A Critique of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I recently got around to playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It’s one of those games I picked up forever ago, and it just sat around. I got it because it has to be one of the most critically acclaimed games I’ve ever seen. Giant Bomb and many, many other gaming sites gave it a 5/5 or very near such a perfect score.

I’m going to take a contrarian view, and I’m going to back up my claims with hard facts. Anyone paying attention and who knows about games should know better. I’m very confused as to how “experts” could have thought this game was good. I’m confused how “experts” could have even liked the game.

First, the game suffered from genre confusion. I’m all for experimenting with new, cross-genre ideas, but there has to be some content there at the end of the day. Was it a puzzle game? No. It fails on this front, because I never once had to “solve” something. From start to finish, the solution of how to progress was immediately obvious. Moreover, many of the puzzles repeated … several times … like, way too many times for a game this short.

Was it a platformer? No. The platforming aspects were too easy, and the stakes were too low. I think I died at one point because I accidentally let go of a trigger. That was my only death, and basically it happened because I itched my face or something. I got to repeat the task immediately with no penalty.

There is no platforming difficulty at all. In fact, many elements were downright bad on this front:

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The number of places where you must edge around a cliff or cross a narrow bridge got on my nerves. Not because I had to execute something challenging, but because the game designers clearly have no idea why other games use these elements. There is no risk of falling. The game won’t let you—I tried. So what’s the point other than to slow the player down? It’s more than an annoyance; it’s bad game design.

Basically, the game must be a story-driven walking simulator, because we’ve now determined it isn’t any of the other genres it’s crossed with. So how is the story? Oh, boy. Don’t get me started. It’s terrible.

First, it starts with a MacGuffin. This is already bad, mostly because we don’t even know what we’re setting off on our adventure to find. We only know it will magically save our father. That’s convenient. Where are we going? How do we know this cure will work? Don’t the writer’s know that MacGuffins are considered a cliche trope indicative of bad storytelling?

Then we haven’t even left our town and a kid is trying to stop us. Why? Our father is dying, and this kid doesn’t want to let us through. I get it. They needed an excuse to set up some “platforming puzzles” (that, recall, require no platforming or puzzle-solving skills). But you can’t have such a disgusting character with no motivation. I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” because I’ve never consciously experienced it. But here I did. This conflict between gameplay and story already ruined the mood of the game in the first five minutes.

Another act of ludonarrative dissonance was when I got to this big castle that I couldn’t enter, but it had these perfectly placed pegs to grab on to (not quite the picture I wanted, but you get the point):

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Really? This highly fortified castle has this convenient other way to scale it with perfectly placed pegs, just the right distance so that the rope randomly tied between the two brothers barely reaches. Is this a story game or a puzzle platformer? If it’s a platformer, we could overlook these huge narrative flaws. But it doesn’t work as a game in that genre. It’s a story game, but these scenarios wreck the suspension of disbelief for the story.

More succinctly, in the language of game design, these sections involve “environmental puzzles,” but the puzzles don’t occur naturally in the environment at all. This is bad game design.

And let’s not even go there with the deus ex machinas. Are you stuck and can’t actually progress? Yes? Oh, well, good thing a giant appears out of nowhere and just throws you across the ravine. Did you get to the top of the castle only to be at a dead end? Good thing there is a bird trapped in a cage that will fly you to the next area.

It gets worse. How is that bird still alive? It’s been trapped in a cage for who-knows-how-long, bleeding, without any food, and all the people that could feed it are dead. Are we really supposed to believe the bird is still alive?

Lastly, people claim the ending is really sad. They claim they were moved to tears. I couldn’t get past the shrieking woman singing that shrill song at the climax. It ruined the mood. Ending Spoiler:

On a more serious note, I’ve already mentioned all the reasons I never got into the story: ludonarrative dissonance, tropes/cliches, unmotivated characters, ruined suspension of disbelief, plot holes, etc. I just didn’t feel anything except relief the game was over.

