: Has It Really Been Five Years? is here. And while I’ve not been waiting on tenterhooks I do like the shoot-n-loot series.

Or at least I did as soon as I worked out that playing it with friends is best: the first game, played solo, I found kinda boring. I ran the sequel with friends and instantly got why the concept works so well. Occasionally I had to ask said friends to shut up so I could listen to the dialogue, which was often funny (I can’t say whether it was actually well-written, because of the structure of a Borderlands game and missing three quarters of said structure due to chatting with friends, but it was often funny). I even played half of the Pre-Sequel, which I liked, but I ended up playing a bunch of it solo again and… surprise, still kinda boring. All told, I’ve both enjoyed these games and disliked them. I suppose this makes me an ambivalent fan.

Now it really has been more than five years since Pre-Sequel. Series enthusiasts have only had a series of episodic adventure games from the disgraced and deceased Telltale Games to tide them over. So after all this time, what has Borderlands 3 brought to the table?

Murder. Huge, disgusting, violent excess. And loot. Of course.

Borderlands developer Gearbox Software have some history. They were founded all the way back in 1999, and the titles they’ve put out since can look like a who’s-who of first person shooter franchises. Their first few releases were mostly well-received expansion packs to Valve’s mega-hit Half-Life. They worked on ports of the very first Halo and, uh, James Bond Nightfire. Their first original IP was the Brothers in Arms series, of which the first instalment, Road to Hill 30, was one of those well-regarded games many friends insisted I play but I never quite got around to.

Then, in 2009, came Borderlands. It promised infinite guns, larger than life characters and colourful gunplay in a post-apocalyptic landscape, for up to four friends online. It proved popular, selling over two million copies by the end of the year, and earned top scores across the majority of the gaming press.

Gearbox’s specialisation in the first-person shooter genre shouldn’t come as a great surprise to anyone passingly familiar with its most well-known figure: co-founder, President and CEO Randy Pitchford. Along with the other four founders Pitchford had worked at 3D Realms, a developer with a lengthy history. They are best known under the name Apogee for ASCII adventure title Kingdom of Kroz, and the MS-DOS platformer Crystal Caves.

Okay, okay, 3D Realms are of course best known for the only FPS games of the nineties that rivalled what iD Software accomplished with Doom: most notably Duke Nukem 3D but also the similarly crass and over the top Shadow Warrior.

All told, this is some serious pedigree. Gearbox, and Pitchford as its prominent leader, have decades of experience building FPS games.

It may have been some surprise when the shine came off Gearbox with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Developed in a relationship with publisher Sega, who held the videogames rights to the Aliens franchise, it was another eagerly anticipated FPS. And on arrival it was a trainwreck. Accusations as to why this was the case abound. And this was the first time I became aware that people hated Randy Pitchford.

I was surprised to discover that some of the most noticeable changes in Borderlands 3 are quality-of-life improvements. Even the small stuff feels important. For example, automatic collection of ammo and cash no longer requires a button-hold. In the previous games I grew to hate the necessity of holding down a button to collect ammo from chests, something I did hundreds and hundreds of times in previous games. Now I just hoover it all up after popping a chest. Shloop! With one stroke, a major source of friction is removed.

I’m also pleased with how the game’s structure has changed in comparison to its predecessors. Past Borderlands games were mostly set on a single planet – series mainstay Pandora – and featured long, sprawling, interconnected levels, mostly composed of long canyons or ridges and joined to two or three other areas at far-flung points. Vehicles were essential to actually traverse these spaces efficiently, particularly when you’d out-levelled the creatures in an area so far that the shoot-n-loot experience began to feel rote. And what I found in practice was that I began to depend exclusively on the game’s quick-travel stations.

