"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box." -Edward R. Murrow, on television
In a weird turn of events, I have surprisingly little to say about games this year, which tend to be my bread and butter, media-wise. Instead, this year I read a lot more books and watched a lot more movies and TV. And, what do you know, they ended up being some of my all-time favorites! I’m excited for a lot of great games next year, but in the meantime, here are some of my favorites from all mediums from 2021.
Favorite: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
This book is hard to describe literally (in under five paragraphs), so I tend to talk about the vibes instead. Piranesi has this very specific type of surrealism and existential intrigue that I really, really love. The protagonist lives in a seemingly infinite, absurdist superstructure of ghostly museum hallways, and the reader is left wondering exactly how real that space is. It rewards your curiosity with beautiful prose, and lets you
gorge yourself on detail as the protagonist explores the house with meticulous scientific observations. Despite this, it’s also a strangely emotional work, where the protagonist lets you look at the world both with that scientific rigor, and a reverent awe. I could not put it down until I knew all the answers, and it remained compelling even after I knew them.
Runner Up: Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe
This is my favorite book about the modern American labor movement. It starts by exploring the past century of that labor history, and tries to understand how the cultural myths of “do what you love” became so pervasive. It avoids the class reductionism of other contemporary books I’ve read, and casually incorporates a wide variety of experiences into a very holistic view of labor movements throughout the country. Also unlike nearly most books on labor I’ve read, it understands the value of keeping the focus on individuals while looking at these larger structures. It is powerfully empathetic. It’s definitely the only time I’ve happy-cried at political writing.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Has some of the best scientific intrigue of any book I’ve read, and maintains it until the end. Probably Weir’s best.
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: A work that somehow manages to be filled with dick jokes *and* an emotionally honest look at romantic relationships. Comics, obviously, do not regularly get this intimate, but I rarely see this vulnerability even in more respectable mediums. If I hadn’t watched the Before Trilogy this year, it would be the best I’ve ever seen.
Dune by Frank Herbert: A wonderful focus on systemic thinking without losing sight of the individual. I am so, so glad the movie finally got me to read it. “A process cannot be understood by stopping it” will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Favorite: Dune – dir. Denis Villeneuve
I feel like I could rewatch this movie a hundred times and not get bored. It’s a brilliant adaptation of the book, condensing pages of expositions into a few, great shots. It understands the core of what makes this story compelling, and of what makes these characters so alienating. There were passages in the book that I didn’t really understand or resonate with until I saw them on screen. The Gom Jabbar scene alone is a goddamn masterpiece. I cannot wait to see where they go next.
Runner Up: Inside – dir. Bo Burnham
This one has been discoursed to death, and I don’t have much new to offer on it. However, it is the only work I’ve found that speaks directly to the personal experience of being stuck in the monopolized, algorithm-dominated social internet, and the mental hell that creates. The final verse of “Welcome to the Internet” is simply haunting, and the best words I’ve found to describe how the internet has come to feel in the past few years.
The Matrix: Resurrections – dir. Lana Wachowski: An incredible return to the heights of the series. Unlike the other sequels, the ideas it wants to discuss are woven perfectly into there script, not just monologued about. And it still managed to have fun along the way.
The Before Trilogy – dir. Richard Linklater: The single greatest character study of romantic relationships I’ve seen in film. Or any other medium. Before Midnight is so good it shouldn’t even exist.
Spider-Man: No Way Home – dir. Jon Watts: Despite being a complete mess of tone and plot, this is the most fun I’ve had at the movies in years. I’ve been lukewarm on Holland’s Spider-Man, but everything just clicked in this movie. I could watch the three Spider-Men riffing on shit for hours.
Favorite: Y: The Last Man – FX
This show got canceled after one season, so I have even more of an excuse to ramble about it. The comic was fine, but this show really pushed the source material into exploring complex ideas about gender. The comic is pretty narrow in its focus, but this explores the experience of so many people on so many points of gender spectrums, with unique experiences ranging from the traumatic to the transcendent. The creative team absolutely understands what makes this setting interesting, and if this doesn’t get picked up by HBO or someone, I will die mad about it.
Runner Up: Squid Game – Netflix
I have nothing to say about this show that hasn’t already been said. I loved the tension and intrigue of the first few episodes, and enjoyed it to the very end!
Mushishi – Artland: Probably my favorite anime visually, and just a soothing work throughout. Felt kind of like The Witcher, but much quieter and without all the sword fights and politicking. It’s very focused on folklore and superstition, with the protagonist serving more as a traveling healer than a monster hunter. Gorgeous soundtrack.
The Witcher Season 2 – Netflix: This understands the soul of the series in a way the first season simply did not. I love where they’re taking these characters, taking inspiration from the books, but not letting it completely define their arcs. It gets that The Witcher is about alienation and superstition, not cool sword fights and shirtless Geralt. Though it does also have both those things.
Love is War – A-1 Pictures: The most fun I’ve ever had watching an anime. Two idiots are super into each other, but will use every trick in their Anime Bullshit Scheme arsenal to make the other person say it first. You’d think this would get old, but after binging two seasons in two weeks, I feel like I could watch this show for a dozen seasons.
This video became my personality for a solid month. It got me to watch the Before Trilogy and Boyhood, got me to start recording a second of video every day, and got me thinking about time, memory, and how my longest relationships – platonic and romantic – changed over time. Like everything Geller creates, it’s emotionally vulnerable and honest, and he has swiftly become my favorite games writer as a result. Also, buy Before Your Eyes; it’s wonderful.
“Our society is so heavily focused on consumption that we often can’t conceive of activism that is separate from consumption or consumption that is separate from activism. What media we consume is not only seen as expressions of our innate moral virtues, but often they are even seen as the deepest and most revealing expressions of those moral virtues.”
I’ve thought about this quote nearly every day since I watched this essay. On the surface, it’s about bullshit fandom drama, but uses that drama to incisively discuss larger cultural issues, something Sarah Z has gotten insanely good at. These feel like incredibly important cultural shifts that I just don’t see discussed as clearly and directly elsewhere. How this discussion seems confined to a video essay about the ethics of writing erotic fan fiction is beyond me.
This was a really personal game for me, and kind of messed me up for a week. I don’t know if anyone else will have the same intense emotional reaction I had to it, because I feel like this game was made specifically for me. I’m really interested in old social media and I grew up right around the time this is set, so this is kind of exactly my jam. It recreates the experience of using Facebook in high school, and works weirdly well as work of historical preservation. I’ve thought a
lot recently about how to preserve the social spaces of the older internet with tools like the Way Back Machine, but this feels like a more authentic reflection of what it actually felt like to be there. It tries to capture very particular experiences, like how people reacted to the technical weirdness of the platform. It tells a fairly forgettable high school romance story, but the format it’s told through is what makes it interesting. Short and bittersweet!
I wrote a whole thing about this one, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Subnautica is one of my all-time favorites, and this expandalone did not disappoint. It polished Subnautica’s wonderful understanding of exploration to make the experience go down easier, and I had an incredible time exploring its new ideas. Playing The Outer Wilds DLC, Echoes of the Eye, gave me this bittersweet experience that I’ll never be able to play The Outer Wilds for the first time again, but this, fortunately, feels just like playing Subnautica for the first time again. I can’t wait to see what they do next!
Severed Steel – Greylock Studio: An incredibly slick movement shooter with near-endless slow-mo and beautiful movement mechanics. This is my new Max Payne, a game to zone out to and shoot-dodge through windows. Like Max Payne with Endtroducing playing in the background, it’s a near meditative experience.
Resident Evil 8 – Capcom: Not too much to add here, I love how Resident Evil finally figured out its tone and found a way to keep the wonderful format of Resident Evil 7 working. It even managed to be horny in a way that wasn’t *extremely* off-putting. I’m a little worried about the direction the plot is going at the end, but we’ll see!
Resident Evil 2 Remake – Capcom: I played this the year it came out, but this was the year I really got into it, and the rest of the franchise as a whole. I’m fully convinced that the series is in the best place it’s ever been, and I had so much fun replaying this on harder difficulties and challenge modes. The level design and control over tone and pacing is sublime, and I’m always finding new quirks or surprises. This might be my favorite of the series now.
Mass Effect: Legendary – Bioware: An incredible remaster of my favorite games. And a great excuse to play and talk about them again.
Neither of my brothers released an album this year, so I have no favorite music for 2021. However, both of my brothers are releasing albums next year. Look forward to the Rubio vs Rubio musical showdown, coming to you January 1st, 2023!
For all the hours I’ve spent playing it, I have a hard time explaining precisely why I love Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes so much. In 2021 especially, half-baked multiplayer tacked on to a single-player game feels like a relic of a previous generation, one of those features you forget as time goes on. Does anyone remember the multiplayer mode for Tomb Raider (2013)? So it’s strange that, years after launch, Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes are not only something I remember quite fondly, but something I return to regularly with friends. Even playing today, I feel something compelling about them that Gears of War, it’s closest gameplay competitor, lacks. And I don’t think this comes mostly from the simple pleasure of well-designed combat (though that is certainly a factor), or because I get to spend more time in a universe I love with friends (though, again, that is a factor). And there are many, many more factors that should have prevented it from being enjoyable at all. For starters, it is, charitably, a technical mess. The 3rd game especially, based on early Origin netcode, is filled with inconveniently placed loading screens in menus as it accesses online features. It often requires port forwarding to be able to reliably join games, which are filled with frequent disconnects and crashes. Mass Effect 3 is relatively technically solid otherwise, but the netcode makes the experience of getting into the game a hassle nearly every time. The metagame is also mired in troubling design decisions. As a free add-on to a $60 game that requires server costs, the game has an incredibly slow grind for better and more varied gear, characters, and stat upgrades. These can only be acquired through various forms of random loot boxes, with no way to directly purchase items or characters a player wants with real money or in-game cash. And this is one of the famously slow grinds that helped define the negative reputation of the first loot boxes in the early 2010s. I sunk well over 100 hours into the mode and I still never approached completion of the progression system, or even a relatively high level of power. Going even further, the game itself is a single game mode: ten waves of increasingly difficult enemies, with three of those waves being objective based. There are a few, incredibly simple objectives to accomplish, and the different enemy types become predictable after a few hours in the game. So, with all of this working against it, how could the game possibly appeal for 100 hours without getting boring? I believe the answer isn’t a single magic bullet, but instead a series of smart design decisions that add variety to each match, despite their samey format. First, it translates the complex combat loadouts from the single player into the multiplayer, adding more creative abilities that would have been too complicated to balance in the single player. Next, it implements enemy variety masterfully, with clearly readable and unique enemies. And finally, it polishes these elements with sound and visual design that make it feel incredible to play and experiment. The end result is a strangely cohesive experience that pushes players into exploring the game’s systems, making each match feel unique.
One of the core challenges of Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes is the lack of gametype variety. As previously mentioned, you’re locked into one game mode, on a set series of static maps, with a few objective-based rounds to mix it up. This means that, generally, the player is accomplishing the exact same goals every game. So, variety is first injected through the tools the players take into each mission. Initially, this means the weapons the player has to choose from. There are multiple categories of weapons, each with their own strengths, and the player will probably be fairly familiar with them from other shooters. Shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, these are things the player already intuitively understands. Fortunately, Mass Effect isn’t afraid to take advantage of its sci-fi setting, putting more conventional modern military-themed weapons alongside more creative alien weapons like the particle beam. Its setting frees it to create weapons that feel genuinely unique. The player isn’t choosing between two assault rifles with a 0.2 second difference in reload time, they’re picking between a marksman rifle and a rifle
that shoots lightning. This makes the decision on which weapons to pick more complicated, which is further increased by the weapon weight system. Taking fewer or lighter weapons decreases the recharge time of the player abilities, creating a tradeoff between weapon effectiveness and ability effectiveness. These tradeoffs make it genuinely interesting to decide on loadouts, and unlocking new weapons can entirely change up your playstyle. Compare that to Rainbow Six Siege, which, while each match plays out in wildly different ways, has rarely encouraged me to change up my loadouts for a character once I’ve settled on one. But the unique weapons are only a part of what makes loadout creation in Mass Effect interesting. Much like the single-player game, it’s the characters that really make the experience shine.
The various character classes of Mass Effect’s multiplayer are where its real value lies. You aren’t just picking another version of a human soldier with a weird gadget, you’re switching between hulking krogan vanguards and a tiny volus biotic god. While many classes share similar abilities, the way those abilities play off each other makes each class combination feel unique, and presents an entirely new playstyle. Switching between them is fairly easy, and the player isn’t penalized with hours of required grinding for doing so. So, players will be switching up their entire playstyle on a game-
to-game basis. Even playing on the same map against the same enemies, no game will feel the same. I’ll talk about this particular class in more detail later, but the Human Vanguard class, for example, is a hyper aggressive melee tank, that charges enemies and drops high-damage AOE melee attacks. A well-played vanguard basically never uses cover, and is always charging around the map. This experience is radically different from playing the salarian engineer, my go-to for high level platinum difficulty runs. This class is much squishier than the vanguard, and has to constantly use cover and longer-ranged weapons. However, his tech abilities have low enough recharge times that the player can set off tech combos on enemies consistently, making him ideal for burning down top-tier enemies at higher difficulties. While he’s nowhere near as aggressive as the vanguard, he can maintain map control in a way that the vanguard, with its high-risk, high-reward play, simply can’t. Not all classes play as wildly different as these two, but with over 30 classes, there are a lot of experiences to pick from. This encourages players to talk to their friends about their favorite builds, partially to optimize their own, but also to discover new playstyles from new classes. The social element continues to enhance this throughout the experience. Get a new class in a loot box that you don’t know how to play? Maybe a friend already has it, and the two of you can swap strategies. I’ve made a few online friends from these multiplayer lobbies, despite the horrific netcode and lack of text chat, and I think this encouraged conversation is a huge part of why.
The Game Field
All the loadout and class variety in the world wouldn’t mean that much if the maps and enemies weren’t designed to make them interesting. And, fortunately, Mass Effect’s maps and enemies do just that. The maps are the more standard of the two, so I’ll start with that. They’re mostly unremarkable, with a few unique environmental quirks in the third game that really stood out. And while I don’t have the level design background to say how the levels do this, they do push the player into consistently risky situations. Even on the highest difficulties, players must be moving constantly, and rarely get to hunker down and camp for more than a minute at a time. Players must regularly shift their position and strategy, engaging enemies at different ranges. Andromeda even took advantage of that game’s new moveset to add greater verticality to the maps, but in a post-Titanfall world, feels much less impressive than it could have been. The maps are mostly there to set the stage for the real stars, the enemies.
While it’s Mass Effect’s character variety that adds the most depth to the multiplayer, it’s the enemy design that really makes the multiplayer click. Each game has the player picking from one of four enemy factions: Cerberus, Geth, Reaper, and Collector. While they do mirror each other at the high levels (foot soldier, tougher foot soldier, sniper, tanky enemy, smaller enemy with an instakill), the specifics are where they really shine. Each faction, and even specific enemies, are weak to specific weapon and ammo types, encouraging the player to mix up which weapons and effects they play with. Going into a game against the synthetic Geth? Better bring disruptor ammo for its bonus damage against shields and synthetics. Hell, maybe play an engineer, with some abilities to control enemy synthetics! Fighting Reapers? Probably best to bring something with fire to burn down those husks and armoreds. Furthering this, each enemy beyond the basic grunt has at least some interesting mechanic to engage with. Sometimes that’s through creative use of weak points, like the slot on the Cerberus Guardian’s shield for easy headshots, or knocking off chunks of armor on reapers. Or it could be actually unique mechanics, such as the cluster grenades dropped by the Geth Bomber to further discourage camping. While this is a horde mode, most enemies are not faceless, each one has a specific role, and the higher the difficulty, the more you have to play to their weaknesses.
Like all good forms of variety in design, these enemies add depth exponentially, making all other decisions more interesting. Unique enemies abilities make the maps have even more of an impact on player positioning and rotation. Some areas of a map may be great for fighting one enemy type but not another, encouraging the player to shift where they’re hunkering down as new enemies appear. Enemies with different weaknesses encourage mixing up your loadout even more to play into that. And with how many unique consumables the game throws at you, players aren’t encouraged to horde useful ones; they’re getting more than they can use after every round. The enemies are the glue that makes all the individual components stick together, and this is highlighted by comparing the game to something like Digital Extreme’s Warframe.
Warframe is a great game in its own right, and one that I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into with friends and on my own. It has map and loadout variety that puts Mass Effect to shame, and it should, it’s a full, games-as-service game! But each match of Warframe…kinda feels the same to me, outside of the more unique raids and events. This is, in part, because the enemies feel very similar, so the player has no real reason to switch to anything but their main character and weapons. Mass Effect, meanwhile, uses the enemies to force the player to engage with the variety in its other systems if they want to progress. And this all comes to a head in the game’s Platinum difficulty.
