Category Archives: Game Reviews

I Review All the Games on 3DS Streetpass (Part 1)

I recall the 3DS having a bumpy launch, but now it seems like it’s almost ubiquitous among gamers. As a 3DS owner myself, I like to take advantage of the handheld’s Streetpass function. I even splurged on all of the additional Streetpass-based games that are available on the system.

I realized after a weekend of lots of Streetpassing, that I have Opinions about the Streetpass games. And as it’s rare to find a comprehensive review of that kind of thing, I thought I would take some time to write those Opinions down in a three-part series.

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Now Playing: Heavy Rain

I made a post about Heavy Rain on Tap-Repeatedly today. I’ve had it for a while but felt inspired to finally play it now that Beyond: Two Souls is out and getting lukewarm reviews. I started Tweeting about this process, which you can also follow right here. I don’t really like Heavy Rain so far, but I’m willing to admit that this is partially my fault.

I will probably get around to posting IF Comp impressions starting next week, since I am not in the competition this year. I can’t promise I’ll get to all the games this time around but I always enjoy the competition.

The Second Dungeon in Anodyne

Spoilers to follow, for the thing to which the title alludes.




Yesterday I killed a man, and it was an accident.



I approached him on the end of a pier. He looked friendly, so I pressed the button to talk. But the button to talk and the button to attack – to sweep, actually – are the same button, just another fact about how limited our verb set can be in video games. So I pressed the “attack” button, and I struck him. I thought perhaps I just wasn’t close enough, and so I tried again, stepping into it this time. This was definitely an attack, and, with this hit, it pushed the man off of the pier, into a hungry whirlpool. The pool darkened immediately, shading red with his blood.

I don’t feel guilt in video games, I told myself, so why should Anodyne be any different? Still, it stuck with me, because it had been an accident. The man had been fishing. If this were the Legend of Zelda, which it this game obviously mimics, the man probably would’ve given me a pole and shown me how to fish. But all I can do here is sweep.

I went for a walk up the pier, still a little confused and dizzy about what had happened. I navigated across the beach and around a little cliff, and there I found a treasure chest. Inside the chest was a trading card. The card bore the image of the fisherman I had just murdered.

Cute.

I told myself that I still don’t feel guilt in videogames.

I walked back toward where I had come from, toward the blood-red whirlpool. Oddly enough, it struck me this time not as a hazard, but… a portal. I jumped in. What’s the worst that could happen: I could die? Acceptable enough. Temporary.

I did not die. Instead, I was taken to a bizarre underwater zone, stained with red. Eyeless creatures of the deep, peaceful but hideous, wandered the gore-toned underworld.


I wondered if I was on the path to a bad ending. It wasn’t too late to reset.

But I pressed on. Gradually, I found doors, doors with mouths that lead to an underground place. All the doors lead to different sections of the same map. And then the place stopped being alien, and became instantly familiar.  It was Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, the Skull Woods, a “Dungeon of Many Doors.” The insides ran red with rivers of blood but now that this place was a familiar place I was less deterred. I was supposed to be here, after all. I found the second dungeon in Anodyne.

I fought through it. I read taunting text on rock monoliths. I rode dust rafts on crimson rivers. I defeated the boss monster, a tentacle thing, a battle swimming in gore. The Sage, my mentor, but a liar, had already beaten me to the end, though. He congratulated me on this victory. “You had to conquer not only this monster but also your own fears to prevail!”

Hey, Sage, screw you. How is it you get back here every time, beating me to every treasure room to greet me, even though I’m the one that had to fight my way inside? It made me feel redundant: pointless, but then again how many countless games have I played where “I save the world” and you never really save the world. I collect the treasure, and go.


What I’ve written here is strangely close to “new games journalism” and yet, it’s also a great example of why I don’t generally cotton to it. What I wrote presupposes that my experience was unique. It really wasn’t. The feelings of guilt – okay, I felt it a little – and uncertainty, and anger, are elicited by the game’s design. They are pre-ordained in just that way.