A regularly commented upon side-effect of using quick travel is that it undermines any sense of geography or place in a videogame world. This is far worse in games offering almost total freedom in its use – Borderlands at least restricts travel to between pre-defined points – but it certainly had the effect of destroying any sense of its levels as contiguous. I couldn’t tell you how a single area in the first three Borderlands games connects together. Even in those individual sprawling levels, if I wasn’t following an objective marker I often got lost, and constantly had to check my map.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter much. It’s not important to the core experience of Borderlands, after all. But what I really like in Borderlands 3 is how much more condensed its areas are. So far I’ve visited four planets, and each has featured three or four areas that connect at one or two points. The structure for the game’s main and secondary quests has seen me loop around and retread this ground just enough times that I know the environment well.

Learning the environment is fun in a shooter game that encourages players to remain mobile and fluid. So now I know that, for example, Lectra City on the Atlas homeworld has a lot of rooftops that are fun to fight across, and that area connects to the centre of Meridian in an area where there are usually several tough enemies to fight if I want to do that, and from there I can easily grab a vehicle and traverse the streets to a variety of other areas, and move through to the outskirts of Merdian area via several different paths, one of which takes me past a friendly base where I sell loot and restock.

It’s also nice just to get a change of scenery. I’ve seen a lot of Pandora before, and it’s cool to see new places. Meet interesting new people, and shoot them. You know?

The hatred of gamers can be as turbulent and passionate as it is funny and hopelessly misguided. It’s at its funniest when the hypocrisy just hangs right on out, as with the Modern Warfare 2 boycott Steam group who, on the day of release, were almost all visibly playing the game they’d sworn to boycott.

Sometimes these hatreds can also be dark, disturbing and violent. I’m not here to write about GamerGate, or the routinely bigoted and childish id of far too much “gamer culture”, but I will acknowledge the existence of both. Because often the targets of the seething rage of gamers is bewilderingly obtuse in its focus.

Some people truly hated Gearbox and apparently Randy Pitchford in particular for the Aliens: Colonial Marines farrago. They also hated them for the turgid and unnecessary Duke Nukem Forever, a game delayed and restarted so many times it had become a running joke. Upon release it wasn’t a joke any more. It wasn’t just another bad videogame in a world replete with bad videogames. It was a new reason to hate.

The focus of these strange, destructive passions can be so vexing partly because of why these vessels into which to pour hatred are chosen. Because a videogame was bad? Because a product no one is obliged to engage with was not what it might have been imagined to be? The childish entitlement of such worldviews feels almost alien to me.

There are other questions into which rage or frustration at the state of the games industry might be poured. How about the working practices at many development studios? How about the direct connections between major developers or publishers and the US military or arms manufacturers? How about the fundamental nature of the commercial relationships between corporate entities which actually drive the decisions that so infuriate and distress self-identified gamers? Might one challenge the contradictions inherent in major publisher-funded games that take years to develop being knife-edge dependent on a corporation’s need to deliver stable quarterly returns to shareholders? How entire studios can vanish into the void because, elsewhere in a multinational portfolio, something underperformed against predictions?

And, specifically pertinent to Gearbox Software: how about the only recently resolved drama of the lawsuits in which Randy Pitchford, and unavoidably, by extension, the company he heads were embroiled?

Late last year, Gearbox’s General Counsel of almost a decade departed the company, subject to a lawsuit concerning financial mismanagement and alleged fraud. A few months after that, said General Counsel issued a countersuit, alleging among other charges that Pitchford took a “secret” $12 million dollar bonus and in 2014 was found to have child pornography on a USB drive.

Said lawsuits were resolved at the beginning of the month, with the out of court settlement meaning the realities behind these accusations will never be made public. Already they have certainly helped to establish a sordid reputation around Pitchford and the leadership of Gearbox Software. It didn’t help that Pitchford went on a podcast to explain the 2014 incident, which in his representation was more innocent than “child pornography” might suggest but absolutely still sleazy. A different kind of sleaze to enormous executive bonuses, of course. But in the comments on these stories you will often still find people talking about Aliens: Colonial Marines, or some other past Gearbox project.

