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How Ellie in ‘The Last of Us’ Challenges Tropes and Subverts Stereotypes

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(Note: There will be pretty serious spoilers for The Last of Us throughout this article. If you haven’t played it, I’d suggest you stop reading and play the game, because it really does deserve to be experienced as it was intended.)

When Bioshock Infinite launched in 2013, there were some who questioned whether the generic white dude with a big gun on the box art was truly representative of the game found on the disc. Playing said game, it’s easy to make the argument that the story of Bioshock Infinite belongs as much, if not more so, to the non-playable character Elizabeth (not featured on cover) than it does to Booker (ready for his close up). The mind behind Infinite, Ken Levine, was incredibly honest when asked about the fantastically bland box art for the game prior to release; they had to sell copies of the game to justify how much they spent making it, and focus testing told them that to appeal to frat boys and casual gamers they needed a cover featuring a heroic man holding a gun in front of the American flag. The hardcore gamers, it seems, would buy it regardless of the art. They needed to draw the eye of the people who wouldn’t. He didn’t like it, but those were the harsh realities of business. Girls on covers don’t sell games, they said. And that’s why we can’t have nice things.

Later in the same year, the fine folk at Naughty Dog faced a similar issue with The Last of Us. They too had a game that featured a female companion in their story. They too had created a female character that was every bit as important to their game as the male lead. And they too were asked by the higher ups to consider changing their box art to excise the pesky, unwanted girl from the cover. The difference was that, whether down to artistic integrity, or just the fact that after a string of hits Naughty Dog had been given carte blanche by Sony to do whatever they wanted, they flat-out refused to change their cover for The Last of Us. Those mavericks at Naughty Dog demanded that Ellie stayed front and center because they felt that she was just as integral to the story of the game as Joel was. Yes, they risked it all by letting customers know that if they bought the game, there’d be a girl in it. And The Last of Us went on to sell millions. Who knew?

The success of The Last of Us, even after they had the nerve to put an apparently unmarketable lady on the front cover, could be a fluke or an anomaly, or it could just be the latest indication that perhaps the problem with games with girls on their covers selling isn’t as simple as some of the suits may think. The bean counters at big publishers obviously have some basis to justify their opinion that female characters don’t sell games, be it empirical evidence of female-led games and their lacklustre sales figures, or perhaps focus testing done among select groups of gamers indicating that failure and oestrogen go hand in hand. But perhaps their reasoning isn’t as solid as they believe. Maybe girls just need to be given a fair crack of the whip.

While Elizabeth is essential to the story of Bioshock Infinite, she had to make do with the back cover of the box.

While Elizabeth is essential to the story of Bioshock Infinite, she had to make do with the back cover of the box.

When the marketing push behind a game loses funding because the game features a female character in a prominent position, then is it because there’s a girl on the cover that nobody is buying it, or is it because you didn’t bother advertising it as heavily because you assumed it wouldn’t sell? When female-led games don’t do as well as their male-led counterparts, is it because people don’t want to play as girls, or is it perhaps because people don’t want to play as the girls that they’re being given? A couple of years ago, Bioware issued stats suggesting that not many players played through the Mass Effect trilogy as Fem-Shep. Is that because female characters are inherently unpopular, or because Bioware didn’t even acknowledge the female version of Commander Shepard in marketing until the third game in the series? It’s a vicious circle. You can’t give people no reason to embrace female characters, and then blame their gender for their failure to connect with people. You can’t posit the girls as second best and then expect people to treat them as anything but.