If you haven’t played through that second dungeon in Anodyne, you don’t know what you have in store until you discover this sequence of events for yourself. That’s why I had to start this story with a sloppy, ugly little “spoiler warning” instead of my – I thought, much punchier! – real opening line. If, on the other hand, you have played that second dungeon in Anodyne, then none of this is new to you. The sequence of events that I went through is how a player is supposed to find, and beat, the second dungeon in Anodyne.

I did it because I thought I knew the language of games, and the language was flipped on me. I jumped into the whirlpool because I was told to explore The Land, and I did. I got the second key; I turned on the power grid.

If anyone ever suggests to you that interactivity precludes author’s intent, feel free to show them Anodyne, a game where anyone who plays past the second dungeon pushes an innocent man off of a pier.

It was an accident. It probably always is.

Writing about Writing Game Reviews

I was fortunate enough to have a review that I wrote, the Dragon’s Crown review on Tap-Repeatedly, get high praise semi-recently on Quarter to Three from Tom Chick. I admire his review style and candor a lot so this was a real achievement for me. He said he wished he saw more game reviews written the way I wrote that one, and that is really kind.

I liked Dragon’s Crown because it’s my kinda thing. I used to play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons but the campaigns I was in didn’t seem to entirely satisfy me. Eventually I figured out that if I just ran the campaigns, I would enjoy them for sure, because they were pretty guaranteed to be games I would personally like. I have run two successful Fourth Edition campaigns so far. Both had to end because I physically relocated, twice. During the same time period, I’ve been writing things about games.
Like my relationship with Dungeons & Dragons games, I don’t read a lot of game reviews I like. I like the reviews at Rock Paper Shotgun and Quarter to Three. I like the reviews at Action Button. I like the output at Tap-Repeatedly, or I wouldn’t work there, and I like the writing at Electron Dance although things there are rarely labeled as reviews. I think there are systemic problems with the way game reviews have to be written. But that’s just complaining about a Dungeons & Dragons campaign instead of running my own. I generally try to avoid writing about what reviews should be. I just started writing more of the kind of reviews I want to read. It’s nice to know that people find them now and again.
I don’t make a living writing reviews for games. I really like the work that I am doing now, and I write game critique as a side thing. I think my reviews would have a very different character if I made a living writing game reviews. I have to acknowledge that writing for Tap-Repeatedly I am incredibly privileged in my ability to write reviews that are fun to write.
First of all, I mostly review games I’m interested in. If I buy a game with my own cash and play it, but don’t feel like I have material to write a real review, I generally don’t. On the other hand, if I have something to say, I’m free to say it, even if I think an acclaimed game was mediocre or a game people hated was actually excellent. I can report on news if it strikes me as interesting, but I don’t have to engage in a hype machine if it isn’t interesting to me personally. I don’t have a deadline and we’re encouraged to review old games if we feel like it, like Gregg B did earlier this week. No one made me post the Grand Theft Auto V trailer, and when I finally did, it was just to snark about how I don’t give a shit. I am allowed to use the phrase “give a shit.” I also write clunky metaphors involving sex and violence because I made the deliberate decision that I was done with trying to make my writing at all beautiful. Some people seem to like that. All this might not really fly on some game sites.
The fact is, and this is a problem I’ve previously addressed, there is very little commercial value to the kind of games crit writing that I do. Occasionally I toss out a pitch to write something freelance for another site. But I’m much better at writing articles than I am at writing pitches. This really means if I needed to make a living doing this I’d have to be writing a lot more pitches. If I needed to make a living doing this I also would have to be funding my own games consoles at launch and wouldn’t be able to borrow tablets and other things. If I needed to make a living writing games crit I also probably wouldn’t have much time to develop games, even though the fact that I have development experience informs the sort of critique that I can write.
If I could change one thing about game reviews, I think they would be better if they didn’t have to be so immediate. Obvious, banal statement to follow: games are not like movies. Right? Yeah, duh. But in particular, they are not like movies in the sense that they take much longer to consume. In the few situations where games are smaller to consume, such as with Gone Home, I have noticed reviewers seem almost grateful that they actually CAN completely wring everything there is to wring out of the game in less than one afternoon. And then they can actually discuss it more richly because they have time to do that.
A commercial for GTA V was just on TV. “Coming September 17” in case you were wondering, because I am totally your source for breaking news. What I anticipate with GTA V is that reviewers will give it good scores partially on reputation. But it’ll be a long time after embargo before people can really say much of substance about it, regardless of silly numerical scores, because it is designed to be really huge. A huge game can be good, or enjoyable, but a huge game is hard to digest quickly. I wrote an “impressions” article about Skyrim after about 10 hours but I didn’t really feel qualified to truly review it the way I really would like until around hour 200. I certainly don’t think every review I’ve ever written is great or anything. But the ones that felt kinda rushed are my least favorite.
I wrote this mostly to acknowledge my privilege. I’m grateful to be able to do the things that I do. I do not want to pretend that I write the worlds best game reviews. But for those that are reading them: thank you for being out there. I hope you find some value in things I write, as much as I amuse myself by writing them.

