Payday 2 and the Problem of Ammo

Payday 2 and the Problem of Ammo

Ammo has been included in almost every shooter to this day but let me ask you this, how often have you actually run out of ammo in a video game? Like the appendix, it has persisted as an evolutionary left over since the conception of the first person shooter but rarely do designers do anything interesting with the mechanic. The importance of ammo has been primarily focused on the size of the magazine rather than the player’s total store of the resource, with designers using reloading to force players into regular tension filled moments of vulnerability in an experience mostly built around making the player feel powerful.

Designers giving players access to a virtually endless fountain of bullets is understandable, after all it’s hard to do anything in a shooter if you can’t, well, shoot, but it does make one wonder why many first person shooters even bother with providing ammo as a resource at all. Why give the player a resource to manage that they never have to worry about running out of? I can only think of two reasons.

Ammo usually only comes into play as a relevant factor when the player comes across a super weapon. That is, the designer has chosen to provide the player with a weapon to give them a feeling of being exceptionally powerful for a short time. Giving this weapon a very small amount of ammo is a natural way to limit this period of extended power and prevent it from just becoming the new gameplay paradigm. By giving all weapons ammo limits, the game maintains a sense of cohesion when the super weapon comes into play, rather than coming off as jarring by suddenly blindsiding the player with a new resource to manage that feels out of character with the rest of the game.

The other reason is part aesthetic, part immersion. Guns in real life just have ammo. By not providing the player with an ammo counter, the game may be setting itself up with an additional unnecessary obstacle to overcome in its mission to immerse the player in its experience. Designers may be putting ammo counts into the game simply because it would be weird to have a gun in the game without one. It’s just an accepted and expected idea that guns have ammo and designers don’t want to find themselves on the wrong side of these expectations, especially if they’re trying to get the player to buy into other more interesting disruptions of their expectations already.

Now none of this is enough to make ammo in shooters an inalienable mandate, but it is enough to make its presence in games persist. Ideally, every mechanic in the game would be working towards letting the player make interesting gameplay decisions and having mechanics implemented that don’t contribute to that just feels a little sloppy. Payday 2 however has gone against the grain and has found a way to make ammo a relevant aspect of the game.

The problem of ammo is that if you run out of ammo, the game becomes uninteresting, but if you never run out of ammo, there’s no real point to having ammo to begin with. From this perspective, running out of ammo exists in gameplay terms as an additional threat for the player to deal with. The question then is, how do we allow the player to mitigate this threat in a way that contributes to the gameplay experience, without the act of getting more ammo being a trivial experience. Payday 2 offers an interesting solution.

Payday 2’s answer involves three main aspects. First, players start with a noticeably limited amount. Throughout the match, the player can feel the pressure of their ammo dwindling almost from the start. Second, the game allows a player to bring an ammo pack along as a class item. Other games have done this before but there is one other aspect that makes Payday 2’s application much more relevant than other implementations. Third, player death matters. The issue with other class based shooters’ implementation of the ammo pack is that a player rarely lives long enough in a multiplayer match for ammo to become an issue. If you run out ammo and die in a Battlefield game, you just respawn in thirty seconds with another full stock of ammo. In Payday 2, if a player dies he’s out of the game for at least five minutes unless his team mates can trade a hostage with the police during a lull in the action. Often the rest of his team will fall shortly after him as well, especially if they’re running out of ammo too. By putting the entire round in jeopardy after a single death, respawning is no longer a solution to running out of ammo, in this way Payday 2 has increased the consequences of running out of ammo substantially.

With limited starting stores of ammo and consequential player death, Payday 2 succeeds in establishing ammo as a very credible threat that must be mitigated by the player. The second part of the trick is to make that mitigation interesting. The ammo packs in Payday 2 stand out in one particular way, the player carrying it only gets to place it once for the entire round. Once it’s placed, it can’t be picked back up again. Essentially, the entire team only gets to reload once during the entire round, meaning the player has to pick his moment and place to drop the ammo pack very seriously. If he places it too early, it may be out of reach later on as the players progress through the round. If he places it too late, the players will become vulnerable and may be overwhelmed before they can take advantage of the ammo pack.