Platinum difficulty Mass Effect runs are the most genuinely terrifying co-op content I’ve ever played in an action game. Instead of picking from one of four enemy types, platinum difficulty throws all of them at you at once. The toughest enemies from each faction all appear at once, in a grueling fight that tests the player on every aspect of the game’s systems. Here, the player can’t take the anti-geth character on the geth mission, they have to prepare loadouts that are dynamic enough to tackle nearly all of them. They have to coordinate with teammates to make sure they have all potential enemies covered, and that no one is too specialized. With enough grinding and optimization, these interesting decisions can be mitigated or even ignored outright, but until the player reaches that point, platinum is a treat. Players have to stay together, have to be constantly communicating, calling out enemies, and coordinating ability cooldowns. If Mass Effect’s design was not this solid, platinum would become a slog of grinding and finding the most overpowered characters to exploit it. But, because each system plays off one another in all their various incarnations, it ends up being the best version of the game, and by far the most interesting.
A Brief Love Letter to The “Manguard”
Mass Effect’s multiplayer would have been tactically interesting with just the elements I’ve discussed before, but it’s the sound design, VFX, and other “game feel” aspects that really give it the final push. Starting with Mass Effect 2, BioWare really started putting effort into its sound design, making the SFX of the player’s biotic abilities especially punchy, bass-heavy, and satisfying. Mass Effect 3 itered on this wonderfully, but that is most apparent in the previously mentioned “Manguard” class. A community nickname for the human vanguard class, the Manguard has by far the most aggressive playstyle in the game, and the series’ improved game feel and SFX design really helps sell it. Available from the start, the vanguard is a high-risk, high-reward character that zips
around the battlefield dealing catastrophic damage. Play with a well-played vanguard on your team on the lower difficulties, and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a single kill. When specialized correctly, the vanguard opens with a charge attack, which instantly refills their shields and deals massive, single-target damage. They then follow this up with a nova attack, an area of effect attack that deals so much damage it would be overpowered if it didn’t also drop the vanguard’s shields, leaving them vulnerable to a counter-attack if they don’t immediately follow it up with another charge, refilling their shields. The result is an experience that constantly feels on the edge of catastrophic failure, even as it rakes in the kills. And this is cemented in my memory because of the incredible sound and visual design for the vanguard’s charge and nova abilities. Each one feels like a power trip diluted into a few seconds of audio, so much that it’s almost distractingly exciting. Manguards may not be viable at gold difficulty, and especially not at platinum, but the experience of playing on silver is something I’ve genuinely never experienced in another game.
For a game starting with so much against it, including its own tech stack, Mass Effect’s multiplayer ended up being a surprisingly polished experience. Design-wise, it achieved a level of elegance that tacked-on multiplayer has, to my knowledge, never achieved. It pulled from the series’ design strengths to make the experience of playing a 10-round horde mode wildly compelling, even beyond other games in the same space with an actual multiplayer focus and a much bigger budget. It did get a proper sequel in the form of Andromeda’s multiplayer release, but marred as that game was by its own technical failings, it never got the same community as the third game. And, given the recent announcement that 3’s multiplayer will not be included in the upcoming Mass Effect: Legendary Edition release, it looks like the game and its model are probably only going to last the few more years that EA bothers to pay for their server costs. But, while I am disappointed that I won’t get to see more iteration on this idea, I’ve found revisiting 3 and Andromeda to be a fascinating dive into what makes multiplayer games really work, and how to make each round of play feel like a genuinely unique experience.
By the time it left early access in 2018, Subnautica had a lot going for it. Despite being in the already tired genre of early access survival-craft-em-up, it was committed to a design philosophy that kept it feeling fresh, emphasizing mystery in all its components. I wrote a pretty glowing piece on it shortly after launch, and in it, I mentioned being excited for the potentially Lovecraftian direction of the sequel. While I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t go in that direction, the game we did get – which is currently near the end of its own early access life cycle – ended up being fascinating nonetheless. On the surface, it feels like Subnautica 2.0, an upgraded version of the systems and ideas of the original, but with more polish. It absolutely does do that, brilliantly at times, and I would be more than happy to write another piece in the style of my first one, looking at each component and how it contributes to the intended experience. But I found the most interesting parts of uncovering Below Zero’s many mysteries to be in its comparisons to its predecessor, both in how it improves, and what was sacrificed to attain that improvement. Before I dive in deeper, I do want to clarify that this is not the case of a sequel that sacrificed vision for polish and mass appeal; Below Zero is still confidently its own game. However, there is a slight difference in tone that I think is telling for the future of this design philosophy. Because, while I love Subnautica and Below Zero, its exploration and mystery-focused philosophy is really what I am interested in. In the time since Subnautica, we’ve seen the release of The Outer Wilds, another phenomenal exploration-based game in a similar vein. This gives me some hope that this design philosophy will be adapted beyond just Subnautica, and makes Below Zero’s higher budget attempt feel like a trial run for pumping more money and time into this genre. Fortunately, this first attempt is a very successful one. Below Zero upgrades the toolkit of the original Subnautica substantially, and uses those upgraded tools to create levels more complex and polished than anything in the first game. However, along the way, it sacrifices some of the mystery that made the first game’s systems so compelling to explore. Nonetheless, it stands as an example of how to apply Subnautica’s design philosophy to an experience more in line with contemporary, higher-budget design philosophies, without sacrificing its soul.
The Upgraded Toolkit
Below Zero’s first chunk of upgrades to its predecessor deal with tightening and polishing the core gameplay loop, to the point where it’s probably the best it’s ever been. Minerals in general feel more carefully balanced and useful, with fewer single-use items or poorly explained resources. On my first playthrough, even in early access, I never once had to go to the wiki to figure out where mineral X or blueprint fragment Y was, something I often had to do for some of the many scattered fragments of the cyclops in the base game. Navigation is generally made more interesting as well, strangely through its weather condition system. The first game always had the Aroura on the horizon, a crashed space ship that helped players orient themselves in the mapless game world. Below Zero has multiple above-water landmarks, which do help at times, but during harsh weather conditions, the player’s visibility can be so limited that landmarks become impossible to see. This adds an extra layer of tension, but also probably contributed to the decision to place physical maps in Below Zero’s world. These aren’t comprehensive and don’t show the player’s location, but they do help the player orient themselves, and more interestingly, point to locations the player knows nothing about. A mysterious marker for “Omega Labs” can entice the player to go exploring, as well as help them find out-of-the-way locations that they might otherwise miss. So, improvements are less interesting in patching old problems than they are in adding mystery and tension to even more aspects of the game.
Unfortunately, they didn’t do much to address perhaps the most tedious aspect of the series, inventory management. Nearly all survival games have this problem, but it’s especially difficult for Subnautica, where the player has piles and piles of varied and important resources. In my piece on the previous game, I cited my difficulties moving bases as the apex of that problem, but something I found interesting in Below Zero was that I never tried to move bases or build forward outposts, because the first game had trained me that this was too much of a hassle to be worth it. It would take a decent amount of inertia to get me to overcome those trained instincts, and that will be a recurring theme in this piece. It does seem like the team was aware of the issue, as exemplified by the Quantum Locker item. All quantum lockers, ostensibly, share the same inventory, so you can deploy one near your base, toss some emergency food in it, and carry another locker with you if you ever run out. Due to some early access bugs, I was never able to get this to work, but the idea is solid. However, the storage space of the quantum locker is so limited, it’s closer to an emergency backup than a core feature. So, unfortunately, I ended up installing inventory mods to increase the storage size of the wall-mounted lockers in the game. Once I did this, I felt the pacing of the game dramatically improve. No longer was I shuffling items between different, awkwardly-placed lockers with weird and ever-changing organizational systems. Instead, I just opened the locker, and grabbed what I wanted. I feel like many survival games could benefit from a “one giant locker” item, but I hope future titles try to address this issue in other ways. Because, ultimately, inventory management has very little to do with the core of the Subnautica experience. I could see the game working well with a Resident Evil-style inventory system, where the player’s personal inventory is incredibly limited, but they can find boxes that share the same inventory with infinite space. Maybe the seatruck could be emphasized as a primary storage mechanism. There are no doubt dozens of strategies to make the inventory system thematically interesting, or at least less intrusive, and it’s easy to propose ideas without implementing and testing them. However, this is my biggest sore spot with the series so far, because I have to spend so much of my time on an activity that is ultimately meaningless.
Fortunately, the seatruck had more success in its improvements to the original game. I’ll be blunt: piloting the cyclops in the first game…sucked. Navigating it never felt natural, the camera system was janky and awkward, I kept getting stuck on terrain, and the monster attacks felt more like annoyances than actual threats. And the seatruck is not without its own jank. This is most apparent in the interactions with the Moonpool, a building that docks and charges the player’s vehicles. When the seatruck docks to it, its attached modules detach and float idly nearby. When undocking, the player has to back the seatruck into those modules – a process that has cost me more than one newly-constructed piece – or get out of the ship and manually drag the modules over. Neither system feels natural, and this is the most “early access feeling” part of the game. It felt like the game needed an expanded Moonpool to let you swap out modules on the fly, which would have improved utility in general. Still, once you’re in the seatruck, the experience gets much better. With modules to allow for storage and fabrication, a dock for the prawn suit, and even an aquarium, it does function as a portable mini-base. It even includes a teleportation module, which allows instant teleportation back to the seatruck from any distance. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this module until reading the wiki after completing the game, so I can’t attest to its usefulness personally. Overall, the seatruck feels like a much more customizable and useful version of the cyclops and seamoth. While playing the first game, I regularly wanted to try a cyclops-only playthrough, eschewing a more established base, but it never worked reliably. The seatruck makes that feel actually possible, and is unlocked much earlier in the game. There is still some jank to be fixed, but the seatruck makes the experience of navigating Below Zero, especially the endgame, much more engaging.
Finally, Below Zero features an updated enemy roster, which is a general improvement on the first game’s. The most noticeable difference in early-game enemies is the greater variety of enemies. Below Zero has around the same number of creatures as the first game, but those enemies feel much more unique. In the base game, stalkers, sandfish, and other enemies felt more or less the same, with some slight differences in attack pattern. They were rarely a threat once the player got their seaglide, and were pretty easy to ignore. Fortunately, Below Zero spends most of its time developing these mid-sized enemies, and making them interesting. Brutesharks and Squidsharks attack the player directly, while Brinewings fire freezing projectiles at them and other fauna. Spike traps will grab the player from a distance, with the faster and larger Cryptosuchus charging head on in pairs. And independent of combat, Sea Monkeys will grab the player’s equipped tools, and even trade items with the player later on. This makes the early and mid game much more interesting for the player, because these enemies require different strategies to work around. Unfortunately, the primary leviathan creature does not fare as well. The first game had the terrifying reaper leviathan, a creature with a distinctive movement pattern and roar that still makes me sweat even after multiple playthroughs. But Below Zero’s Chelicerate…doesn’t really stack up. It’s just as mechanically dangerous, but it’s goofier design and more common presence in highly trafficked areas make it feel both more mundane and more unsettling. In the first game, the roar of a reaper leviathan meant it had seen you and was closing in. It was a giant flashing sign in 10-foot-tall letters saying, “GET OUT OF HERE NOW.” But because the Chelicerate hunts nearby fauna and other creatures have a similar roar, the player is almost constantly hearing creature roars in the Thermal Spires, Purple Vents, and Lilly zones. The end result is a sense of constant, mid-level stress, at least in my case, and that makes exploring those zones exhausting. If the Chelicerate spawns were slightly reduced, and the roar frequency reduced, I think they would be much more engaging creatures. Ultimately, while the new enemy roster has its problems, the enemies become a much more active part of the game, all the way through the endgame.
The Performance Impact: How The Tools Are Used
While the upgraded toolkit might have been a mixed bag, the improvements to level design have been almost universally positive, and it all starts with the performance. That’s a strange place to start on level design, but the technical limitations of the first game severely hampered what the designers could actually do with the world. In Below Zero…those issues are gone. Completely. While the first game was full of egregious framerate hitches, stuttering, and pop-in, Below Zero has none of that, and it feels like the level designers have been set free. Without looking at the code, I can’t tell what tricks they pulled to fix this; the only noticeable one is a slightly lower draw distance and more aggressive fog. But, from a player’s perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any tradeoffs, just improvement. Because the increased performance lets them significantly increase the density of assets and create more vertical maps that the series feels like it was made for. The opening zone, the Twisty Bridges, is perhaps the single best example of this new design. Starting as a shallow, cozy area for the player to explore, but with crevices that go down hundreds of meters. In fact, some great mid-late-game upgrades are found by diving down to the lower area of the biome. This introduces the player to one of the core appeals of Subnautica right away: finding a safe area to get established in, but being teased with further depths. And, it introduces the player to this loop even more effectively than the first game did. Without crafting the Rebreather, the player can only descend a hundred meters before severely hampering their oxygen supply. And, before getting the seatruck as a portable source of oxygen,
even having enough oxygen to get to 100 meters is unlikely. This means the player spends more time pushing the limits of their oxygen in the early game, diving just deep enough to grab this new upgrade or that new material. The game rewards this with expanded environmental interaction systems; for example, the oxygen plants that replace the role of brain coral in the first game. Brain coral required the player to sit and wait for it to produce oxygen, while O2 plants just require a simple click, with a longer recharge time. This lets the player keep their momentum while diving deeper and deeper, maybe deeper than they should be.
These levels are not just deep crevices, however. They’re fully fledged cave networks. Exploring around the Lilypad Islands, for example, might have the player start in an area of open water, then duck into a crevice to grab some materials, then entering a small cave network, all within the same area. This makes discoveries and dramatic changes in the environment much more common. In the base game, the player spent the majority of their time in open water, with the sea above them. This made for some great moments of terror when the player was hundreds of meters deep, looked up to the surface of the ocean, and saw nothing but blackness. Below Zero keeps those moments, but the player spends much more time in cave networks or mostly covered areas that provide cover from the more threatening predators. And this is where the performance impact becomes so noticeable, because these zones simply could not have existed in the first game. The closest Subnautica came was the Mushroom Forest zone, which was an infamously performance-heavy area with the worst pop-in in the game causing collisions as items appeared right in front of the player. So, I feel like I can’t overstate the value of these optimizations, because they allowed for the complex and winding levels that really made me fall in love with Below Zero. For example, the previously mentioned Lilypad Islands is Below Zero’s take on the Underwater Islands zone from the first game, a visually gorgeous but otherwise mostly forgettable zone. The Lilypad Islands, however, are much more tense, filled with cave networks, and giant, decaying lily pads that would have brought the previous game to its knees. The end result is a game world that is much more in line with the themes of the game, where mystery and discovery are an even greater part of the core game loop.
Interestingly, however, Below Zero also contains some of the most traditionally linear level design in the series. Many of the experiences feel more tightly controlled and designed, especially on land and near the endgame. This begins with the structure of the critical path, which is a lot more clearly defined. In the first game, you weren’t even aware that there *was* a critical path; you had just crash landed on this planet and needed to survive. The fact that Subnautica had a story at all was sort of a surprise to the player. Below Zero opens with a very clear narrative goal: find out what happened to your character’s sister. This gives the player a more specific focus to follow, and while it does follow the first game’s rule of multiple, concurrent narratives, it’s communicated a lot more clearly to the player. This has its advantages and disadvantages, and I personally prefer the first game’s approach because of how naturalistic your gradual immersion in the story feels. However, from a purely gameplay approach, a clearer critical path does help players get over the early game learning curve. This does not mean that the story is all directed; the player still has multiple leads to follow up on, new areas to explore, a whole on-land segment to tackle, and just new zones to find. If anything, Below Zero’s structure feels more open-ended, especially towards the endgame. This chart showing the depth of the first game’s zone highlights that, while the early and mid game had many zones spanning the available depth ranges, the last few zones all followed a strict, linear progression, basically
preventing exploration. Below Zero’s endgame does contain two linear zones, and I’ll expand on that shortly, but it otherwise feels like a much more explorable world. There is something interesting to be found in nearly every zone at nearly every stage of the game, even the starting zone. Further cementing this is the continuing usefulness of the seatruck. In the first game, you had a clear progression path from seaglide, to seamoth, to cyclops, with each vehicle being useful in specific situations or at specific depths. This meant that, functionally, your seamoth was useless in the endgame, and the cyclops was always the best choice. The seamoth couldn’t even be upgraded to go as deep as the cyclops. However, in Below Zero, the seatruck is the first vehicle the player builds, and it is used until the last moments of the endgame. Which, unfortunately, are where the level design kind of falls apart.