On Gone Home

I was excited about Gone Home, the environmental exploration game, when I heard about the premise, and since it’s a fairly short game that isn’t challenging in the traditional sense, I was able to block out some time to play it. It seems there are a lot of blog entries going up about this game this weekend, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Critical Distance roundup for it or something come next week.

My thoughts on it turned out to be different from most other thoughts I’ve read. So I feel like it’s worthy to weigh in. I really liked the game but it wasn’t perfect for me either. For one thing, it ran a bit slowly on my older laptop, which is unfortunately the primary machine I’m using for gaming right now due to a variety of moving-related factors. So it was a bit of a slideshow which hurt the impact.

Any other comments will have to be mired in spoiler territory, but before I go into that, I will say it got the 90s-teenager-nostalgia just right for me. I was also a teenager in the 90s and though our house wasn’t the mansion depicted in Gone Home, there were a lot of similarities, too – the wallpaper, the unfinished basement, the cheap blue nail polish, the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, the Oujia board tucked in a back closet. Every once in a while in the game there was a moment that reminded me of something from being a teen in the most obvious and non-obvious way. And that was very touching and a big part of the value of the experience.

Also, I am totally on board with Christmas Duck being the new Companion Cube, because having a house is all about those weird Christmas decorations that don’t make sense. Christmas Duck plushies should be a thing. Just saying. Good ol’ Christmas Duck.

Spoiler jump starts now:

So another big reason I wasn’t totally blown away by Gone Home, even though I enjoyed the game, was that I called the ending about five minutes in. I saw a note that said “don’t tell Mom and Dad what happened” and a note that said “I don’t want to hang out with Daniel anymore because he’s getting weird.” That was all right in the first little area, and I thought: this is the game that pulled out of PAX because it has LGBT content. Okay, so the reveal at the end, I said aloud, to my husband nearby, is the sister has run off with another young lady, because she’s gay. After deciding that, I wasn’t really buying into any of the other clues the game threw out about there being ghosts or this being a murder house. Those moments were spooky, but I was pretty sure the situation was going to be something mundane, and there was enough evidence throughout (ransacked drawers and missing VCRs) to support my suspicions.

Hubby didn’t want me to be right that quickly, but it was what it was. The way the story was laid out was very neatly done, and, though the lesbian bit comes out early enough, there’s still the possibility of something like a suicide pact or something gruesome and worrisome near the end. I stood by my “run away” choice even after seeing a pentagram, because leaving a note that says “don’t let Mom and Dad find out” wouldn’t have made sense in the context of a suicide.

A few blogs have gone up already saying things like “I wanted to identify with this game, but I can’t, for X reason.” For example Anna Anthropy can’t identify because she is trans. Nick can’t identify because he didn’t grow up wealthy. Alec Meer can’t identify because he’s a man… but there is the dad character for him to identify with, and his struggles in becoming a successful writer, which is the largest “side-story” in the game.

So… I can’t entirely identify, because I’m straight

Oh, god, hold on. Okay. I’m sorry, I don’t want this to sound like whining or anything. I realize that as a straight woman I’m privileged. And I am the sort of straight woman that’s sex-positive and sometimes enjoys sexualized depictions of other women, which if you believe in queerness as more of a scale thing, then I don’t tip the needle all the way on the straight side. But I don’t really consider that a part of an identity that I have, and every sort of awakening or watershed moment that I had has been from the straight point of view.