Payday 2’s solution may not work with many other shooters. The game goes for a very specific vibe that other shooters may not be necessarily interested in imitating. While ramping up the tension may make the player feel even more powerful when they succeed, that increased tension also makes the game less accessible. To those that master it, Payday 2’s mechanics deliver a greater payoff in its empowerment of the player but this is at the expense of those unwilling to take the time to learn the nuances of its system. Still, Payday 2 should be lauded for tackling the problem of ammo and coming up with a way to take advantage of what is an otherwise missed opportunity in many shooters. I strongly encourage every designer to try and find a way to solve the problem of ammo in a way that’s appropriate for the experience they are trying to curate and make sure every implemented mechanic enriches the experience in some way.

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I Don’t Have Time for This Crap, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge

Shantae: Risky’s Revenge was originally developed for the DS and was released to acclaim. It was a charming Metroid-vania style platformer with a charming colorful art direction and when I saw it was ported to the pc and discounted, I finally took the opportunity to check it out.

It had a bubbly, fantastical old school sensibility. Belly dancing half-genies feuded with pirates and were best friends with zombies because why not? It’s fun. I explored the town and wandered around for a while. Everything was going swimmingly, aside from a few hiccups trying to figure out how to transition between screens, until I finally found myself at the first dungeon. I was confronted by the Squid Baron and had to acquire his seal. After a little silly dialogue I was exploring and puzzling my way about. I kept pushing deeper into the labyrinth, making progress, until I eventually looped back in on myself with some newly found powers. I used my new abilities to access previously unavailable areas until I came across a locked. I figured the key must be hidden somewhere further down the path that I’ll now be able to get to with my new ability so I continued along until I looped all the way back to the door again. I still had not found the key. I gave a more thorough search of the area and still came up with nothing. Not wanting my progress stalled, I decided to consult a guide online. I walked through the steps in the guide and I still hadn’t found the key.

I enjoyed Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, but I didn’t love it. Once I hit this wall, I had to make a choice. My free time was limited and frankly, I didn’t want to spend it beating my head against a wall trying to figure out how to progress in a game I wasn’t really all that into to begin with. There are some games where I will gladly put up with a frustrating part and try to overcome it, but I have to love playing the game. The experience of failing itself has to be fun for me to not mind failing, and I have to love the game enough to put up with the obstacle to see the rest of it. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge unfortunately did not fulfill these requirements. I got the hour and a half of fun I could get out of Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, but unfortunately that’s all I was able to get out of it before having to toss it back into the steam pile to rot.

My Career as a Communist Bureaucrat

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I was heading to Washington D.C. this last weekend for no other reason than to get the hell out of town for a few days. I had a few hours to kill on the bus and my shiny new tiny 2-in-1 touchscreen laptop, so I thought I’d see how it would do running a few steam games in my lap. Seeing how I was heading towards the center of Government for the entire nation, the communist bureaucrat simulator Papers, Please felt appropriate. In Papers Please, you play as an immigration official for a fictional communist country during the cold war, stamping passports for people trying to enter the country. You’re given a rule book to reference while validating passports and daily bulletins with procedure changes you need to keep track of. Scrunched up in my tiny bus seat, I needed a game that wasn’t going to require a lot of fidgeting and quick reactions; a game where all you do is fill out paperwork sounded perfect.

The opening screen blared an ominous thumping anthem. The menu screen slowly bumped up the screen, standing still and jumping up a little more with each beat of the song. As the white on grey title letters took its head at the top of the screen, I already felt oppressed. I was informed that my name had been drawn in the labor lottery and I was assigned the position of border agent and I was to be assigned a class-8 apartment for me and my family. “Wait, No one told me I was supposed to have a family,” I thought to myself.

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I sat in the border patrol office on my first day with nothing more than a bulletin congratulating me on my new position and a rule book and told to get to work. I flipped through the rule book before opening the gate. Inside was a map of the region with the countries that neighbored my home, Arstotzka. There was a page for each country with their seal and a list of their own immigration offices as well as one for Arstotzka which also had a list of all of the districts in the country as well. There was a list of the basic rules for entry and a list of the appropriate seals documents were supposed to have to be official. In the back there was a small diagram of the office with labels for the various tools with no real explanation and a warning not to distribute the rule book to anyone outside the Department of Admissions. I flipped through the book a few times until I felt like I had the gist of what I had to do and experimented with the tools a little bit to get a feel for them. The touchscreen was working great, all of the items were big enough for me to drag around the office easily and I didn’t have any trouble navigating the menus. Not really sure what to expect, I opened the gate and called over the loud speaker for the first entrant.