Now the game is technically still a few months out from its full 1.0 release, so it is possible that these zones will be reworked, but the final zones of Below Zero – the Crystal Caves and Fabricator Caverns – are once again the weakest. I previously criticized the linearity of the first game’s ending levels, how they were essentially tunnels to the next story beat. Below Zero takes that to its extreme. While I can’t find any maps of the caves to prove this, these zones felt incredibly linear, with a single point of interest in each zone. Even the Lost River, Inactive Lava Zone, and Lava Lakes from the first game still had points of interest to find, hidden side areas and caches to explore, and more unique assets such as the lava castle and two alien bases. Below Zero’s zones are much shorter, and lack these. The only unique discovery in these zones, other than the two plot-required points of interest, is Kyanite, a resource required for advanced fabrication that only exists in these caves, and a small alien cache. Strangely, however…I still prefer Below Zero’s endgame, because it is so much shorter. I think these kinds of levels are a necessary endpoint for the fantasy Subnautica is presenting, about Diving Too Deep into the mysterious oceans. Both games may have struggled in the execution, but the existence of these lower levels makes the game more imposing, knowing that some eldritch horror lurks further down. And while, systemically, these might not click as well, emotionally, the experience of the caves is much better.
“Proceed with caution. A leviathan class creature is near.”
That is the message that plays when entering the crystal caves. And it nearly got me to turn around and leave. But I kept going deeper, at least partially because I wanted to get the jump scare over with, and see whatever new horror the developer had cooked up. I tried to keep close to the walls, keeping the openings to other caves in my field of vision. Then, a few dozen meters below, I saw it. Slithering through the water with dozens of tiny arms clicking back and forth, and a pulsing, bioluminescent underbody. I panicked, and tried to turn around, but it was too late, the creature had already grabbed my seatruck, and was crushing it. I Alt-F4ed out of the game.
Subnautica’s leviathan creatures inspire a level of pure terror in me that not many games, even dedicated horror games, can match. I don’t know if I was all that afraid of the ocean before I played Subnautica, but after playing it, I most certainly am. And while I take issue with the design of the game’s last two areas, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the most effective horror experiences in the medium. Part of what makes the endgame zones more tolerable is that it doesn’t feel like the game even wants you to explore them. There are so few easy hiding places or options to retreat, that the player basically has to be on alert every second, always watching and listening for these shadow leviathans. Mechanically, at least, these experiences can be smoothed over. Once you realize that the leviathan’s grab attack takes two full hits to kill your ship, they become a lot less of a threat. Mechanically. But emotionally…I cannot be at ease when they’re nearby, even if I know they’re not a threat. So, the majority of the endgame wasn’t a challenge in system mastery, but a challenge of courage. I knew that the optional strategy was to let the leviathan grab you, then trigger your ship’s electric defense system, letting you escape unscathed. Evaluating the threat from the numerical perspective of DPS and health pools, it wouldn’t have even been a consideration. But the terror of a giant sea creature attack made it just as intense as if I were playing a permadeath run. Still, this terror can turn into exhaustion when repeated too much. Because of some unclear signposting, I thought I needed to get to the end of the final zone much earlier than I actually did, and made the treacherous, terror-inducing trip to the bottom only to be greeted with a message from the game that “you should come back here later”. And then, faced with the requirement to swim all the way back to the surface, I felt more exhaustion than dread and terror. Fortunately, if you are playing optimally, you only need to make that trip once, whereas the base game required numerous trips. This continues the trend of these endgame zones being better because they’re shorter, and for future takes on this idea, I do think that’s the approach they should take, if they’re not willing to completely overhaul it. A short, flashy conclusion to an entire game’s worth of building dread. So, when given a choice between shorter or more complicated, it’s fortunate that the on land sections of Below Zero essentially do both.
In stark contrast to its underwater endgame zones, Below Zero’s on land sections are refreshingly terror-free. This makes them some of Below Zero’s most interesting levels because of how they adopt the Subnautica formula to an environment without that extra Z axis. Some are more straightforward replacements: oxygen is replaced by cold, with warmth-refilling plants, the seatruck is replaced by the snowfox, there are mid-sized predators that can mostly be avoided with your vehicle, and larger ones that require stealth. However, each aspect has its own flair to it. The ice worm keeps that leviathan-sized spectacle, but with a more formalized stealth system to deal with them. Noise and elevation all matter when avoiding it, and the player is even given a gadget, called the Thumper, to simulate movement and distract the ice worm. In contrast to the straightforward shadow leviathan encounters, I felt like I could actually plan around the ice worms, and use different tools if I got stuck. The problem was, I almost never got stuck. As cool of an the Thumper is, I never felt the need to use it, and I never got killed by the ice worm or any other hostile fauna. The cold system fares a bit better, and it did actually kill me a few times when I forgot to bring heat-refilling items. Harsh weather conditions can really amplify its effectiveness, and make a totally mundane environment feel as hostile as a leviathan. So, it feels like a bit of a messy first pass that needs more tuning, but for a first pass on a new system in the back half of an already pretty solid game, it’s a damn impressive one.
However, I basically ignored the surface completely until the endgame, and I think this clashes with one of Subnautica’s core approaches to design: giving the player so many different paths to take. The designers specifically cite a desire to have multiple narrative threads running concurrently, and this works wonderfully for encouraging exploration, but can make it possible to ignore some systems until the endgame. Because it surrenders so much agency to the player, the player’s actions are much less predictable, more subject to random whims and habits. For example, I personally didn’t go to the surface because the first game had trained me that on land segments were brief expeditions to grab new technology or plot elements, then return to the ocean. I felt at home under water in this game because 99% of it was already happening under water. Add to this the harshness of the cold weather conditions, and the surface can seem like a hostile but also insignificant place, a roaring blizzard to make you feel more comfortable when you return to the water. The game does have a few earlier tasks pushing you in that direction, but because of how removed it feels from the base game, the player has to overcome a lot of inertia to go there. This, absolutely, has its disadvantages, but I think it comes with the upside of making the surface feel like a sort of forbidden fruit and final arena. By the time the player actually does get there, it’s been built up enough to be intriguing as all hell. It allows the game to drop some of its strongest narrative beats, which are made all the more effective by how long you’ve waited to get there.
Speaking of which, Subnautica has a story now.
A Proper Narrative: How The Tools Are Contextualized
This is it, the part of the game that makes Below Zero a test run, and the core of the game’s structural question: can you apply Subnautica to something with a traditional narrative? Characters, 3 acts, inciting incidents, all that. Like I mentioned previously, the first game did have a story, which was actually a surprise for most players expecting an empty survival game. The existence of a greater narrative at all was one of the first mysteries the player uncovers, and as much as I *love* that trick, it’s not a trick that can work twice. If they released Below Zero with seemingly no story until hour 5, players would be expecting it. So, I understand why they decided to go a different route, and it’s clear they cared very deeply about getting it right. When their first pass on the story didn’t work, they scrapped it entirely, writing an entirely new story pretty late into the early access process at considerable expense. So it’s with that in mind that I say that Below Zero has too much narrative for a Subnautica game. I really enjoy the game’s core story, I even like its core characters, and compared to just about any other game, the narrative to other content ratio is pretty low. But it’s not low enough to keep that lonely feeling that the first game delivered on so well. In Subnautica, you were *incredibly* isolated, perhaps the only sentient being on the planet, and no one knew
you were there. In Below Zero, there are Altera settlements, satellites in orbit, old, abandoned structures, years of history, and even at least two sentient beings active in the same sector as you. The first game had a few old settlements, but they were decaying, from dead explorers, implying that you might meet the same fate. Here, one of those characters from the first game is alive and well, holed up in a base you can visit at any time. It makes the exploration feel just a bit less satisfying, because you often feel like you’re not really discovering anything, just seeing other people’s work. This carries over into the approach to text logs as well. In the first game, I scanned every object and read every scrap of flavor text, just wanting to learn more about this world and its ecosystem. In Below Zero, it feels like far too much narrative content. I’m listening to audio logs of the workplace drama for some dystopian future space company, not learning hidden secrets about alien races. Sifting through pages and pages of contrite fathers who miss their daughters, little workplace romances, and complaining about equipment regulation. This is coupled with an AI companion that starts conversations about history, philosophy, and personal experiences, all while the player is swimming around the overworld. Again, none of these are bad – I actually really like the conversations between AL-AN and the player – it just feels misplaced. If there were fewer audio and text logs, maybe one or two fewer bases, and less frequent dialog, then I think Below Zero could have captured the same feeling of isolation that the first game had, while keeping its narrative ambitions. As it stands, though, the first game just delivers on this narrative mystery better than its predecessor.
So, Below Zero is not as good at narrative mystery as the first game. But so what? Sequels are allowed to go in radically different directions, explore different experiences. Aliens doesn’t feel terrifying in the same way Alien does, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. So, acknowledging the differences between the two, what kind of
experience *is* Below Zero trying to deliver? Well, one that follows many of the same rules as the first one. Those multiple narrative threads I mentioned earlier are still present, with threads of finding out what happened to Robin’s sister, learning about Altrea’s bases, the precursor AI, and the sub-stories of each of the ruined sites, to name a few. And some of those narrative threads are quite good in their own right. I’ve got a particular fondness for the AI storyline, because, while I think the conversations are misplaced and too frequent, they are interesting conversations. Robin is fiercely opinionated, especially for a first-person protagonist, a role usually filed by characters who can’t speak at all or speak sparingly and inoffensively. There’s even a bit of tension when Robin defiantly states sweeping philosophical beliefs that the player might disagree with. The first game’s writing was more functional than good in its own right. It was there to create texture and tone and hint at larger mysteries. Below Zero might lose some of that tone, but the actual quality of the writing itself has improved, and I have to commend how well they did integrate it, even if they often fell flat. Because there is one piece of narrative design that makes me really hope for the future of this franchise and this design philosophy.
Deep in a cave at the northern end of the ice fields, the player stumbles upon the frozen leviathan chamber. While it has an initial moment of shock – the creature is *massive*, after all – it quickly fades towards a different tone. It’s eerie, quiet, cozy, like a good Resident Evil safe room. The massive leviathan is almost fully encased in ice, with scattered lab equipment thrown around the cavern. Safe Cave, one of my favorite tracks on the soundtrack, kicks in, reinforcing the mood that, while everything is calm now, something big happened here. So the player gets to spend time playing detective, scanning every item, looking at the destruction and piecing together how it happened, and, of course, approaching and scanning the creature itself. They learn some very important information about a main story thread, and then quietly leave.
This, to me, is the promise of Below Zero. It’s a narrative moment rendered at a scale and budget that most smaller studios probably wouldn’t be able to pull off in a feature-rich open world game like this one. It has audio logs, text, and other conventional forms of narrative, but primarily entices the player with exploration and extrapolation. It’s one of my favorite moments in the medium, and I don’t think it could have happened in any other game, including Subnautica the first. It takes the strengths of the first game – narrative mystery, player-directed intrigue – and merges them with the strengths of the second – polish, character focus, and narrative clarity. So, while I have spent a lot of this essay criticizing the narrative implementation in Below Zero, moments like these remove my worries that these two styles of design are incompatible. It’s not impossible, it just takes experimentation and iteration, like everything else in this medium. And it shows that, with enough of both, this formula can create great experiences. Unknown Worlds hasn’t announced what their next project will be, but given all the ideas they had for Below Zero, a proper Subnautica 2 doesn’t seem unlikely. I’m hoping that they can take what they learned from Below Zero, and carry it forward into a proper successor, one that delivers on its narrative ambitions. But, for now, the game we have is an exciting look at what’s to come, and a compelling experience in its own right, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Hi everyone! I used to do these on Facebook every year, but I deleted that, so I’m moving the post here. And I get to post some pretty pictures with it.
Less than half of these actually came out in 2020, but 1) I saw like no new movies this year and 2) I need an excuse to talk about Outer Wilds.
With that out of the way…
Favorite: Outer Wilds – Mobius Outer Wilds has my favorite exploration in the medium. The entire game is about uncovering secrets and sticking your nose into every part of this intricate solar system. It wants you to think about its physically accurate gravity simulation, to use it to solve weird problems, and connect with the people in its worlds. It’s packed to bursting with humanity, with characters who are passionate artists, explorers, engineers, and scientists, and don’t see any contradiction between those. Nothing else like this exists. Unfortunately, because it’s so exploration-based, I can’t really replay it, since I already know all its secrets. So, Outer Wilds II or whatever they do next is now at the top of my list for anticipated games.
Runner Up: Disco Elysium – ZA/UM Probably my favorite RPG ever made. Its writing has a heft, depth, and naturalistic tone that feels almost out of place in a video game. Game writing is just not this complex and, honestly, good. It dances between leftist politics, absurdist humor, self-destruction, and weird moments of camaraderie, and it does all this effortlessly. Some of my favorite moments in the medium happen one after another in this game, sometimes in random side quests. Its character building systems are fun to experiment with, to see how the people of the world react. My favorite systemic discovery was how a character with a maxed out empathy skill will start taking mental damage if they witness people hurting that they cannot help. That is simply brilliant. It definitively proves that when the cruft and hammy writing of most CRPGs is cleared away, the genre can do things that no other can.
Honorable Mentions Max Payne 1, for it’s infinitely replayable slo-mo shoot dodges. Half-Life: Alyx, for validating my purchase of a VR headset. Hades, for being drop-dead gorgeous and damn near perfect in every category. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, for bringing an even greater sense of heart and community (and Spider-Cat) to the franchise. Cyberpunk 2077, for having incredibly complex and human sci-fi writing, when it wasn’t trying to melt my PC.
Favorite: Knives Out – dir. Rian Johnson This came out in 2019 but I saw it in early 2020, and it was just so well produced; everything seemed to fit together so elegantly. Fun as hell, but knows when to take itself seriously.
Runner Up: Palm Springs – dir. Max Barbakow The best quarantine movie. I love Groundhog’s Day-style films in all their forms, but this this film just has so much fun with it, it stands out. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are clearly having the time of their lives in these roles.
Honorable Mentions Bill & Ted’s 3: Fun, wholesome, just more Bill and Ted’s. Rare to see this much heart in a contemporary film. Birds of Prey: Reminded me that superhero films can actually be fun. Margot Robbie absolutely kills it, I was smiling like an idiot from beginning to end. Some of the violence feels a little out of place, I guess they have to make it totally okay for the protagonists to beat the shit out of Black Mask. And, to its credit, it is very fun to watch the protagonists beat the shit out of Black Mask. Kara no Kyokai: ufotable’s most visually striking works, at least that I’ve seen. Explores mental health through the lens of magical realism (and just straight up magic). Soundtrack is eerie as hell.
Favorite: Exhalation – Ted Chiang Some of my all-time favorite sci-fi writing. Each story takes a high concept sci-fi idea, and explores it thoroughly, both in the implications of the technology itself, and how people would react to it. My favorite was “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a story told in the style of One Thousand and One Nights about a form of time travel that is more consistent with our actual understanding of time. It uses that to tell a story about a man who deeply regrets many choices he’s made in his life, and can use time travel to understand them better. A high watermark of the short story collection, but by no means the only one with that technical and emotional depth.
Runner Up: A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor – Hank Green Further digging into capitalist hyperproductivity, social media, and how we build narratives when social media dominates our communication.
Favorite: Fate/Zero– ufotable I did not expect to have any anime on this list, but here we are. Fate/Zero rules. It uses anime’s seemingly inherent hyperreality and melodrama to talk about issues that would feel trite in another style. Fundamentally a story about screwed up people trying to make the world less screwed up (or, often, more screwed up), and losing themselves along the way. It can veer towards misery porn at times, but is never nihilistic. It doesn’t confuse darkness for depth, it has moments of levity, but also moments of profound, joyful acceptance. It looks some genuinely nasty shit in the face, and doesn’t flinch.
Runner Up: Lovecraft Country– HBO This show has problems. After around the 6th episode, its “racism is the real monster” twist endings start getting really predictable. It depicts some genuinely messed up violence against queer folks (which the creator has acknowledged). And the quality drops off hard in the back half. But there are genuinely incredible moments throughout, and so, so many stories to be told about pulp fiction being reclaimed by creators and characters of color. It wasn’t the cosmic horror I wanted (which was kind of promised by the title), but it’s clearly made out of love for pulp sci-fi, and has its own take on how those genres can evolve.
Honorable Mentions Halt and Catch Fire, getting into anime, Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans for its brilliant political writing, finally watching Cowboy Bebop, and Mob Psycho 100’s endless charm.
Album Favorite: Endtroducing… – DJ Shadow I’ve listened to this album more than any other this year, by far. Predominantly while playing Max Payne late at night, but it works incredibly well as background music that, much like a good Brian Eno album, is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” It’s got a very loose, dreamlike feel to it, with motifs that are repeated across songs that form more of an emotional state than a coherent narrative. The Number Song is a great place to start.
Runner Up: Inside Mood EP – Inside Mood (2020) Cheating again because my brother worked on this one, but I’ve looped these tracks so many times. It’s got a wonderful blend of various jazz styles, and the production as a whole has gotten damn good. Vocal effects, distorted instruments, ambient background sounds, it all comes together to a sizzling and stylistic whole.
