Tag Archives: Video Games

The Economy

I think it’s time we talked about The Economy.

In video games.

A lot of games have an economy of some sort, where you earn something and spend that something on a something beneficial. In Super Mario Bros. and Crash Bandicoot you collect coins and wumpa fruit (respectively) and when you get a hundred of them it’s an extra life. It’s a simple enough exchange, one that, like provides impetus and rewards for doing stuff.

You’ve got the other end of the spectrum, of course. Finance simulators like Zapitalism (a wonderful game from ’97 that I played a lot of in the early 2000s and remain wonderfully inept at) has you running a store by managing upkeep, stock, prices, a stock market, salaries, import rights, building permits, government bonds, betting on how long someone can stand on one leg, corporate sabotage, loans, insurance, etc. It’s a delightfully complex game, and really is a game all about economics. Now, while Zapitalism teaches you many principles and pitfalls of unrestrained capitalism (eg: having money makes it easier to make more money and so the rich get richer), it’s not quite the economy I’m thinking of right now.

For that, let’s talk about Pokémon. Any of them, really, but we all know Gold and Silver are the best. You get money in the games by beating other trainers, money that you can then spend on PokéBalls or healing items like potions. If you wanna catch ’em all, you need that money to catch more Pokémon. Now, if you lose a battle and all your Pokémon faint, you black out and lose a chunk of your money; thereby providing consequences for running your team into the ground. The nice thing about Pokémon is that money is a renewable resource, insofar as there’s always ways to get more money; even after you beat the game you can still challenge the Elite Four for their precious precious money. Earlier in the game you can also sell items you’ve collected along the way for an influx of cash. Even though there are (economic) consequences to losing, they’re remediable enough.

Not so in Mass Effect 2. The money (credits) in this game is earned by going on missions, in other words you get credits for advancing the story and pursuing optional side-quests too. It’s a clever system, since these credits are what let you buy new armor and weapon upgrades. Basically, the more of the game’s story you explore, the more stuff you can get. The problem is there is a finite amount of missions in the game and thus a finite amount of credits. Which wouldn’t be that bad, except for the fact that Fuel and Probes cost credits, and depending on how you play the game, you can bankrupt yourself on Fuel and Probes and thus not have enough credits for, y’know, making your guns shootier.

Speaking of making guns shootier, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker introduces a resource management aspect. Your combat unit generates GMP (Gross Military Product, you are running a non-governmental/national private military force out of international waters, after all) which you can then in turn use to research and develop new weapons and other tools for use in the field. It’s a fairly simple mechanic, of the GMP earned you allocate x amount to whatever project, do a mission, the project completes, you can then reallocate those funds elsewhere.

It’s the sequel, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain that takes things several steps forward. Your combat unit still earns GMP, but this time it’s earned periodically and once GMP is used it’s gone until you get more. Rather than the budget allocation that defined Peace Walker’s economy, Phantom Pain is built upon the more ‘traditional’ earning and spending of funds. The twist of the game’s economy is that research and development programs aren’t the only things that cost GMP. Going out into the field will cost you GMP, in that you have to pay for your ammunition, weapons, helicopter fuel, and so on. Once out in the field, GMP is spent if you want to call in a helicopter for air support, swap out your sniper support for your pet dog, extract enemy combatants/vehicles by balloon, and even get an ammunition resupply or catch a ride out of the area of operations by helicopter.

Sure, you get more GMP by completing missions and side ops, but making aspects of missions cost funds encourages the player to play a little smarter and has them taking economic factors into consideration when planning missions (“I could swap out my sniper rifle for a rocker launcher to take down that enemy chopper, but if I sneak into the enemy outpost and get control of their machine gun nest instead I could save some money to develop a new shotgun”). It adds another dimension to what could easily be just another Open World Shooter, plus it has the player make more interesting choices (“Alright, I didn’t’ bring a rocket launcher, looks like I’m gonna sneak up to that tank and extract it via fulton balloon”) which, hey, isn’t that what games are about?

Though somehow I doubt anyone expected an action-stealth series like Metal Gear Solid have such  strong focus on financial planning.