The core of the Borderlands experience is still here, and delivered upon. Combat is as fast-paced as it ever was, with the larger environments just barely broken up into node-like areas where clusters of enemies will spawn. These combat nodes are full of props and scenery that can provide cover or explosive assistance respectively, with the latter typically tying into a familiar elemental damage system that’s as comfortable as an old sweater.

It’s honestly hard to say whether combat feels or plays much differently without going back to those earlier games. Everything seems to move at a much brisker pace, and play out in generally tighter areas with less traversal of empty space, than what I remember of the Pre-Sequel, which I most recently played. But that was set on a moon with no atmosphere, and clustered its outdoor combat arenas around spaced-out oxygen shields which inherently produced more of a scrum. I guess it’s hard to say, and in any case feel is deeply subjective. But it does feel like Borderlands 3 has taken steps to cut out some bullshit and friction and bring more of the core loop to the moment-to-moment experience of the game. It’s not like a Borderlands game gives you much to reflect on in the dead time between areas, right?

Well. Perhaps it does, in a metatextual way. But let’s stick with the game for the moment.

My chosen character class, the Gunner, fights in constant movement. The perks I’ve filled out on her skill tree reward flinging large numbers of bullets towards enemies, setting them ablaze with incendiary damage. This means I spend a lot of time with SMGs or hair-trigger pistols or “assault rifles” which spin up to a blistering pace of fire, switching between these different types of weapon to produce varied engagements that, at their most challenging, demand everything I have.

This series has always offered a range of different character classes to choose from, but they’ve not been presented with as much panache as in this outing. The Gunner’s special ability deploys a mechsuit which I’ve kitted out with a minigun and flamethrower, exaggerating the strengths of my character build. I simply cannot resist a mech. At the time of character creation I was similarly tempted by Fl4k, a robot “beastmaster” who can summon aggressive critters; somewhat similar to Pre-Sequel’s Wilhelm, these summons nonetheless promised a different playstyle. Even the least appealing classes attracted me: Zane with his ability to clone himself, and Amara with some familiar Siren abilities that at least look cooler this time around.

And, of course, the guns. There are so, so many guns.

I’ve already encountered a whole bunch of characteristics in my randomly-rolled guns that I don’t remember from any previous Borderlands game. I’ve found guns that fire tracking darts, after which bullets home in on that target, much like the smart pistol in Titanfall. The throw-away-to-reload guns are back, of course, but now some of them turn into mobile turrets that will chase and attack enemies until the full clip is exhausted. I love this. Then there guns with underslung tasers that fire electrifying darts and zap everything in the vicinity – great for choke points. There are guns with infinite clips that don’t need reloading, but can overheat and need squirting with a water pistol to cool them down.

These cartoon guns have never felt so much fun.

It is not only the oft ill-conceived opprobrium of parts of their fanbase or internecine, intramural lawsuits which have dogged Gearbox in recent years.

In mid-2019 David Eddings, a former Vice President at Gearbox, levelled several accusations at his former employers. Eddings had also worked as a voice actor on the series, playing the role of the iconic and extremely grating Claptrap robots. The accusations are preceded by an explanation for why he is not reprising his former role in Borderlands 3. Previously he was not paid for the role; this time he requested paying to perform it, and “all of a sudden they couldn’t afford me”.

What worsened matters, at least in the public eye, was how Pitchford chose to handle this. He engaged on twitter, stated the former senior employee was “bitter and disgruntled” about his termination, and claimed Eddings was offered good rates for the role. Eddings responded by accusing Pitchford of assaulting him in a hotel lobby at an industry event several years earlier.

As in the lawsuits, these are disputes that to a substantial degree are bound up in money, and about which a regular observer can never expect to know the truth of any claims. And yet they contribute to a pattern that indelibly leaves the casual observer with an impression, with a sense that something is not right. If this is what we see when things boil over, and remains lurking, predatory, beneath the surface?

Another voice actor on the Borderlands series is Chris Hardwick, who did return for the third installment. In June 2016 Hardwick was accused of sexual and emotional abuse by a former girlfriend during the #MeToo allegations. He was suspended by his employers, American cable channel AMC, but restored after an internal review. This decision was controversial, resulting in a number of female staffers and a co-executive producer resigning in protest.