Honorable Mentions Mouth Dreams – Neil Cicierega The World Within – Moderator Rescue – Major Tom : It’s not an album so it technically doesn’t count, but Rescue is a song that just taps in to so many genres and styles I really like. Echoey, ethereal vocals, emphasis on storytelling, and an emotional core that hits waaaay too close to home. It’s a damn solid debut…from my other brother, Tom. My brothers are really talented; sue me.
Well, that’s about it! For some reason, I had a lot more time this year to read/watch/play stuff. Weird!
If you grew up playing games in the late 90s and early 2000s like me, then congratulations, we have been overwhelmingly spoiled about how quickly games can evolve. During that time period, when developers were finally starting to get a handle on early 3D tech, each year brought *wildly* new experiences from AAA studios. Games at the time would look radically different from games even five years earlier. So, if you were a gaming enthusiast, or even just had a passing interest in the medium, you were in for radically new experiences pretty much every year.
The 2010s have…not been like that. Games from this generation look and play pretty similarly to games from last generation. There are still incredible games being released every year, and the indie scene is more vibrant and creative than it’s ever been, but we aren’t getting too many of these technologically innovative, genre-defining, titles on a year-by-year basis. And, to a certain extent, that’s okay. It’s not like every year we’re seeing formally and technically revolutionary works of film or literature, certainly in the consumer sphere. Once a medium reaches a certain level of technological maturity, technological creativity is less enticing. You already have the tools to do most of what you want.
But with games, a medium that is perhaps the most closely linked with new technology, it does feel slightly disappointing. While I’ll probably be playing new Bioware games until EA eventually shuts down the studio, I’m not looking for Mass Effect 5, I’m looking for an experience that evokes what it felt like to play Mass Effect for the first time. Figuring out what Mass Effect did well is pretty straightforward; figuring out how to recreate the experience of playing it for the first time is much more difficult. It relies on some level of technological and design-focused novelty.
So that’s what makes AI Dungeon 2, my favorite game of this year, so strange. Like Mass Effect 1, it’s a fairly janky experience, but in all other areas, from writing to visuals to tone, it is absolutely nothing like Mass Effect. But the novelty of its approach to narrative evoked how I felt playing Mass Effect for the first time. But, unlike Mass Effect, AI Dungeon…truly is unlike anything else I’ve ever played. It’s like playing Zork with a dying computer. It’s like playing D&D drunk with your friends. It’s like going to an improve comedy show that is heavy on audience participation. It’s…well, it’s like playing Mass Effect for the first time. All of these experiences gesture in the direction of AI Dungeon, but don’t fully capture it, because the game is so unique that it eludes comparison. And that, more than anything the game does in its own right, is what makes it so exciting to me. I am so excited, not just for this game itself, but for the genres of games that could be built around it. For the bits of its tech other genres could steal. Like playing season one of The Walking Dead, playing this made me imagine what others could do with this template. But as excited as I am for the future, I have loved my time just with what we have now.
So. Playing AI Dungeon made me feel like I was playing Mass Effect for the first time because it defined a new (or, at least, new to me) style of interactive narrative. What is that style? The style is the honestly unparalleled possibility space of the system. AI Dungeon’s machine learning model will respond uniquely to almost all player input, creating an experience that, for the player, is functionally infinite. Repetition does happen, but there are always new system states for the player to explore. As such, this is the closest a game has ever gotten to the “go anywhere, do anything” promise, but it’s worth acknowledging that that promise is often fickle. Sometimes, everything will click and the system responds perfectly to what the player writes. However, it’s very easy to break. Repeating lines, loops, crashes, or the system just not getting what you want it to do. For example, in a recent run my friends and I did, we were under attack from the CIA, so we called Bernie Sanders, who we had just made president, and asked him to abolish the CIA so the attacks would stop. We had to repeat the request multiple times with limited responses, and even after, the game didn’t understand in a systemic sense what the CIA was and that it was abolished. The narrative was mostly in our head. And this is where AI Dungeon actually does have a sort of progression curve, though it’s very different from those in other games. Instead of learning how the systems work and learning to conquer them, you’re learning how to work with the AI to generate the best stories. You learn what types of phrases to avoid, what types of requests the system is more comfortable with, and when to bail because it looks like you’re headed into a loop. These skills make AI Dungeon less a game in the traditional sense, with explicit win and lose states, but rather a collaborative storytelling platform. Your collaborators can include other human players, but the AI is your primary storytelling companion. And that’s pretty unusual for games. I keep pulling from comparisons outside the world of games, because video games are really bad at this type of loose storytelling. In the majority of games, everything has to be pre-programmed, so players never learn to think this creatively, they learn to figure out what the designer wants them to do. A system can only have so many states, right? So, in terms of pure storytelling structure, AI Dungeon isn’t much like Mass Effect at all, with its finite system states and limited reactivity. The experience I’ve had that’s closest to AI Dungeon is doing an improv comedy set with a partner without any prep time. You can’t pause the story and talk about where you want to go next, you’re both just flying by the seat of your pants, trying to signal to the other what to do, but mostly replying with, “Yes, and” to everything they say. As a result, AI Dungeon doesn’t really have win and lose states. You can die and get a game over screen, but that’s pretty rare and easily reversible. The game isn’t about winning, it’s about telling great stories. And that’s an approach to creativity I would love to see more of.
Going into a new decade, it’s tempting to wish for dozens of games using AI Dungeon’s model. But, right now, it simply isn’t profitable. It its current form, the game costs around $10,000 per day to run servers for. No one is going to be making money off that any time soon. But I would love to see games try this more expressive storytelling, because new technical improvements that primarily benefit storytelling are pretty rare in this medium, especially in the last two generations. The potential for new permutations is quite literally endless.
I realize that this is not a unique sentiment, but I was very into Spider-Man as a kid. I devoured the giant Essential Spider-Man books, fervently watched and rewatched each of the animated series, and bought every Spider-Man branded knicknack I could get my hands on. And this is an obsession I’ve mostly stuck with as I’ve grown older, because new Spider-Man content is always being released. When I got tired of the original Amazing Spider-Man run, I aged into watching the Sam Rami Movies. When those got…umm…bad…Amazing Spider-Man had gotten good again, and I read J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr.’s Volume 2, along with Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man. By high school and college, there was a new crop of Marc Webb Spider-Man movies of varying quality for me to dig into. And now there’s Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018)(wow, that’s a mouthful), something I’ve sunk a frankly excessive number of hours into since it’s launch back in September. So, when Stan Lee died a few weeks ago, I had a lot to think about in terms of how his most popular character has been such a consistent companion for me since childhood. Because, when playing Insomniac’s Spider-Man (I’m just going to call it that for the sake of convenience), I found myself consistently saying, “Wow, this is really good Spider-Man writing”, without having a solid definition for what good Spider-Man writing was. Still, having spent close to two decades with the character, I think my gut feeling is probably a good place to start. Fortunately, Insomniac’s Spider-Man is not only an accurate recreation of what I internally think of as Spider-Man, but a genuine expansion on the literary value of the character. Because, despite his pulpy roots as an adolescent power fantasy (and it very much still is that), Spider-Man has an inherently literary
quality that sets him apart from most other superheroes. In short, I have read/watched/played a lot of bad Spider-Man media, but even the worst ones, such as Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, cannot help but tap into the fundamental human truths that Spider-Man represents. Still, it takes a lot of effort to write Spider-Man in a way that that doesn’t just reference the literary value of the character, but actually expands upon it, and I think Insomniac’s Spider-Man has done that. Yes, its web swinging feels incredible, its combat is systemically deep, thematically appropriate, and flashy as hell, and yes its soundtrack feels as epic as any superhero score should, but I think the writing in the game is what really makes it stand out as a piece of Spider-Man media. So, in this piece, I want to dig into how Insomniac Games’ writes Spider-Man, explore a few other works that write Spider-Man similarly, and try to get to the heart of what makes good Spider-Man writing so compelling in the first place. In short, this is an an attempt at publicly defending the ungodly amount of time and money I’ve spent on this franchise.
Let’s start with tone, because this is something a lot of bad Spider-Man adaptations get very wrong. Compared to other superheroes, Spider-Man’s tone is a bit more complex, because there are many different takes on the character that writers can lean into. To list a few, there’s Spider-Man the low-budget engineer, Spider-Man the human being with real life obligations, Spider-Man the wise-cracking crime fighter, Spider-Man the dorky high school kid, and Spider-Man the high-budget scientist. Other writers have carved out their own side of Spider-Man, such as Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2’s take on Peter Parker as an earnest high school teacher, or Spider-Man as a monstrous spider, operating on animal instinct. So, while many Spider-Man stories feel formulaic, they have a lot of possible options to choose from when writing the character itself. However, despite these varied sides of the character, most good Spider-Man stories follow a very particular tone that carefully balances seriousness and levity. Go to far towards the levity and you get a kind of PG-Deadpool, mostly written for animated kid’s shows. Go too far towards the serious and you get…well, everything written in the 90s. Going too far in either direction breaks the character, and good Spider-Man writers know how to balance both. As far as humor goes, something a lot of writers don’t seem to get is that Spider-Man is not Deadpool. Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films fall into this trap the most. That Spider-Man is making quips non-stop, and they feel distinctly mean-spirited in a way that most other Spider-Man writing doesn’t. Because, Spider-Man is a dork. He’s making bad jokes at criminals because he genuinely finds them funny; it’s not done out of malice. Fortunately, Insomniac’s Spider-Man follows this mold. In a very important distinction, Spider-Man is cracking jokes to himself, not to the people he’s beating up. And, also in keeping with other good Spider-Man writing, these joke are horrible. I cringe at at least half of them! My favorite one takes place during the Turf Wars DLC where Spider-Man, quietly talking to himself, comes up with a punny name for a variant of enemy tank, laughs at his joke, then repeats it louder for the bad guys to hear. And they make fun of him for it! Bad guys making fun of Spider-Man for his bad jokes is a perfect encapsulation of Spider-Man’s humor.
However, the game is not all light-hearted, and knows when to hit some serious beats. It’s main plot centers around honest-to-god terrorists invading the city, and a militarized police force sent in to combat them. These are much more explicitly political issues than most Spider-Man writing usually deals with, as most of the franchise’s writers’ attempts to engage with explicitly political issues are goodhearted, but often sloppy. Insomniac’s Spider-Man, meanwhile, seems to avoid commenting on the issues directly. It says that terrorism is bad and scary, that the militarized police force is bad an overextends its reach, but the NYPD are paragons of virtue. This is a…troubling narrative, and flies in the face of Spider-Man’s history being consistently at odds with the NYPD. In this game, he is functionally a special forces freelancer; the game even opens with him going on a SWAT raid. Avoiding discussion of politics when your enemies are dudes in wacky costumes is one thing, but refusing to acknowledge the political messages when engaging with real-world organizations with sweeping systemic problems is quite another. The game wants to stick to its simple message that egomaniacal plutocrats are screwing over honest, hard-working New Yorkers, and I can respect that. But by uncritically including the NYPD in its “us”, I think it inadvertently steps over a political line it wasn’t intending to cross.
However, the rest of the game’s more serious beats are much more competently executed. The general setting of the story pulls heavily from Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2, leaning into the “Spider-Man as a real human being with real life obligations” side of the character. Peter’s juggling paying rent and managing relationships with crime fighting and an actual career in science. This is pretty commonly stated as the aspect of Spider-Man that makes him compelling as a character, and I absolutely agree. Spider-Man was created to appeal to teenagers reading comic books, and shares many of the troubles and experiences that they do. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne own skyscrapers and mansions, but Peter Parker gets evicted from his apartment in the first few hours of the game. This is, from a writing perspective, what makes the character so malleable and consistently interesting. The character’s foundation involves him struggling with real-world issues, and this is something most superheroes just don’t do. Spider-Man may be just as much of a power fantasy as Batman or Captain America, but it’s not just a power fantasy, because it’s contrasted against conventional character writing. I think this dichotomy is highlighted in the game’s best scene, where Peter swings and wall crawls through the city while talking to Mary Jane after a dinner that may have been a date, but neither of them are quite sure. It’s not really clear, and that’s the dramatic linchpin of the scene. Both of them are trying to figure out exactly what they’re doing with their relationship, and are both really bad at communicating. If this scene were written in a non-superhero film, it might have Peter pacing around his apartment, but, “someone paces around their apartment while texting” is not exactly the most cinematic of setups. But, when that awkward pacing is up the side of a building instead of in an apartment, that gets a lot more cinematicallyinteresting. It allows the animators to exaggerate smaller gestures into more obviously readable ones. Want to show Peter getting uncomfortable? Just have him awkwardly swing to another building. This contrast of the grounded and real with the dramatic and exaggerated is a perfect encapsulation of Spider-Man as a character, because it sends the message that even superpowers cannot save you from reality. And that is strangely comforting.
Like most good Spider-Man writing, this game is centered around just a few core characters, in this case, Mary Jane, Aunt May, and Doc Ock. Each of these relationships is written wonderfully, reaching the core of the character from the comics, while adding additional depth. Peter’s relationship with Aunt May is, I think, the most transformative. There have been a few interesting takes on Aunt May in the past, though most of them fairly limited. In the original run of Amazing, she really only existed as someone to worry about Peter, and for the occasional story where she found out he was Spider-Man. She cared about Peter, and Peter cared about her, but it was never especially deep. The best take on the classic version of the character I have see is in Straczynski and Romita Jr.’s Amazing Spider-Man Vol 2. run, where
This is probably the best Spider-Man comic?
Aunt May discovers that Peter is Spider-Man (for what must be the fifth time), and they spend a few issues talking about it, processing it, working to establish a new relationship with that knowledge in mind. It felt incredibly realistic in the tone of its writing, contrasting the bombastic web-swinging art on the cover of the comic, with the twenty-odd pages of two people just talking about trust and family. Aunt May’s is still the strong old woman who has had to deal with a lot of pain in her life, but they lean into that depth a lot more than previous writers had. Bendis and Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man iterates on this approach, with Ben and May being written as an old hippie couple. Where the May in Amazing Spider-Man felt fragile and troubled, Ultimate’s May is no less troubled, but is fiery where Amazing’s is frail. Amazing’s May would worry about Peter, Ultimate’s May will yell at him when he’s being stupid. I really like this take on the character, as it creates a more explicitly hostile but no less tender relationship between Peter and May. Because, from May’s perspective, Peter has become a flaky and moody teenager since Ben’s death. It looks to her like he’s spiraling. But, she is also dealing with her own grief over losing her husband, and genuinely feels like she has no idea how to raise this angsty teen on her own. Ultimate’s May is more directly empathetic than Amazing’s; the reader is given the ability to relate more directly to her struggles. I find both takes on the character to be interesting, but neither entirely define where Insomniac went with the character.
The most notable thing about Peter and May’s relationship in Insomniac’s Spider-Man is just how many people I’ve heard comment on how good it is. Aunt May is rarely the focus of the drama in any given Spider-Man story, and in this one, she is still mostly in the background, but the story beats that do happen with her feel more substantial. The player gets a real sense of the history between them, feels Peter’s overwhelming gratitude for what she’s done for him, and just how much the two of them have been through together. This is something that requires writing Peter as a little bit older, when he’s lost the rebellious teenager personality, so the relationship has gotten more mature. But in a really obvious bit of characterization, Aunt May exists as a character outside of Peter. In Amazing and even in Ultimate, it’s never mentioned if she has hobbies or even a job (Note: Ultimate’s May has a job, but I have yet to find out what it actually is). She exists purely in relation to Peter. But in Insomniac’s, she basically runs a homeless shelter on her own, she tries to help out Miles when he’s dealing with the death of his father, and she is close to one of the game’s main antagonists. You start to see Peter’s overworking of himself not as something particular to him, but as a family trait. At one point, Peter says that, after trauma, it helps him to stay busy, and given the amount of trauma Peter and May have had to go through, it makes sense that they always seem to stay busy. So, while May’s relationship with Peter is still important to the story we see, it’s not her only or even her defining characteristic. And this a good segue into how the game treats Mary Jane.
