Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.
Our next Smugglivus guest is one of our favourite writers, Andrea K. Höst, author of the Touchstone Trilogy which we just had the pleasure of releasing a special paperback edition of!
“Wow! There’s a palm frond floating in the water!”
The smallest things delight in the current generation of games. Footprints! Water you can swim in! The ability to not only hop over tiny walls, but to climb almost anything! We’ve come a long way from Pong.
Because I’ve been working on a novel about a virtual reality game, I’ve been over-indulging in games over the past couple of years. I’ll discuss the games later, but first a digression into where games are, and how much further we’d really like them to go.
Most of the games I’ve been playing are the big, free-roaming open world games that attract me with their pretty scenery and exhaust me with their 100+ hour full completion times. Great big, amazing sandboxes…that still have as far to go toward true virtual reality as they’ve come.
Some parts of a true virtual experience simply aren’t yet in play. Taste and smell are not on the board. Touch…well, a little haptic feedback (vibration) is the merest shadow of all that a true virtual experience would be expected to offer.
[I keep saying ‘true virtual’ because we do, of course, already have virtual reality gaming. It’s limited to a sight and sound experience (possibly with some motion if you throw in a lot of extra equipment), and while it adds an immediacy that’s great for horror, it’s frankly an inferior gaming experience to console-and-control games.]
Current console/pc games offer a limited, highly artificial experience. But would players truly want to play anything like current games in a true virtual world? Play a mystery game where you could interact with every single object in a crime scene? The blood, the maggots, the gore? Where you’d have to endure any of the environments game characters are regularly thrown into?
Even in comfortable environments, the physical punishment game characters go through would make any sensible player long for the days when computer games were confined to pictures and sound.
But in the current state of game worlds, deliberate unreality is an important factor in game enjoyment. You can push on through a stomach wound, catch yourself one-handed from a twenty foot drop, and run with unrelenting endurance. But what would we – or, at least, I – really want from a true virtual game?
Open world games are staged over expansive play areas: sandboxes that allow players to wander in any direction, to leave the ‘rails’ of the main plotline and make their own fun – or encounter the carefully crafted fun dotted about waiting for them.
It takes sixteen minutes to ride across Assassin’s Creed: Origins’ Egypt. Fallout 4‘s Boston region is a 41 minute walk, the main continents of The Witcher 3 around 45. In true virtual, it would definitely be tempting to retain this compact world design – or to restrict the play area to make it feasible for everything to be within a short walk or ride.
Either way, we would simply have to retain those spectacular views. Games have evolved to the point where you can look into the distance, and know you can visit that building on the horizon – or all the places in between. So I’d vote for true virtual being a serious foot slog, with plenty of rapid transport options, and countless things to discover on the way.
Every second game I’ve played recently has foliage in four different forms. Trees (some climbable). Painted background/obstacles. Things you can pick for crafting. Hiding places.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins (the most recently released of all the games I’ve been playing), pleased me by having more than one variety of plant you could hide in, which was a change from the majority of recent open world games, which have had the same plant growing on mountain tops, in deserts, and through lush jungles. Origins gave me the chance to crouch in floral planters – and firmly ignore the fact that I would leave a trodden and very obvious path.
Plant life makes a huge difference to my gaming experience (the sear post-apocalyptic landscape of Fallout 4 was one of the game’s big negatives). I like variety in plants, and I love sunlight effects through long grass. I will frequently stop and play with the camera for ages because I’m admiring the trees.
I am, of course, all for more of this in a true virtual environment, at which point I will be able to properly look at these plants and gripe: “This ‘daffodil’ looks like a petunia!”.
Living creatures in game environments have become increasingly sophisticated, and while they are still relatively limited in terms of pathing and activities, it’s hard not to appreciate a flock of birds bursting out of the cover ahead, or dragonflies drifting over water, or cats that run up to you in hopes of a pat.
Whether computer-controlled characters with limited dialogue trees will be at all tolerable in a true virtual world is another matter altogether.
Hell is other people
Almost all the games I’ve been discussing are either single player, or limited co-op games. But true virtual may eventually reach online multiplayer games, and then a whole different world of Do Not Want will open up.
Verbal abuse is already a massive problem in online games, and game developers don’t seem able to moderate it effectively. How attractive will true virtual be if torture and assault are possible? Perhaps online virtual gaming will be restricted to carefully controlled friend lists, or there will be a rise of player reputation based on whether you would really trust them in a virtual environment as consequence-free as many current online games.
My recent open(ish) world games
These are not by any means the most recently released, but in order of least to most enjoyable, these are the games I’ve played in the last couple of years.
Mass Effect: Andromeda
This was not as bad as all the mockery about the animations made it seem, but it was still sub-par on so many levels. Leaving the Milky Way for a Brave New World style settlement in Andromeda, we follow a newly-minted ‘Pathfinder’ whose role is to find solutions to a wide range of settlement and first contact issues (mainly by shooting people and hopping about ancient but surprisingly active ruins).