If #MeToo taught us anything, it is how abuse pervades so many institutions, and is executed by so many men. That eruption of allegations, it must be remembered, remains only the tip of the iceberg. It is an indicator of deep and recurrent patterns of abuse and cultures of toxicity.

I’m enjoying playing Borderlands 3. It is a good game, iterating and improving on what came before, and delivering what it offers with confidence and style. It is the product of an entire team of game developers, of many different disciplines. So many people contributed their experience, skill and passion to create something fun. I know what it is like to work inside such a culture. It is engaging, and energising, and endlessly inspiring.

So what is my point here? That I should not be enjoying playing Borderlands 3? Because the executive culture and business practices of the organisation which produced it shows signs of toxicity, of abuse? Because its CEO, frankly, looks and sounds like an ass both in public persona and how he handles business?

That cannot be right. It does not stand on either an intellectual or an emotional level. But there is a relationship between this source of pleasure and this source of consternation. We saw the tip of an iceberg threatening Gearbox as a working culture; perhaps that iceberg itself is a sign of something still more massive, lurking largely unquestioned within the body of presuppositions that underpins so much of the writing, analysis and reaction within this multibillion dollar industry designed to entertain us for profit.

Is this a circle demanding to be squared? Is Pitchford’s behaviour really any different to that of ten thousand other well-remunerated executives doing exactly what is expected of them: maximising returns, minimising costs, consciously or unconsciously fighting a class position? And have we not already established that it is as childish a position to reject entirely the products of dysfunctional capitalist institutions as it is to reflexively defend them against all critiques that originate outside capital?

This isn’t a question of whether or not to buy this game, or whether or not to support the developers or the project with your wallet. Such individual consumer “boycotts” are meaningless on the mass level, irrespective of how much personal meaning the decisions made might hold. But nor is this a call for action: none of the ugliness around Gearbox which has slithered into view, and invited this essay, clearly demands an effort toward mass organisation.

The point, if you concur that there is one, is that in this business that makes our entertainment there are questions to be asked, and truths to pursue, and changes to be prepared to fight for, even if there is no clarity to the path or destination in sight.

This is what I think about when I play Borderlands 3.

There is no AJ in Team

I have three friends – who I’ll call AJ, Madd and Potter, since those are essentially their names – with whom I play games online most Sunday evenings. It’s a nice way to stay in touch and it’s a lot of fun. They’re very patient with how bad I am at PUBG.

Over the last few months we’ve been playing Vigor, a free to play “shoot ‘n loot” from Bohemia Interactive. Bohemia are well-known for the ArmA series, which is a tactical military shooter notorious for its realism. Vigor shares some of its approach to weapon handling – running and gunning will not go well for you – but is a round-based game where cautious, paranoid scavenging is as viable and important a strategy as hunting for other players.

Sadly, Vigor does not sport four-player co-op play. This makes sense, as such a setup would run counter to its core design. At most you can take one friend into a match: someone to watch your back while you scavenge.

It is technically possible to get into a game with more friends than this. If you and three friends team up, and the two hosts don’t have too much lag between them, and they get the timing on an attempt to join a match just right, there’s a possibility you’ll load into the same map.

To do this with the intent to cooperate is a dangerous technique even if you succeed. Your friends look just like every other potentially hostile player. Communication and caution are essential if you’re to try this approach. But if you succeed the potential rewards are great. You can take your time scavenging and really clean up a map, and even make a strong push for the game’s greatest rewards.

Good communication is key. When we found ourselves in the same lobby for a match on Batterie Draug, a small 8-player map, we knew this. Madd and I spawned on the map’s southern edge, near the map’s locked safe – the second best loot point but also a common flashpoint for hostilities – whilst AJ and Potter spawned on the west coast.