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Jumping Karps

The concept of Magikarp Jump is delightfully straightforward. The town has fallen on hard times and is a shadow of its former glory: a town that had the best jumping Magikarp. You are the town’s last hope to regain its reputation. You raise Magikarp, feed them, train them, and enter the fishy Pokémon into competitive jumps. You will be the best raiser of jumping Magikarp. In short, it is a ridiculously fun, silly game, and I love it.

Sid Meier described a game as “a series of meaningful choices.” Magikarp Jump is quite devoid of much in the way of choices at all. Your participation in the jumping competitions is simply pressing a button and hoping your Jump Points is higher than your opponents. There’s no real skill to be found in training your Pokémon either, you just tap food for them to eat or tell them to train in a randomly selected regime. For the most part, you ‘play’ the ‘game’ at the mercy of the random number generator.

Not to say there aren’t any choices. You do get to choose how you spend the two in-game currencies, but that’s ultimately just deciding how you progress. On a meta level, there is you deciding how often you’re gonna check your phone and activate powers and make your Magikarp eat, but none of these choices are really that interesting. Kinda like Candyland.

So why is Magikarp Jump so much fun?

I figure it comes down to two things: theming and goals.

Theming is a term often used in board games; what’s the aesthetic for this set of rules you’ve made? Monopoly was originally themed around property moguls so as to decry the evils of unchecked capitalism (then it was ‘borrowed’ by Parker Brothers and copyrighted into a corporate game, thereby proving its point in the most painful way possible). The rules could easily be applied to a different theme: why not colonial European powers staking and divvying up Africa? Pandemic could quite easily be adapted to an alien invasion, but instead its about stymying a worldwide virus. Theming provides a context for the game’s mechanics and, when done well, can add s layer of intrigue to it.

The inherent ridiculousness of Magikarp Jump — that is, you are training and competing the jumping abilities of useless fish Pokémon — is part of the game’s appeal. The entire game’s premise is based on a throwaway factoid from a Pokédex entry in the main games, and then given an undue importance. Indulging the flight of fantasy is much of the appeal. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun if you were, say, throwing rocks in the air or even training some other Pokémon to fight. It’s an ironic in-joke given flesh, and much of its initial appeal is because of it.

But why stick around? Goals. (Most) games have goals. Mario must save the princess. You have to undermine each other in Settlers of Catan. In I, Spy you must find what they spy with their little eye. Catch is, a goal has to be attainable. Magikarp Jump has a clear goal: beat the various leagues and be the very best jumping Magikarp raiser there ever was. The genius of the game is that, by virtue of the progression system, the next victory is always just out of reach, but there are plenty of successes along the way. You feel like you’re getting somewhere each time you play.

Yes, I realize I’m trapped in a Magikarp-shaped Skinner Box, but I’m surprisingly okay with that. 

I’ll be the first to complain about mobile games. Besides virtually killing the handheld market, there’s an emphasis on addictions that can yield bountiful microtransactions (and so: profit). For a lot of these (Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes), playing for free is more a matter of farming than actual gameplay. Though Magikarp Jump has microtransactions, you aren’t punished for not spending money and get basically the same experience. Its gameplay has no depth whatsoever, but it’s a fine way to kill time waiting for a train or in line at the post office.

So somehow this silly barely-a-game has captured my fascination. And I have no idea what to do about that. But I am on my 134th generation of Magikarp. So there’s that.

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What’s The Point of Movies?

I’m replaying Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (and it is wonderful) and I can’t help but to be reminded that there’s supposed to be a movie adaption of this game happening. Like, it’s been in development since 2010. Every now and then there’ll be some announcement (apparently Tom Holland is playing a young Nathan Drake now?), but then it fizzles out into the background. Kinda like how film adaption of The Last of Us went, there was a bunch of buzz, and now we’re three years later aaaand… nothing.

But video games are being made into movies. There was that Assassin’s Creed film last year that nobody saw and meanwhile Alicia Vikander looks pitch perfect in the upcoming reboot of the Tomb Raider movies (this time based on the reboot of the Tomb Raider video games). This isn’t a post about development hell. This is about adaptions.

A Thief’s End takes around fifteen hours to play through. Now, I bring up Thief’s End because it doesn’t have as much gameplay-and-story separation as, say, Halo. Exploration is part of the narrative in A Thief’s End, both for the dialogue between characters as it happens, and for it being part of the game’s central quest. Basically, it’s not filler. It’s a fifteen hour game and a  fifteen hour story.

