Author: Ben

Writer and Editor at GRView, prior experience of talking about military narratives in post 9/11 videogames, communications technologies as political vectors as well as pontificating about ludo-narrative dissonance and racing games on the GRcade podcast.

Experimental Two-in-One Review – Gone Home and Octodad: Dadliest Catch

Until recently I had not paid much attention to the Mass Effect series, however after the realisation that I was years late to the party and Mass Effect Andromeda coming out soon, I thought it would be worth blasting through the previous trilogy to get up to speed. After that mammoth undertaking I wanted to play some smaller palette-cleanser games with the added bonus of clearing more of my backlog. As part of this process I played Gone Home and Octodad: Dadliest Catch one after the other and found myself thinking about how the two are very similar in a lot of interesting ways. Rather than repeat myself across two reviews I thought I would combine them into a single review. Throughout it I will clearly delineate between the two in bracketed sentences or paragraphs labelled GH for Gone Home and OD for Octodad. It is entirely possible this will be a one-off feature so don’t worry too much if it doesn’t entirely work.

Games don’t need to tell grandiose stories of world or universe-saving gravitas and scope to be personally affecting. The sometimes misguided plot beats of Mass Effect manage to weave personal stories into a fantastical setting with the intention of impacting the emotional bits of the player’s brain while impressing them with awe, spectacle and space shooty-bang-bang.

These stories can be just as, if not more affecting by making them more personally relatable; pulling on our personal real-life memories and emotions as a clever way to connect us to the polygonal marionettes pulled by invisible strings in front of our eyes and suspend our disbelief.

This game manages all of these objectives by doing just that; placing us in situations that we may not have directly experienced ourselves, but that cross enough circles on the Venn diagram of our own lives to make sufficient connections to tether us to the narrative and characters. I have never been (GH: a 90s teenage lesbian)(OD: a literal cephalopod trying to pass itself off as human being) however I have been (GH: a young person trying to grapple with who I am, what the world is and where I fit in it)(OD: aware of my own ‘imposter syndrome’ regarding personal achievement and trying to fit in or trying to do difficult or stressful things without making them worse in the process), and as such elements of the story did resonate with me on a personal level.

I am not a universal fan of the (GH: ‘Walking Simulator’)(OD: ‘Aren’t physics/difficult controls funny!’) genre, however to me this game is perhaps the best example of such a genre due to the way the mechanics are utilised to reinforce the narrative or experience of the character, either (GH: wandering around your parents’ large house to picture together where they and your sister are and what happened to them through puzzles and interacting with objects which tangentially build the story)(OD: trying to do everyday things without drawing attention to your externally obvious octopoid nature). This, coupled with the use of non-linear narrative to build the story around the gameplay adds more than (GH: wandering about and doing very little while having story vomited at you until the credits roll)(OD: flailing around until the joke quickly wears off), a trait which put me off other supposedly excellent titles such as (GH: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture)(OD: Surgeon Simulator) which I thought were really not very good at all.

To me the biggest problem for the genre of game this sits in is that they typically overstay their welcome; dragging out narrative or mechanics beyond what is (GH: interesting and engaging)(OD: funny). This game avoids that by saying what it has to say and wrapping up before this happens. The only major criticism comes from the price-to-time ratio this game offers. It costs at least £10 on Steam and PS4 when not on sale and while I am not normally averse to buying well-made shorter games like Inside, I would perhaps recommend caution on this one in particular (GH: because there is very little replay value)(OD: however there are plenty of achievements and some collectables if that kind of thing matters to you) and game length is a major purchasing factor.

Finally, whether you like or dislike this game/genre, the house in Gone Home also makes an interesting Counterstrike map:


Free Games in Focus Part 1: Star Trek Online

As I have previously mentioned, there are many ways to get more for your money by either making your own fun or playing games which give more time for your cash investment. One of the games I mentioned was Star Trek Online and its mission creation system. Now I would like to delve deeper into the game itself.

Initially launching on PC in 2010, going Free to Play in 2012 and launching on Xbox One and PS4 in 2016, Star Trek Online is one of many licensed MMOs which switched from a subscription to a free-to-play model after several years in operation and presumably falling revenue to the point where such a conversion was the only financially sensible decision. The mindset behind reworking a game to make it fit a new business model is generally driven by the impetus to get more people in and therefore looking at and potentially spending money on items, services and benefits offered to recoup development/maintenance costs from players who have paid nothing to get in in the first place.

As clearly indicated by the name, Star Trek Online is an MMO set in the Star Trek universe. Players can be either a Federation, Klingon or Romulan captain with their own ship and crew, flying around the galaxy on episodically-structured missions which form part of a larger overarching plot that draws on Star Trek’s extensive history.