The main takeaway I took from the game was a strong impression that the Andromeda Initiative recruited on some hidden agenda to rid our galaxy of people with no common sense whatsoever. Or that the Initiative HR people were actively trying to sabotage the Initiative by placing the least suitable people into key roles.
Story and character relationships are one of the big sellers of Bioware games such as the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. Unfortunately, the concept of Pathfinder was outright unconvincing, and I didn’t really warm to any of the crew. I still played through the main plot without flagging, but it’s not a game I’d revisit, even if the poor reception hadn’t killed the series outright.
Verdict: Mass Incompetence: Andromeda.
Final Fantasy XV
The Final Fantasy series has flagged in the last few years. The three main FFXIII games never really achieved a compelling plot or rewarding character arcs, and combined that lack with frustrating, uninteresting gameplay. FFXV was a big improvement in character and gameplay, but the plot was a muddy, gutted mess, the remnant of someone’s bright idea to split out large parts of the story into later downloadable content, or other media such as movies and comics.
The bare bones of the story were interesting enough – a prince and his three male retainers/friends set out on a road trip on the way to the prince’s long-arranged wedding. But then invasions happen, and the four need to work out what next, renegotiating and firming their friendship while dodging attacks and earning vehicle upgrades.
While the four party members were all distinct, enjoyable characters, FFXV sadly abandoned the long tradition of Final Fantasy games featuring playable female characters. Additionally, the female character you see most frequently is dominated by fan service angles and outfit.
The whole game feels like missed potential: there was a solid foundation, and then a hollow sketch of a conclusion, as if all the emotional impact had been carved away. And perhaps it was: I spent a ton of time in the opening zone(s), and hardly any in the elaborate Venice-inspired city.
I would recommend this game to Final Fantasy stalwarts, but to newcomers to the IP, I would suggest the recent re-release of FFIX instead.
Verdict: Somebody stole my dénouement!
Rise of the Tomb Raider.
I played the original Tomb Raider with my (not-usually-a-gamer) sister, way back on the original PlayStation, and it was just the sort of game I liked. Climbing puzzles! Hidden treasures (and the Ah-ha! sound Lara would make when she found a secret). And Lara, dry and competent and unrelenting. She had stupidly short shorts, but was still more sensibly dressed than many female game characters. The bit I probably liked least was occasionally encountering goon-like bad guys, and having to have shoot-outs, but even that was made entertaining by Lara’s very unlikely dodging animation.
The 2013 reboot was barely Tomb Raider. There were very few tombs involved, and plenty of shooting. And every time Lara died, there were these lingering death porn scenes that were immensely off-putting. Lara spent a lot of time whimpering.
Not to say it was a bad game – just that it had shifted away from the core gameplay and characterisation of the original series. Which meant I was in no hurry for the next release, Rise of the Tomb Raider, picking it up cheap more than a year after it came out.
There were more tombs! Most of them were non-essential side possibilities, but they were good and fun tombs. Less whimpering as well, and the death porn scenes had been shortened. One particular disappointment was the limited number of locations. Starting a new zone in the original series, and getting used to the new limits and possibilities, was always a particular treat.
Verdict: Still with the Daddy issues, though.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins
The Assassin’s Creed series involves delving into genetic memory to trace the long conflict between the public-protecting Assassins and the rule-the-world Templars. I played the very first entry in the series, released in 2007, but did not finish it, defeated by the repetition of the game structure: go to area, climb towers, synchronise, trail people and kill them, rinse repeat. Since then, there’s been a new game every year, and this is the first one I’ve picked up at release, because it’s set in Egypt (in the Ptolemy era).
Origins takes us all the way back to the beginning of the Assassin’s Brotherhood, and focuses on Bayek and Aya, a married couple out for vengeance after the death of their son. Both of these characters have enough passion to make you want them to succeed, although they are of the focused, dedicated type that doesn’t produce the kind of snappy banter that provokes “will follow them to DLC” status.
You play a lot more as Bayek than as Aya (whose sections are more limited and appear less polished, and I could totally have done without the ship battles), and overall the gameplay is well done. The repetitious structure is not quite so prominent, and there’s more personality to sidequests.
But the reason I’m playing this is Egypt. Boating on the Nile. Desecrating pyramids. Gawping at all the monumental statues.
I wouldn’t say I really learned all that much about life in Hellenic-controlled Egypt during this game, but I gather there’s going to be a later expansion of the game which is a kind of ‘history mode’, which will treat the world like a living museum. I just enjoyed visiting one of the great African civilisations, and looking at all the scenery.
Verdict: Pretty, with kitties.
Horizon Zero Dawn.
Every other game in this list is part of a long-established IP, but HZD didn’t have a pre-established fanbase. It had robot dinosaurs.
It also had excellent gameplay, an increasingly snark-prone protagonist, and the compelling mystery of who is Aloy, and why are there robot animals everywhere?