Mary Jane is a…hard character to write well. The early comics never really gave her any defining characteristics other than, “She’s hot.” Which, aside from being a deeply problematic way to write one of the main characters in your canon, is also a really difficult starting point for new writers. Other major characteristics include “she likes Peter” and “she has red hair,” (and the new movies don’t even do that!) which doesn’t really help you much. So, pretty much any author that tries to write Mary Jane in any other than voyeuristic (which is, frustratingly, the route that most writers seem to take) certainly has their work cut out for them. One advantage of this is that
Pictured: A very normal way to draw fifteen-year-olds
writers can pretty much do whatever they want with the character. Ultimate writes Mary Jane as a childhood friend of Peter’s who is actually kind of a geek (though still uncomfortably sexualized for a FREAKING FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD). She, again, has actual interests and personal problems going on outside Peter. When Peter acts like a stupid fifteen-year-old boy and claims to be entitled to her affections, she shuts that shit down. But…ultimately (pun intended) Bendis’ take on the character only progresses her so much from her roots. Her main hobby is sewing Peter’s many costumes. She is still, consistently, drawn to be gawked at by the presumably straight dudes reading the comic. There’s some more depth there, but it has its limits. It does include the one bit of depth Mary Jane’s character did have from the early Amazing comics, which is her abusive father, but…it feels kind of trite. The writers don’t really have anything to say about abusive homes, it doesn’t feel authentic to people’s lived experience, and it mostly just serves as an easy source of drama.
This is an area where some Amazingruns actually surpass Ultimate in character writing, because it does eventually have some actual depth for Mary Jane. Over the early 2000s of Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2’s run, Mary Jane is slowly transformed into an interesting character. Straczynski and Romita Jr. create a backstory that tries to explain why she was written as such a shallow character, and how she can grow from it. In what is mostly a retcon, they cast her shallow and carefree aspects the early comics as a defense mechanism for her broken home life, to deny the shitty reality she had to go home to. And…okay, that’s not a bad take on the character. It explains her earlier actions, and lets them transition the character her into a more interesting one as she learns to process her past trauma and start to grow past it. Throughout the early 2000s, Mary Jane takes her modeling career (which only ever existed so the artists had more excuses to draw more panels of MJ being hot), and tries to transition into acting. She struggles with being typecast as a model in early movies, but eventually transitions to a successful stage acting career, and there are a few legitimately insightful scenes where she talks about how she acts by channeling past experiences. So, basically, Mary Jane becomes a method actor. This leads to some genuinely good character beats between her and Peter as well, as their struggling marriage is approached with some actual depth, genuinely exploring how a regular human being would feel if they were married to a superhero. She feels unimportant, like she can’t be involved in the most important parts of Peter’s life, and she is always worried that there is something he’s hiding from her. These are realistic approaches to fantastical problems, and I found them immensely personally understandable. So, despite the many missteps previous writers have taken with the character, there were a few solid examples that Insomniac had to pull from to start writing their own Mary Jane.
They ignored all of them. And the game is much better for it. Insomniac’s Mary Jane is pretty distinct from all previous incarnations of the character. I suppose in visual design and some of the vocal performance, she lightly resembles Kirsten Dunst’s mostly forgettable portrayal of the character, but the resemblance ends there. They don’t pull from Amazing’s characterization of her messy family history (aside from a single throwaway line), her acting career, or her modeling career. They don’t pull from Ultimate’s characterization of her as a geeky childhood friend. They basically just write a new character, have her date Peter, and give her red hair. And even though there are some aspects of previous Mary Jane iterations I found interesting, I think this was the right decision. Their new character is an investigative reporter, she’s working on the same cases Peter is, she’s not just there to be saved by Peter (though that does still happen). This is strange, considering game director Bryan Intihar said that, they created Mary Jane by “deciding what we wanted from Peter and his journey. Mary Jane’s role came as a result of that, to balance everything out.” If that was their goal, they definitely failed at it, because Mary Jane seems to exist as an independent actor in the world. Yes, she works with Peter, but she’s doing her own thing most of the time. Their relationship is played very straight, just a realistic, messy, twenty-something relationship. Oh, and the game never visually objectifies her, which…is something I don’t think any Spider-Man media has done before? She’s still Hollywood actress-level attractive, and there’s still sexual tension between her and Peter, but it’s, again, played realistically. She does not exist for dudes to gawk at. So, when the game takes their relationship seriously it’s easy for the player to get invested in the back-and-forth of their relationship.
This isn’t to say that the game is entirely sexless. Black Cat is in it, after all. And, the way the game wrote Black Cat was ultimately what convinced me to write this piece, because, I think a good rule for Spider-Man writing is, if they know how to write Black Cat, they know how to write Spider-Man. Black Cat is a (not at all Catwoman-inspired) antihero who Spider-Man alternatively fights and flirts with. They date for a bit, they hook up, she steals something, Spider-Man chases her, she gets away, repeat. This is a fun dynamic to write, because it has clear rules and conflict: Black Cat will always go back to her life of crime, and Spider-Man will always try to get her to go straight. This means the end of any Black Cat story will already be known to the reader, so good Black Cat writing is just about having fun along the way. Unfortunately, most writers interpret “having fun” as drawing multiple, incredibly detailed panels of Black Cat looking hot. And having her shamelessly flirt with Spider-Man.
I know this is bad, but this is genuinely hilarious to me
The best Spider-Man writers will use this as an opportunity to just write some fun superhero banter. My personal favorite take on the character an arc in Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 where the two of them team up to take down some big bad. They are crawling through some abandon warehouse preparing to attack some henchmen, get distracted, and have sex in the air vents. I laughed out loud the first time I read that. Because it is probably the best superfriends-with-benefits writing I’ve ever read. The problem with the character, however, is that even the best writers fall into the trappings of the bad ones. So, with Insomniac’s Spider-Man being a video game, I was worried that this would be taken to another level of creepy pandering. If Black Cat flirts consistently with Spider-Man in the comics, then in the games, where the player is Spider-Man, this could get borderline masturbatory. Fortunately, they don’t do that, and just have fun with it. Banter between Spider-Man and Black Cat is consistently hilarious, with Cat taunting Spider-Man and him reacting as uncomfortably as you would expect. There’s a consistent back and forth (I refuse to write cat and mouse) between the two of them, and they consistently reference their years of history together. They know each other; they’ve been through this before. It’s a great example of the game taking something that worked in the comics, and removing much of its less effective aspects.
How the game writes Doc Ock, however, is an example of taking something that never worked in the comics and turning in into something that absolutely does. One of the biggest problems with Spider-Man writing is that his villains are usually pretty boring. Doc Ock is perhaps the greatest example of this. Best I can tell, he has only been written well once. ONCE. One of the best-known Spider-Man villains and his only interesting story arc is in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2 (I like to pretend Superior Spider-Man never happened). In the comics, he is just an angry science dude with a bad haircut who makes some robot arms. They have him try to marry Aunt May one time. That’s about the only interesting thing he’s ever done (again, Superior Spider-Man never happened). So, the Insomniac writers looked to that one time he was written well. In Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock is a sympathetic scientist who takes on a mentor role to Peter before being turned evil by his robot arms. And, okay, that’s an interesting start, certainly more than his comic iterations. But Insomniac takes that foundation and goes much further with it. Where Spider-Man 2 didn’t have the time to develop the mentor relationship, Insomniac can spend the majority of the game developing it. So, as Doc Ock slowly slides towards super-villainy, it can be both more believable and emotionally complex for the player. While his transition to super-villain is definitely too abrupt, the complexity behind the shift remains intact. Peter treats him as a father figure, and that doesn’t feel trite, because the player spends most of the game working with Octavius and feeling sympathetic for him. While the wholesale murder of an entire city is a slightly extreme reaction, the player can, at the very least, understand why Octavius is doing it. And that is because of the real villain of the game, Norman Osborne.
I said earlier that Spider-Man villains are boring, but Norman Osborne is one of the few exceptions to that. He is Spider-Man’s most famous villain, and as a result, has been adapted several times. Willem Dafoe’s portrayal in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man might be the best known, and went for a fairly goofy take on the character that fits with Rami’s other work. But the basic idea of a genius billionaire who experiments on himself and goes “insane” is still present. Other adaptations lean pretty hard into the “insanity”, which is lazy and problematic for a dozen reasons, and simplifies what could be a complicated take on real mental health issues into an excuse to make him act weird. Ultimate Spider-Man’s take on the character is probably the most tonally consistent, and it exchanges the mental health metaphors for an addiction/alcoholism one. Despite being an egomaniacal sadist (and not the hot kind), Ultimate’s Norman is a relatively mentally stable person. He’s not coded as having dissociative identity disorder, and while he does hear voices, they’re portrayed as the side effects of the drugs he’s taking, rather than an inborn mental health issue. Ultimate’s Norman is addicted to Oz, his genetic engineering goop that drives most of the superpowers in the comic. This isn’t exactly a progressive take on the subject matter, but it is, at the very least, less regressive. Ahh, my standards for comic book writing.
Insomniac’s Norman, however…never actually becomes the Green Goblin in this game, though they tease the hell out of it. He’s deep into genetic research, trying to cure a genetic disease lifted from, of all things, the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man movies. His son Harry is dying from the disease, and most of Norman’s foyers into more gobliney science seem to be driven by that. The game even ends with a tease that Harry’s disease and Norman’s attempts to cure him have turned Harry into the goblin. Either way, the game is setting up a hell of a sequel. But Norman himself is an interesting character, even without his goblin-focused pursuits. Going off of the pre-release media, a lot of fans, myself included, thought they were setting up Norman as a sort of Donald Trump analog. And, even having played the final product, that isn’t too far off. While it’s The Kingpin of Crime’s Fisk Tower that defiantly occupies Trump Tower’s Fifth Avenue local in the game’s New York City, Norman is the more obvious Trump stand-in. His general character design, mannerisms, and speech patterns at least gesture in the direction of our esteemed president, but it’s his role as both a sleazy New York CEO and the mayor of the city (a conflict of interest that is barely even acknowledged by the game’s characters) are the most explicit comparisons. While the game doesn’t lean too hard on the comparison, writing a Trump analog who is so villainous that his awarding of lucrative city business deals to his own company is his least damning trait is a fair critique. So, the comparison feels present, but not heavy-handed; Norman has Trump-like elements, but is not just Trump with his name changed. At least Norman never turns to the camera and says “Make New York Great Again”.
So, the game has all the written elements for a great Spider-Man movie, or maybe limited series. How do they turn that into a video game? Well, the obvious elements, like web-swinging and combat, have already been deconstructed and explored by a lot of really smart critics, so I want to focus on something I haven’t seen talked about as much: the game’s structure. Spider-Man is an open world game, closer to Assassin’s Creed than Skyrim, and this tends to make thematically-relevant pacing difficult. Usually, the story of Ubisoft-style open-world games doesn’t meaningfully address the order the player is doing things. Assassin’s Creed used its computer simulation framing device to state that, in the game’s actual alternate history, Ezio and Altaïr probably were not living these events out in the exact order that the player did. And this works for the type of gaming Ubisoft was trying to make, but not so
This shot is *so* on the nose, but I love it
much for Spider-Man. Fortunately, the developers use this open world framework to tap into some fundamentally Spider-Man characteristics. Essentially, Spider-Man is always stretched for time. He’s always late to everything, every part of his life is always just about to fall apart, and he never has time to just relax for a little. The structuring of the Ubisoft open world game, then, fits this perfectly. I’ve complained before about open world titles spattering activity icons all over the player’s map, because they feel like a list of chores, but in a Spider-Man game, that is exactly how they should feel. Spider-Man has so much to do and not enough time to do it. So, constantly having to jump from activity to activity feels perfectly in-character. There is a point, probably near the end of the game depending on the player, where they have completed nearly everything in the game, and then genuinely can just swing around the city and relax. That does feel out of character, but since the game can’t generate infinite content, it’s a character break I’m willing to accept.
Additionally, the plot structuring of the game fits into this format as well. Unlike most open-world games, Spider-Man takes place over just a few, concretely-defined days, starting with Peter waking up and ending with him finding a place to sleep. Before the main plot even really kicks into gear, we see a full day of Peter’s life, taking place over a few hours of gameplay. The player takes down the Kingpin, goes to work, meets up with Aunt May, has an awkward encounter with Mary Jane, and stops random crimes throughout the city. This feels like a day in the life of Spider-Man, and the rushed pace makes the player feel like they are experiencing that day the way Spider-Man would. Each of the individual beats work well on their own, but this structuring makes the experiencing of each individual beat stronger. When Spider-Man says he’s overwhelmed and rushed, the player feels that, because they are overwhelmed and rushed. This is something unique I think games can add to the Spider-Man canon, to expand upon the characterization of a well-trodden aspect of a character that has been adapted dozens of times. One beat I particularly like in the game is when, after completing a few story missions in a row, Spider-Man will say something along the lines of, “Okay, that was a lot, but I’ve been neglecting the city, time to relax and go on patrol.” Functionally, it is the game telling the player to take a break from the story and do side missions. I love when open world games do this, but this particular example accomplishes that same functional purpose while communicating something important about Spider-Man to the player: he can never really focus too much on any one aspect of his life.
This, I think, is the most valuable literary contribution of Spider-Man. In all its mediums, the franchise has tried to explore the idea of a super hero that is overwhelmed with real-life obligations, just like everyone who reads his comics, watches his movies, and plays his games. This is the very personal value I have gotten from the franchise, and why I have found it so compelling for so long. Because despite being about a dude in spider-themed spandex who punches a wide variety of people in other animal-themed spandex, Spider-Man feels profoundly grounded. The comics, films, and now games are consistently committed to exploring this on-the-ground take of a character’s life, to see what being overwhelmed with conflicting obligations does to a person, and how they can deal with it. One of the weaknesses of serialized content is that the state of the world rarely significantly changes over its many installments, but this is a strength for Spider-Man. One of the rules of his character is that he will never solve his problems; he will never figure out a perfect life balance. His relationship with MJ will always have issues. Aunt May will always be worrying about him. He will always struggle to pay rent. There will always be super-powered dudes in equally ridiculous-looking spandex trying to punch him real hard in the face. This does mean that any particularly dramatic arc will most likely be reversed (Aunt May will not die, Peter and MJ will never break up for good, Peter will never quit being Spider-Man). But it also means that the character and the audience spend their time sitting with that inevitability. When discussing the themes of Spider-Man, the phrase that so often comes up is, “With great power must also come great responsibility,” and this is a wonderful lesson. But I think an often-neglected thematic contribution of Spider-Man is the capital-T-Truth that you will never have enough time to fulfill all of your responsibilities completely. And that can be okay. There have been a lot of Spider-Man games released in the past four decades. Some of them have been fun; most of them have been crap. The best of them have really captured the physical feeling of swinging around New York City. But, until this point, none of them have captured this particular aspect of Spider-Man, and this game has not only captured it, but contributed to it; evolved it. I think that’s pretty cool.
My favorite thing about Subnautica (2018) is that it is full of mysteries, from the backstory of the watery planet you crash land on, to the unique mechanics sets you discover, to the unmapped and objective marker-free world. But the biggest mystery in Subnautica for me personally has been figuring out exactly how it evokes and maintains its sense of wonder. This has been my biggest barrier to writing about Subnautica, despite having played it for almost two years now. *Something* about Subnautica makes me play and experience it differently from other games, even other games in its same survival-crafting-Minecraftlike genre. I’ve played many games with a mystery-focused plot, but on repeat playthroughs that mystery is gone, because I already know the answer to the mystery. I’ve played many games with fascinating systems to dig into, but on repeat playthroughs that mystery is gone, because I already know how they work. When recently starting my third playthrough of Subnautica, I was surprised to find that the sense of mystery was still present, even though I knew all the secrets of the game’s lore and the intricate details of its systems. But what made that feeling linger? On a metatextual level, I enjoy that Subnautica had one last mystery for me to solve, and I hope that, through this essay, I can do that, because exploring Subnautica’s various mysteries has been one of my most engaging gaming experiences of the past two years.
Before I continue, I do want to give a spoiler warning of sorts. Being a game all about mystery, Subnautica’s experience is cheapened, though not ruined, if you lose the experience of discovering it for yourself. Even seeing screenshots of late game areas or learning about late-game craftables can take away from the exhilaration of seeing something for yourself for the first time. I avoided wiki pages, trailers, and even other reviews of the game until I had finished it, simply because that particular rush of discovery is Subnautica’s emotional core. If you have no intention of playing Subnautiuca, and due to the intense thalassophobia it evokes, I can absolutely understand that, feel free to read on. But if anything I’ve said piques your interest, I highly recommend you pick it up on your digital platform of choice and enjoy some of the most wonder-provoking experiences gaming has to offer. So, with that out of the way, let’s dive in! (That is the last ocean-related pun I’ll make in this essay, I promise).