Enterprise in fligt
To boldy go…

What makes STO stand out is its combination of ground and space combat. The former playing much like conventional character-based MMO combat while the latter plays like naval combat in space. Every ship has forward and rear-facing weapons whose firing arc is inversely proportional to their damage output; for example a single phaser beam has an arc of 270 degrees while dual heavy cannons have an arc of 45 degrees, however they are much more potent. Your ship’s defensive systems work the same way too, your ship’s shields have different facings and a lot of the skill of surviving is managing your shield levels and turning to hide damaged shields from oncoming fire while they regenerate or are repaired.

Character progression is split between upgrading the equipment of your captain, bridge officers (who come with you on ground missions and whose abilities you use in space combat) as well as your ship itself; adding new weapons, armour, shields etc. This gear progression is denoted in increasing ‘mark’ levels; you start with mark 1 equipment and by maximum level (60) this increases to mark 12-14. Regardless of your faction choice the progression is largely the same. You start off with a very small ship with limited weapons and equipment. Every 10 levels up to level 40 you can pick a free ship from a limited selection of the next tier up. For the Federation this includes ships of the same class as many of the Enterprises as well as Voyager, however as you level these ships become mechanically obsolete, which is where the micro-transactions come in, which I will talk about later. Similar ship choices are available for the Romulans and Klingons, however there are many more examples of ship classes made up specifically for the game. So how does this free game make enough money for the developers to stay in business and to justify porting it to current-generation consoles? What can you do for free and what requires real money investment?

To answer any of these question it is necessary to unpack the overlapping currencies and systems at the heart of STO. The game has 3 major currencies which have a surprisingly complex relationship. Energy Credits, or EC, is the basic currency of the game; its what players will use to buy items from the Exchange, the game’s auction system, as well as what they will receive when selling junk item to vendors. Dilithium is an intermediary currency between EC and the real-money currency Zen. Dilithium is used to buy advanced upgrades through STOs reputation and fleet (guild) systems and is a time-gate to progress. Players can accumulate as much unrefined dilithium as they like but can only turn a finite amount per day – 8000 – into its refined and usable form. Zen is the currency which players can buy for real money and is used to purchase ships, account upgrades as well as keys for the game’s lockbox system which will be discussed later. Also Dilithium and Zen can be exchanged for each other however their prices are sensitive to rampant inflation caused by supply and demand.

Starship bridge
Make it so…

This mixture of interrelated currencies is a bit of a mess, a symptom of the game’s reworking to a fundamentally new business model. Part of this model has included the introduction of lockboxes; blind-bags which can only be opened by purchasing keys for real money or from the exchange for EC. Many of the items in these boxes are highly desirable ships and equipment from various alien races who are relevant in the ongoing story at the time. If you just want to play a Star Trek game as a Federation, Klingon or Romulan captain with their standard ships then you can ignore these systems completely. However if you want to fly niche Ferengi, Cardassian, Undine or ships from the JJ Abrams series reboot for example, the costs start to rise exponentially due to the rarity of said ships and the constant inflation of the EC auction house economy.

Fortunately this approach is completely viable as you can follow the entire story from the beginning without paying anything. Since going Free-To-Play the levelling process has been smoothed out and the ships and equipment you get on the way are perfectly capable of seeing you through; several episodes and chains of episodes offer gear sets which you get from replaying a particular mission several times or from playing a complete arc.

As much as it is possible to play STO without paying a single penny – you can do all the story content, join a fleet, level up the various reputation factions and complete the basic versions of all the PVE group content, there are a few one-off purchases which are worthwhile. One of the biggest limitations free players have is a ten million EC cap and no way to transfer account-bound items between characters. That number sounds like a lot, however if you want to get into buying or selling more expensive ships/equipment then it becomes a serious hinderance; spending 500 zen on raising it to one billion EC (real money prices vary per country and over time) is a sound one-off purchase as it applies to all characters on your account.

Another good value option is to subscribe to the game for one month; even though it is Free to Play you can still pay a monthly subscription which gets you a stipend of Zen currency as well as exclusive items and ships. However paying for a subscription also unlocks numerous inventory/capacity upgrades for characters, ships, inventory and bank space, including bank slots which can be used to send items between characters; which would cost more than the £/$6-7 subscription for a single month and they stay with your account once you go back to being a free player.

It is only necessary to spend any more than that if you are interested in absolutely min-maxing your characters or taking on group PVE content on the highest difficulty. STO’s PVP scene is very small and requires significant investment beyond the means of the average free player, so is not being considered in this assessment of the game’s model.

