My thoughts on Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I first encountered Deus Ex: Human Revolution when it came out in 2011 and I saw a friend playing it. He wasn’t doing anything flashy, just walking around a building. But what struck me was that, due to the augmentations in the protagonists eyes, he could see the infrared light that security cameras were emitting and could therefore avoid being seen by them. He opened the augmentation menu and scrolled through the various upgrades that he could eventually access, and I vividly remember how the camera highlighted each part of Jensen’s body and showed how the upgrade would affect his physiology. I was excited to learn I could avoid the stealth and just go straight up combat, so I bought the game and set it on my shelf.

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Seven years later I finally played it, and I have to say it’s aged delightfully. I’m not normally one for stealth games – I’d much rather kill anything resembling an enemy and then explore the world in my own sweet time rather than hiding and being hunted. Thus it was with some bitterness that I learned the promised “action route” was heavily disadvantaged – any time I had to fight more than two people at a time I would be gunned down almost immediately. This changed as Jensen got access to better weapons and armour, but those early levels were brutally hard, and it was out of reluctant necessity that I started avoiding combat and started considering stealth. It was several hours before I came to enjoy the process of creeping past guards, avoiding line of sight, crawling through air vents and discovering which actions would draw attention and which would not. It was halfway through the game before I finally began to feel comfortable in a room full of NPC’s without worrying I’d accidentally agro them and suddenly find myself surrounded by enemies.

In fact, I became so competent that I didn’t use most of the tools the game offered me. I frequently chose harder paths because I wanted more opportunities to test my skills rather than. To this end I didn’t employ most of the augmentations I unlocked (and by the end of the game I had accessed almost all of them), nor used most of the weapons. Nevertheless, there was a compelling sense of progression that made me feel that Jensen was getting better and better at moving through the world, either aggressively or invisibly.

In one memorable section, I emerged on a rooftop in Heng Sha and stumbled into a guard who I didn’t realise was there. Suddenly he was calling for backup and there were a dozen hostiles on the roofs and in the streets all trying to get a lock on me. I set up ambush, manoeuvring behind some boxes in a bottle-necked corridor and knocking out out anyone walked through the door. I moved their bodies so that they were just barely in sight, attracting the attention of more guards until one by one I had taken them all out. To deal with the guards on the street who were still looking for me, I leaned over the balcony and used my long-range tranquilliser rifle to knock out most of the others, adjusting the height to anticipate the arc of the darts. Finally there was only one guard left, standing in a sheltered area that my scope couldn’t see. Using the upgrade I’d just purchased, I leapt off the rooftop, cloak billowing as I landed heavily (but unhurt) behind him. He had just enough time to turn and raise his gun before I knocked him unconscious. Apart from a few startled civilians, I was now free to explore the area and looted the hell out of it.

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And there was so much loot. I probably spent hours in total, running back and forth from the unconscious bodies of my foes to my arms dealer in order to sell them to him one at a time. The whole endeavour was satisfying but ultimately pointless – I finished the game with two or three times more money than I could have actually spent in the course of the story. The real loot of the game were the stories: the emails, the notes, the secrets hidden in drawers and under beds. They brought life to the one-dimensional NPC’s who had, until that point, merely existed as obstacles or enemies as Jensen forged a path right through their world. By taking the time to find and read the exchanges, to listen to the idle conversations of civilians, it gave the sense that everyone had their own story even if they barely intersected with my own.

But my favourite characters by far were named Hengsha and Detroit. You see, it’s the cities that are the main characters in the game: dark, mysterious, and a little dangerous. With. From the pulsing night clubs to the seedy underworld, there is a heartbeat to the landscape, and the streets and back alleys are its veins. The futuristic world of 2029 was full of neon lights, hidden depths, and secrets in plain sight if you just thought to look for them. I couldn’t help but feel insignificant when I walked through those awesome cities, who were bigger and greater than the sum of their inhabitants.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not the sort of game I would have expected to enjoy. However once I got adequately skilled at the stealth mechanics and could make informed choices about how I wanted to play, the game had its own exhilarating pleasure. Not on just the thrill of a perfectly planned take-down or a cleverly executed slip, but the wonder of discovery as each turn revealed new secrets and new stories to uncover. The game is far from perfect, and yet for all its flaws I can’t help but love it. I hope the next game, Mankind Divided, is just as good! I certainly won’t be waiting another seven years before trying it.