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I was methodical. I poured over each passport, carefully checking every detail with my rule book to make sure they were valid. After a few people went through, it was already 6 pm and the day was over. “Alright, that was simple enough,” I thought to myself, until I saw the next screen. A budget was displayed with my earnings for the day and the status of my family members. Apparently I was being paid based on how many visas I processed each day and I had only made $20. I started with $30 in savings. Rent and heat each cost $20 and food was $10. I had already burned through all of my savings in the first day. Well, shit.

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It was the second day and I had read the morning headlines and walked to work. I understood the rules of the game now and was ready to try to blast through as many visas as possible. The first entrant came up with his Kolchia visa and I rushed to flip through my rule book to the relevant information for Kolchia. My finger missed. And missed again. I kept smashing my finger on the button to flip through the pages and my touch screen wouldn’t register it. This was going to be a problem. I frantically tried to get through as many visas as possible, fighting would-be trespassers and my computer in equal measure, until an alarm sounded. I ignored it and kept focusing on the passport I was working on. I stamped it and went to give it to the entrant but he wouldn’t take it for some reason. I was confused. And then I heard a boom. I looked up and saw the last person I had let through the checkpoint had tossed a Molotov at the border guard before being gunned down. Had I fucked up? The border was closed early for the rest of the day. With the work day cut in half, I didn’t earn enough money to afford both food and heat for my family. I decided it was better to freeze than starve.

The next day I was to deny all Kolchians trying to enter the country. This made it easier to process some passports but I was still being too thorough and not getting through enough of them. At one point in the day a man came through, officially immigrating as a permanent resident. He told me his wife was coming right behind him and asked me to be nice to her. When his wife stepped up to the booth, she didn’t have a passport. I explained to her that she needed one and she couldn’t enter without one. She said that if she was sent back to Kolchia, she would be killed. I thought about my freezing family and how few people I had managed to process that day. Sorry lady, I needed the $5 and I don’t get paid when I approve invalid passports. She cursed me as her murderer. When I got home my son had grown sick from freezing the night before and needed medicine. There wasn’t money for both heat and food already, let alone medicine. Once again I choose to freeze and eat.

The next day, after pressure from Kolchia, Arstotzka decided to once again open its borders to Kolchians, however I was now also authorized to detain suspicious individuals. I was excited, hopefully I’d get a bonus for detaining individuals. I wielded my powers to detain very liberally, detaining people for even the slightest infractions or discrepancies in their paperwork. With a sick son and a cold family I desperately needed the money. I started trying to process passports a lot quicker and started making mistakes. The first two times I was given a warning, and then they started docking my pay. When the day was over I looked eagerly at the budget for the day. There was no bonus for detaining people, and my mistakes docked my pay to the point where I could not only not afford the medicine, heat or food I needed, but I also couldn’t afford my rent this time. I was informed that the great nation of Arstotzka does not tolerate delinquency in loan payments. I was to be sent to a labor camp until I had paid back my debts. I did not even last one week as a communist bureaucrat.

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Ironclad Tactics, when a game has that weird flavor that you think you sorta like but you don’t really know if you like it but like…

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For a long time I had an idea for a strategy game. It would be a steampunk reimagining of the civil war with steam powered mechs. Maimed soldiers would have their amputated limbs replaced with steam powered prosthetics and the mechs would be like walking land-based versions of the ironclad battleships that made their first appearance in the civil war. The idea always resonated with me strongly so when I saw Ironclad Tactics in the steam store that featured that exact premise I was both devastated and intrigued. Someone had already made the idea I was never really going to get around to! I had to check it out.

Ironclad Tactics is a really unique game if nothing else. It combines a deck-building card game with real-time tactics. The turn phases of draw, deploy, attack, and move are put on a timer that doesn’t stop. It’s easy to never even realize the game is turn based. You draw infantry, mechs, mech parts, and tactics cards and deploy them on one of 4 lanes. The ultimate goal is to march your mechs all the way down to your opponent’s side and score victory points. The whole thing has the wonky vibe of an unfamiliar genre and I had to play the early missions over a few times before how all of the mechanisms worked together fully gelled in my mind.