Fifteen hours is, obviously, thirteen hours longer than your typical movie. It’s about the length of a full season of Star Wars Rebels, or the final season of LOST. It’s longer than the entire extended Lord of The Rings trilogy.

In other words, why bother compressing it into a two hour movie? What’s about movie do better than other forms of story? Let’s ignore the fact that big movies get budgets several orders of magnitude bigger than tv shows or whatever, why two hours and not more? Books give you hundreds of pages to explore character and plot, tv shows a couple dozen episodes a season, and video games hours and hours of gameplay. If you’re telling a story, these mediums offer you much more space to explore it. More time to hang out with characters and experience this fictional world.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. It’s why you don’t eat a pound of bacon. Crazy Rich Asians has five-hundred pages to tell its story and ends up meandering around and having little plot, if any, until the last hundred-odd pages where it’s a rushed jumble of half-rate melodrama. There’s a film adaption coming, and maybe compressing it into two hours will do it some good.

‘cuz that’s what happens when you set a limit on the time to tell your story: you gotta focus on the important stuff. The film adaption of The Princess Bride dispenses with a lot of the satire and sideplots in favor of a great love story and the relationship between a kid and his grandfather. Movies, good ones, have to zero in on what really matters to a story. Fundamentally, Guardians of The Galaxy Vol 2 is about family, and by only have two hours, the movie is able to home in on it. Every character confronts the notion of family in one way or another. Even thought the movie’s plot does waffle a bit, it knows full well what it’s about. The runtime of a film forces a cohesiveness to the story, if it’s, y’know, done well.

A Thief’s End isn’t a great example of a game-to-movie adaption, since the structure is so wonderfully tight (seriously, I’m taking notes). There’s not as much narrative fluff to trim as, say, the new Tomb Raider or even Mass Effect. The abounded film adaption of Halo could have done interesting stuff by zeroing in on Chief and Cortana’s relationship set against the fight against the Covenant and the Flood. Movies feel whole, more complete than a tv show (which, by nature, needs to have room for one more episode) or video games (which tend to be longer because, dude, they cost sixty bucks).

I don’t think A Thief’s End should be directly adapted into a movie, and the only reason I have any want for Uncharted to become a movie at all is so non-gamers like my parents can fall in love with these characters. But I don’t think a cinematic adaption’s gonna ‘elevate’ it more than it is. Movies do some things great, but so do video games (and tv, and books, and comics, and plays…). Maybe we should let some games just be games, and let movies do their thing.

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Hanging Out

Upon having it recommended to me independently by two friends, I’ve finally started reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And the book’s delightful; it’s a space opera about people on a ship written by a writer who’s clearly seen the same movies, read the same books, and played the same video games as me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

It’s a very episodic book; while there is a definite narrative throughline, thus far (I’m about halfway through) it’s been secondary to the misadventures the crew have been having along the way. And I’m totally fine with that.

Which is strange, because last week I harangued Crazy Rich Asians for spending too much time lollygagging and not enough time plotting. Asians is characterized by episodic misadventures until a whole lot of plot shows up in the final hundred-odd pages, but I found it frustrating.

And I think there’s a clear reason why.

And it’s not the spaceship thing.

It’s characters.

Like I said last week, the folks in Crazy Rich Asians are more cipher than characters, bodies with a trait or two slapped on them to say what’s needed for the scene. They’ve no inner life. The characters in Long Way, conversely, are sharply defined with a rich sense of history to them. They feel distinct, different; like you could hold a real conversation with them. And so, when placed in an episodic narrative, it’s fun to see them interact with each other, to watch them hang out.

It’s a benefit of long-form storytelling. The deft writing in The Avengers characterizes the heroes well enough that you wish there was more time to see them hanging out together. A book has plenty of space for that to happen.