On positive note, the concept could have been amazing. Part of what made the game easy was that the core concept was never executed to its fullest. You have to move one of the brothers with one hand and the other with the other hand.

The potential for some truly interesting and difficult gameplay is there. All they had to do was design parts where you have to move both at the same time in fairly precise and independent ways. Instead, they stuck to having you move both in parallel or one at a time. That was the main downfall of the game: It didn’t even deliver on its core innovative mechanic.

Overall, each element has much better games. For puzzle platforming, there are dozens of examples: Braid, Thomas Was Alone, Teslagrad, Super Meat Boy, Trine, and on and on. For story, there are dozens of examples: Gone Home, Bastion, To the Moon, and on and on. For atmosphere: Limbo, Dear Esther, Kentucky Route Zero, The Long Dark, and on and on. I see no reason why anyone should play this game under any circumstance. There’s just much better games on every front.

I know. The whole is better than the sum of its parts for some games. In this case, that is not true. In fact, many parts messed up other parts. What the critics and people who liked this game were thinking is beyond me.

Reviewing Sirlin’s Codex

I’m travelling, so this might not be the most thorough or polished review Codex deserves. Don’t take this as a reflection on the game.

The game can be learned in one or two playthroughs, but it will probably sound way more complicated when describing it in words. I’ll refer to Magic: The Gathering (MtG), Hearthstone, and Dominion. If you have absolutely no familiarity with any of these games, you may want to skip the post. But, you don’t have to have played any of them. If you’ve heard of MtG and vaguely know what a deckbuilding game is (Dominion), you’ll probably be fine.

Codex takes the core of MtG as it’s starting point. Each player has their own deck built from various colors. The colors tend to have themes that loosely follow MtG. Red focuses on haste and burn spells. Green is creature and growth spell based. Black uses skeletons and killing off creatures to get effects. And so on.

But that’s about where the comparisons stop. One of the most annoying aspects of MtG for me is that you can only attack the other player with your creatures. The opposing player has all these creatures on the battlefield and can even block with them, but the attacker can’t have their creatures attack them. It makes no sense, and forces really weird play to avoid bad trades. Also, after being damaged, creatures heal for the next turn. This makes healing a totally nonviable type of spell to design around.

Hearthstone basically fixes these two oddities by allowing creatures to attack each other, and damage persists across turns. This is also how Codex works. It opens up so many interesting decisions. Do I heal myself or do I heal my creatures? (It’s actually not that interesting. Answer: Always heal the creatures because your health isn’t as important as board presence).

In all these games, one must pay a cost to cast a spell or summon a creature. MtG builds these costs into the deck by forcing you to have “dead” cards (land). This means you can randomly get flooded by too much or screwed by too little. The ideal would be to play a land every turn to keep ramping up to better creatures until you hit an ideal amount, and then you never want to draw land again.

Since this is the ideal, Hearthstone just forces this to happen by giving you one extra mana per turn. It fixes these two MtG issues in one swoop. You never draw dead cards, and you can focus on strategically playing on curve without being at the mercy of random draw.

In a sense, this goes too far, because it eliminates some of the decision space. Codex draws on RTS games and hits a very interesting middle ground. You pay for cards with gold, and you always have the choice to increase the amount of gold each turn to play on curve. But unlike Hearthstone, there’s a cost to do it. You must convert a card in hand to a “worker.” This removes the card from the game and costs 1 gold, a startlingly high cost that after a few games becomes clear to always be worth it.

The more decisions that have to be made, the higher the skill cap. This one choice each turn is very interesting. Do you forego making a worker to have better card advantage, and 1 extra gold this turn; or is this too risky because the next turn your opponent will have more gold if they make a worker?

Another RTS innovation that increases the decision space is building tech buildings. Each turn you get to add two cards to your deck from a pool determined by your starting factions. This is the Dominion deck building idea. The point of this is that you can try to predict your opponents strategy and then add in cards to your deck to counter them. But maybe they were only feigning a strategy and you teched in a counter which they already countered. The mind games are real.