“Let’s meet up at the south-western most buildings,” suggested Madd, who generally keeps a cool head. “Shaun and I will loot in the area while you guys cut south.”

A notification popped up almost as soon as the match started: a player had gone rogue. This means they killed their team mate. We were reasonably confident this player then immediately exited the map. (This is another popular exploit in the game: by making use of the ‘insurance’ feature that prevents equipment loss on death, it’s possible for players to ‘duplicate’ rare weapons for their friends via team-killing.)

We rejoiced. We had just moved from four against four to four against two. We were going to clean out this map.

“Potter, don’t shoot anyone in the back,” we joked. The guy has form, which is occasionally down to a twitchy trigger finger but more often straight-up griefing. He and AJ have been friends for years and AJ still ribs him about some of the shit he’s pulled. “Very funny,” is all he’ll say.

Madd and I set to looting around the agreed buildings. We still didn’t know exactly where the other two players in the match were so we remained on guard, taking it in turns to cover one another while we rummaged through chests and boxes. Madd played a benevolent and helpful role, as he was much more experienced with the game and was keen to help me advance.

AJ and Potter were making steady progress towards us. They were also looting as they moved but we were aiming to hook up quickly so that we could actually play together. Our game plan was to find and take out the remaining players so that we could scavenge freely.

There was plenty about to tempt us, though, as several players had spent currency in the lobby to increase the amount of loot on the map. We were having a rewarding time and spirits were high.

“We’re almost there,” AJ reported.

“Great,” Madd replied. “We’re just looting the houses.”

I heard the unmistakable sound of approaching footsteps. And then a cry from Potter: “There’s someone in the house!”

Adrenaline spiked. I dropped into a crouch. I snapped my camera back and forth between the visible doors. Where were they? The footsteps were suddenly all around us.

Gunfire erupted with savage immediacy. I saw flashes from a nearby window, and then I could only watch as my character crumpled to the ground.

“I’m down,” I say, into the chaos of panicked chatter and gunfire. I didn’t even get a shot off.

“Got one!” AJ crows.

More gunfire followed. It was all over so fast that it was hard to tell what had just happened. But in the end, Madd and I were both dead. Potter and AJ still lived, and were moving cautiously into the building. I was dumbstruck as I spectated the player who killed me.

“They’re all down,” AJ confirms. “Damn, I got one of them through the window! Did you see that shooting?”

I waited for him and Potter to figure out there were only two bodies in the house. For emblazoned across my screen were the words: you were killed by AJ.

A slightly dramatised tale of an actual match of Vigor, in tribute to AJ’s infamous 2011 article about Potter’s team-killing exploits: “There is no Potter in Team“.

Remnant: From the Ashes

Remnant: From the Ashes is a game with a bad title from a team best known for the Darksiders games*, of which I have played 1.1 of them. I really enjoyed the first Darksiders, but never played far into its sequel, and know very little about last year’s third instalment.

Remnant: From the Ashes is a game I heard about via word of mouth. For some reason a good number of my friends I talk about games with were all curious about it, or at least discussing it. Why might that have been?

Remnant: From the Ashes is a game which, from the first moment I heard about it, was mentioned in the same breath as Dark Souls. Ah, so that is why my friends were discussing it. We just can’t get away from Dark Souls.

Remnant: From the Ashes, a name which I won’t be typing in full any more, because this bit is tiring and isn’t funny anyway, does have a few similarities with Dark Souls. At its core, though, it shares more DNA with DarkSiders.

This means that the combat feels pleasingly “chunky”: ranged attacks land with a wallop and melee attacks slice through mobs of weaker enemies. Even if I didn’t know the provenance of the development team I’d have likened its feel, pace and fluidity to my memories of DarkSiders.

Similarly to that predecessor, Remnant‘s setting is a shattered remnant of human civilization. This time it’s something called The Root rather than the unleashing of Hell’s denizens that has brought this about. I’m approximating aggressively here, but basically some Ents living near Isengard got pissed about rare earth processing runoff polluting everything, just for mobile phones which end up in landfill after a couple of years.