As do video games. Arguably one of the strongest aspects of the original Mass Effect trilogy is how well Shepard and (most of) his/her crew is sketched out. You have someone like Mordin, a former black-ops scientist/commando turned doctor who also sings showtunes. Which is interesting enough, but it’s when he’s mixed in with Shepard that things get really good. Interacting with Mordin on his loyalty mission in 2 has you grappling with the morality of the Genophage (a virus that affects the reproduction rate of a martial species). Was it a necessary measure? Do the krogan deserve a second chance? Good characters enhance each other; iron sharpens iron and all that. Captain America and Iron Man each push each other on and force the other to be more stubborn. It’s around Inara that Malcolm Reynolds will let the holes in his armor show. Barney and Robin drink scotch and smoke cigars.

The final DLC for Mass Effect 3, Citadel, is essentially all hanging out with your crew. You get small side quests with each one and then throw a big party with these characters you’ve spent tens of hours over multiple games getting to know. It’s great fun and a fond farewell. It wouldn’t work near as well had these characters not been so well done. If the games didn’t give you the time to get to know them or made these characters worth knowing, it’d just be a drag of cutscenes while you waited to get back to shooting stuff.

I think that’s a hallmark of good characters; you feel like you know them. The characters of a tv show start to feel like your friends. When I talk about my crew in Mass Effect, they’re my crew, who I fought the Collectors and Reapers with. And with characters like that, I don’t mind watching them going on misadventures.

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Andromeda: After The Fact

I finally finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda and dutifully started my second (this time as Sara instead of Scott). Ramping up the difficulty to Insanity makes combat much more frantic (and thereby makes the brilliant combat systems that much more fun), but we’ll see how far I get through it before I decide to finally replay Uncharted 4 because a) it’s a better game, 2) I haven’t replayed it, and iii) my god I want to play a game that was actually finished.

Because there’s no doubt that Andromeda was rushed in some places. Its combat may be incredibly fluid, but a much of its mission design is outright boring. Some of the character models look great, but the animation in some parts is glitchy at best and magnificently awful at worst. And the writing. In parts, its great; in other parts it reads like a hasty first draft. And all this is not getting into the wonky pacing and exploitable systems that plague the game. But Andromeda is still a stupid amount of fun – it wrapped up well enough that I started a New Game+ after finishing it the first time. In fact, I’d say that most of its issues are emblematic of the central tensions in many AAA video games.

So let’s start with its look, something that’s gotten a lot of crap on the internet. And rightfully so; it’s very weird to talk to someone who’s mouth is moving, but eyes are lifeless. There’s a fairly important cutscene where a character model just didn’t show up. Heck, even some of the romance scenes, which developer BioWare is famous for, are halting and glitchy. It’s a mess, heightened all the more since the character models and general graphics are pretty good. The animation issues, at times, overshadow everything else that’s going on. Sure, you have pretty worlds and characters and a sometimes-well written and often well-voiced script, but it’s easy to forget all that when the character’s acting is wooden. So maybe BioWare and publisher EA should have pushed the release back a couple months to work out the kinks.

But why is there such a reliance on a game looking ‘good?’ We’re reaching a point ‘good graphics’ has become standard, with some, like Kojima Production’s FOX Engine, verging on literally lifelike. Thing is, when everything looks good, that’s no longer enough to stand out, and if your animation is shoddy – as in Andromeda – it becomes glaringly obvious. Other games find ways to complement their graphics: Uncharted 4’s animation is unparalleled, and games like Borderlands and Dishonored stylize their characters and locations. Then there are smaller, indie games like Sportsfriends or Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime which have simple, even retro, graphics, but ones that work with the gameplay.

Which is where Andromeda’s pretty good. Gameplay is solid, the addition of the jetpack and different AI making it much more dynamic that prior Mass Effects’ waiting-and-shooting. And with difficulty on Insanity, it’s got me using the new Profiles feature as much as I can. Andromeda is fun. But some of its missions are terribly repetitive: you go down a lot of corridors and clear out a lot of cookie-cutter bases. Sometimes there are moments of genius, like getting to dash through a battlefield in your space car or the narrative gives mystery to exploring an ancient alien superstructure, but when the vast majority of side missions are fetch quest after fetch quest, it gets really dull. Andromeda is a long game – I logged over 90 hours by the time I beat the game – but its myriad of fetch quests make it out to be padding out the length. Not to mention they distract from the central narrative (which, once it gets going, is actually not half bad). So is quantity or quality better? Uncharted 4 is a fifteen-odd hour game, but its narrative is incredibly tight and doesn’t fall into repetitiveness. It would take a lotta work to fill four full days worth of gameplay with Interesting Stuff, so maybe Andromeda could have used some tight cuts?

