Upgrade movie

This one snuck up under the radar for me, and was a real pleasant surprise. Upgrade is a Blumhouse Productions film made by some of the same people who make Insidious, The Purge, and Saw, so the previews didn't really sell me on the idea of a clever sci-fi thriller. I was expecting more of just a gore-fest. There's some really over-the-top violence and gore, but the movie is paced well enough that every single graphic kill feels legitimately earned. The choreography is exceptional and creative, and might have been worth the ticket price alone, even if it weren't attached to such a well-made movie.

Where Upgrade surprised me, however, is the way that it is filled with small world-building details that really help to sell this idea of slightly-dystopian near-futurism, and the almost luddite level aversion that some people might have to the inevitable automation of our lives. It does this by being a small, simple story that has a sinister undertone, but which doesn't feel like it's trying to be too grandiose or overblown. This is basically a hard-R-rated feature-length episode of Black Mirror.

Upgrade has some very slick choreography, and some gruesome (but well-earned) violence.

The twist was, admittedly, very easy to see coming after about 10 minutes into the movie, and so the build-up to it makes the bulk of the movie feel kind of predictable. However, there was a second twist that did catch me off-guard. I'm not sure if the movie really builds up to that second twist properly, but maybe that's just me...

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Netflix's extraordinary exclusive series Black Mirror recently released its fourth season, and it's premiere episode, "USS Callister", is already being praised around the internet for its spectacular deconstruction of toxic fandom and male-entitlement power fantasies. It deserves every bit of that praise. Jesse Plemons is also deservedly earning plenty of praise for his incredible performance as both a nerdy creeper and for his spot-on Shatner send-up. But Black Mirror, as a series, is so good, in part, because it works on many, many different levels. So I wanted to spend a bit of time praising the episode for some of its other concepts that are getting less attention in the mainstream.

Jesse Plemons puts on a masterful performance as a nerdy office creeper and a spot-on Shatner send-up.

Before I do that, I want to start by saying that I love Black Mirror as a series. It's a modern-day Twilight Zone with a specific focus on the social impacts of technology, and dire warnings about their dangers. Yes, it's pessimistic, but it's bloody brilliant! I haven't sat down to watch every episode yet, and have only seen a handful of episodes from the first three seasons and the season four premiere. That being said, the show's second episode "Fifteen Million Merits" is one of my favorite pieces of television ever. "The Entire History of You", "Be Right Back", and "San Junipero" are also some of my favorites so far.

These episodes (along with "USS Callister") work so well for me because they do such a fantastic job of world-building -- at least, when they are not unrealistically pretending that memories and personality can be replicated from DNA, which is a major (almost story-breaking) stumbling block for Callister. These deep, nuanced worlds create many levels of commentary to unpack. "Fifteen Million Merits" focused on reality TV and pervasive advertising, but it also has some scathing warnings about a culture of body-shaming, obsession over digital merits (read: XBox Live and Steam Achievements), and how corporate avarice could turn a post-scarcity economy into an absolute dystopia.

A friend of mine highly recommended "San Junipero" to me on the grounds that it's a more optimistic episode than many of the others -- even having a happy ending. But my takeaway was not a "happy ending" at all. The fairy tale ending hides a sinister metaphysical question that the text of the episode mostly sidesteps: the mind-body problem. Is the avatar of a deceased person living in San Junipero really that same person? Or merely a copy? Are they one power failure away from being snuffed out of existence? Are people committing suicide based on misinformation from a multi-billion dollar corporation promising that they can live forever in a simulated reality?

Black Mirror's exceptionally well-thought-out worlds always leave sinister nuances to unpack.

"USS Callister", on the surface, appears to be entirely about toxic fandom (along with male entitlement). It is absolutely about that, and it does a fantastic job of presenting it. As a Star Trek fan, I also enjoyed the deconstructive elements about Trek tropes and the unrealistic reverence that fans hold for the series and its established canon. As someone who blogs about Star Trek, Star Wars, video games, and other fanboy topics, I am certainly a target of at least some of this episode's criticism.