The opening of Subnautica is an abrupt one. The player violently crashes on the surface of a planet; they’re confused, the don’t have much narrative context, and they’re surrounded by a world that feels truly alien. So, the first type of mystery they uncover is not a narrative one, but a systemic one. The player is given a set of survival systems that they’ve probably encountered in other games before: find food, find water. The early
I destroyed at least three of these by bad driving alone
bits of this are fairly straightforward as the player gets acquainted with their environment, gets comfortable with the game’s elegantly designed underwater control scheme, and starts to dip their toes into the game’s crafting system to synthesize food and water. From here, the game reveals its complexity slowly, and ramps it up just as the player is getting comfortable. The game has three primary systems for the player to deal with: crafting blueprints, oxygen management, and environmental interaction. Each of these are emphasized to different degrees throughout the game. The opening strongly emphasizes oxygen management and moderately emphasizes crafting blueprints, but doesn’t emphasize environmental interaction much. The mid game is all about crafting blueprints, with a moderate emphasis on oxygen management and environmental interaction. Meanwhile, the end game almost entirely foregos oxygen management (and, in fact, all survival elements), with a slight emphasis on crafting blueprints, and an intense, maybe too intense, emphasis on environmental interaction. So, how do each of these systems pique the player’s curiosity?
Let’s start with oxygen management. This system exists to some extent in other games, but Subnautica emphasizes it much more than other titles on the market, so new players will probably be less immediately comfortable with it. The player starts with 45 seconds of oxygen, refillable by swimming to the surface or entering a player base or ship, but it is later upgraded to 75 by the mid-game, and can be optionally upgraded to 225 by the end game. But simply changing these numbers has a massive impact on how the player interacts with the system. In the early game, it prevents them from spending too much time under water, and since the majority of the game world is set under water, it makes any interaction with the ocean floor feel risky. Exploring a wreck, gathering resources, and hunting fish all feel more tense when the player can only do it for 10 more seconds before swimming to the surface. It also leads to moments where the player sees something new and exciting, but has to quickly duck back to the surface for some oxygen before they can explore it, increasing their anticipation for when they return. However, as later game areas become more complex, this system would start to get cumbersome, so the devs wisely deemphasized it with greater and greater player oxygen capacities as the game continues, and portable oxygen reserves in the form of vehicles. It helps add to the pacing and tension of early environments in the early game, and then quietly exits when it is no longer necessary.
Importantly, the player’s ability to upgrade their way out of the system is done organically, through the game’s tech tree. Subnautica’s tech tree is the mechanical system that perhaps contributes the most to its systemic exploration, because it consistently creates moments of anticipation. The player unlocks new blueprints by finding a hunk of wrecked technology and scanning it, but they usually need 2-4 wrecks to unlock each blueprint, and those wrecks are scattered throughout the game world. The use of the blueprinted item is teased in item descriptions, giving the player some delayed gratification when they finally craft it. The blueprints themselves will often reference resources the player has not found yet, creating a rush of excitement when they finally find the final resource in a complicated blueprint. The result is a system that absolutely follows the tech tree conventions of traditional crafting system, but is done diegetically, which can prevent the player from being aware of how gamey its systems are. And this diegetic reframing of classically abstracted game elements is one of Subnautica’s greatest strengths. The blueprint system is just a crafting tech tree, the crashed lifepod signal locations are just map markers, the cyclops’ scanner is just a minimap. But because of how the game frames these elements, the player mentally models them as more complex than they often are. Games critic Joseph Anderson said that, “It seems like the devs wanted you to feel that, if you took your helmet off, those HUD markers would disappear”. That extra layer of authenticity takes what would be mundane features and uses them to enhance the player’s explorative excitement. Exploration feels more real when the player believes the tools with which they explore are real as well.
That isn’t to say there is no added depth to the systems, or that it is all smoke and mirrors. The map marker system might just be a standard HUD map marker, but the player can craft buoys to place their own markers. The crafting system may just be a gated tech tree, but the player can choose which branches of the tree to explore, ignoring some entirely. Part of what has made my repeat playthroughs so exciting is that I get to dig into systems I had missed on previous playthroughs. The majority of the blueprints the player finds are optional, cool things they can dig into if they want to, not hard, mechanical requirements the game is forcing on them. And the simple fact that these blueprints aren’t revealed from the start adds so much to the thrill of discovering them.
This principle is carried over into environmental interaction just as strongly, though it is one of Subnautica’s less refined systems. Early game environments are genuinely interesting to explore, with new features such as oxygen-restoring brain coral, or hidden predators that rush the player. They make the environment feel dynamic and fully realized in a way most survival games simply do not. Each object in the world can be scanned by the player, and most likely plays into some greater system. Stalkers grab hunks of metal, dropping a tooth the player can use for crafting, and hoarding the metal hunks in their nest. Sea treaders kick up large resource deposits as they walk along the ocean floor. Some rocks have strange, organic objects attached to them that cause them to float, and the player can take those objects and use them to make any other physics-enabled object float. Unfortunately, in the late game areas, this environmental interaction seems to decrease. These areas are much larger and less finely detailed. An area that might take a player ten minutes to fully explore, scan, and loot in the early game might be cruised over in a matter of seconds in the late game. This is partially because of how much the player’s speed has increased by the end game, but it does also seem like a deliberate choice on the part of the designers. Many of the late game environments do look genuinely impressive, but feel systemically more empty.
While some of the late game environments might be lacking in detail, exploring Subnautica’s world and uncovering its secrets is its greatest pleasure. In keeping with its commitment to diegetic user interfaces, there is no map screen in game. And, after playing the game through three times, I am convinced that this is the single most important creative decision the designers made. It encourages the player to interact with the world directly, in three full dimensions, not via a map screen. Over-emphasis on minimaps is a trap many contemporary games fall into, and an interesting thought experiment to highlight this is 1998’s Metal Gear Solid. Metal Gear Solid is a soft 3D remake of its predecessor, the 2D game Metal Gear (1987). What makes this interesting for our purposes is that, if you removed the 3D viewport from Metal Gear Solid, and just looked at the game’s soliton radar minimap, it would play almost identically to the 2D Metal Gear. This is forgivable for Metal Gear Solid, an early 3D game, but many contemporary games can still be played surprisingly well just by looking at this minimap. Because 2D maps are more easily readable than 3D environments, this can encourage the player to just look at their minimap, pulling them out of the 3D world. To avoid this problem, Subnautica does away with the map entirely. This means the player has to get more familiar with the landscape itself, and navigate it accordingly. The player’s vision can’t be drawn to a mini map in the corner, it has to be figuring out how the environment itself works. Additionally, because Subnautica is set underwater, traditional 2D maps might not work as well, since the player has to navigate complex, vertically-oriented cave structures. The combination of complex environments that emphasize 3D navigation and the lack of any sort of mapping system to mitigate that complexity makes navigation in Subnautica a very intentional and involved process, which is surprisingly unusual in contemporary games. The player puts effort into navigating winding caves, avoiding ambushing predators, and ducking back to the surface or their vehicle for oxygen. I’ve said this before, but making traversal engaging is perhaps the most important factor for making open world games interesting over their long runtimes, and Subnautica does this by consistently forcing the player to interact with it in ways they aren’t used to.
This mapless system dovetails well with the utterly alien quality of the world itself, both in visuals and in systems. By playthrough three, I know the environment well enough that this effect has faded a bit, but during my first two playthroughs, I was completely enthralled with the environments. The were gorgeous and strange, filled with bioluminescent and oddly shaped organic matter, packed with strange sounds from off in the distance, like the groan of a far-off whale-like creature or the cackling of a nearby predator. This further encourages the player to explore, by scanning everything in sight, finding out where those sounds are coming from, and learning what each of those creatures do. While the beginning of the game leaves the player confused and in awe, by
This is a map mod that exists and I hate it
the end, they genuinely feel like a scientist and explorer. They know what every sound means, how every predator hunts, which of the plants are useful, and which of the fish are difficult to catch. The fact that the starting area alone is packed with this much mystery encourages them to explore further. Maybe they’ve gotten comfortable in the Safe Shallows zone, but soon their radio picks up messages from crashed survivors, drawing them further away from their comfort zone and helping them find new blueprints. This is further enhanced by the game’s one major landmark: the Aurora itself. From the moment the player gains control, they see the wreck of the Aurora far off in the distance, knowing that they will be able to explore it at some point. It’s a tease for something later, building up that anticipation. I think this accomplishes what is perhaps the most important part of exploration-focused games: making the player feel that there is something out there worth finding. This was one of my issues with 2017’s Breath of the Wild, where the mechanics of exploration themselves were executed to near perfection, with new ways of exploring environments by climbing or gliding or shield surfing. But, after a few hours, I started feeling that there wasn’t anything worth finding. Nearly every discovery would lead to a korok seed or shrine, which made it eventually feel closer to checking things off of a list rather than genuinely following my own wanderlust. But Subnautica wants to create a feeling of braving the unknown, and in order to do that, it has to have something out there that is genuinely unknown. Even by the end game, it continues to do this wonderfully.
This is not to say that the player can explore freely with no limits. Early on especially, the player is limited by easy access to food and water. Furthermore, the depth of certain areas might not allow for exploration with the amount of oxygen the player has, or they might hit the hard limit of crush depth. Crush depth is one of the only linear upgrades in the game, where the player’s vehicles cannot descend below a certain depth without breaking. The player needs to craft expensive depth modules to allow them to go deeper. I initially wasn’t a fan of this more artificial upgrade system, but I think it does work well to gate the player from certain areas and build anticipation for reaching them. Some of my favorite moments in Subnautica include stumbling upon new areas that I didn’t know existed, even on later playthroughs, and knowing that I couldn’t go there just yet because of limits. These are accompanied by these dramatic, terror-inspiring drop offs. Usually, this particular track on the soundtrack kicks in right as the player is staring down the drop off, Original Inhabitants, filled with unsettling choral tones. I’ll be
Finding Nemo (2003) really does this best
completely honest, this moment TERRIFIES me. During my most recent playthrough, I tried to play the game in VR, but staring over the edge of one of these underwater cliffs was the moment, I said, “Screw it”, and switched back to the non-VR version. Subnautica is brilliant at capturing both the beauty and the terror of the ocean, and as someone who is absolutely petrified by any large body of water, these are moments where that terror hits its peak.
But eventually, the player crafts the resources to go back and explore these areas, and the terror must be confronted. I love the setup phase for these expeditions, as you have to pack up food and resources, top off your batteries and ship fuel, then set sail into the unknown. And these later game areas really do feel different from the earlier ones. The intense god rays streaming down from the surface and friendly, bioluminescent creatures from the starting zones give way to pitch black environments with more predators, more pressure, and less oxygen. You interact with these environments differently, staying close to your ship in case a predator swims by. The Blood Kelp Zone and Grand Reef are my personal favorites, and evoke the very specific kind of terror of looking back up towards the surface of the ocean and seeing only blackness. At this point in the game, interactions with the game’s leviathan-class predators becomes more common. And goddamn, are they terrifying. The Reaper Leviathan is the first leviathan-
Yeah, I lost that ship
class predator the player is likely to encounter, probably the ones swimming around the Aurora crash zone. In pictures, they look kind of goofy, but in game, few creatures can evoke its specific brand of shear panic. It’s first encountered far off in the distance, where the player might just barely see its silhouette or catch a brief glimpse of it. For me, this is the most terrifying part. Wondering if you actually saw a reaper, or if it was just a trick of the light, wondering if it’s headed in your direction, if you have time to get away…this is Subnautica’s horror at its finest. Actual interaction with the Reapers is fairly simple. If you get too close, they’ll make chase and attack your seamoth, and if you’re unlucky enough to be caught outside of your ship with it finds you, well, that’s game over. So, not the most mechanically interesting enemy in gaming, but absolutely one of the more emotionally interesting ones. End-game areas are filled with Reapers and the even more deadly Ghost Leviathan. Avoiding them is an absolute treat when playing in the Seamoth, but unfortunately, it becomes less interesting by the true endgame, which…is definitely Subnautica’s weakest moment.
The late game begins when the player crafts the Cyclops submarine. The actual process of doing this is incredibly exciting, and finally gathering all the parts to construct it feels like a towering achievement within the hostile game world. Boarding the sub, realizing you have complete control over this massive vehicle, can use it to go to depths you could never reach before, is legitimately exhilarating. But the player’s actual experience of the sub is…mixed, to say the least. Firstly, it is *incredibly* easy to get the sub stuck on the environment. It has four exterior cameras that help with this navigation, but moving around the safe shallows where most players set up their base is a good way to get it permanently stuck. Additionally, the sub is primarily used to navigate the extended underground zones of the Lost River and various lava-filled zones. These environments are entered through winding caves that are easy to navigate when the player is swimming alone or zipping along in their tiny seamoth, but with something the size of the cyclops, it never feels quite right. I absolutely understand what they were trying to do with the cyclops experience, it just feels untested and unfinished in a way other aspects of the game really don’t. It feels like it needed a few more months of dev time to smooth out the cyclops movement, maybe decrease its size or increase the size of the cave entrances in the Lost River, maybe improve the FOV from the cyclops window…there are a lot of potential solutions, but they clearly didn’t have the time or budget to iterate on them. The end result is an experience with a lot of good ideas, most of them poorly executed. The idea of distracting large predators by firing out a decoy is a unique idea that delivers on the premise of the game, but the large predators are so non-threatening that it’s rarely worth the hassle. The predator attacks are genuinely terrifying, with the player safely inside their ship, but hearing the giant beast outside. But, after the player realizes that they can just run away, they become more annoying than tense. The sonar system is a legitimately fascinating idea for how to explore dark environments. But it drains 1% of the ship’s energy per tick, meaning it is better used as an occasional aid than a viable navigational alternative. There are a lot of ideas to love about the cyclops mechanics, but the whole of the experiences feels much messier than the rest of the game.
To close this section out, I want to pose one more criticism of the game’s exploration systems, and propose a potential solution. I don’t usually do this, because inventing mechanics on my own is cheap when I don’t have to do the work of actually implementing, testing and iterating on them, but I think exploring the possibility space the mechanic proposes can lead to some interesting insights. So, the game’s lack of a map is something I praised earlier in this section. But, near the end game, it becomes incredibly cumbersome. Trying to find a specific resource or blueprint fragment is engaging when there are just a few zones to search, but less so when you need this one item to progress and you have no idea where to find it. This means that, by the end game, I usually end up caving and looking up a map or wiki entry, rather than spend hours scanning every environment for something I might have missed. So, how could it be improved? Well, the game already has a system I think this could be built on top of, the scanner room. This is unlocked fairly late in the game, right around the time the player would start to feel the slog of the game’s lack of map. By this point, the player has started to expand into a space that is larger than they can reasonably keep a mental map of, especially with the lack of distant landmarks other than the Aurora. So, I’d propose turning that scanning room into a map room, that the player can only access from the scanner room itself. Their scanning room maps some of the area after a few minutes, and they can build portable scanners to place in other areas of the map to increase that radius. Existing buoys would also show up as the map expanded. Maybe they could use the cyclops to generate mapping data as well. I think this works because it keeps the early game feeling of the unknown, but by the mid-to-late game when the player is probably looking up maps on the wiki already, it makes mapping and exploration an active progress. The player would have to go out of their way to do this, it wouldn’t happen automatically. I think that’s consistent with the feel the game is going for, helps remove some late-game frustration, and actually adds more exciting actions.
Even without my proposed mapping system, Subnautica already evokes a greater sense of wonder and discovery than most games on the market. And, fortunately, the game’s loose frame narrative only expands on this idea. The premise of the game is fairly narratively simple, and I think that works to the game’s advantage. The player is flying on a ship to an uncharted world, their ship crashes for some reason, and they need to survive. That premise does expand slightly as the player explores the Aurora, but not by much. What you see is what you get. At first, this might seem to be missing an early opportunity for more mystery. Hit the player with a narrative hook early on so they have something to stew on. But I think this would detract from the initial emotional experience of the crash. The player is supposed to feel frantic, scrambling to survive. Adding more narrative beats would dilute that experience. And, additionally, it means that the player doesn’t go in *expecting* a story. Most survival games on the market barely have a narrative at all, and Subnautica’s opening is about as complex as they get. There is an implied narrative beat of reaching the Aurora in the future, but nothing explicitly story-focused. From here, the story is eased onto the player, giving them the audio logs of other survivors, which at first seem almost narratively empty; just glorified quest markers. But then the player starts realizing that all of the life pods have been destroyed. Maybe they don’t put it together on their own that something is hunting these characters, but some of them might. But, this is still light enough that the player isn’t expecting a larger story. Even reaching the Aurora and disabling the ship’s reactor doesn’t provide much of a narrative resolution, it just makes the area nearby safer. The player is being driven by systemic and explorative mystery, and the last bit of narrative possibility has been removed from their mind. But, after finding the Aurora, the player gets a message with a rendezvous point for survivors. Confused, they’ll head to the coordinates, and this is where the narrative finally reveals itself.