Yeah, our biosphere is so fucked. It’s okay though. There’s a new Apple Watch coming out, and the screen always stays on.

Where Remnant does have some similarities with the oft-mentioned Souls games is in its level of challenge – it’s pretty tough – and its handling of death – which is something you’ll encounter regularly. Remnant has what are basically Souls bonfires, to which you return on death, or can rest at if you choose. When this happens, all slain enemies reappear. Boom. It’s more forgiving than Souls with its meta-progression, but also interestingly crueller, as new areas are reportedly rebalanced to fit a character’s level. You can out-level one area, but not the game.

I’ve now played enough of Remnant to have an idea of how its procedurally generated elements work, and its various imposing bosses. Each campaign is rolled on start, with the broad objectives the same but the exact layout, and which bosses appear where, varied. Where in my own playthrough I fought a dragon, a friend I joined for co-op faced one of those ents I mentioned earlier. Although I recognised much of the environment I explored with him, the way its components fitted together was very different to what I had battled through.

So far I like what I’ve encountered rather a lot. Solo it’s a tense experience; in co-op it’s intense. I recommend it if you have two friends; the worst thing about the game is that it doesn’t have four player co-op.

One proviso for anyone who picks it up based on my recommendation: get through the tutorial as fast as you can, because it doesn’t showcase combat well and the dialogue is impossibly dreary.

(*A team twice reformed: Vigil Games was not bid upon when developer/publisher THQ went bankrupt in 2013. Most of the team reformed as Crytek USA, a studio that survived about six months before its dissolution during Crytek’s own financial difficulties. Most of the team reformed again, this time as Gunfire Games, who ended up making DarkSiders III anyway.)

Dead Rising 4

Zombies! Tens of thousands of ’em! They’re all over the mall, shuffling about and eating people. And there you are, photojournalist Frank West or one of the less good protagonists, treating them like a minor inconvenience while you chase down the story.

I’ve got a lot of time for the Dead Rising series, all the way back to the 2006 original. Initially intrigued by the technology that could put hundreds of zombies on-screen simultaneously with – for the day – respectable 3D graphics and performance, I found myself won over by game design. Frank, you see, couldn’t be everywhere at once, and the Willamette mall was full of survivors who needed saving, psychopaths (…mmm) who needed stopping, and leads that needed following. The game forced decisions and sacrifice on you, and made it quite clear you couldn’t do everything.

Not the most popular design choice, if you listen to people who shouldn’t be allowed to have opinions. Waaah. I can’t do everything. Whatever. Dead Rising was an intense and memorable experience, one that actively rewarded repeat playthroughs, exploring different paths and routes and choices. It actively reinforced this approach through its meta-progression, with character levels and abilities carried over after death, if you opted to start the story again rather than load your last save. It’s a game about experimentation to learn your environment: where certain items can be found, good routes from A to B, what can be accomplished against the relentlessly ticking clock. Or, if you prefer, a game about ignoring that clock and just dicking around, smacking zombies with parasols and trying on stupid costumes.

The zombies were usually the most minor obstacle, particularly as your skillset expanded to include tricks like hopping on zombies’ heads to easily traverse a horde. They were much harder work when attempting to save or escort survivors, where you often needed to directly fight through a horde – or simply, as Rab Florence memorably put it in an old videoGaiden review, when you’re off doing your thing and you forgot about the zombies.

The series has watered down these elements over time. The focus has shifted further toward zombie-infested locations as toybox, supported with (fun!) additions such as the combination of scavenged objects to make outlandish weaponry. As the focus shifted it the importance of making meaningful decisions declined; there was less need to accept compromises or miss out, or to deeply learn and memorise environments or carefully plan routes. None of this is inherently bad. These are just different design choices. What is a shame is that they are all choices that move away from what makes Dead Rising still a largely unique videogame, and toward the convergence point of so-called “triple-A”* sandbox games.