And it’s very hard to express this, but it feels like video games kind of sidestepped straight women? Question mark because I’m not saying this in an authoritative way, but more in a, am I the only one who feels this way, way? That’s one of the reasons I was so eager to write a little about Everlove when I heard about it. It’s solely about a straight woman having sex with men. How rare is that? It’s not completely rare, no, but it’s pretty rare.

I was thinking about Remember Me, and the backlash against it starring not just a woman, but a straight woman. That would be awkward because you can’t make the player “kiss another dude” in the game (presuming that the player is a dude, naturally). And I was thinking about how in most early games, when there was a romance to play out, I did it as a man picking up women, because that was what there was to do. And I was thinking about how in a lot of games there’s a woman-on-woman relationship, because designers put that woman in the game as a love interest for a man, so why not go ahead and open that up for both genders? So it took until the second Mass Effect game for a female character to have more than one male romance option, for example.

I get that this sucked even worse for gay men, who got nothing in the first Mass Effect game at all. I’m not saying it’s bad that there’s homosexual options in games or that games are increasingly inclusive across-the-board. I’m just saying that sometimes it feels like, in a world where at first women at all were a bit of an afterthought, in a world where the trappings of “the feminine” are already frequently dismissed, it feels like straight women haven’t quite carved a niche.

As a thought experiment I wonder what Gone Home would’ve been like if it were a straight-girl story. It could’ve gone the same way, generally: maybe Sam’s potential boyfriend still has to choose between her and ROTC; maybe they still have to sneak around to have sex; maybe there’s some other thing keeping them apart, like he’s a different race or he’s lower-class and the Greenbrier parents just don’t approve. Maybe she writes the same sort of little diaries about sexual confusion, and maybe she comes to the conclusion she really likes this guy, and they’re going to run off together.

It just doesn’t feel as important somehow, but it would be no less real, right? But it would feel kind of less weighty. And I think the same exact writing voice for Sam might’ve come across as a ditzy and frivolous giiiiirl if she just had a crush on a boy. It’d be less triumph and more… Twilight.

And I’m thinking about the mother character in Gone Home and I’m realizing that, aside from Katie, who is just an avatar, Jan, the mother, is the most under-written character. Most of her story is about how she’s away from home often, so it makes sense we hear less of her, and maybe I missed a scrap or two of her story in all the piles. But she hasn’t seen a lot of evaluation in the same way that Terry’s side-story has seen.

We do know that Jan is a Christian and she reads the Bible and, hey, it’s nice to see a straight, Christian woman in a video game who isn’t portrayed in an entirely demonized fashion. She’s sympathetic even if she’s still a bit of the villain to Sam’s story. There’s been so much Dad-based content in games, lately, and there hasn’t been so much a corresponding increase in “Mom” content, so it’s nice to see a mom at all.

Yet Jan’s not the most interesting character in the game. I think Sam is the most interesting character in Gone Home, and that’s by design I’m sure. I like reading her writing as it develops and hearing her point of view and I empathize with her often throughout. I want to learn more about Katie, because I was the oldest sister in my household, but as the avatar she’s never given too much to say.

I’m happy to have a game about a family and a game that’s about sisters growing up. Gone Home works very well telling the story that it tells. And ultimately I think the success of Gone Home isn’t so much what the story is as how it’s told in the environment design. (Which is a little too on-the-nose sometimes, but games are getting there.)

Just imagine there’s a game like this, but it’s about the sexual awakening of a straight teenage girl falling in love with a boy. Do you hate her? Is she airheaded? Imagine there’s a game like this but it’s about the concerns of the mother as she struggles to hold her family together. Is she boring? Is she selfish?

About That Last of Us Ending

Finished it on Sunday. All the spoilers for the ending of The Last of Us. Below the jump.

Apparently that was controversial? Apparently lots of people didn’t like it?

That was not at all my experience. When the Fireflies at the end said “we have to cut her brain open,” my husband was sitting next to me during those last few moments of the game.

Our collective reaction was “Aw, helllll naw,” and it was lock and load all the way till the end. I took the next few sections of tactical combat as seriously as I’d taken any other sections.

When I got to the operating room I had the shotgun out and I blew the lead doctor away before he could say anything. I did not have that “and then the game made me kill him” experience.