As someone who works in the software industry, I recognized the episode also taking swipes at the cult of personality attached to tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Gabe Newell, and others, and the idea that they may be taking credit and profiting on other people's work, and becoming filthy stinking rich at the expense of the consumers who mindlessly use and venerate their products, all with willful disregard for how those products may be misused. As someone who can't wait to put myself on the waiting list for a Tesla self-driving car, I'm also well within the cross-hairs of that line of commentary...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

In my last post, I ranted a little bit about some of the major frustrations that I have with the way that Civilization games have historically dealt with difficulty levels. In summary, I identified three problems that I feel make it less enjoyable to play the game on higher difficulties, even if the lower difficulties still feel too easy. The three problems are:

In this post, I'd like to provide some more constructive criticism by discussing some of the thoughts and ideas that I've had for possibly resolving these three problems. These ideas include providing a wider range of options for customizing the difficulty level and game experience to suit the individual player's tastes and style, and to provide a wider (and more open-ended) set of game-long challenges.

Alternative solutions to game difficulty

So what could the developers do about these problems?

Well, the problem of game pacing could possibly be solved by inverting the handicap such that instead of speeding up the A.I.s' progress through the game, the player is slowed down. This could be accomplished by slowing down the human player's tech and civic progress, and by negatively handicapping some of the human player's yields. This would allow the A.I.s to progress at a more historically-appropriate rate, and overall game length would remain similar across all difficulties.

Civilization VI - Ship Building to Cartography
Padding out sparse areas of the tech and civics trees could mitigate the ability to beeline to later eras.

Rapid era progression could also be somewhat mitigated by padding out the tech and civics trees a little bit more. Beelining to the Renaissance via the "Cartography" technology is common for civs like England and Norway. There's a few ways to limit this. One simple way would be to simply make "Cartography" require either "Education" or "Military Tactics". Another way would be to have a technology between "Ship Building" and "Cartography" -- such as an "Optics" technology that unlocks an upgrade to the Scout, or a "Lateen Sail" technology that unlocks a medieval naval unit like the Cog, Hulk, Junk, or Galleass (or move the Caravel up to "Lateen Sails" but don't give it ocean-crossing abilities until "Cartography").

Customization, options, and difficulty settings

As for resolving the other issues presented by high difficulty levels, my preference would be for the developers to add more customization and tuning options for players so that we can tailor the gameplay experience and challenges more to our liking.

Civilization VI - advanced settings
Civ VI has limited customization options.

Having independent sliders or settings for things like Player Handicaps, A.I. Handicaps, AI Temperament, Barbarian Spawn Rate, Barbarian Aggressiveness, Barbarian Tech Level, City State Aggressiveness, and so on would all go a long way towards allowing the player to customize the game's challenge according to their own strengths and weaknesses. Handicap settings for players and A.I. can even be further divided into different sub-categories along the lines of: Tech Handicap, Culture Handicap, Production Handicap, Gold Handicap, Growth Handicap, Happiness / Amenity Handicap, etc.. So if you find that you are consistently out-teching your A.I. opponents, but you feel you have parity with the A.I. in other areas of the game, then you could specifically buff the A.I.'s tech handicap, weaken yours, or both.

This would certainly make some of the game's code more complicated, but I don't think that it would be prohibitively difficult. The difficulty settings already make adjustments to these very same parameters, and I believe the game's own .ini files allow modders to customize many (if not all) of these attributes. I don't see any reason why such settings can't just be in the game's settings menu, and the difficulty settings (deity, emperor, king, settler, etc.) could just use some pre-configured arrangements of those values.

Other genres use similar paradigms for their difficulty settings. Sports games are a prime example...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

Obviously, I love the Sid Meier's Civilization game franchise. I've been playing it since Civ III, and even own the Fantasy Flight board game (which I also really like). This game series has kept me up, one-more-turning, into the wee hours of the morning on many occasions. Despite my love for the games, this series can also really grind my gears sometimes.

One of my persistent frustrations with the Civilization series of games is the way that it handles difficulty levels. Granted, this seems to be a common issue in all strategy games, so Civ is certainly not unique in this frustration. Basically, the higher difficulties don't make the A.I.s play better; rather, it just gives them free stuff at the beginning of the game, and buffs their production, research, and so on. The free stuff includes (depending on the difficulty level selected): extra settlers, extra military units, free workers/builders, free technologies, extra gold, extra population in its starting city, and so forth.