If you haven’t built any buildings, you can only use cards coming from Tech 0. If you spend money to build a building, you get to use Tech 1 cards and so on. This is often the hardest decision in the game for me. Tech 2 cards are really, really powerful. If one player starts playing them significantly earlier than another, they will probably spiral out of control to victory.

But building the structure to play these powerful cards pretty much wrecks a whole turn. In other words, if you build these too early, you might incur a cost so severe you fall behind and can’t catch up, even with the powerful new cards. If you build it too late, your opponent might just win with their powerful cards. It’s a super interesting and critical decision that has to be made by comparing economies, board state, card advantage, your current strategy, your opponent’s strategy and so on.

The last interesting innovation I’ll talk about is the fact that you have to have a “hero” in play to cast spells. This opens up a huge range of possible targets for attack. Do you kill the hero and cripple their ability play spells? Do you attack creatures for board advantage? Do you attack tech buildings so they can’t play their more powerful cards? Do you all-in and only attack the base in hopes of rushing a victory?

And this is only the half of it. There’s a board, so creatures can take up strategic positions. Heroes have abilities they get from levelling up. Some of the innovative card keywords are really clever, like Purple being about time manipulation. And I’m sure I’m missing dozens of cool ideas they’ve packed into this.

I’ll admit it is quite expensive to get the full thing, but it’s not a collectible or trading card game. The set is complete as is (and considering it’s priced at about 2 booster boxes of MtG cards, i.e. 1/(10,000+) of the cards in MtG, it’s hard to complain). Once you have all the cards (which come in the Deluxe version), you’re done buying cards for the game forever. The Core Set is priced at a standard board game price and gets you the complete Green and Red sets, and if this is interesting to you, you’ll get more than enough hours of play to make it worth it.

Overall, I couldn’t be happier. It’s like this game was designed specifically with me in mind. The game is really fun at a casual level, but really deep. I could see the game becoming quite competitive with how high the skill ceiling seems to be.

Draw Luck in Card Games

Every year, around this time, I like to do a post on some aspect of game design in honor of the 7DRL Challenge. Let’s talk about something I hate: card games (though I sometimes become obsessed with, and love, well-made ones). For a game to be competitive, luck must be minimized or controlled in some way.

My family is obsessed with Canasta. I don’t get the appeal at all. This is a game that can take 1-2 hours to play and amounts to taking a random hand of cards and sorting them into like piles.

I’ve seen people say there is “strategy” on various forums. I’ll agree in a limited sense. There is almost always just one correct play, and if you’ve played a few times, that play will be immediately obvious to you. This means that everyone playing the game will play the right moves. This isn’t usually what is meant by “strategy.” By definition, the game is completely decided by the cards you draw.

This is pure tedium. Why would anyone want to sit down, flip a coin but not look at it, then perform a sorting task over and over for an hour or more, stop, look at the result of the coin flip and then determine that whoever won the coin flip won the “game.” This analogy is almost exactly the game of Canasta. There are similar (but less obnoxious) bureaucratic jobs that people are paid to do, and those people hate their job.

Not to belabor this point, but imagine you are told to put a bunch of files into alphabetical order, and each time you finish, someone came into the room and threw the files into the air. You then had to pick them up and sort them again. Why would you take this task upon yourself as a leisure activity?

I’ve asked my family this before, and the answer is always something like: it gives us something to do together or it is bonding time or similar answers. But if that’s the case, why not sit around a table and talk rather than putting this tedious distraction into it? If the point is to have fun playing a game, why not play a game that is actually fun?

This is an extreme example, but I’d say that most card games actually fall into this pure coin flip area. We get so distracted by playing the right moves and the fact that it is called a “game” that we sometimes forget the winner of the activity is nothing more than a purely random luck of the draw.