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I felt uncertain about my feelings about the game for most of the time I was playing it until 6 hours passed and I finally looked up and realized I had played through the entire main campaign in almost one sitting. I was still convinced the game was merely alright but I still had this hunger to play even more. I clicked on the online match making and was far more devastated by being unable to find a game than I anticipated. I don’t love the game, but ok games don’t make you wanna keep playing like this. It’s like getting far too used to eating nothing but a can of beans for most of your meals. I don’t really particularly enjoy beans, but I’m getting hungry and I keep ignoring all of the boxes of pasta  and cans of soup in my pantry and go straight for the beans every time. There’s an expansion that lets you play through the Franco-Prussian war I’m thinking about getting. It might be interesting to mix it up a little, you know, try some kidney beans instead of pinto.

The Pile of Shame and the Penny Arcade Solution

When I was a kid I would get video games only two times every year, once at Christmas and once again on my birthday. This shaped everything about my choice in games. Play time became the statistic of focus, whatever I got was going to have last me for at least 4 months so it was imperative that I could get a lot of play out of it. I looked for games that encouraged replay, multiplayer games that resembled sports more than movies, open world games that just packed in as much content as possible. I had a lot of time to fill and no money. As I got older, my situation flipped. Suddenly I found myself with the money to actually buy my own games without any time to play them. And there were plenty of opportunities to buy games. The old classics were dirt cheap at Gamestop a few years after their prime and the advent of digital distribution platforms supplied incredible discounts daily. Steam was the primary culprit with daily sales and seasonal sales offering games for 75% to 90% off. I picked up a lot of little indie jewels I never would of looked at because they only cost a dollar and you could get many AAA titles for under $10 a year after they came out. As the years went on, I slowly acquired a massive library of games through impulse purchases and bargain hunting. It eventually got to the point where it seemed like there was no possible way I’d be able to play through all of them in my lifetime, and I still continued to pick up games. My situation is not uncommon. A quick google search will reveal a thousand memes about steam sales decimating wallets and gamers buying games they’ll never play. Many of us have piles of shame we’ll never get to.

But with the New Year comes ambition! As I sat there with a pen deciding what resolutions to take on in 2015, a glorious new project dawned on me. Playing more games is always a worthy goal but I decided to be a bit more ambitious. I want to put a sizable dent in my pile of shame this year. And I have a plan. I call it, the Penny Arcade solution.

A few years ago, shortly after my first trip to Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) East, I got really into watching Penny Arcade the Series. It was a wonderful documentary series about Penny Arcade that followed the people that worked there around the office and showed how they operated. During one particular episode in the first season, Video Games, Scott Kurtz describes the gaming habits ofthe creative team behind the Penny Arcade web comic, Mike and Jerry, and how they would go through them at an alarming rate. “They’re really not even playing games, they’re testing out games,” Kurtz says, sometimes only playing them for a few hours before feeling like they got everything the game offered out of it. Sometimes a game will hook them and it’ll become the obsession of the moment but often they seem to blast through games as if they were tasting candies. I wish to take the same approach to my pile of shame. If I skim my games rather than consume them entirely, stopping as soon as the magic wears off or not pushing on with it if it fails to grasp me, there may be hope to topple the pile yet. Starting now, I’m going to keep a list of the games in my pile of shame on this site and cross them off as I finish with them. I invite you to do the same. At the very least, it should give me plenty of content to write about for the blog.

You can find my pile of shame here

My Pile of Shame

Over the years I’ve acquired a massive library of games that I have just never gotten around to or haven’t fully explored. This year I want to make a concerted effort to try and put a large dent in my pile of shame. I’ll be crossing off titles as I finish with them and placing links to any posts I write about them as I make my way through it. You can see the article I wrote about piles of shame and my plan to conquer my own here: The Pile of Shame and the Penny Arcade Solution

Pile of Shame (as of 1/12/15)

Continue reading “My Pile of Shame”

What I Picked Up During the 2014 Steam Holiday Sale

This War of Mine – $14.99

This War of Mine completely slipped under my radar until I saw it on James Chats and then it immediately had my attention. Described as a kind of State of Decay meets Call of Duty, you play as a civilian during a modern military siege trying to survive the war in his bombed-out city. During the day you make repairs and fortify your home and each night you go out into the city to scavenge food and supplies for your group. It has a sad somber tone and takes on the subject of war from a much different perspective than most games. This is untapped territory in gaming so far and it’s terribly exciting.