There's three key problems with this design paradigm:

  • It front-loads the challenge in a game that is supposed to have very long play-sessions
  • It limits player options
  • It rushes the pace of the game

The front-loading of frustration

Giving the A.I.s extra stuff at the beginning of the game only makes the game harder by giving the A.I.s a handicap - a head start. It doesn't make the A.I.s better - or the game harder - in the long run. The A.I.s still chose crappy locations for those extra settlers to plant their cities - often putting them in un-productive locations, or (in the case of Civ VI) putting them so close together that they can't fit enough districts in. The A.I. doesn't plan ahead regarding where its districts will be, and it often places those districts in sub-optimal locations. "Sub-optimal" being an understatement.

Civilization VI - A.I. free settlers
The A.I. starting with extra settlers on high difficulties doesn't make the game harder in the long run.

Those free extra units aren't used more effectively either. Even with a few extra warriors, the A.I. still can't plan or execute a city siege, as it's generally inept at handling the one-unit-per-tile, hex-based combat, and they rarely bother to escort their civilian units. The developers can't be completely blamed for this, as A.I. for tactical combat is a very difficult problem to solve. Most games that have A.I.-driven tactical combat either don't have any grand strategy at all (as in Panzer General), or the grand strategy is separated into a completely different layer of gameplay (as in Total War).

Once the human player can get his or her cities up and running, get a sizable military built, and start conquering the A.I., all these free starting units become moot. These extra units can even backfire. A.I. cities can usually easily be captured by the human player. Since the A.I. gets buffs towards population growth, production, and other yields, those cities tend to grow faster than the player's cities anyway. So if they're conquered, then the human player gets better cities than they could have founded on their own, and gets them sooner than if they had spent the time to build their own settlers.

Civilization VI - capturing A.I. cities
It's not hard to capture A.I. cities, which are often larger and more developed
than any city the player could have founded within the same amount of time.

These early hurdles aren't that difficult to overcome, and once the A.I.'s starting advantages have been neutralized, they don't pose much of an increased threat long-term...

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Soma

Now that I've gotten through the gauntlet of massive AAA releases like Metal Gear Solid V and Dark Souls III, I wanted to take some time to clear out some smaller games that have been collecting dust in my Steam library before diving into any other massive, time-sucking games. One of my highest priorities was the Indie sci-fi horror title Soma, developed by Frictional Games - the same company that made Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I had heard pretty good things about this game, and I liked Dark Descent, so I was eager to finally have a chance to dive into this one.

Learning from failures and forgetting successes

Soma show signs of learning from the weaknesses of both The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs (which was actually developed by a third party), even though it still doesn't necessarily nail the mechanics this time either. It's a far better experience than Machine for Pigs, and shows the level of quality that helped make Dark Descent such a hit. The most notable improvements from Machine for Pigs is in the depth of gameplay and monster encounters; and the most notable improvements from Dark Descent are in puzzle design and narrative.

Second chances

Soma - monster
Monsters sometimes appear in where you get important story bits to incentivize you to not just walk away.

Monster encounters do still feel very un-threatening for the first half of the game. The first few monster encounters even seemed scripted to catch the player. This was possibly done in order to tutorialize the game's healing mechanic, but it also serves to desensitize the player to the monster and the threat of death right out of the gate. Unlike The Dark Descent, you don't start out terrified and cowering in fear from a mysterious and ominous enemy that can kill you in a heartbeat, and then gradually grow desensitized to it as it kills you and you realize that the consequences of death are pretty minor. Instead, you're taught right from the start that dying is virtually consequence-free, and that it isn't really worth the time and effort to try to avoid the monster by sneaking around, or to try to hide from it. The monster's appearance is never even surprising either. There's a screen-tearing effect and static noises to indicate that the monster is near, even if you can't see him. It's the same kind of effect that Slenderman played with. So even while you're walking around, you never feel the need to peek around corners or glance over your shoulder to make sure nothing's stalking you. This kills any potential for horror that the game might have been able to establish...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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