I’m not condemning Ken Levine, or anyone behind Bioshock Infinite for their decision to make the cover for their game utterly generic to try and boost sales. The meat of the product, the game behind the cover, was still their baby. They didn’t remove Elizabeth from the game, but rather used the cool-guy-blowing-shit-up-real-good box art as a Trojan horse to get her into the hands of gamers. It’s no different to the marketing of any product – you package what you’re selling in such a way that you feel will make it most palatable to the audience in an effort to maximize sales. Jelly beans wouldn’t be quite as appetizing if they were marketed as being made from bug feces, would they? But while I don’t condemn their decision to relegate Elizabeth to the back of the box in an effort to chase sales, the fact that they even had to make that decision highlights the much deeper issues within the gaming industry that are still at large. Female characters in video games shouldn’t be analogous to bug feces, and they shouldn’t need to slipped in through the back door to avoid causing a stir.

There’s no denying that there’s been an issue with female characters in video games since the dawn of time, and while we’re making strides in the right direction, that issue still hasn’t been resolved. Whether it’s girls in games often being damsels or trophies for the male leads, amounting to nothing more than basic love interests or side characters for our macho heroes, or just laughable cleavage-accentuating armor reducing what should be strong women into eye candy for us sex-obsessed guys that obviously couldn’t have it any other way, when one considers the strongest characters in gaming, ladies likely wouldn’t take up much space on the list. And that’s simply not good enough.

The writers of Soul Calibur originally envisaged Ivy as a Pulitzer Prize winning short story author, but the character designers didn't get the memo, resulting in this comically impractical attire.

The writers of Soul Calibur originally envisaged Ivy as a Pulitzer Prize winning short story author, but the character designers didn’t get the memo, resulting in this comically impractical attire.

The proliferation of insultingly stereotypical or woefully underdeveloped female characters, combined with the assertion that female characters don’t sell games seems to indicate that perhaps the problem doesn’t lie with girls being inherently unmarketable, but rather with what the gaming industry gives us to work with. It’s not that gamers don’t want to play as girls, but rather that gamers don’t want to play as these girls. Too often female characters in video games are so utterly unrelatable, sometimes offensively so, that their ultimate failure to connect with people is obviously not down to their having tits, but the mistaken belief that their tits are their only marketable asset.

While the state of female characters in video gaming has certainly improved in recent times, the fact that I’m even having to bring up what a revelation Ellie in The Last of Us is reminds us that we’re not there yet. That a well written, well developed and completely relatable character that’s also a girl is a novelty in 2015 is a sad commentary on how far we’ve still got to go, but it’s also a beacon of hope. Naughty Dog didn’t go back on their decision to make Ellie the focus of the cover for The Last of Us, and the game went on to be a huge success, with Ellie as a character almost uniformly praised by critics and gamers alike. Ellie is, undoubtedly, the star of the show in The Last of Us, and that raises hope that other publishers will see that and take note.

The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where society has all but fallen, with the few remnants of civilization still present in the former United States scattered across the country as walled-off safe zones. The walls were created to keep out the infected – victims of a parasitic fungus that causes the host to become enraged, biting and scratching other people in an effort to spread their infection. Inside the walls, those with food and guns wield the power, while everyone else just does their best to survive.

The Last of Us is remarkably upbeat for like, literally, three minutes.

The Last of Us is remarkably upbeat for like, literally, three minutes.

It’s a grim world, and Joel, our playable character, is a man built for it. Still grieving the loss of his daughter during the onset of the outbreak twenty years ago (spoilers: it’s heartbreaking), Joel is cold and ruthless, a man shaped by twenty years of relentless death, blood and terror. He teams up with a friend (possibly with benefits) named Tess, and the two survive making a living as couriers. When they’re betrayed on a deal and have to get real nasty to make amends, they happen upon Marlene, a member of a small rebel group named the Fireflies, who offers them a deal; she’ll give them enough guns and ammo to survive a dozen deadly fungal outbreaks, but in return, they have to transport a young girl named Ellie across the country. Soon into the journey, a couple of the infected get a little too up close and personal with Tess, and she goes out in a blaze of glory to try and buy Joel and Ellie some time to escape. And so one of the finest stories in video gaming begins to unfold.