Even games like Pitch or Euchre or other trick taking games, where the right plays take a bit more effort to come up with, are the same. It’s a difficult truth to swallow, but the depth of these games is so shallow that a few hours of playing and you’ll be making the correct moves, without much thought, every single hand. Once every player makes the right plays, it only amounts to luck.

It’s actually really difficult to design a game with a standard deck of cards that gets around this problem. I’ve heard Bridge has depth (I know nothing of the game, but I take people’s word on this considering there is a professional scene). Poker has depth.

How does Poker get around draw luck? I’d say there are two answers. The first is that we don’t consider any individual hand a “game” of Poker. Obviously, the worst Poker player in the world could be dealt a straight flush and win the hand against the best Poker player in the world. Skill in Poker comes into play over the long run. One unit of Poker should be something like a whole tournament, where enough games are played to overcome the draw luck.

Now that we aren’t referring to a single hand, the ability to fold with minimal consequences also mitigates draw luck. This means that if you get unlucky with your initial cards, you can just choose to not play that hand. There are types of Poker that straight up let you replace bad cards (we’ll get to replacing in a moment). All of these things mitigate the luck enough that it makes sense to talk about skill.

Another card game with a professional scene is Magic: The Gathering (MTG). Tournament types vary quite a bit, but one way to mitigate draw luck is again to consider a whole tournament as a unit rather than an individual game. Or you could always play best of five or something.

But one of the most interesting aspects is the deck itself. Unlike traditional playing cards, you get to make the deck you play with. This means that over the course of many games, you can only blame yourself for bad drawing. Did you only draw lands on your first turn for five matches in a row? Then maybe you have too many land cards. That’s your fault. Did you draw no land many times in a row? Also, your own fault again. Composing a deck that takes all these probabilities into account is part of the skill of the game (usually called the “curve” of the deck).

Here’s an interesting question: is there a way to mitigate draw luck without having to play a ton of games? Most people want to play something short and not have to travel for a few days to play in a tournament to test their skill.

In real life, replacing cards is obnoxious to implement, but I think it is a fascinating and underutilized rule. The replacement idea allows you to tone down draw luck even at the level of a single game. If your card game exists online only, it is easy to do, and some recent games actually utilize this like Duelyst.

Why does it work? Well, if you have a bad draw, you can just replace one or all of your cards (depending on how the rule is worded). Not only does this create strategic depth through planning ahead for which cards will be useful, it almost completely eliminates the luck of the draw.

I really want to see someone design a card game with a standard deck of cards that makes this idea work. The one downside is that the only way I can see a “replace” feature working is if you shuffle after each replacement. This is pretty annoying, but I don’t see a way around it. You can’t just stick the card you replace into the middle of the deck and pretend like that placement is random. Everyone will know that it isn’t going to be drawn in the next few turns and can play around that.

Anyway. That’s just something I’ve been thinking about since roguelikes have tons of randomness in them, and the randomness of card games have always bothered me.

 

On Modern Censorship

I don’t want to wade into the heavy politics of things like GamerGate, MetalGate, and so on, but those movements certainly got me thinking about these issues a few months ago. A few days ago, I read a New York Times article about twitter shaming people out of their careers over basically nothing. This brought some clarity to my thoughts on the issue.

I’ll try to keep examples abstract, at the cost of readability, to not spur the wrath of either side. I haven’t done a post on ethics in a while, and this is an interesting and difficult subject.

First, let me say there are clear cases where censorship is good. For example, children should not be allowed to watch pornography (of course, there could be a dispute over the age where this becomes blurry, but everyone has an age where it is too young). There are also clear cases where censorship is bad. For example, a group of concerned Christian parents succeeds in a petition to ban Harry Potter from their children’s school.

Many arguments about censorship boil down to this question of societal harm. To start our thought experiment, let’s get rid of that complication and assume that whatever work is in question is fine. In other words, we will assume that censorship is bad in the sense that the marketplace of ideas should be free. If something offends you, then don’t engage with it. You shouldn’t go out of your way to make it so no one can engage with it.