I will complain about Andromeda a lot. But I also really liked the game – again, I’ve started a second playthrough. I think that AAA games like Andromeda are reaching a tipping point where the old rubric of what made a game exciting (graphics! gameplay! big budget!) are no longer enough to make a game stand out. I do wish Andromeda was better than it is, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad game. Rather, its flaws are ones we see in a lot of other AAA games – look at Destiny. Maybe there’s a shift coming in the way games are made, maybe the next Mass Effect, whenever it comes out, will get things right. In any case, it’s a perfect adequate game. But we’re reaching a point where that’s not enough anymore.

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Creative Exchange (and Video Games)

Video games borrow a lot from movies. Snake, on the original box art for Metal Gear, is played by Michael Biehn. Or at least someone who looks just like him. Contra’s box makes it look like you’ll be playing John Matrix and John Rambo taking on the Xenomorph from Alien.

But then there’s Halo, which drew much of its aesthetic wholesale from Aliens. Look at their portrayal of marines in space: the video game’s UNSC Marines sport body armor and helmets almost identical to the Marines in James Cameron’s sequel. Even Halo’s venerable Sergeant Johnson is very much inspired by a sergeant from Aliens. Both forces are fighting against a creepy, parasitic alien that starts out as a small thing that attaches itself to a host.

As much as Halo uses elements of Aliens, however, it never feels like its copying it for lack of better ideas. The game’s plot adds concepts like the genocidal Covenant trying to wipe out humanity, Cortana the glowing blue AI who helps you along your journey, and the mysterious titular Halo ring. Halo also wears its inspiration on its sleeve, making no attempt to cover it up. There’s an affection to its homages and you can tell that Bungie really liked the movie.

Which is kinda how it goes with video games. Gameplay-wise, Halo introduced and popularized several mechanics we now take for granted. In Halo, damage taken isn’t permanent pending a health pickup, rather you have shields that recharge over time. This encouraged players to experiment more, to take more risks – if you got shot too much you could just run off and wait for your shields to recharge before trying again. It changed the way shooters were played, because now almost every shooter has rechargeable health. Halo justified it through your character’s shields, but later games like Uncharted or Call of Duty make no effort to give a narrative explanation. It’s just become the way games are.

I like to talk a lot about how games are a nascent art form, what with Tennis for Two coming out a hair under sixty years ago, and Pong is barely forty-five years old. Since then we’ve seen games grow from basic pixel-ly lines to real-time rendered games that give CGI films a run for their money. Mechanics, too, keep changing. Consider the idea of a cover system, which allows for the player to hide behind something while still shooting. Wikipedia tells me Kill.Switch was the first to implement it, but games like Gears of War and Uncharted really brought it into popular consciousness. There’s an exchange of ideas in video games, one to an extent you don’t really see in other, more established, mediums.

We know what a movie is; there’s fiction, documentaries, and variations thereof. We know what a book is, what a comic is. But what exactly a video game constitutes is kinda left in the air. We’ve Halo, a sci-fi shooter, but That Dragon, Cancer is a game by two parents whose son had terminal cancer. You play a Call of Duty game by running around shooting people, the Sims is pointing and clicking at people and objects, meanwhile Johan Sebastian Joust is played by holding the controller and pushing each other around in real life. The special thing here is that games borrow ideas from each other no matter the genre. An action movie borrowing techniques from an arthouse piece is seen as being daring and cultured, but an early chapter in Uncharted 4’, “A Normal Life,” clearly draws on the exploratory narrative games like Gone Home. This isn’t just happy coincidence; Neil Druckmann, who wrote and directed Uncharted 4, tweeted about the game back when it came out. People who make games play games, like games. Even though there’s a massive variety of types of video games, there’s a cross-pollination amongst them that gives games influences from all over the place.

Look, I like video games a lot. I grew up playing them and find their evolution to be absolutely fascinating, in no small part to taking influences from all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘wrong’ place to get inspiration. There’s no one correct way to tell stories, so there’s something to be learnt no matter where you look. If video games continue this anything works mindset, I can’t wait to see where we are in ten, twenty, thirty years.