Dead Rising 4, then. It’s full of collectibles: not just blueprints for combo weapons but also newspapers, podcasts, cloud uploads, cellphones, keys and so on. There’s a few hundred of the sodding things. It’s just shy of full Ubigame, mainly differing in that in order to identify everything on your map, you need to secure a safehouse, then grind out a bunch of randomly occurring survivor-rescue events. This sort of works, because within each of the game’s environments there’s some pleasure in learning them, but the game world is also made up of four not well-connected locations with a main story that awkwardly shuffles you between them. Alongside collectibles, then, there’s another sin of contemporary sandbox games: it is simply too big, meaning too much boring traversal, too much repeated busywork between locations, and insufficient opportunity or encouragement to learn the environments in an interesting way.

DR4 also dispenses with all the character progression elements of the first two games. If you die, you load from a checkpoint. That’s it. Enticement to replay the game only comes in the form of scooping up those collectibles. Yay. Great for the one-run-only crew, I guess. There’s a traditional character build tree rather than the old approach of receiving a random upgrade every level. It’s fine to take that route, but I felt a lot of the options weren’t very interesting, and there was never a sense that my decisions mattered much except where I chose an option that would speed up future progression.

There’s also now a health bar rather than health pips, which basically means you constantly lose health when in proximity to zombies, compared to the calculable neatness of the older system. Again, this is just different. I pay less attention to health as a result. It’s also easier to manage health now. Dead Rising 4, in general, is easier and more fluid to play than its predecessors. In usability terms it’s hugely improved. Health, throwable, melee and ranged weapons are mapped to the d-pad, and choosing the right tool for a situation is much easier than the panicked left-right taps through Dead Rising’s common inventory ever was.

There’s a compromise there, too. It’s an improvement in usability that I imagine also makes the game more accessible, which is a very important consideration. But there is also a loss inherent in it, because poor usability can, intentionally or not, contribute toward a game’s theme. The shift from clumsy tank controls in Resident Evil to the fluid over-the-shoulder action of Resident Evil 4 is perhaps the most famous example, showing how control and interaction can be an integral part in transitioning a sedately-paced and nail-biting horror series into a fluid, intense action series. Not ‘bad’. Not better, or worse. Just different.

But back to Dead Rising 4. Yeah, I enjoyed it, and played its lacklustre story through to the end. In some ways it’s more fun to play than what came before. But in so many others it’s content to imitate competitors in preference to building upon its forebears. And in so doing, it can’t help but lose parts of the identity that once made a Dead Rising game stand out.

A coda, of sorts: I think a lot of people were made very angry by Dead Rising 4 launching alongside a paid DLC that promises to finish the story. Yeah, the main game that you buy for £60 or whatever doesn’t do that. Except that it does, in the sense that you see protagonist Frank West falling into a horde of zombies with no chance of escape. Of course he could escape, but at this point I’m content just to look away and accept Frank is, finally, dead.

* If you don’t follow the games press, and I can hardly blame you as it’s often dreadful and at best myopic, this terminology is basically adopted from corporate publishers and means “we spent a lot of money on it”. Some chumps are now using the term “quadruple-A”, which basically means “we spent even more money on it”.

Outer Wilds

You always know that the end of a cycle is coming. First the music builds to an emotional climax. Then it eases through its diminuendo. And then there is a moment, like a sudden building of pressure in the inner ear, when sound seems to rush inwards. If you have a suitable vantage point you might see a star folding in on itself, like a crumpled piece of paper crushed into an ever-tighter ball. And then it explodes.

Knowing that the end of a cycle approaches can be a blessing. Perhaps you have found your way into some secret place, where you can use those precious fore-warned moments to hurriedly root out a few more pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps you’re in a location where you can learn simply by observing what happens right now, at this moment. Or perhaps you have no such pressing business, and this is simply a fine moment to climb to the nearest high point, look toward that dying star, and watch patiently as the fury of untold trillions of tonnes of ejected solar mass boils across space toward you, obliterating all in its path. It can be quite beautiful.