If you are a Star Trek fan looking for something to play then STO is currently the only Star Trek game going on PC or Xbox One and PS4. It has a lot of good ideas, is worth at least checking out, providing you accept the caveats and limitations of its F2P model.

Extra Lifespan – Getting more from the games you own. Part 1: User-generated content.

Games like Counter Strike, Team Fortress and Dota 2/League of Legends all began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, coming from a melting-pot of third party modding and creativity from open-ended game engines and modding tools like Valve’s Hammer editor and Source engine and the early iterations of the Unreal engine. However in addition to systems like achievements promoting more player engagement but less creativity, these flagship games have become more stringent ‘services’ which are the opposite of the creative spirit.

The addition of paid and consumable spray decals for Counter Strike Global Offensive, a game whose previous iterations let users load their own images as sprays to use as many times as they want, is an example of this shift away from user-generated content as a builder of community cohesion towards a more service-oriented model where content is more controlled and crucially monetised. As much as achievements encourage you to explore a game further through replays on higher difficulties, progress milestones or specific player actions they have had the compound effect of limiting player creativity. Open-world games have a lot of space, content and systems in place to give you plenty to do however most of it involves box-ticking side missions which equate to tidying up the map rather than having any creative input. On the other hand more linear shooters are often scripted to ensure the player sees all the set-pieces or that the multiplayer can be monetised for as long as possible. For example Call of Duty Black Ops III only got Steam Workshop support towards the end of its year of support/interest and not long before Infinite Warfare’s PR kicked into life.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make your own fun. Engaging in the user-generated content systems of games which have them is a great way to extend their lifespan through fostering creativity and a collaborative community well beyond the lifespan of its core content. Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout games are the most popular and prevalent mainstream games which openly support modding (despite criticisms that this approach lets the community fix the games for the developers free of charge) and even the Doom reboot included a level creation toolset of sorts. Halo’s Forge editor has opened up its multiplayer mode to survive competition and maintain relevance in the face of the more bombastic Call of Duty and Battlefield games. CoD has its own limited USG in the form of player-created profile logos, but outside of these we have to look slightly further outside mainstream games to the relative periphery of the market to find games which openly facilitate user-generated content.

The Forza Motorsport/Horizon series has distinguished itself through its livery creation system which lets players create and share custom car designs and images with each other. The toolset gives you a large selection of shapes, curves, gradients and letters which can be stretched, skewed and resized over the bodywork. Over the last 10 years the community for this has produced absolutely stunning artistic designs and accurate replicas of real-world car liveries to be shared and used by others:

I find recreating real-world designs or liveries from other racing games to be a relaxing creative outlet with practical ingame application; in order to share a design you have to have used your own layer groups and designs. If you download someone else’s sponsor logos or art to make it you can’t share anything you make with the wider community. Every time someone downloads, uses or likes your designs you get a small amount of in-game money as a reward and an incentive to produce better designs in the future.

I’ll discuss the game more in the future, but the PC version of Star Trek Online has a powerful set of tools which enables players to create and write their own story missions which others can play through. You choose the start locations, environments, encounters and write the dialogue for every interaction therein. This system is almost as feature-rich as the tools used by the developers and is an extensive avenue for the creatively-minded to get significantly more life out of an already large game:

The PC version of Neverwinter (also made by Cryptic, the developers of the UGC-heavy and unfortunately deceased City of Heroes) also features a similar system which plays to the storytelling/roleplaying nature of the Dungeons and Dragons IP.

The problem with these systems is that they require an audience to get the most out of them. Far Cry 3 included team multiplayer with a map editor however the population dropped off relatively quickly, so what would be the point of spending time making a map for it? I had some plans for a few Far Cry 3 maps including the ruins of a coastal town which a plane crashed through the middle of as well as a precarious cliff-side temple but then I saw that there was nobody playing the multiplayer so nobody would ever play them. Other games like Trackmania present track creation in an accessible drag-and-drop package so there is a low barrier to entry but like Far Cry 3 its popularity has markedly declined in recent years.

These systems let players channel their creativity and potentially extending the lifespan of a game and its community indefinitely, however the reality of a game’s community can be at odds with the intentions behind the creation of such systems. There are of course other games I’ve missed here; Arma 3 has a deep level editor which underpins its community, Mario Maker and Minecraft are entirely built on user-generated content and have both been incredibly successful. The WWE wrestling games continue to expand on their creative suites letting users create individual wrestlers, shows, arenas, belts and entire story-lines to play and share. There are a surprising number of smaller indie games whose bite-sized structure mean that level editors and infrastructure like the Steam Workshop can be combined to build a community, offer more to prospective buyers and maintain collective interest in games which are often much cheaper than larger but more restrictive AAA/mainstream counterparts.