The rendezvous coordinates are on dry land, which seems to have appeared out of nowhere. It’s kind of hard to express how much of a shock this is. In any other game, finding a normal island would be a fairly mundane experience, but in Subnautica, a game set entirely underwater with no land in sight, this is a shock. That beat of intense surprise and wonder is something Subnautica pulls off multiple times throughout its runtime, and it is incredibly impressive to me that it can continue to do this even when the player is already expecting it; most games can’t even manage to do this once. This puts the player into a specific mindset that Subnautica evokes intensely during just a few narrative beats: investigative wonder. The player’s scanner becomes their primary means of interacting with the environment, learning bits and pieces for each blueprint or hidden audio log. During these sections, the game becomes less of a survival game, and more of an adventure game, which dovetails Subnautica’s mystery genre effortlessly. Having popups with links to in-game descriptions of items is not uncommon in contemporary games, but Subnautica is one of the few that has me to actually read them. These entries provide actually valuable information, and stoke the player’s curiosity on just what they imply. And, in a genre-appropriate touch, almost every entry ends with the phrase “Further analysis needed”.
The remainder of the game switches back and forth between exploration mode, base building/crafting mode, and these intense moments of adventure game-like discovery. It doesn’t overload the player with these info dumps, it spaces them out to make them feel unique. Discovering the first bit of alien technology also evokes this feeling wonderfully, because, going into the game, the player didn’t even know there would be any technologically-advanced aliens. Digging into the apocalyptic plague that forms the crux of the game’s lore also fits Subnautica’s existing genres, making the player feel like a scientist as they scan, research and synthesize a cure. The last narrative shock moment in the game is the reveal of the immense sea emperor leviathan, a moment that genuinely shocked and terrified me even on the non-VR version of the game. This introduces the game’s first honest-to-god character well into the third act of its story. If a game is going to have characters at all, they’re usually introduced early in the first act, but here Subnautica is, adding them in right before the endgame. And while the final story missions of the game are…basically a glorified fetch quest, the narrative does conclude in a satisfying way. Building a rocket to leave the planet is as time-consuming an undertaking as it needs to be to feel momentus, and the sequence of saying goodbye to the planet (and the adorable cuddlefish pet), dropping a time capsule for another player to find, and going through the launch sequence feels final and satisfying in a way few endings from systems-focused games ever are. The narrative may not be the foundation of Subnautica, but the restraint with which its beats are delivered to the player and the subtlety with which they are conveyed make it stand out.
TV and Film director J.J. Abrams is famous for his concept of “mystery box” storytelling, and his ideas for how crafting that mystery box can draw audiences in, even over long form, serialized content. The problem with his approach is that, most of the time, revealing what’s in the box ruins the story. I loved Lost during its original run, but I have never gone back to rewatch it. The mystery is gone. I know all the answers. Yet, after three playthroughs of Subnautica, I can still return to it and feel almost the same sense of mystery I did the first time. The game’s systems make the player experience the world in a way that keeps that mystery present, by always teasing them with more to explore. With over 70 hours invested in this game, there are still entire areas I have not explore to the fullest, still narrative possibilities and text logs I haven’t discovered yet. But it’s not just that there is more of the text that I have not seen, it’s that the methods of engaging with the text themself evoke the same experience that its static narrative beats try to. Subnautica doesn’t work because it contains a mystery, it works because its systems, narrative, and environment create the experience of uncovering one. In the same way that John Wick can show a stylish gunfight, but Superhot is a stylish gunfight generation engine, Subnautica is a mystery generation engine. The team at Unknown Worlds is currently working on a standalone expansion for Subnautica, titled Below Zero. And while I’ve tried to avoid any of their pre-release media, I have caught a few screenshots of frozen oceans and eldritch deep-sea creatures. Perhaps Subnautica’s mystery generation engine is set to do a take on H.P. Lovecraft next, perhaps not. But, regardless, the team has proven themselves adept at evoking wonder and curiosity in all elements of their game, and I look forward to seeing what they adapt their formula to next.
DM-LaserTag was my first map for Unreal Tournament, where I tried to capture the style of all the low-budget laser tag arenas I went to as a kid. It’s packed with glowing surfaces, weird, misplaced cover, and entirely too much neon.
Unreal Tournament is one of the few games still carrying the arena shooter torch, so it was a perfect fit for this idea. This was my first time creating a complete 3D shooter, instead of a tech demo, so I got to practice some of my favorite design ideas.
The core design concept was an easily readable map that dishes out its complexity slowly over time instead of all at once. The map is structured around a large, rectangular room with a hexagonal pit in the center that leads to the second floor, making it easy for the player to understand the basic layout and figure out where they are quickly, which is necessary for a game moving at UT’s speed. Adding teleporters to the mix further necessitates the player to be able to quickly get a sense of where they are. The bottom floor put this philosophy to the test, as I tried to recreate the mazes that many laser tag arenas contain. Doing this while sticking to the easy readability philosophy was difficult, so I split the map into four sections, and color-coded all the assets in each area accordingly. This means that, even when the player is jumping across the map at crazy speeds, they can quickly see the dominant color in a scene and figure out where they are.
With that navigation established, I could proceed to add more complexity and discoveries for the player to find. Hidden secrets are one of my favorite parts of older shooters like Doom and Quake, and I’ve scattered a few throughout my map to keep it from feeling too samey, and to keep the player constantly wondering at what’s there.
I started kicking around the idea for Derelict 54 probably during the development of Terminal 2. I made Terminal 2 for a class that required it be in HTML, and even though I didn’t have any substantive experience with 3D engines at the time, I wanted to see how the concept would translate to 3D on the budget I had to work with (namely, $0). At first glance, Derelict does not seem like a straight port of Terminal 2 (aside from my habit of using arbitrary numbers in game titles). Its closest inspirations are Frictional Games’ Soma and Orthogonal Games’ Near Death, games that use computer terminals sparingly, if at all. The first section is a hallway with a simple keycard puzzle. But the aspect of Terminal 2 I wanted to expand on the most wasn’t, well, the terminal, it was the tone. This is a bit obvious since I even use the same track as background music in both games: the main theme from Soma. So, the core inspiration was more aesthetic than literal; I wanted to take the feeling that Terminal 2 evoked through text, and translate that into the immediacy of a 3D world that the player interacts with from the first-person perspective.
I’ll get to the actual mechanics in a bit, but probably the most important part of creating that tone was the non-interactive bits: the sound design, the environment design, the lighting, etc. I really like how the music sets up this tone, and its importance to establishing that tone is why I could never release this on Steam: I’d have to remove it. So, weirdly, I ended up crafting the visuals around the tone that music created, instead of the other way around. I knew there was a space station. I knew it was mostly abandoned. And…that was pretty much it. So, I pulled up one of Epic’s free Unreal Engine packs, Sci-Fi Bunk, where I pulled nearly all of my assets from. The tone of Sci-Fi Bunk was laser-focused, despite not having any actual lore. It’s cozy but lonely. I wanted Derelict to feel a bit more imposing than that, so I borrowed the orange tones of the lighting but spent a great deal of time tweaking it to be just a bit darker and slightly more blue. Lighting and color in general are absolutely not my area of expertise, so I don’t quite have the language to explain why I made these decisions, it just “looked better”.
That first hallway was mostly where I figured out most of the tone of the game, but when I reached the end of it and created the first keycard puzzle, I realized that I still didn’t have any real mechanics for the game. Like, keycard puzzles are all well and good, but they’re not exactly new gameplay. So, while building the next room, I started to figure out how I wanted to convey the tone I established while building the first hallway
I literally cannot stop writing about Near Death
mechanically. I ended up taking an idea I briefly used in Terminal 2, powering up unpowered systems, and expanding upon that. I can’t completely explain why, but the act of restoring power to unpowered sections of stations is deeply satisfying to me. And yes, I realize that this is a stupidly specific thing to enjoy. But that is part of why Near Death was so compelling to me, because it’s entirely about fixing up old buildings to complete objectives. To explain why I enjoy this, I have to tangent a bit into, like, the fundamental nature of designing non-combat gameplay.
There’s an episode of Errant Signal that describes this in way more detail than I could, but basically, games are really good at simulating things that are spatial, and combat is a really simple spatial thing to simulate. Problem is, when you move outside the realm of combat and platforming…there aren’t a ton of ways to simulate things. So, a lot of indie, combat-free games run into this problem where they’re either simulating really complicated spreadsheet things, like Cities Skylines, or they aren’t really simulating much at all, like Dear Esther. Now, I love Cities Skylines and Dear Esther, but they both have a pretty limited possibility space, at least in my opinion, for future games to expand on. As great as it is, you probably aren’t going to replay Gone Home over and over to experience its rich mechanics. But Near Death, Soma, and other games like it, do find a way to do non-combat spatial simulation. I write more about the tone of this in my post on the genre I’ve named Will and Wits, but the core idea of some of its gameplay is basically struggling against the very space you exist in: fixing breaking systems, avoiding hostile ones, and generally trying to use your brain to stay alive. Near Death has this wonderful gameplay loop where you get to a building cold and low on resources, and its power is out, so you have to spend more resources to keep yourself alive. But, after some work, you can get the power back on, and the space goes from feeling hostile to feeling cozy.
I adapted this idea into Derelict by making the player’s primary goal to get enough power to open the final door on the ship. They do this by finding repair kits scattered throughout the ship and using them to fix broken power stations. They can then redirect that power to the doors they want to enter using the power screen in the game’s hub room. This leads to a lot of backtracking, something that is often derided in game spaces, but I personally enjoy, and gets the player familiar with the space. They feel like an engineer, patching up a dying ship. In fact, the only real survival system I added to the game was a result of trying to communicate the slow hostility of the environment, and that’s the oxygen meter. When the player starts the game, they have an oxygen readout at the top of their screen which slowly ticks down to zero. They can replenish it by collecting oxygen tanks scattered throughout the environment. Thing is, the player’s
I may have gone a bit overboard on the sparks
oxygen will basically never hit 0. In earlier builds of the game, the oxygen ticked down pretty fast, which made playtesters scramble from objective to objective. But this wasn’t really the tone I was trying to create, so I decreased the oxygen to a point where, unless the player just stands in one place for a few minutes, it will never reasonably hit 0. I’ve never had a playtester die from hitting 0 oxygen. So, the oxygen system doesn’t really serve much of a mechanical purpose, technically, but the player doesn’t know that. It’s deadly enough that it does create some tension, but slow enough that they player feels okay lingering in areas. The tension is ambient, not intense. So, the end result of these systems, hopefully, puts the player into the headspace of an engineer working under time pressure.
It was around this point in development that I realized I didn’t actually have a reason for the player to be on the ship. Honestly, I still don’t, and if you actually put some thought into it, it doesn’t really make much sense. So, the player’s there to rescue the crew? But the crew is (mostly) evacuated. Did they get stranded on it? Are they one of the crew? No answer really works. And, honestly, I’m okay with it. The point is that the player is trying to escape the environment; they don’t really have a purpose beyond that. The protagonist is so loosely defined that it’s just not important. But, I needed some sort of story, so I tried adapting what I made in Terminal 2, but with one major change: an actual ending. I had to stop halfway through my expected story for Terminal 2 because I just ran out of time before the assignment was due. So, for Derelict, I wanted something a bit more complete. Weirdly, I came up with the ending first, and built the rest of the story around that. I had a specific moment in mind, where the player walks to the airlock to leave the ship, and looks at the door to the engine room, knowing that the person they’ve slowly come to know is locked on the other side, and that they have to leave her there. That specific moment of just a few seconds was what the entire experience was crafted around. Every system and narrative element had to be tuned around that.
So, I took the idea from Terminal 2 of this absent mechanic communicating with the player in a way they couldn’t respond to, and iterated on it. This was partially by
The site of one of my at least ten blatant thefts of sound assets from Ridley Scott’s Alien
necessity, I didn’t want to implement a branching dialog system, and I like the idea of that one-sided communication for thematic reasons anyways. So, this lead to me designing the HUD to support these messages, but also forced me to do something I’m really bad at: writing dialog. I cannot write good dialog to save my life. Everything I write just sounds awkward and clunky. So, I tried to minimize it, revise what I did write a lot, and keep things brief and to the point. Problem was, when I came back to revise some of it, I realized the player didn’t really have a connection to Conrad. She spoke like…twice? And, yeah, that makes the ending gut-punch difficult to pull off. There needed to be a relationship for that to work. So, I started finding more moments to add in bits of dialog, one at each major checkpoint. I tried to add more personality to the dialog, because that’s also something I’m not great at, and I changed up the ending a bit to add more emotion to the gut-punch. In earlier builds, Conrad was pretty much dead by the time the player arrived. She had been exposed to radiation, and had made the decision to permanently lock the door to the room she was in, removing any possibility of escape. That works fine, but I wanted the player to be complicit in her ultimate fate somehow. So, I mixed up the ending so that the player would have to unknowingly push the button that doomed Conrad, and she would have to mislead them into doing so. Even though the actual gameplay is the same, the end result is the player feeling at least somewhat responsible for Conrad’s death, even though there really was no other option. I kept the moment quiet, because I like it when games give the player space to think and feel through the implications of their actions without comment. And the player then gets to leave the ship, hopefully, with a sense of uncertainty.
That was pretty much where I left Derelict when I finished the 1.0 build, but I recently revisited it with the idea of porting it to VR. I had been itching to make a VR game ever since I got my Vive, but hadn’t found a good project. Derelict ended up working wonderfully. Originally, it was going to be a quick and dirty port, slapping a VR controller on and calling it a day; a logical transition taking the game idea from HTML, to 3D, to VR. But, the more time I spent with the game in VR, the more changes I wanted to make. Let’s start with the basics. Just swapping out a regular monitor for a VR headset already changes the way the player interacts with the space. They feel more present, obviously, and gives me even greater returns on the tone I was trying to create. But then you add in motion controllers, and things get a little more complicated. This took a lotof work from a technical perspective, mostly because the Unreal VR blueprint, while wonderfully made, is still fairly new and thus poorly documented. So, figuring out how to do things like stop the player from teleporting through doors was a big concern. But once I had that in place, I noticed that the levels felt barren and empty, especially compared to the tightly-packed, detail-focused level design stylings of contemporary AAA games. So, I shrunk the entire station by about 25%, which did end up solving the problem as best I could without adding a ton of new assets. I was still limited by the assets that Epic had made for free and the few I contracted from a friend (they keycard
Thanks, Chris, for the beautiful repair kit models
and the repair kit), but by this point I had found the Sci-Fi hallway demo, which gave me many more assets to work with. I added better texturing to the walls and floors, I had actual static meshes to use, examples of better post-processing effects, it was great! And, to make it even better, these changes made the first-person version of the game work even better, because it encouraged me to design with a closer attention to detail. However, there was one bit of design in VR that was fundamentally different from the first-person version, and that was the HUD.
HUDs aren’t really a thing in VR. Or, rather, they are, but no one has figured out a way to do it that isn’t incredibly clunky. So, if you want to communicate information in a similar style to a HUD, the best option so far is the wrist watch communicator thing that a lot of games, such as Rec Room, use. Basically, you look at your arm, and a little screen pops up, showing you information that would be on a HUD. This only works for information that isn’t urgent, so you couldn’t put something like a health bar on there. Fortunately, Derelict didn’t have any information that needed to be communicated that quickly, so I was free to offload basically the entire HUD onto the player’s arm communicator. Whenever the player gets a message from Conrad, picks up a useful item, or needs to see a tutorial prompt, their controller vibrates and beeps, and they can open up the screen to see the message. Now, I could have done the same thing with the power management screen, which, in the flat version of the game, pops up on the HUD, but I was interested to try out 3D HUDs, so I moved that into the world itself. Instead of an extra page on the player’s wrist communicator, the power screen is an actual actor in the game world,
I probably should have hired an artist for this one
interacted with using motion controllers. While the screen does look a little awkward and out of place, since it’s basically just a cube with buttons, I think it adds more to the immersion by removing what could have been yet another HUD element.
So, what started as a HTML puzzle game ended up as a VR adventure game fully designed to work with motion controllers. And even though those two games are pretty far removed from each other, they still share a lot of formal similarities. Even the dialog itself is still delivered in much the same way, with the player reading from a dark screen. In the latest version of the game, that screen is attached to a motion controller on the player’s arm, but it’s still fundamentally the same idea. I’m not sure how I can further iterate on the idea from here without just expanding the budget and hiring actual artists, but I’m happy with having followed this thread of design through to what I think is a nice endpoint.