For a game that sees an entire solar system perish in violence and fire every twenty-one minutes, Outer Wilds is a remarkable relaxing experience.

It’s not without its stressful moments. It’s a game of exploration, and that means oftentimes you need to figure out how to get from A to B. Maybe there’s a seemingly obvious route, but for reasons you quickly discover it is not one that is open to you. Perhaps you need to think laterally, or some clue might be found elsewhere, nearby or in some other disparate place.

Most often these moments of stress come when you think you may have cracked one of these little mysteries. You’re deftly moving from A, eating up the distance to B. And then you hear that inward clap of a dying star, and hear the photons rushing past you, and you curse that you didn’t have just one more minute-

You might think moments of stress come when you simply can’t figure out how to get somewhere, or one of the game’s many other mysteries. This rarely happens. There is always something else to try, some other lead to follow, and nowhere takes that long to reach, even if it’s on the far side of the solar system. You will never have more than twenty-one minutes to get anywhere, after all. Sometimes it’s best just to look, and think.

Outer Wilds is a remarkably tight game and its half-dozen or so major destinations are peppered with locations and mysteries, secrets buried here and there and mazes turning in on themselves. The majority of these are interconnected, nodes within an intricate web that promises, once its structure is sufficiently clarified, to reveal the mysteries at the heart of this solar system.

Perhaps it delivers on that promise. I encourage you to take up the mantle of adventure. Explore Outer Wilds, and find out for yourself.

NEO Scavenger

Blue Bottle Games’ NEO Scavenger is predominantly the work of Daniel Fedor, an ex-Bioware technical artist and occasional designer/producer. BBG’s mission statement, “video games for players who enjoyed pen and paper role-playing games and want to have those experiences on the computer”, is a decent conceptual starting point for what it has to offer. NEO Scavenger features some fairly deep and complex systems, and the first few times I tried to play it I bounced right off, alienated by its rough UI and lack of hand-holding.

More recently my perseverance paid off. And I discovered that like many pen and paper role-playing games, NEO Scavenger is a great vehicle for generating memorable stories.

The rough theme and concept is this: you wake up in a cryogenic facility and very quickly discover that the world outside is in a bad way. Basic necessities – shelter, food, water – are hard to come by, and it’s not impossible that your first game will end with your character dying of hypothermia dressed only in a flimsy hospital gown. But if you utilise the skills available to you, and manage to scavenge enough gear and resources to attend to your immediate needs, you’ll find yourself with the freedom and flexibility to find whole new ways to die.

It’s a brutal game. My first recent attempt was probably my most successful. I found a child’s backpack, a meat cleaver, a sleeping bag and lots of warm clothing, which combined with my foraging skills (which enabled me to locate non-poisonous berries and mushrooms in the wilds) left me a sense that I was flourishing. Thus emboldened I walked eastwards, towards the horizon-brightening glow that marks Detroit, and found a shopping trolley. This qualifies as a vehicle, and meant I could carry even more stuff. Fantastic! Minutes later I was bum-rushed by a pair of dogmen, fast and dangerous enemies attracted by the noise of my rattling metal contraption. My attempts to ditch the trolley and flee, then hide, failed. Without much effort one of the dogmen left me bleeding out.

On my next attempt I picked a different set of skills and set out to the north. I was attacked by a few wild dogs in succession, but it turns out that them’s good eatin’. I also found a set of binoculars and discovered the joys of extra tile visibility. Unfortunately, as I’d not taken the ‘Tough’ skill I was less resistant to the kinds of things that flourish in non-sterilised water. It wasn’t a pretty death, and that’s in the context of “recently eviscerated by dogmen”.

I’ve taken a little break from NEO Scavenger but I’ll be going back to it. I’m sure there are many more stories to experience, and perhaps one day I’ll even make it to what’s left of Detroit. Where, no doubt, there will be even more exciting ways to die. Other fans of emergent storytelling should try this game too, if only to experience a confused sense of joy upon finding an old plastic bag.