The Last of Us tells a story that is neither wholly original, nor particularly daring on paper. We’ve all seen the set-up before. But where The Last of Us excels is in making the player care about the characters, lending a lot more power to a story that is, at it’s core, built upon genre tropes. Indeed, one of the truly remarkable things about The Last of Us is just how many genre tropes Naughty Dog managed to fit into the game while still somehow managing to keep it fresh. Zombies? Yeah, with mushrooms on their heads. One girl potentially holding the cure? Yep. Humanity posing just as much of a threat as the monsters? In spades. Cannibalism in the post-apocalyptic wasteland? You got it. The guy who gets bitten but keeps it from the group? Oh you betcha. The heroic death to buy our heroes time? Oh, we’ve covered that. It’s all things that have been done before, but in The Last of Us, they’re done so well, and with characters so well realized and believable, that they’ve rarely been done this well. Leading the charge in this regard is the character of Ellie, who isn’t just one of the best female characters in a video game, but one of the best characters we’ve seen in gaming full stop.

Ellie is fascinating right from the get-go. Part of the appeal of her character comes from the fact that, at fourteen years old, she’s only ever existed in the post-apocalyptic world. Unlike Joel, and the player, Ellie has absolutely no point of reference as to what the world was like before it all went to hell. We sometimes forget that as we’re playing, and that often leads to amusing moments in the game. Everything Ellie knows about life before the outbreak comes from what she’s been told, or seen, or read. And so when she naively asks Joel if everybody used to own boats, it’s funny and endearing. When she reads the diary of a young girl and asks Joel if all girls used to worry about was dresses and boys it’s a frightening reminder of just how much we take for granted.

Winter is when business really picks up.

Winter is when business really picks up.

If this aspect of Ellie’s personality seems somewhat alien, then in other ways she’s equally as relatable. While Joel is distant and uncompromising for much of the game, Ellie brings an element of playfulness and frivolity to the proceedings. Her love of puns, awful jokes and comic books provide some of the only real moments of levity in an otherwise relentlessly bleak fifteen-or-so hour campaign. She swears like a sailor, she’s tough but somewhat vulnerable, and as someone who is apparently immune to the infection that has brought the country to it’s knees, she’s possibly the only hope humanity has of survival.

But Ellie isn’t just a damsel in distress. She’s introduced to the player as someone to escort à la the President’s daughter, Ashley, in Resident Evil 4. She tags along, she helps Joel with puzzles, and she takes cover when the gunfire starts. But where Ashley shrieks and screams her way through Resident Evil 4 while Leon takes care of business, Naughty Dog subvert the norm with The Last of Us and gradually transforms Ellie into a character that we grow to rely on. She begins the game as a bit of a nuisance, but later proves far more valuable, and capable in battle, and as a consequence, the times when she’s away from Joel we actually miss her, rather than thank God that we’re getting a moment’s peace.

As the road trip continues, and months fall off the calender, we see the relationship between Joel and Ellie become closer, and with Ellie in particular, her character develops significantly. She learns valuable lessons from Joel in what it takes to survive outside of the safe zones, and eventually he begins trusting her with a gun. All of this leads up to the highlight of the game in which Joel is gravely injured and incapacitated, and the player must take over as Ellie. Having spent most of the game learning the art of survival from Joel, Ellie must now become his protector. She hunts for food and medicine, and treats Joel’s wounds. While out searching for supplies, Ellie ends up captured by David, a pedophile, and being a fourteen year old girl, that puts her in a bit of a pickle.

"I was just trying to give her a cuddle, your honour".

“I was just trying to give her a cuddle, your honour”.

At this point the player picks back up as Joel, waking up, still groggy from his time on a sickbed, realizing that Ellie is gone and in danger. He heroically struggles to his feet, and valiantly fights his way through the harsh weather conditions to save the day. When he finally catches up to Ellie he finds her stabbing David to death in brutal fashion. Joel comes to rescue the damsel in distress, but by the time he gets there, she’s saved herself. It’s a meaningful and impactful reversal of the norm, that is equal parts gratifying and harrowing, and entirely engrossing throughout.