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The Problem With Narrative Sidequests

One of the most striking features of the planet Elaaden is a huge derelict Remnant ship. Sticking out broken over the desert planet, the ship could hold answers for the mystery of the old killer robots that populate Mass Effect: Andromeda. The latest game in the Mass Effect video game series has a strong focus one exploration, namely that titular distant galaxy. There’s so much to see, so much to find out.

But I still haven’t gone to the ship, despite having done basically every other sideqeust available on the planet. This isn’t so much a case of saving the best for last, as much as it is putting off what I expect will be a fun-if-pointless mission.

Because the Remnant Derelict is not a Priority Mission (that is, a story mission), it’s highly unlikely that any Major Plot Twisting Details will happen. If there is some massive revelation about the Remnant waiting in the wings, whatever’s aboard that ship will either tease it or corroborate it, depending on when I play it in relation to that story mission.

Andromeda is an open world RPG. There are Priority Missions I play one after another, these make up the main plot. I complete Mission A, then I can do Mission B, and so on until the game ends. Meanwhile, there are these sidequests, things I can do around the galaxy be it earning my squad’s loyalty or blowing up a Kett tower. Those sidequests can be done in any order and at any point after you’ve unlocked them (usually by completing another sidequest, or progressing to a certain point along the Priority Mission chain). This means that I could have explored that Remnant Derelict when I first found it a couple Priority Missions ago, or I could wait and only explore it after I’ve finished the main story – and the central plot played out. Thus, the mission has to accommodate either timeline. This in turn limits the developments that the sidequest can have, nothing can happen here that would affect a Priority Mission in a big way.

Consider, if you will, a hypothetical game based on Firefly and Serenity. Midway through the movie, we find out that the Reavers, a savage group of spacefaring barbarians, were in fact accidentally  created by the Alliance (spoiler). In the hypothetical game, you wouldn’t find this out in a sidequest, it’d be a  paradigm-shifting story quest that would affect the crew through any major plot developments. Thus if there was a sidequest where you could explore an old Reaver ship or an Alliance Databank, this twist wouldn’t be there. Anything you found would be cool, but self-contained.

This is the hurdle that open games have to deal with. Something more linear, like Uncharted or Halo, progress in one direction like a movie, scene 1 into scene 2; there’s no scene 1.5. Every level/chapter/scene will affect the plot in some way. Giving the player a choice means the game’s writers and programmers have to have planned whichever path the player takes.

In Kingdom Hearts the player can visit a variety of worlds in whatever order they want. They’ll pal around with Aladdin, Alice, and Ariel, then have to go to a specific world where More Story happens. This isn’t too pressing most of the time, but as the plot picks up, visiting Halloween Town or Monstro’s belly feels like a filler episode in the larger narrative of Sora and Mickey’s adventure. They can’t impact the plot too much because the player may have another world to complete before the next Big Story Moment.

There are game critics, Ian Bogost and Johnathan Blow among them, who argue that games and stories don’t mesh well. And in some ways they do have a point. Either you have a linear game (like Uncharted) where the player is given no narrative agency (and so is a glorified interactive movie) or you have the case of Andromeda or Kingdom Hearts where the extent of then player’s agency affects the distribution of the game’s narrative.  Either the narrative ignores you or you strain against it. Digital gaming can’t seem to catch up with good old tabletop rpg’s, where the game master is making stories on the fly in response to their players’ decisions.

But video games are still a young genre. The amount of player agency in Andromeda would have been unheard of twenty years ago. It’s a bummer that it can’t anticipate and account for everything, but who’s to say games won’t in the future? Exploring a virtual world in Andromeda is a great experience, even if it exposes some of the issues with open world games. Yes, the narrative failings are frustrating, but it’s a step forward towards what games could be. Risks propel the medium forward; who knows where we’ll be in twenty years.

Of course, I could be totally wrong and that derelict ship may have a crapload of secrets about the Remnant and it turns out Andromeda has untold variations of its Priority Missions prepared in its code with each one voiced and animated ready to go. But the point stands; for all the issues with open ended video games, the potential remains. And that’s exciting. Bring on the AI game masters!

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