The mystery is worth going into without spoilers, and while the graphics did not have the draw distance quality (the amount of detail going out to the horizon) that many other recent AAA (top tier) games have had, it was still very nice to look at, and demanded frequent stops to try to capture some of the pretty.
HZD makes a firm effort to be diverse (and my questions about why such small communities seemed to be so genetically varied was actually resolved once I knew more about their background), but some players did raise concerns about primarily white groups seeming to ape Native American forms of dress. The characters themselves cannot know the context: it’s a question for the designers to be respectful about where they draw their inspiration.
I liked Aloy, and would like to see who she becomes. Will she develop actual solid relationships with people, or will she always be the mysterious stranger who saves everyone and moves on? Will she forgive the Nora for the way they treated her and start to consider them ‘home’? I would definitely like the game more if she had a few travelling companions, but even if she’s still in outsider mode I will very likely pick up the next game. At the same time, I didn’t pick up the recent DLC (it looked like a long, pretty sidequest), and I wonder whether the game will lose some of its compelling nature now that we know the reason for the robots. Running around just hunting the rest of the Greek Pantheon, rather than unravelling a mystery, might well be less compelling.
Verdict: Actually has an important mother figure!
The Witcher 3
Astonishingly, I enjoyed this a huge amount. I say astonishing because I’ve rarely encountered a series so thoroughly situated in the fantasy of being the studliest badass around. The first game in the series, The Witcher, was so overtly aimed at heterosexual men that you received an achievement collectible for every woman you had sex with (in the form of a picture of that woman in a post-coital pose). So it was only constant praise from many sources (and a very cheap game of the year edition) that lured me into trying this.
And, truly, The Witcher 3 is one of the best-crafted open world games I’ve encountered. Pleasing gameplay, lovely to look at, and with an expansive (crapsack) world constructed with just the right level of detail to keep drawing you on to the next point and the next.
Based on a series of books, the games revolve around Geralt, one of an order whose members were modified in childhood to give them abilities suitable for fighting monsters. There is a very firm sense of history, of interconnecting and conflicting loyalties. Old friends, enemies and lovers crashing into new priorities, as the powerful but declining schools of witchers are used for political ends.
The Witcher series is frequently accused of being sexist, and the defence I’ve most often seen against the charge is that a game with such strong female characters can’t be sexist. It’s very true that the series has a plethora of powerful women, all with their own aims (and not all of them willing to have sex with Geralt!). It’s also true that by the end of the series, quite a few of those women have been brought low in some way or another (they’re mostly a circle of female mages, who do not fare well when magic is outlawed in one of the major kingdoms).
While a game can have good characters and still be sexist, I think that only the first game falls into this category outright. Once the sex card trophy thing is ditched in the second game, we’re left with several sexist societies, and a focus on the fantasy of being a studly badass whom a large number of women find attractive. But, with the exception of the Bloody Baron plotline, I’d suggest that anyone who had the same reservations about the series as I did can safely skip the first two games, and enjoy this one.
Verdict: C’mon, Roach!
Uncharted: A Thief’s End and A Lost Legacy
I played this twice. That is so impossibly rare for me. But it is so pretty, and so fun.
I did not follow the Uncharted series until the recent remaster release. When the first game came out (back in 2007), it looked to me very focused on shooting, and I was not overly interested. And it does indeed have quite a bit of shooting. But it turns out the series is pure, focused adventure, with lots of fun climbing puzzles (more than the rebooted Tomb Raider, I’d say), fantastic action sequences, and on-point characterisation.
Uncharted (and The Witcher 3) top this list in part because there is a big focus on character connection. Geralt has extremely complicated relationships with various people. Nathan Drake, and Chloe and Nadine in the Lost Legacy DLC, have complicated buddy relationships. Uncharted, in particular, shines because we often see a pair or group of characters working together, bantering, sniping at each other, and making us care not just about the cool things on the screen, but these people.
If you do decide to pick this up, go through the remaster of the first three games before playing A Thief’s End. There is a lot of emotional payoff that you’ll miss out on otherwise, and the whole series is a true high point in game-delivered storytelling.
Verdict: Indiana Drake.
So that’s my list. There are no big open world games on the horizon that are on my instabuy radar. I will probably check out Anthem, which is a mechasuit game from Bioware that looks rather different from anything they’ve done before. If you’ve any recommendations, I’d love to hear them! I like them pretty, preferably with interesting women, adventure, and a good solid story.
Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia – mainly in Townsville, Queensland. She now lives in Sydney.
Andrea writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories set in worlds which slightly skew our social expectations, and most especially give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.
Her novel “The Silence of Medair” was a finalist for the 2010 Aurealis Awards for best fantasy novel, while her novel “And All the Stars” was a finalist for both the 2012 Aurealis Awards and 2012 Cybils Awards.
You can catch the latest news from Andrea at her site: andreakhost.com