As the game moves into the final chapters, and the player resumes control of Joel, the roles of the two main characters have completely switched. Joel, who begins the game as the protector, has grown to care so much for Ellie, whether it be genuine affection or because she’s a surrogate for his daughter, that he’s weaker because of it, ultimately making what many deem to be an appalling decision at the end of the game. Whether you agree or disagree with Joel’s decision to potentially doom humanity to save Ellie and then lie to her face about it, his reliance on her as an emotional crutch is indisputable. Conversely, Ellie, who begins the game as what amounts to a package to be delivered, ends the game as a strong, wise beyond her years, survivor. Joel needs Ellie more than she needs him.

Upon release, some people argued that Ellie should have been the playable character throughout the whole story, but instead was pushed to the sidelines in favor of the same old grizzled white man we’re used to. While I understand the concern, I would argue that the story is Ellie’s, but playing as Ellie would ruin that. We have to watch Ellie develop for it to make an impact. In the Tomb Raider reboot, we watched as Lara Croft nearly threw up after being forced to kill a man for the first time. Then we watched as she killed 1,000 more over a weekend and didn’t bat an eyelash. It was ridiculous, and jarring, and that dissonance between her character development in cut scenes and the absolute carnage that transpired in gameplay undermined the emotional foundations of the story. Naughty Dog wisely side-stepped this problem by making Joel, the player, the mass-murderer while Ellie maintained a slow burning development from the sidelines. When she killed someone, it mattered. And by the end of the story, it still mattered.

Put the kids to bed before you play the DLC mission, Left Behind. It's a downer.

Put the kids to bed before you play the DLC mission, Left Behind. It’s a downer.

Whether you think that The Last of Us is so perfect that Naughty Dog should leave it as it is, or you think that the world they created is ripe for more stories, given the success of the game it’s likely that there’ll be a sequel. While I don’t necessarily need a second game, and love how the original ended, if there is to be a sequel featuring Joel and Ellie, that would be the time to switch player control over to her. We’ve seen her develop and grow and survive over the course of the first game, and now playing as her would make sense.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the fine work of Ashley Johnson here, voicing Ellie, and bringing her to life. While the character was created by Naughty Dog, Ashley Johnson does an impeccable job, flitting between the various facets of Ellie’s personality in a way that feels believable. Between Naughty Dog and Johnson, they have created a complex character that doesn’t adhere to any stereotype, a person that is at once strong, vulnerable, sassy, and endearing. She’s funny, capable, and smart. She’s tough, and she’ll do what it takes to survive. But more than that, she’s relatable, because she’s real. She’s not a plot device, or a trophy. She’s not shrieking and helpless, or Rambo with a vagina.

With Ellie, Naughty Dog have created something special. They carefully crafted her development over the course of an entire single player campaign in a way that few other studios have even attempted, let alone succeeded at. Then they released the ‘Left Behind‘ DLC mission, delving into Ellie’s past and revealing that she’s gay, all handled more deftly than any video game has tackled the subject before. If there are to be more adventures from Ellie in the future, there’s no reason to suggest that Naughty Dog wouldn’t treat those with the same care and respect that they have so far. Given what a popular character Ellie has become since The Last of Us and Left Behind launched, a sequel giving her a starring role could easily see her become one of the most beloved video game characters of all time.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club have also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for a built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produce hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode like I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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Games

Interview with John Staats, First-Level Designer for ‘World of Warcraft’

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with John Staats, first-level designer for the launch version of World of Warcraft.

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The first iteration of World of Warcraft, often called “Vanilla WoW,” has a strong pull of nostalgia for many fans. From inspiring countless other MMOs, to imbuing an entire generation of players with memories that they will never forget, to inspiring Blizzard to re-release it earlier this year, Vanilla’s footprint is undeniable.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to John Staats, a first-level designer on World of Warcraft‘s initial launch, to discuss his recent book, The Wow Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development, which chronicles his own personal experience with developing WoW‘s initial release.