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My thoughts on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery

When I first saw that Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery was being developed, I was cautiously optimistic. A fantasy role-playing game where I could live out my dream of attending Hogwarts? Casting spells, brewing potions, finding hidden corridors and pathways? I was thrilled enough to cast expecto patronum.

And my expecto-tions weren’t let down! When I finally got my hand on the game, it wasn’t quite as hands-on as I was expecting, but it was still pretty good! I couldn’t wander through Hogwarts at my leisure, just tap the rooms I wanted him to visit. I could only cast spells when in class, or occasionally when a duel was forced on me. And there seemed to be a large focus on making mischief (and straight up endangering other students) rather than listening to teachers and acting responsibly. But the thrill of the game exceeded my hopes when I got to rub shoulders with the likes of Severus Snape and Minerva McGonagall, who looked upon me proudly as I aspired to be a diligent student in spite of the rules the game forced me to break. Plus the Mystery alluded to in the game, the promised secrets of the castle and the somewhat sinister plot that threatened all of Hogwarts… How delightful!

One of the things I was most looking forward to was duelling, casting spells under pressure and seeing what spells my opponent was going for in order to find an appropriate counter on the fly (ala Voldemort and Dumbledore in the Order of the Phoenix). What the duelling actually turned out to be was a disappointing rock-paper-scissors game, where any time there was a draw the party with lower health would recover some of it. This gave me a 1/3 chance of actually progressing the battle. Nevertheless, it was actually my favourite part of the game, because I never lost a duel and rarely lost any health. In my mind, my character deflected and countered spell after spell, sometimes getting through a fight without ever losing a roll. It felt wonderful to completely undermine someone’s defences and thwart their attacks, even if the only skill involved guessing what style they were going for.

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I had an uncanny knack for anticipating what stance my opponent would choose.

As with all time-gated games, I got really into it. I felt the game progressed simultaneously too fast and too slow – for a while I kind of liked the grind evoking the sense of getting through a whole year of classes. I played diligently every day, getting a few house points here and completing the odd lesson there whenever my energy bar refilled. And yet the game constantly stopped me from playing while I waited for my energy to recharge, which really halted the fun I was having (though it certainly didn’t stop me from coming back every hour and a half). The game wasn’t especially generous with the premium currency either, so to skip a three hour wait or completely refill the stamina bar would cost most of my hard-won rewards.

Ultimately though what began to frustrate me was the lack of variety. In the first year I only had access to three classes, which is not how Hogwarts works. I gained access to one or two more areas each year, but most of the school was frustratingly locked away in plain sight. In the end, the novelty of attending the same lessons over and over again (casting the same spells and brewing the same potions) wore off, and the game revealed itself to be a pretty shallow grind-fest. And the grind wasn’t particularly meaningful – spending a dozen precious points of energy looking for an ingredient? Slipping a note to Rowan? Practicing for the umpteenth time to summon my broom by saying “Up”? Where was the magic in any of this banality?

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There were a lot of “moments” that took large amounts of stamina, but seemed not to have any relevance with actually learning magic.

Once I realised that the game would force me to play those classes over and over again until I had enough stars to unlock the next potion/spell, I began to feel resentful of all the pointless busywork. The secrets I’d found that gave me energy when I clicked on them became routine rather than thrilling, and the conversations I had with friends were all broken records that just required slightly higher stats over time. It was taking forever to level up, and the only real use for all the coins I was collecting was to buy some pretty ugly clothes (compared to the standard school robes).

I decided I’d play until I could at least see Hogsmeade, that magical wonderland where dreams came true, but when I finally got there I was disappointed. It was just a single street with two stores I could visit but not interact with (the rest being locked behind needing to complete more of the story). I even saw that they copy and pasted the same generic character, and he appeared on both ends of the street simultaneously.

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It’s the guy with the chops! He (or his identical twin in the same clothes) appears twice in the same stretch of road.