Mercenary Kings – $6.79

Maya Angelou said that people won’t remember what you tell people or what you do to people, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Well Mercenary Kings, I have no idea how I heard about you or what I heard about you but I distinctly remember thinking “hell yea!” So I hopped on it when it popped up during the steam sale. The visuals and gameplay remind of Metal Slug, a series I love, and the local co-op looks like a blast, although I do have my reservations about it being split screen.

Shadowgate – $4.99

I didn’t realize Shadowgate was a remake until after I bought it but I didn’t find that surprising in the least. The old school sensibilities are obvious at a glance. I sort of got a Myst meets Legend of Grimrock vibe when I checked it out. Ultimately the creepy fantasy vibe of the art and a sudden panging for an old-fashioned sold me on it. From what I hear about its difficulty, I’m sure it’ll burn going down just fine.

A Bird Story – $2.49

To the Moon has been sitting in my library for some time. I saw the accolades, heard it was an emotional rollercoaster and immediately sought it out. Now what I’m sure have been years later, I still haven’t gotten around to To the Moon, but that didn’t keep me from wanting to pick up the developer’s next project. A budget piece of short interactive fiction, A Bird Story looks like an interesting little experiment.

Super Time Force Ultra – $5.09

They already have an ultra version of this? I saw it several years ago on the showroom floor of Pax East and thought it looked interesting but didn’t get a chance to play it. I spent plenty of time watching others play it though. I always trust Double Fine to make something interesting and once again they’ve delivered. The main mechanic is that you can rewind at any time back to any point during a level but once you do that a clone of yourself goes through the motions you just did before you rewinded. The thing is, these clones will accumulate every time you rewind so that by the time you’ve died your hundredth time, you’ll be joined by a veritable Super Meat Boy-esque tsunami of zombie clones to fight with you when you respawn. They took an old familiar mechanic and turned it into a very clever system for automatically adjusting difficulty.

Shovel Knight – $10.04

I had a friend rave to me about Shovel Knight. But he left me with one warning, it’s meant to be played on the 3DS. Throwing caution to the wind, I leapt on it when I saw it on sale on steam. I’m not sure what to expect except something decidedly old-school and fundamentally silly. I think they go for a metroid-vania style of play with a healthy dose of challenge but I won’t really know till I try it. From what I’ve gathered it’s just an exceptional platformer.

Abyss Odyssey – $7.49

You don’t see many games made in Chile so I was curious what kind of game they would produce. How do Chilean sensibilities translate into the medium of video games? Probably a question far out of my depth seeing how I don’t even have any idea what Chilean sensibilities are in any other context. I don’t think about Chile much, nothing personal Chile, there’s a lot of countries out there. I don’t really know how I feel about the art style, it feels a little off or something to me. It sort of has the feeling of a collage, it’s different. Only time will tell if it grows on me or not. I heard it plays like a side scrolling version of Super Smash Brothers, which is enough to get me to check anything out.

Gods Will Be Watching – $2.49

A dark pixelated point and click adventure game designed to test the limits of your morality. I believe it’s intended to be played through multiple times and is supposed to be quite intense and depressing. How delightful ^_^.

Talisman Digital Edition – $1.49

I had a friend who had the board game back in high school. He only pulled it out on a few occasions but I still remember how beautiful the box and pieces were. The game was pure fantasy and imagination. At first it seems like regular sword and sorcery fare but I think I remember him pulling out an expansion that allowed players to travel to the moon and deal with chainsaws and the like. There were so many different classes and items in the deck it always felt like there was a sense of discovery when we played. I think at the time the game was out of print but I remember seeing a new edition of it on the walls of my local game store a while back and smiling. The board game was something like $70, so that just wasn’t going to happen, but I’ll gladly drop a dollar for the digital one.

Hero Siege – $1.49

It looks like a rogue-like twin stick shooter. I got hints of Hammerwatch when I checked it out which was an interesting enough experience. I was curious enough to throw in a dollar for it.