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In a lot of ways, The WoW Diary reminds me of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. Both books address the challenges of game development, including the incredible amount of hours that game developers work and the dreaded “crunch” when a project has to be delivered on time. Your section on how your colleagues described their work on StarCraft was particularly interesting. What do you think is the public’s biggest misconception about how developers work?

The biggest misconception is how expensive developers are! Most publishers and studio heads are always portrayed as the bad guys, but the truth is there’s so much risk in game development, it’s just insane. If a company is upfront about long hours, then I see no problem with longer hours to some point. Unfortunately, the law isn’t so flexible. After WoW shipped, we dropped to capped 40-hour weeks (mandatory) and it sucked. Everything was so schedule-conscious that we stopped experimenting.

Studios are all different. Some people asked if unions were the answer, and they might help in some cases, but they would make other situations worse. There would certainly be fewer games out there without crunches. I dunno. I’m from Akron, Ohio. I’m just happy to have worked in the entertainment industry!

As a developer, even at somewhere like Blizzard, fan feedback seems like it’s able to affect team morale. In the book, you mention a few cases of this. What was it like to work under the pressure of fan expectations?

World of Warcraft feedback wasn’t nearly as bad as Warcraft III, because the company was too quick to promote their first 3D title. Making a 3D game has such a sharp, painful learning curve that engine re-writes caused long delays. The fans were unfamiliar with the long waits associated in making 3D games, so they were especially angry.

The class designers definitely had it bad on World of Warcraft. People never post when they’re happy, the forums are usually very negative. And there’s strange “voodoo” where people report glitches or errors that aren’t really there. There’s a LOT of voodoo reports that designers need to verify, and that eats up their schedule.

Kevin Jordan once joked that he was going to claim to be a character artist at the launch party signing table, just to avoid being drawn into discussions about rogues versus shaman duels. For the most part, WoW was so much better looking, better playing, better running than the competition, we had it easy. Still, we put pressure on ourselves: for the most part, the fans were pretty cool.

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You state in the book that you got your start in modding computer games on the PC. Did you have any prior experience with other game systems, or was your only experience with the PC?

PC only. I was actually a Macintosh user exclusively because I was in advertising in NYC. I bought my first PC in the mid-1990s. As a Mac person, there weren’t many games available (thank you, Steve Jobs), so I only played a few titles on my roommate’s machines. They always had to kick me off whenever they came home.  When I got my own, I relentlessly played FPS and strategy games.

One of the more interesting comments that you make in the book, and one that I was curious about while reading, was the following: “Writing stories is so easy it seems nearly half the people in the industry want to do it[…] it’s unreasonable to expect players to follow a storyline, detailed or subtle.” Do you think games are ever capable of delivering complex and subtle stories, or is it beyond the medium’s scope?

I honestly doubt stories will become more subtle for most genres. Most games pull the player’s attention to non-story elements like socialization, user interface, goals, and combat tactics. Looking for things is rarely fun. It’s just too hard to expect the average player to follow nuanced stories… and you never want to risk players becoming confused with your plot.

You use the phrase “computer games” throughout the book instead of the more commonly used “games.” Was there a semantic reason for this?

Ranchers and farmers are in the agricultural industry, they have a completely different set of concerns.

There’s a huge difference in developing computer games versus console games. It’s so much easier to make games for a console. They’re far more predictable, and optimized for specific types of games. Developers are influenced by all kinds of games; pen-and-paper RPGs, tabletop board games, card games, handheld devices… and all of them are very different to produce. I didn’t want to lump everything into the “games industry.”

You mention early on that you’ve suffered “a neurological problem in [your] hands that hinders [you] from using a computer for significant lengths of time.” Given the increasingly interconnected nature of modern society and how much time you spent on computers during your career in the games industry, how hard was it to adjust?