After it was all over, I only then mused “I wonder if I could’ve made another decision there.”

And my husband said “Nope, I think that’s the way it ends.”

I looked online to see if there was a second ending. There isn’t. But I was totally satisfied with the ending as presented (which felt, at the time, like one I chose).

I guess lots of people wanted that to be a choice situation, but treating it like one didn’t occur to me at all at the time. I guess I’m agreeing with people who have said “yeah, I’m glad the game didn’t make that a choice situation,” but I’m agreeing with it only in the most basic way, which is to say, I didn’t even consider a second choice in the moment. I mean it just felt like the way it was supposed to go, to me. As much as I pick fun of the “dad with a gun” conceit as a repeating trope, it was obviously the point of the story to here and it all comes together in a narratively inevitable way. So, um, good end, guys.

Now Playing: The Last of Us

Spoilers, I guess. Nothing terribly non-obvious given the marketing, but be warned.

It occurred to me that lately, any time a non-gamer asks what game I’m playing right now, I answer The Last of Us. This isn’t untrue, though it’s one of many games I’m playing. But irrespective of this truth, or the fact that it’s a quality game, I answer The Last of Us because the premise is so easy to explain to a local non-gamer.

“It’s got zombies, and part of it is set in Pittsburgh.”

“Oh, really? Man, cool.”

After answering this way for the third time or so, I wondered if I shouldn’t be giving an answer about a game with a less-predictable theme. Maybe I would be a better champion for games as a medium if I answered something that says something more unexpected. Then again, all the games I’ve played recently involve knights with swords, elves with swords, or off-kilter superheroes… with swords, so I’d have to dig into my memory a ways for something that fit the bill.

When someone who is a gamer hears I’m playing The Last of Us, they ask “how far are you into it?” to which I answer “not very far.”

“Yeah, but how far?”

“Not real far.”

“Like what season is it?”

“I’m not even at a point where I can answer that question accurately? The first one. The beginning. I’m not very far.”

“Boston?”

I guess the first part is Boston, so, yes. I’m still in Boston! In other words, I’m at the point after the first girl dies, but before the other lady dies, because that’s apparently how we measure time in video games.

I am totally a champion for this medium.

Warren Spector wanted to know this week “Where’s the Roger Ebert of video games?” and it was a question that made a lot of game critics mad because there’s a lot of game critics who feel like nobody cares about or reads their game critique, which they are already busily writing. I think this essay isn’t evidence that there’s no writing; just evidence that the writing we have has a discoverability problem. A question I find more valuable isn’t “where is the Roger Ebert of video games” but “who plans on paying the full-time salary of the Roger Ebert of video games?” Is there a value proposition in such a person? Of course other people find the question “Who cares?” to be more valuable still, and maybe that… proves some kind of point. I think it would be fun to be the Roger Ebert of video games.

One of the reasons I often don’t bother with the “hot critical game of the moment” is because I get busy or even lazy and I’m bad about carving out time for it until people are already done talking about whatever game it is. Often, it’s enough that I feel like I didn’t need to bother with the actual game and got what I needed to know out of the essays. I was mulling over writing an essay about The Last of Us as a “Dadfeels Game,” which is a term I’ve been using on Twitter lately to explain about how all the big, serious, expensive critically-discussed games (Bioshock Infinite being another one) are all about fatherhood these days. I may still end up writing more about this after playing Heavy Rain, which I also picked up recently, and which is yet another game about the Dadfeels. Even the new Grand Theft Auto is apparently going to have some Dadfeels in it, so, look forward to that, I guess? Fortunately, there’s not too much demand for such an essay to be timely, since Critical Distance already did a huge roundup of many other critics making the same observations with regard to The Last of Us. Any one of those writers or maybe all of them may be the Roger Ebert of video games.

But maybe it doesn’t matter when I answer “The Last of Us; it’s got zombies, and stealth kills where you break open the faces of zombies with bricks” because why the heck should I have to apologize for video games? I could just hold my head high and confess that I’m not at all embarrassed by it. Dadfeels and drama aside, it’s a video game and it brings to the table the things video games are basically known for. So that’s pretty much what I say.