In the recent controversies, there has been an underlying meta-dialogue that goes something like this:

Person A: If you don’t like the sexism/racism/homophobia/etc (SRHE) in this game/book/movie/etc (GBME), then don’t get the media. Stop trying to censor it so that I can’t engage with it. I happen to enjoy it.

Person B: I’m not trying to censor anything. I’m just raising social awareness as to the SRHE. It is through media that these types of things are perpetuated, and the first step to lessen this is to raise awareness.

What made this issue so difficult for me is that I understand both points of view. Person A is reiterating the idea that if you don’t like something, then don’t engage with it. There is no need to ruin it for everyone else. It is also hard to argue with Person B if they are sincere. Maybe they agree that censorship is bad, but they want to raise awareness as to why they don’t like the media in question.

The main point of this post is to present a thought experiment where Person B is clearly in the wrong. The reason to do this is that I think the discussion often misses a vital point: in our modern age of twitter storms and online petitions, Person B can commit what might be called “negligent censorship.” Just like in law, negligence is not an excuse that absolves you of the ethical consequences of censoring something.

Thought experiment: Small Company starts making its GBME. In order to fund the project, they get the support of Large Company that is well-known for its progressive values. In the age of the internet, news of this new GBME circulates early.

Person B happens to be a prominent blogger and notices some SRHE in the GBME. Note, for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter whether the SRHE is real or imagined (though, full disclosure, I personally believe that people whose job it is to sniff out SRHE in media tend to exaggerate [possibly subconsciously] SRHE to find it where it maybe doesn’t really exist).

Let’s make this very clear cut. Person B knows that they can throw their weight around enough to get a big enough twitter storm to scare the Large Company backer out of funding the Small Company’s project. Person B does this, and sure enough, the project collapses and never gets finished or released.

This is clear censorship. Person B acted with the intent to squash the GBME. Sadly, Person B can still claim the nobler argument given earlier, and it is hard to argue against that. I think this is part of what infuriates Person A so much. You can’t prove their interior motivation was malicious.

But I think you don’t need to. Now let’s assume Person B does all of this with the good-natured intention of merely “raising awareness.” The same outcome occurs. Your intent shouldn’t matter, because your actions led to the censorship (and also hurt the livelihood of some people which has its own set of moral issues).

If you write something false about someone that leads to their harm, even if you didn’t realize it, you can still be charged with libel. Negligence is not an excuse. I’m not saying it is a crime to do what Person B did (for example, the SRHE may actually be there so the statements Person B made were true). I’m only making an analogy for thinking about negligence.

You can claim you only were trying to raise awareness, but I claim that you are ethically still responsible. This is especially true now that we’ve seen this happen in real life many times. If Person B is an adult, they should know writing such things often has this effect.

To summarize, if you find yourself on Person B’s side a lot, try to get inside the head of Small Company for a second. Whether intended or not, Person B caused their collapse. It is not an excuse to say Small Company should have been more sensitive to the SRHE in their GBME if they wanted to stay afloat.

This is blaming the victim. If Large Company said upfront they wouldn’t back the project if Small Company made their proposed GBME, it would be Small Company’s fault for taking the risk. If a group of people who don’t agree with the content of the GBME cause it to collapse, it is (possibly negligent) censorship.

Under our assumption that censorship is bad, I think Person B has serious ethical issues and Person A is clearly in the right. The problem is that in real life, Person B tries to absolve their wrong by implicitly appealing to a utilitarian argument.

A (non-malicious) Person B will truly believe that the short term harm of censoring is outbalanced by the long-term good of fighting SRHE. If the evidence was perfectly clear about the causation/correlation between SRHE in mass media and real life, Person B would have a pretty good ethical argument for their position.

What makes this such a contested issue is that we are in some middle ground. There is correlation, which may or may not be significant. But who knows about causation. Maybe it is the other way around. The SRHE in society is coming out in art, because it is present in society: not the other way around that Person B claims.