I played FPS games before I became a level designer. I played up to 14-16 hours a day when I had the time. That’s without stopping, BTW. I would eat leftovers between matches. I was nuts.

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Blizzard and Nintendo have always seemed like analogous companies to the outside public. Both spend large amounts of time and money crafting games that have long-standing appeal and excellent quality. Both don’t worry about winning the public relations war and, instead, depend on the endemic quality of their games to do the talking for them. Did anyone ever make that comparison inside of Blizzard?

It was a very conscious effort to avoid distractions. There’s so much temptation for some people to jump into every conversation, there was a company-wide mandate to keep your mouth shut. We had Bill Roper for our spokesperson, and if the public thought he personally made all our games, that was fine with the developers (he wasn’t even a dev!). This lets every member of the company, as a whole, take credit for the collective products. Other industry developers will weigh in on every conversation, and journalists will seek out the same developers for opinions. On top of the risk of crossing wires with the company’s official opinion, so much exposure could create jealousy.

At one point in the book, you mention that an acquaintance of yours, Scott Hartin, had worked making console games in Japan and hated it. Was this a common complaint among those who had worked in Japan?

He’s the only person I know who’s worked there, and it was something he said in passing. I thought it such an interested idea, that different cultures tend to work in different ways. Who knows? Perhaps it might have just been the studio he was in, that made them work that way.  

Ragnaros and the Molten Core raid have emerged as a large part of the lore surrounding the vanilla release of World of Warcraft. It’s also something that you mention receiving compliments from fans about. What part of Molten Core are you the most proud of?

I’m proud that we ninja’d it into the shipping game without the producers having it on our to-do list! It was a passion project Jeff Kaplan rallied people around. I’m glad he did. We were working on so many bugs after we shipped, there’s no telling how long it would have taken to update the live servers with a content update like MC.

As a historian, having an oral history of one of gaming’s largest and most influential games is an incredible resource. In the beginning of the book, you say that you struggled with compiling your development diary because, to a large degree, you were afraid of underrepresenting some of your hardest co-workers. In the end, why do you think more oral histories, such as your book, aren’t published?

I can absolutely tell you it’s because the author needs to take notes. I can’t do a sequel to The WoW Diary because I stopped taking notes after we shipped. There’s just no way, I’d get everything wrong, or release a bland, broad-strokes version of how things went down. That’s where my book stands out, the details make the story vivid.

 

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Blizzard released WoW Classic back in August. What are your thoughts on it?

I’m surprised they did. No one has ever done something like this before. Redoing someone else’s work doesn’t sound like a fun project for developers, who are in nature, creative people. It just isn’t fun to walk in someone else’s footsteps. I’m also keenly interested to see how it plays out. Do they relaunch expansions? Does it affect the retail version? I honestly don’t know, but my popcorn is ready!

Blizzard has been criticized recently for their communication with players. How different does it feel when you are on the corporate side of that relationship?

No one is criticized when your games stink. LOL! Seriously though, complaints never stop, so it’s never a big deal. Whether it’s about lawsuits or controversy, Blizzard usually takes the high road, and disengages from distractions; it lets them focus on what they want to be known for… making good games. I’m glad to see they’re still doing this.

Final question. As something of a hardware nerd, I’ve got to ask, how did developers handle the rapidly progressing technology of the late 90s and early 2000s, when Moore’s Law was in full effect? 

Blizzard games sell well because they target low-end systems. Most studios weren’t, and aren’t, smart enough to realize this. Most studios want to be the first kid on the block to have a shiny new feature. While the industry chased after expensive features that narrowed their audience to customers who had top-end computers, the savvy companies focused on the low-end machines. To answer your question, Blizzard avoided the Moore’s Law trap.

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A big thank you to John Laats for agreeing to be interviewed and providing us with a review copy of his book. If you’re interesting in learning more about John Laats, his work, you can find him at his website.

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