Because the answer so far is usually, “That’s cool.”

I Accidentally the Arch-mage of Winterhold

This contains complete spoilers for everything that happens in the Mage’s College quests in Skyrim.

I cast a little Destruction magic in my spare time, because it’s an easier way to get around guys who use shields.

Everyone said I should check out the Mage’s College, so, I did. I solved some small student problems, and did an underground quest in some tombs where I found a great big spinny orb. Everyone seemed really impressed by the spinny orb.

I wandered off to do some other things.

Later I thought it might be nice to visit my friend the other Khajiit at the college and see if he would travel with me, so I checked in at the college for some work. They wanted me to get some books, which had information about the big shiny orb thing. So I did that. No worries.

So now I’m the Arch-mage. I would say I’m not sure how that happened, but, ever since you’re sent upstairs to see the sitting Arch-mage’s room and see all the pretty alchemy ingredients and shiny trinkets that are marked “hands off,” it seems inevitable that this can somehow be your own room some day. The funniest thing about being the arch-mage is I’m not that great a caster. I purposely skilled up Illusion just to get silent spellcasting, and I’m an Adept level at Destruction from lobbing fireballs at dudes. I have a couple heal spells, because you need that, and I generally know a lot of spells because I can’t be stopped from clicking on books I find in the world. But I’m not really what you would call a wizard. I haven’t spread out my magic perks much, and I don’t use the spells all that tactically.

For one of the college missions, I ran around in robes that I found on a necromancer. They had a bonus to casting Destruction, and, I thought, looked rather fetching with their emblazoned skull pattern. The problem with this plan was that I really had no mage armor or defensive spells to speak of, except for the beginner-level Ward, and every creature in Boatmurdered was gnawing me to death. I survived by virtue of Resist Poison vials and lots of quicksaving. At one point I almost resorted to setting the game on God mode because I was so frustrated.

Today I thought: well, screw that, and instead went and put on some actual armor, loaded up on enchanted weapons, and crafted myself a Glass Sword, then set about completing the rest of the story.

Lo and behold: Bethesda, as it turns out, is like your dick Dungeon Master. The final mage dungeons truly are the ultimate challenge for a Mage. For someone who is specced as a thief primarily, it turns out they are not so tough. What would be a hard challenge for a mage, asks your dick DM. I know: I’ll put an enemy in the dungeon that periodically drains your spells. Then I’ll give enemies weapons that drain your spells!  Some of the monsters will have high magical resistances. Combine that with a couple of big arena-type rooms where you’re forced to move forward, instead of being able to kite enemies in to defensive Rune spells, and that would make things really tough for a magic-user.

The thing you’d think would be most thematically appropriate would be to take another college mage with you, study some new great spells, put on your robe and wizard hat, and venture forth. I hired a basically pure fighter, gave her a magic axe, then put on Glass Armor and packed some invisibility potions. I defeated the undead magic-draining lich of high mucky-muck by standing on a tower and lobbing him with about forty cheap arrows. I even sneak-attacked a Skeletal Dragon to death.

The final boss of the story arc is telegraphed from 600 miles out. He’s an elf named Ancano and it is barely a spoiler for me to tell you you have to kill this man. The moment he showed up, I knew I would have to kill him, because:

A: Every single person you talk to at the Mage’s College has a question allowing you to ask them something about Ancano, even if you literally never met the guy. Then they can tell you he is suspicious.
B: The dude looks like Raistlin.

Remember how I said the enemies in the final mage dungeon have weapons that drain magic? You can take those to an enchanter and learn the enchantment yourself. Then you can enchant whatever you like with it. If you’re really bold, try two: one for each hand. I enchanted a vampiric dagger, and hacked Ancano with it until he was out of blood. Upon doing this, the college made me Arch-Mage.

Here is a list of the mage-like actions I undertook to become Arch-Mage of all Skyrim:

1. Cast a few Novice-level elemental spells, to bypass magical puzzle locks.
2. Enchanted a dagger.

I now look forward to beating the rest of Thieves’ Guild story by charging in with a greatsword like Conan, and beating the Fighter-oriented Companion quests by lobbing fireballs. Because I bet those quests have a lot of guys with shields.