This is why, even though, with my progressive values, I am highly sympathetic to the arguments and sentiments of Person B, I have to side with Person A most of the time. Person B has a moral responsibility to make sure they raise awareness in a way that does not accidentally lead to censorship. This has become an almost impossible task with our scandal obsessed social media.

For the debates to calm down a bit, I think side B has to understand side A a bit better. I think most people on side A understand the concerns of side B, but they just don’t buy the argument. Many prominent speakers on side B dismiss side A as a bunch of immature white boys who don’t understand their media has SRHE in it. Side B needs to realize that there is a complicated ethical argument against their side, even if it rarely gets articulated.

I’m obviously not calling for self-censorship (which is always the catch-22 of speaking about these issues), but being a public figure comes with certain responsibilities. Here are the types of things I think a prominent writer on SRHE issues should think more critically about before writing:

1. Do I influence a lot of people’s opinion about SRHE topics? For example, having 200K twitter followers might count here.
2. Do my readers expect me to point out SRHE in GBME on a regular basis? If so, you might be biased towards finding it. Ask someone familiar with the GBME whether you are taking clips or quotes out of context to strengthen your claims before making a public accusation.
3. Are my words merely bringing awareness to an issue, or am I also making a call to action to censor the GBME?

Video Games as a Solution to the One-Sided Problem of Art

In October I wrote a post in defense of gaming in which the central argument is a claim that any person who takes experiencing art as an important human experience should consider certain types of games as a worthwhile use of time as well. Some games are basically interactive films, but some are much more interesting and original forms of interactive art. If you close yourself off from this world, then you close yourself off from deep artistic experiences that you can’t get elsewhere.

A few months ago I did two posts on David Foster Wallace, his philosophy of art, and how to get the most out of Infinite Jest.

One of DFW’s central concerns in art was the one-sided nature of art. The artist puts in hundreds of hours of work, and the viewer/reader/whatever passively experiences the work. He thought of the artist/viewer relationship as an honest relationship. If it is completely one-sided, then it is a defunct relationship and you won’t get much out of it for very long. To have a successful relationship, both sides have to be putting in reasonable amounts of work.

This is one way people justify postmodernist writing. You have a bunch of endnotes or footnotes or you pull the reader out of the reading experience in other ways by drawing attention to the fact that they are reading something. You write in stream of consciousness from points of view that change every couple of pages, so that the reader can’t immediately tell what is happening. Whatever the literary device, the idea is that the reader has to put in work.

The point is that the more work the reader puts in, the more they will get out of the experience. Just like in a relationship, the reader has to invest something if they want a meaningful experience. Of course, the relationship becomes one-sided on the other side if the author just uses a random word generator and plops nonsense on the page for the reader to spend months trying to decipher. It needs to be a symbiotic relationship where neither side carries too much of the burden.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this problem is a real problem, and what writers, filmmakers, artists, etc have come up with so far merely mitigates the problem. There hasn’t been a really good way to get the viewer to truly participate in and invest in the work of art … until the fairly recent paradigm shift in thinking about games as art.

I’m definitely not the first to propose this, so I won’t spend a lot of time making this into a long post. Now that I’ve blogged around this topic a few times without actually addressing it I thought I would just point out that games are one obvious solution to the problem. They provide an interactive experience where the “player” has to fully invest in the work.

In fact, if artists are scared of the idea that their art will be “played” and hence will not qualify as “serious” (two notions that are extraordinarily hard to define or separate), then they should check out some recent games like To the Moon. The game play is extremely minimal. The player experiences a moving story by progressing through the game. The game play consists of moving around to collect some items and at the end of certain segments of collecting you “solve a puzzle” (sometimes only 2 or 3 clicks of the mouse). Still, this level of interaction is vital to fully immersing you in the story as if you were really the main character. This interaction is impossible with film or literature.