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) – $10.04

The first game made by a native owned development studio, Never Alone is groundbreaking not only for its setting but its role as a cultural ambassador. The game directly explores the folk lore of the Inupiat people, borrowing directly from the original illustrations of their spirits for the art style. Through-out the game the player is shown clips of the modern Inupiat people explaining their culture, forming a very unique edutainment experience that goes far beyond the previous more tone-deaf game design efforts would-be educators have attempted. Everything else aside, the game just looks beautiful.

Hack ‘n’ Slash – $4.54

I love a good pun, but Hack ‘n’ Slash has more going for it than just a clever title. A slick cyber punk environment makes for a clever hack ‘n’ slash experience with an emphasis on the hacking.

TowerFall Ascension – $11.24

I’ve written about this one in a previous article here. Hands down one of the best local multiplayer games I’ve played in a long time, this game was absolutely worth it. It’s fast. It’s tense. It’s a blast.

Vlad the Impaler – $1.99

I normally don’t play too many interactive graphic-novels, but I really loved the dark gothic etchings and I’m a little intrigued by them implementing a stat system in the genre.

What did you guys get? You digging it so far?

A Gamer Christmas and Why Shadow of Mordor’s Combat is so Fitting

***Possible The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies spoilers ahead***

Another Christmas has come and gone and in my family Christmas has always meant games. As a kid, Christmas was the only time I ever got video games besides my birthday and now as an adult it’s the only time I ever have to actually sit down and play video games. Either way, sitting down in front of the TV with whatever was sitting waiting beneath tree has at this point become as much a Christmas tradition itself as putting the tree up beneath which it sat.

There’s a special magic to games on Christmas. I have many fond memories of logging onto a multiplayer server on Christmas with a bunch of people who had just gotten the game that same day. People talking about their Christmas mornings and someone logging on typing “MERRY CHRISTMAS” in all caps as soon as they joined periodically. There really was a shared sense of the holidays. Other Christmases I would be glued to the television, munching on whatever came in my stocking, and marathoning through an RPG, waking up early the next day and finishing it. This year was no different. My brother brought over his Wii U he picked up the week before and we messed around with the games me and his friend got him. I sat on the couch trying to help him figure out puzzles in Captain Toad Treasure Tracker. Later on I whipped out my 3DS and joined his game of Monster Hunter he was playing on the big screen. It was nice. As for myself, I received Dragon Age: Inquisition, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and the game I’ve been feasting on since Christmas, Shadow of Mordor.

I’ve been really enjoying Shadow of Mordor. The game snuck up on me back in September but as I read the reviews and article after article on it, the hype train officially left the station. Unfortunately though I was little scared because my friend told me the nemesis system was toned down a lot for the 360 version and I read some really disappointing comparisons between it and the next gen versions. They weren’t wrong. This game is ugggggggly on the 360 and a bit glitchy, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t been having a blast anyways. I haven’t blasted through a game this quickly in a long time. More than anything I’ve enjoyed playing around with the uruk power structures in the game. I’ve spent most of my time bumping off warchiefs, dominating captains and maneuvering the ones I’ve decided to favor into positions of power.

The game plays like a mixture of Assassin’s Creed and the Batman Arkham games so naturally the combat involves taking on a bunch of enemies at once which I found to be especially appropriate for a Lord of the Rings game. I saw The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies earlier today with my family and one thing that struck me was just how much one heroic figure could make a difference in its conflicts. One man with a black arrow takes down the dragon. The Dwarven army stood battered and breaking before the gates of Erebor until Thorin and his company of 12 dwarves enters the fray and saves the battle. When Thorin and his 3 best warriors scale Ravenhill to confront the orc commander they are attacked by 100 goblin mercenaries. Thorin tells the two brothers Kili and Fili to go on while he and Dwalin take care of the goblins. This is a world of literal one man armies. Considering this, the Gravewalker’s constant 20 vs 1 battles seem less like a bit of video game silliness and more of a nod to the mythos of Middle-Earth. Of course Talion can defeat 20 Uruks by himself, he’s a hero.

What have you guys been playing over the holidays? Isn’t Shadow of Mordor rad? Let me know down in the comments.