And I am, undoubtedly, the best mage in Skyrim.

Hiding Secrets in 3D Open World Games

For anyone reading solely due to IF Reviews, I’m taking a short break from that in this post to go back to my usual type of topic, though, I do think that writing IF reviews has done wonders for my productivity in this blog. I’m still not quite out of things to talk about in that regard and now I’m more motivated than ever to try to write one myself.

But one thing I’ve been wanting to discuss for a little while is something I noticed in playing Batman: Arkham Asylum in contrast with the game Fable 2, which I will attempt to relate in terms of The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time.

…Does that seem interesting yet?  If so, then read on:

In Ocarina, there is a subquest involving the Gold Skulltula, a type of monster that spawns in certain hidden locations throughout the world.  There are a hundred Skulltula in total, and killing them and collecting the skull token that they leave behind gives the player access to a variety of interesting prizes.  Some prizes are near-mandatory for finishing the game, but, if you find even a few Gold Skulltulas, you will get them, whereas other prizes are less important but require a larger amount of the hidden creatures.  Finding all hundred is fairly difficult and probably won’t be done one’s first time through the game.

As Ocarina is one of the oldest 3D open-world games on a console, it’s actually surprising how well this is executed.  The Gold Skulltulas make a sound – an awful, skin-crawling sound that’s unmistakable. When you hear that awful sound, you’re compelled to look around to find the familiar creature that’s causing it.  Is it above your head? Maybe behind the nearby rock, which you need to blow up to reach it.  Sometimes you’ll be able to kill the Skulltula easy but unable to retrieve its token… in the pre-Hookshot game, though later you can grab the tokens you missed, and, if you don’t retrieve the token, the Skulltula itself will respawn.

Fable 2 made an attempt to do something like this with its Gargoyle system.  Like the Skulltulas, there are 50 gargoyles scattered throughout the world.  Killing certain amounts of them gives one access to different treasures in the Gargoyle’s Cove, and, eventually, an Achievement if you collect them all.  And Batman: Arkham Asylum also has a system like this, where the Riddler asks you a variety of questions and urges you to find secrets in the environment.  I could focus solely on the Riddler Trophies for this, but there’s a small variety of different Riddler-related objects to collect that are all hidden in the world.

From a standpoint of how well the secrets are integrated in the environment, how fun they are to find, and how well they work within the rest of the game, Batman did a bang-up job.  In Batman, the secrets don’t usually make a sound, with a couple prominent exceptions: one, when Riddler is first introducing to you the concept of finding his secrets, and, two, when you go back in to an area specifically to find more of the secrets. The latter must have required pretty smart programming.  The Riddler taunts me over my headset, but only if I go back in to an area with one of his secrets unsolved, and, if that is my only other business in that area. If I happen to be perusing a plot-related event in that region, the Riddler doesn’t distract me from that.  But if there’s no story to chase in my current area, the Riddler knows the reason I came back to that place was to track down his missing stuff.  Finding different secrets can unlock game modes, character art, or more information about some characters.  Secrets also give me some of the game’s experience points and can restore health, making it valuable to find them even if I’m doing something else.  But the most crucial thing is that the Riddler feels integrated in to the game, rather than a distraction from the game.

Here is something I didn’t think Fable 2 did very well.  The gargoyles (like Skulltulas) make an unpleasant noise.  In this case that unpleasant noise is the gargoyle taunting you in a Scottish brogue.  The gargoyles have a limited amount of voice drops and their prattle can get kind of repetitive.  They only start to spawn when you have the ability to aim your ranged weapon to destroy them, and the first time I heard someone taunting me I was pretty confused  (as were several people on the Fable 2 forums who believed this to be a bug in one of the bug-related threads that I read.).  After shooting them and destroying them, you get a quest in your log for shooting gargoyles, but initially the purpose isn’t clear.  I could live with that, but the main problem with the gargoyles is that they break the mood.  I might be traveling through uncharted countryside with a companion following behind me, lost in the feeling of exploration or the foreboding atmosphere, and suddenly I hear Scottish taunting.  Damn, it’s another gargoyle. Let me drop everything I’m doing, and turn around to find it.  Shit: don’t see it. Maybe it’s above me?  Not there either – god won’t it shut up?  I have to find it right now, because traveling all over this world can be sometimes tedious and enemies constantly respawn and if I don’t find it now I’m never going to come back this way again.