It’s no secret that Horizon Zero Dawn’s time in the spotlight was cut unfortunately short by releasing three days before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Two exploration-based open world games coming out within three days of each other would be enough of a marketing nightmare on its own, but when one of those games is a critically adored, GOTY-sweeping entry in one gaming’s best-known franchises, I’m amazed Horizon actually broke even. But while torrents of pieces analyzing every facet of Breath of the Wild have been released and continue to get released, Horizon seems to have gone relatively unanalyzed for a game of its scope and creativity. I picked it up hoping to find a hidden gem, but what I found was more of a great blueprint for a hidden gem, that seemed to need a few more redesigns. Still, I think the successes and failures of Horizon make it one of the most interesting games released last year, and the questions it asks about how to make a AAA open world game are especially important in such a static genre. So, how does Horizon shake up the open-world formula? What fundamental assumptions about open world setting and story design does it challenge? And can it turn any of those ideas into engaging systems
Story & Setting
Horizon’s writing is probably its most interesting, back-of-the-box, selling point feature. So it’s a shame that, most of the time the player is actually engaging with it, it’s awkward, bland, or frustrating. “Awkward” is really the best word I can think of to describe the dialog, from Aloy’s teenaged attempts to land a sick burn, to the conversations with Sylens that are basically just them being angry at each other over voice chat, to the strange attempts at stiff, fantasy genre speech that most characters talk
Even in action-adventure games, you can’t escape the dialog wheel
in. It’s telling that I looked up the “Skip Dialog” button about twenty minutes into the game; most of the time when the game is talking at you, you’ll be bored. During the majority of the cutscenes, I found myself groaning with the same frequency I do at most AAA titles, because the characters speak so stiffly. I’m fairly certain that this is a problem with the script, because they’ve hired some fairly talented actors to play the parts. The closest comparison I can find is, appropriately, Dontnod’s 2015 Life is Strange. Voice actor/writer Ashly Burch voices lead characters in both of these games (Aloy in HZD and Chloe in LiS), and appropriately demonstrates the feel of a talented actor with a wooden script, and how that gets translated from page to game. The writing in Horizon feels very similar, with actors struggling to emote around clunky dialog. Part of the awkwardness in Life is Strange’s script comes from it being translated from French, and Guerrilla Games is a Dutch company, so I suppose that could have contributed to a similar feel. However, the game’s lead writer was John Gonzalez, best known for writing for Fallout New Vegas, one of the most fully-realized settings in the history of the medium. So, the cause of the clunky dialog is still a mystery to me.
However, the problems with the script extend beyond the dialog; the major plot points regularly fail to land as well. The game opens with an impeccably directed sequence (like nearly all of its cutscenes) showing Aloy dealing with her outcast status, training, growing up, and preparing to face the world. It introduces Rost, Aloy’s adoptive father (a character so forgettable I just had to Google his name), swiftly kills him off to give Aloy a personal stake in fighting the big bad. Aloy wins membership in the tribe that has treated her as an outcast for her entire life, then goes off on her great adventure. This plot is formulaic enough that it should at least function as an easy setup, but the wooden delivery and awkward structure make each point land less than gracefully. Rost, for example, is barely mentioned for the rest of the game, and because we never really see Aloy enjoying her time with him, he doesn’t work as an effective motivation. And Aloy’s drive to find out who her mother is never quite lines up with the player’s interest in the world (though they did try, and I’ll expand on that later). This results in the player sort of floating from plot event to plot event, not really invested in any of it. The Nora themselves are perhaps the best example of this, because, as an elevator pitch, they work brilliantly. Aloy grows up shunned by them for reasons she cannot understand, and fights for their acceptance not because she actually wants it, but because she wants to know why they treat her so horribly. Once she gains access to the community’s secrets, she discovers that they are misinterpreting the will of a dying AI, treating it as a religious faith, and that Aloy’s exile was a result of this misinterpretation. As Aloy explores the world, she learns more about how mistaken the Nora are, and returns to them with knowledge that makes her an almost mythic figure, all while dealing with the emotional confusion of being revered by the people who once shunned her. Did you get excited reading that? Because I got excited writing it. That sounds like an incredible story! I’d love to play that game! But that does not feel like the game I got to play. Almost everything with the Nora is brought up in a beautifully-rendered cutscene, then forgotten as Aloy goes and fights some boring apocalypse cult. You’ve fought a billion like them in every video game ever made. And given how forgettable that plotline is, most of your direct experience with the story is just hanging out with Aloy. And, umm. Okay, let’s talk about Aloy.
I really wanted to like Aloy. She’s voiced by Ashly Burch, which already gives her a few dozen points in her favor, she’s got a (theoretically) interesting backstory as a social outcast, and is kind of a badass on top of it. But, in execution, her character is just…bland. I can’t really come up with any of her personality traits other than “determined” and “impulsive”, which are the traits of approximately every video game protagonist since like 2004. She doesn’t really seem to enjoy what she’s doing beyond an occasional satisfied smile, and mostly seems kind of annoyed with people, which makes sense for a social outcast, but isn’t expanded upon in a meaningful enough wya to make it a worthwhile tradeoff. But Aloy’s biggest weakness as a character comes from an element that could have easily been her biggest strength: her motivation. I absolutely understand what they were trying to do; Aloy’s journey to find her mother (cloned genetic progenitor, whatever, she’s functionally her mom) gives her a personal stake in exploring the ruins of the old world. In interviews, lead writer John Gonzalez talked about how, without this personal motivation, Horizon is just a detective story, but the best detective stories are “Ones that the detective really needs to solve”. Thus, he gave Aloy a driving personal reason to dig deeper. However, as a player, I found myself thoroughly uninterested in Aloy’s journey of self because of the weak setup, and more interested in the world itself. So, I was interested in finding out more about the world, but Aloy is only interested in the bits that relate specifically to her birth. She doesn’t seem excited about uncovering some bit of world-defining lore, when the player is on the edge of their seat. She’s looting the stories of the dead world looking for scraps about her mother, and tossing aside everything else. And in her approach to the lore of the world, I really began to understand Aloy, because it lead me to ask a seemingly unrelated question that, in actuality, tells us a lot about Aloy: What point does Sylens serve in the story? This one threw me for a loop until I started combing over the plot summary and looking at his actions. He basically does everything interesting in the story. He does the archeological digging, uncovers ancient secrets, pieces together where to go next, and scours the world looking for new dig sites. He even kicks off the primary events of the story by awakening HADES. Basically, he figures everything out so that all Aloy needs to do is kill the people between her and Sylens’ next objective. And this is where I began to understand Aloy. Like so many video game protagonists, she is good at killing, and little else. I get that, by the nature of this being a AAA action-adventure game, she has to be good at killing, but that’s really the only thing she’s good at. But Sylens highlights what she could have been. An archeologist who knows her way around weapons, like Nathan Drake or (more appropriately, given her personality) the rebooted Laura Croft. If Aloy had done everything that Sylens did, there could have been an even tighter connection between setting and story. Sylens’ motivations of curiosity about the old world and a driving desire to explore its mysteries are so much more compatible with what the player wants to do (namely, explore) that it seems like a perfect match, in stark contrast to Aloy’s motivation of “Who’s my mom, who I guess happens to be related to the setting?” So, while playing as a character more like Sylens wouldn’t have had that same personal connection to the mystery, it would have at least made the player feel like their interest in every scrap of the old world wasn’t out of character. Giving Aloy even a bit of that archeological predisposition could have done so much to improve this.
So, the dialogue is bad, the low-level plot is bad, and the main character feels underutilized, which just leaves the setting. Fortunately, the setting is Horizon’s greatest strength, and when executed correctly, is genuinely breathtaking. This is first apparent in the game’s visual design, a strange hybrid of ancient and modern styles. Characters have headdresses made of bullet casings, fur clothes with metal flourishes, and ancient makeup and war paint in the shape of circuit boards. This, coupled with the game’s impressive graphical fidelity, makes it consistently gorgeous to look at, and conveys many of the game’s themes with much more subtlety and effectiveness than any of its story beats. The environments of the world reflect this as well, with sprawling, beautiful landscapes littered with the corpses of derelict machines, and the centuries-old ruins of ancient cities. It delivers on one of my favorite promises of the post-post-apocalypse genre (or whatever it’s called): showing a new world flourish in the carcass of the old, no longer concerned with the squabbles, culture and events of their long-dead ancestors. Similar works in this genre include Nier: Automata, and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West,
Seriously, more people need to play Enslaved
the later of which I thoroughly enjoyed. These two games are less backwards-looking than most works in the post-apocalypse genre, and I wish Horizon had committed to that more. Because, by the end of the game, there are really no mysteries left to uncover; the game has already answered everything. The only real question remaining is posted in an after-credits sequel hook where Sylens reveals that someone or something woke HADES up, which wasn’t appropriately set up beforehand (it seemed like HADES had been awake forever and Sylens just stumbled upon him while being an archaeology nerd). And while I think the ending’s lack of mystery does harm the game as a whole, I want to acknowledge the sense of wonder the game does successfully create at its beginning. As Aloy crosses from the safety of her tribe’s sacred land into the outer world at the end of Act 1, the player is burning with so many questions about the nature of the game’s world and presented with a world full of answers. That moment is one of my highlights of the entire game, and even though that mystery is diluted by the ending, it sets up the open world beautifully.While poking around the world, the player will stumble on some of the game’s best bits of world building. These include audio and text logs that describe the workings of the old world without giving away too much, giving the player small anecdotes instead of comprehensive answers. This is reminiscent of Croteam’s The Talos Principle, which never outright states the cause of the apocalypse, and instead describes people living their lives under the shadow of it. As a result, the player feels like an archeologist of their own world, uncovering bits of 21st-century technology and lore that are new and mysterious to Aloy, but not to the player. And this touches on perhaps my favorite theme in the story, that of the tribes of the new world misinterpreting the ideas of the old world. It serves as an interesting twist on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous, often-quoted line, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This concept is most often used when the audience cannot understand the technology, making it seem magical, but in Horizon, we see this from the opposite perspective. During the first act,
The Womb of the Mountain/Magical Broken Computer
Aloy presents herself to what the tribe calls “The Goddess”, and ancient structure inside the mountain that they built their capital around. This takes the shape of a metal door, which emanates a red light and scans Aloy, saying, “Identity not verified, data corruption”. The player knows that this is obviously a computer, that it’s using some sort of scan to verify her identity, and that there’s a busted hard drive somewhere in the facility that’s making it throw an error. But the leaders of the Nora treat it as a prophecy, speaking of the corruption as a mythical force that Aloy must conquer. The player is given both perspectives, the technological and the magical, and is able to understand both simultaneously. Aloy’s problem of fixing a broken computer is turned into a mythic quest simply because the Nora think its magic. *That* is a brilliant use of Horizon’s genre, and one that feels fairly unique to Horizon itself.
Exploration & Combat
So how does the player uncover these setting details? Outside of the main plot, the setting is primarily communicated through the design of the world itself. While the late game may suffer from the kind of bloat that seems emblematic of post-Assassin’s Creed open world titles, during early-to-mid game, the size and scope feels just right, and allows for measured exploration. While, at the end of the game, I was fast-traveling from campfire to campfire, during the first few zones, I *loved* the open world. I was searching every corner looking for new enemies to fight, hidden areas to poke around in, and loot to find. The game lets you do something that so few contemporary open world games actually do: stumble upon something mysterious. The first Cauldron level I did was one of my favorite experiences in the entire game, because I was just wandering the open world when I found it. No one directed me there, I wasn’t given a quest to “Clear Cauldron 1 of X”, I just found it. While I was exploring it, I was burning with curiosity about what could be behind every new corner, and the game delivered on it. That was the discovery the game should have focused on, because it put you in the headspace of discovering an ancient, abandoned world. Unfortunately, by the late game, that mystery had begun to dissipate, and I was just Clearing Cauldron 6 of X. As the world grew in size, it felt less important to explore all of it. I already knew what I would find because icons for them were plastered all over my map. When I arrived at new zones, it wasn’t introduced with a cutscene or any exposition about what made it unique, I just kind of ran through it while following my objective marker. I tried to turn off as many of those markers as I could, and let myself get distracted as much as possible, but the game was just not built for it past its first two zones. The world was better when it was smaller.
I have one more anecdote that I think highlights the best and worst of Horizon’s open world, as it was almost one of my favorite moments in the game. I was exploring near one of the game’s northern areas, and I saw that I was nearly at the edge of the map. Curious to see what the edge of the world looked like, I headed north until I found a snowy mountain range. I tried to sneak my way past a few enemies, but made a bad call and blew my cover, resulting in enemy attacks barreling down on me from all directions. Instead of running away, I made the split-second decision to charge the mountain, and climbed it while dodging fire and just barely keeping my health bar topped off. With no healing items to spare, I reached the top, only to be greeted by…a cutscene introducing a giant, flying boss. Here, when just exploring the open world, I had stumbled onto a unique boss encounter totally undirected. It took nearly every bit of ropecaster ammo I had, but I was able to take it down, and Aloy dropped a quick voice hint about seeing what it was guarding. I moved past the machine’s corpse, and saw a series of platforming challenges (ladders, ledges, etc.), that seemed to lead to a nearby cave. I climbed about halfway up the ridge, and…I got stuck. I could not, for the life of me, find the next place to climb. I retraced my steps, tried jumping on every bit of environment that looked even remotely climbable, and even turned on the game’s objective hints. Nothing. After about half an hour of trying, I gave up, and googled a video guide. And, this is where my excitement turned to frustration. Right at the point I had stopped, in my world, there was an empty ledge, with no apparent way up, but in the world of the YouTube video I was watching, there was a ladder neatly placed right there. Apparently, that ladder only appears when you have unlocked that area’s relevant quest. Now, I understand that, in an open world game, you need to gate off certain areas that are mission-specific. But to have that gate be an arbitrary ladder halfway up the path to that
objective, with no indication to the player that they can’t reach the area? Not even an “I should come back later” voice line from Aloy? If they had simply forgotten to gate off the area, I would have understood, but the removal of this ladder implies that some designer on the team saw the problem, and deliberately implemented this disappearing ladder as a solution to solve the problem. That, I do not understand. Maybe remove the first stepping stone up the mountain, instead of one in the middle? Gate the area off entirely? I can think of dozens of equally cheap design solutions, none of which would have lead to this problem. And while this is a single issue, I think it’s emblematic of how Horizon only half commits to making its world explorable. It gets far, far closer than most games, but isn’t able to go far enough. Which, I suppose, is a good summary of my opinion on the game as a whole.
Before concluding, I do want to briefly touch on the game’s combat. Again, I enjoyed it much more at the beginning of the game than at the end, and I think that has more to do with encounter design than player skill or numerical advantages. A great deal of the campaign involves fighting human enemies, which features a largely uninteresting opening of shallow stealth that transitions irrevocably into shallow combat as soon as you are spotted. You’ve done this before in most AAA action-adventure titles. Combat against machine enemies, meanwhile is much more interesting, especially because of the various traps the game offers. The game does have one combat setup that works brilliantly, and that is when the game lets the player really step into the shoes of a hunter and plan their attack. While most of the campaign missions don’t allow for this kind of play, those that do demonstrate a style of combat that simply cannot be found in other games. Checking enemy movement patterns, scanning for their weaknesses, dropping tripcaster lines, and setting up the perfect trap is a rich tactical treat, especially on the harder difficulties. However, open combat is less tactically engaging, primarily because of the difficulty of deploying the traps mid-combat. Even with a great deal of handling mods on my tripcaster, I found keeping track of enemies while setting them up is incredibly difficult, and often for little reward, at least on Hard mode. This is made worse by how clunky avoiding enemy attacks is even when not trying to place traps. The player’s primary means of avoiding damage is a dodge roll that never seemed to reliably be able to avoid damage. This is used in the face of enemy attacks that are difficult to predict, because of the visually busy design of the enemies, the raw number of enemies the player will be fighting at any given time, and the fact that the player’s focus is often narrowed on weak points, making them miss subtle movements of the enemies. Additionally, enemies often attack in multi-hit combos that would put a Bloodborne boss to shame. Often times, I would see a telegraph, dodge away from the enemy, and still get him by later attacks in a combo, even if I spammed the upgraded dodge roll. Because this makes trap deployment difficult, I ended up using traps less, turning combat into a fairly standard third-person shooter. The ropecaster can do a lot to alleviate this problem, but if ever a game was calling out for some sort of Shadow of the Colossus-style enemy climbing while searching for weak points, this was it. Still, when the level designers give you a suite of tactical options, Horizon’s combat truly embraces its setting in a way that most other AAA titles simply can’t, and does feel genuinely unique and interesting to engage with. I just wish that same amount of depth could have been applied to open combat as well.
I feel like I came off a lot more negative towards this game than I intended, so I want to open the conclusion with a reframing of my opinion on the game: I think Horizon Zero Dawn is an incremental improvement on the AAA action-adventure game that greatly raises the bar for what we can expect from the admittedly stale genre. The quality of the cinematic and art direction alone is astonishing, and the idea that these games can explore more creative settings and have gameplay inspired by them is one that the industry is in desperate need of adopting. If every AAA open world title was as creative and risky as Horizon Zero Dawn was, I probably wouldn’t be suffering from genre fatigue. Still, there are tradeoffs to taking risks when making a game this expensive: you’re working with ideas that haven’t been iterated on and polished over multiple sequels. So, whenever Horizon Zero Dawn 2 comes out, I will be looking forward to seeing how Guerilla takes this first game, which was promising but messy, and polishes it up.