And in case you didn’t play any online multiplayer on Christmas day, MERRY CHRISTMAS

Super Hexagon and the Beautiful Absurdity of Gaming

The hexagon pulsed and span as it spiraled down a pit of alternating lights and darks. My fingers flickered left, then right. The music just begins to pick up and I die, my brave little triangle getting hammered by my nemesis, the wall. I glare, grunt, smash the spacebar and do it again. And again. And again. And again. Each trial lasts a handful of seconds at most and always seems to end right when the music starts getting good. At a certain point in this endless, all too brief, cycle of birth and death I had to ask myself, what the hell am I even doing? Why have I dedicated so much time to mastering this stupidly difficult task that serves absolutely no purpose? Why?

It’s an important and terrifying question; one which I believe extends far beyond dancing around a geometric heartbeat to pounding rhythms. In order to answer it, I believe a good place to start would be to ask, why do anything? If we ask ourselves why we do anything, the answers always tier down in a series of steps to one ultimate frustrating question. I’ll walk you through an example.

Suppose you’re talking with someone who hates their job, so naturally you ask them, “If you hate it so much, why do you work there?” His answer is an obvious one, he needs the money. Most of us would be satisfied with this answer but it is an incomplete one because all of its potency for satisfaction hinges on the answer to another question, one which we assume is obvious but not you with your higher standard for truth. That oh so obviously answered question is, do you need money? To which of course he says yes. With a frustrating obtuseness you ask him, “Why do you need money?” He cocks an eyebrow and leans away from you a little with a stare that carries a mixture of confusion and harsh judgment. How does someone not know why someone needs money and how can someone be so stupid that they can’t answer that question for themselves, he wonders. After a moment’s pause, he leans forward and puts his hands together. With the patience one explains something to the simple with, he tells you slowly that he needs money to pay for his apartment and food. But the answer is not yet complete! And you with your incredibly annoying compulsion to analyze excessively simple unnecessary questions with a rigor far beyond what the question warrants, presses on and asks, “Why do you need food and an apartment?” He doesn’t react. His mouth says nothing but his eyes say, “are you shitting me?” before he blinks, then blinks again. Simple is too generous a word for this man, he thinks to himself. Clearly he is talking to some kind of half-conscious vegetable that doesn’t comprehend that he needs to eat and have shelter to survive. With a great sigh, and even greater courage that is increasingly rare in this day and age, he plunges into the previously unfathomable abyss of ignorance your question represents. For a solid 8 hours he explains to you the great complexity of the human body and its various organ systems. He draws diagrams of cells and their constituents on a napkin, outlining the functions of proteins, lipids, RNA and DNA in the body. He tells you about the different layers of the electron shell and the molecular structures that form the chemistry of the human body and how the food you consume breaks down and enables the necessary functions that allow human life to persist. In summary, ragged and panting after his exhaustive and utterly comprehensive explanation, he says, “you need food and shelter to live.” The dead-eyed, soulless and utterly merciless disgusting creature that you are, immediately replies, “Why do you need to live?” It is no wonder that we hate children that constantly ask why.

“Need” is an interesting word. It implies something that is necessary. Something that you need is a thing that is an unavoidable pre-requisite for something that you want. Something that you need is not a goal in and of itself. If there is nothing that you want, then you don’t need anything. In this sense, there are only desires and the things necessary to acquire those desires. So the better question is not “why do we need to live?” but “why do we want to live?” But as insidious as the question why do we need anything is, the question of why we want anything is still far more difficult. Needs can always at least be explained as being some link in a chain of causality, we have no convenient framework of explanation for wants. Wants are in a sense, baseless. Some wants can be explained as something you need in service to some greater ultimate want but these ultimate wants that stand independent and not in service to something greater than themselves exist without explanation. The founding fathers referred to them as “truths we hold to be self-evident.” God referred to himself as the great that-I-am. They are primary. They are principle. They cannot be engineered because they are not caused. One cannot set some kind of causal chain in motion to create one. They can only be discovered, found already made. And we are blessed that we have them at all, for there is no necessity for them to even exist.

I play Super Hexagon for the same reason that I live, that I do anything. Because I want to. And I am so infinitely lucky to want anything at all. A life in which nothing brings you joy is a conceivable one, and even more frightening, likely a short one. I live because I want to live. I tap my foot to the beat, fail, and restart because I want to. I want. Damn is it good to want.