It was not long into my game that I decided to look up what J. K. Rowling thought of the app. From what I can tell, she has declined to make any comments and the game is “inspired” but not “endorsed” by her. Plus it’s full of plot holes, making references to things that haven’t happened yet or contradicting things that happen in the book. I was willing to forgive the fact that Merula tried to murder me with Devil’s Snare, but I will not stand by while the characters use Wingardiam Leviosa to levitate people when the spell only affects objects.

Overall, Hogwarts Mystery was kind of fun while the pacing was faster and there was lots to see and do. By third-year, repeating the same trite classes (and doing the same absurdly commonplace activities) just to get enough stars to progress the story was so mundane I couldn’t stand it. It was fun to roam the hallowed halls for a while, but not enough to keep me around. Maybe I’ll come back to it if they significantly rework the gameplay in the future, because the story at least seemed compelling. For now though, I’m happy just reading the wiki page.

My thoughts on Horizon Zero Dawn

When I first saw the announcement gameplay/trailer for Horizon Zero Dawn, I pegged it as one of the greatest games of the current generation. It featured a strong, capable, red-headed warrior with some badass archery skills using a ropecaster to tie down machines and shoot the components off them. When I finally got a copy of my own, I found that the combat was everything I hoped it would be.

For about three hours. After I’d progressed sufficiently in the story to unlock the elemental sling, and then the blast sling (which I accessed easily for reasons I’ll discuss momentarily), I realised that I could defeat even the mightiest foes in a few seconds by freezing them, loading them up with timed bombs, and then watching them explode. I might need to repeat this once, maybe twice at the most, but after that combat lost most of the thrill. There was little pleasure in engaging with a giant foe, defeating them with barely a pause to look in their direction, looting them and then moving on. Even when I imposed a ban on myself from this meta (Most-Efficient-Tactic-Available), I found that I was still only using three or four weapons (and only a handful of the same skills) because everything else just made the fights drag on needlessly long.

One of the main problems with the game was that it gave me access to almost all the resources I needed right from the very beginning. After a few hours, I’d shot enough wildlife to max out most of my resource and ammo pouches. I had hundreds of every component, so I could afford to use a few dozen grenades per fight because it wasn’t an issue to just craft more. By the time I’d got a quarter of the way through the story, I had the highest ranked outfits and weapons available, and spent the rest of the game gambling for slightly better modifications. By the time I was three quarters through, I had hit the level cap and wasn’t able to get any stronger.

Coming right off the back of playing Rise of the Tomb Raider, the juxtaposition was harsh. Where it felt like the developers of RotTR carefully crafted every enemy encounter, precisely how many resources you could access at any one time, and therefore intentionally restricted how many levels you could gain and how powerful you could become, HZD felt sloppy by comparison. The sheer abundance of resources was like the game shooting itself in the foot, because once I had maxed everything out, combat held little joy to me.

I turned my attention to the collectables next, and spent some time trying to get them all. After I found the merchants who would trade for them, I did a quick google and was upset to learn that if I’d bothered to spend several hours collecting rare and wonderful artifacts, the rewards were a handful of common resources that I already had dozens of.

So the only remaining attraction for me were the quests, and unfortunately most of those pissed me right off. No one acknowledged Aloy’s incredible feats, and seemed very self-important by talking down to her, giving her orders, and generally bossing her around. Everyone treated her like she was an errand girl rather than giving her the respect and awe she deserved for literally killing a thunderjaw right before their eyes in a matter of seconds. It drove me nuts!

And yet, despite its many flaws, HZD managed to pull itself back from the brink and earn itself a place among the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve ever had. How? The story.

As the mysteries of Zero Dawn unfolded, I was chilled by what happened to the Ancient Ones, and the choices they’d had to make to ensure the survival of the planet. I was stunned by the brilliance of their solution, and suddenly every unspoken problem I’d had with the world design suddenly made sense: the designs of the machines, the limited types of wildlife, the corruption mechanic… I could never have imagined that a game with such mediocre gameplay could tell a story so well, and I still can’t believe how much I enjoyed spending hours listening to audio logs as I slowly made my way through ancient buildings.