Compound this with the problem that there are a few of these you can completely irrevocably miss due to plot reasons and the treasure hunt becomes tedious, not fun.  So why does it work for me in Zelda, and Batman, but not Fable?  I have a few thoughts on this:

1. In Zelda, you’re always adventuring alone, and nobody is following around with you.  Same then goes for Batman in the context of Arkham Asylum (Oracle notwithstanding).  Of course it makes sense for Batman to want to find these things. In Fable 2 if nothing else you have the dog, and sometimes you may also be with someone else, a party member who is chatting with you, or someone you have to protect.  So even though Skulltulas make a horrible noise, and often make me drop everything I’m previously doing to try to find them, it doesn’t ever feel like I’m wasting someone else’s time, like I am with the gargoyles in Fable.

2. Someone (a cursed family) specifically asks Link to go hunt down the Skulltulas, so my motivation for finding them makes a lot of sense.  The Riddler specifically challenges Batman to find his trophies and secrets.  But in Fable 2 the reason I’m shooting gargoyles is not initially clear at all… other than, because they are very annoying.

3. Both Batman and Zelda give me pretty good rewards for finding the hidden objects. In Fable 2 rewards are always relative to my current inventory, and, really, who needs another Enchanted Crossbow +12 or whatever in that universe?  (The rewards in that game in general are sort of odd, but that’s an aside.)

4. Backtracking in Fable 2 to find hidden things isn’t generally too fun. Unless you get in to the game combat and see it as a brawler, you’ll be more likely to rely on quick travel due to the constantly respawning enemies in the game.  From there, going back to find a gargoyle you missed is made even more tedious.  On the other hand, backtracking in Batman is no problem – there’s a really good density of secrets-to-area, and it’s also possible to find a map in each section of the game showing you a location for secrets you might have missed.  Enemies don’t respawn: it’s just you versus the secrets and the occasional platforming task.  Enemies do respawn in Zelda, but they don’t level up with you and aren’t tedious to repeatedly fight; later in the game dispatching early-game enemies is trivial as you gain in power.  Fable 2 seems to always spawn enemies that are tough enough to tangle with me, which makes my personal power increase negligible.  It’s not a big deal when exploring new regions but if I can quick-travel through I resent fighting all these buff hobbes for one left-behind gargoyle (which I think maybe was down this corridor but there’s no way to remember for sure without taking notes).

5. Skulltulas and Riddler challenges pose some variety.  As I’ve said before, sometimes you can kill the Skulltula easily but not reach the token. Other times the trick is getting the Skulltula to appear (putting bugs down little holes forces them to climb out.  Or does one only spawn at night here?). As Ocarina is a much older game, some of the clues for how to find the Skulltulas aren’t always direct, but they’re always in the game somewhere.  As for Batman, you may be tasked to “photograph” a certain part of the environment, or line up a question mark with its subsequent dot and photograph that, or, you may be trying to just pick up a trophy-shaped item or a reel of tape hidden somewhere in the room. Sometimes it’s easy to see where a trophy is, just not how to get to it.   The gargoyle challenge is always the same: can you see where it is? No? Keep looking.  Shoot when found.  As a result, to make this challenging they have to be hidden in a lot of places just out of sight.

6. Sometimes just the placement is the problem. A gargoyle might be placed and poised to taunt right before I got a major plot drop, and/or right after. This works in Batman because the Riddler leaves me alone unless I’m going after him in specific. The gargoyles on the other hand care not one whit about the rest of my experience in Fable 2. I wish I could say something more concrete about why the placement didn’t work, but this seems to be the hardest part to put in to words.

The bottom line is, after comparing and contrasting these elements, if you’re making a 3D open-world style game, whether or not it has discreet areas or “dungeons,” you can’t just place secrets in the levels without a thought as to how it affects the overall experience of the user.  No, I never did find all the gargoyles and nor do I, in retrospect, care about getting that achievement, but I obsessively tracked every one of the Riddler’s secrets until he was behind bars.