While Horizon Zero Dawn has a multitude of problems, all of them I can forgive for its incredible plot and masterful storytelling. If you haven’t played it yourself, I recommend skipping most of the exploration and keeping to the main quest lines, because it’s one hell of a story and one I suspect I’ll think about for years to come.

Work stuff

Having spent two weeks off work, I’ve spent about half my waking hours thinking about work. I can categorise these thoughts into three broad types:

  1. I wonder whether anyone will want me/I’m so broken I’ll fail at anything I try. Maybe I shouldn’t leave my current job and just put up with it – it’s not great, but it’s mostly safe and familiar.
  2. I don’t want to risk rejection and hard work. I’ll just get an easy job in retail or a library.
  3. I’m really fucking good at counselling. Sure wish there was a convenient way for others to see it too, and then hire me in conditions that suit me.

 

These three categories also happen to be listed in order of how frequently I think them. I’d say the ratio is about 75:20:5.

Professionalism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes someone a professional.

According to its word origin, it was about a religious calling, and then about skilled tradespeople who held expert knowledge. I think somewhere along the line (or perhaps humans have always been like this) it became a source of division: “you have a problem, I have the knowledge and skill to fix it and you do not, therefore I have power over you”. Not “you need me, I can help you”, but “you need me, what are you going to give me in exchange for my help?”

I’ve seen time and time again how some individuals use this to distance themselves from other human beings. They are informed by the culture around them, or otherwise come to the belief independently that they are superior to others by virtue of what they know or can do. There is a distance, cold and clinical, to reinforce the idea that “I am not like you: I am better.”

On the one hand, I think this can be appropriate. The respect and veneration we show our leaders (say, the Dalai Lama, or Yip Man) is considered culturally acceptable. We treat those higher in the social hierarchy differently than we do our peers. And yet, they’re just people too. They eat and sleep and poop. They watch trash TV and get into misunderstandings with their loved ones. They have sex and get snuffly noses and swear when they stub their toes. They are just as human as the rest of us, and yet they have to wear this mantle of professionalism that makes them seem less human.

Or do they?

One of my favourite employers many years ago would often express her ignorance and uncertainty, even in the face of a crisis. This terrified me at the time, but looking back I have a deep appreciation for her authenticity. Rather than feigning competence, she had the courage to say “I don’t know how we’re going to work through this, but we’ll find a way together.”

I think of my some of the managers I know currently who seem terrified of human connection. They don’t talk about their health, their families, their fears, their hobbies, or passions, because (I think) it would humanise them to their subordinates. I think they hold the subconscious view that if they are seen as relatable, then it undermines the authority they have (and consequently the justifying difference in power, wealth and status).

For a while there, I really did come to believe that if I were to ever become truly “professional” I would have to stop being so human. I would have to learn to put some clinical distance between myself and those I’m supporting, so they could see me as a role, not a person. I figured this was just part of “growing up”, and that if I even wanted to advance my career like all those other “professionals” I’d better learn to be more like them.

Fortunately I have come to realise that this is bullshit. As I move through the world, most of my favourite “professionals” are deeply human. They are open about their lives, their fears, their passions, their knowledge and their ignorance. They Dare Greatly, as Brene Brown might say, and they are not afraid to connect from one human being to another. I strongly believe that we’re all muddling our way through life, just doing our best to be happy, and that we’re all worthy of love and respect.

And yet I have the simultaneous belief that some people have done things that make them worthier of my respect than others. It’s a bit like Orwell’s quote “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I haven’t quite resolved this cognitive dissonance where I hold the simultaneous beliefs that all people are on the same level, but some people really are more worthy of respect and veneration.

Humility

I spend a few minutes preparing my utensils in a separate room.
I wring and fold the tea cloth and place it in the bowl. I select a whisk and a scoop based on my mood and preferences today. I prepare the waste-water receptacle, laying the other utensils within easy reach.

When I am ready, I gather myself as well as my things and approach the tea room, kneeling at the entrance.
There is no one inside it, and I have a quiet smile. I recognise that I am going to pour my heart into the ceremony regardless of who is there to witness it.

I lay my utensils before me and bow deeply.
To who, or what, I cannot say. All I know is that my deepest wish is to humble myself before something great, and beautiful, and worthy of my respect.

This is tea ceremony.