Sunless Sea is what No Man’s Sky Should Have Been


No one encapsulated the failure of No Man’s Sky better than Tom Chick with: “Exploration isn’t about exploration. It’s about discovery. No Man’s Sky doesn’t understand this at all.”

And no game encapsulates what NMS should have done better than Sunless Sea.

I first played SS back when it came out in early 2015, and I praised the game for its uneven but innovative systems. I recently dived back into it with the release of a new expansion, Zubmariner, and once more got sucked into this incredibly weird vortex of a game. SS is difficult to describe because there isn’t too many games out there like it. The closest comparison I can think of is Sid Meier’s Pirates (the 2004 remake), in the sense that you sail a ship around a big open map while periodically stopping at ports, managing an inventory, and tackling a massive set of an entirely optional quests at your leisure. But unlike Pirate’s sunny Caribbean backdrop, SS takes place in a steam punk, Lovecraftian world where a chunk of London dropped into an underground ocean (called the “Neath”) where the laws of physics are in disarray and Hell has a client state filled with anarchists (among other strange occurrences).

This sleeper indie hit does everything NMS does, but better. Ok, SS doesn’t have NMS’s budget, or incredible universe-generation engine, but both games have the same core design philosophy: they each present an alien world (both “alien” and “world” can be metaphorical here) and unleash the player to explore it at his own pace and for his own reasons. They are both wildly experimental games with broad exploration as the primary driving force behind the player experience. But while NMS ended up being… well, No Man’s Sky, Sunless Sea is largely a successful product.

Continue reading “Sunless Sea is what No Man’s Sky Should Have Been”

Paradox Studios, Stocks and Flows, and the Challenge of Contextualization in Stellaris

“As of writing this sentence I have put a combined 2,000 hours into Europa Universalis III, IV, Crusader Kings II, and Victoria II, all of which were developed by the Swedish studio, Paradox. For the uninitiated, Paradox almost exclusively makes incredibly in-depth grand strategy games which place the player in command a nation’s political, economic, military, religious, and social affairs in a wide variety of time periods. If you’re the type of person who loves the Total Wars and Civilizations but you think the AI is too weak and they lack long-term strategic depth, then I cannot urge you more strongly to try a Paradox game.

The company’s latest (assuming you arbitrary ignore Hearts of Iron IV) and arguably riskiest outing yet is Stellaris. Though at first glance Stellaris may appear no different than any other recent space-based 4X venture on Steam, its developer’s pedigree implies a different take on the genre. Indeed, the game’s Steam page calls Stellaris an “evolution of the grand strategy genre with space exploration at its core.” Meaning Stellaris is not merely a space game with more strategic elements than usual, rather it’s intended to be a grand strategy game in the mold of Paradox’s previous endeavors that happens to take place in space.

Imagine the complexity of engaging in dynastic feuds in Crusader Kings, or directing colonial expansion in Europa Universalis, or plotting to start international wars to stimulate your country’s weapons manufacturing industry in Victoria… brought to outer space.

The mind boggles at the possibilities. How will warfare work with spaceships? How will immigration work between alien species? What are the cultural dynamics of intergalactic federations? If an enemy species really pisses me off, can I use the genophage on them? This is an unbelievably cool idea, I am thrilled that a studio as competent as Paradox has decided to take it on, and I am incredibly excited to see where it goes.

But I’m also kind of worried that Stellaris cannot possibly live up to that promise. Not because of any inherent weakness on Paradox’s part, but because the task of capturing the essence of what makes the other Paradox games fun enough for me to invest over 2,000 hours into them, and transferring it into Stellaris’s setting, might be too great of a challenge for any developer.

The problem is one of context. Namely, all of the other beloved Paradox games have a context based in history while Stellaris does not…”


Paradox Studios, Stocks and Flows, and the Challenge of Contextualization in Stellaris



Pure Exploration is not a Valid Standalone Mechanic

“I’ve already written a brief overview of my take on No Man’s Sky and have spent a good portion of the last few days scouring the Internet for the various criticisms and defenses of the game.

Perhaps the most salient and convincing argument I’ve seen thus far on behalf of NMS is the game isn’t meant to be enjoyed by the standards of traditional mechanics, rather, it’s a game based on “pure exploration.” The argument goes something like this:

Due to a combination of Hello Games making vague comments about the potential content of No Man’s Sky and Sony pouring a truck load of money into marketing to fuel the game’s hype machine, a lot of players were misled into believing that NMS was a standard AAA game with wide appeal. In reality, NMS is basically an indie game with an indie-sized development team (15 individuals), working on a barely larger than indie budget, with indie ambitions to fill the niche indie market of pure exploration games. Yes, NMS is lacking a lot of expected features, feels bare bones in parts, and doesn’t have a very compelling core gameplay loop by the standards of traditional big budget open world games, but that doesn’t matter because that was never the point of NMS. The game is really just about exploring cool worlds in an enormous universe and seeing everything that there is to see. It’s all about exploration.”

While I completely sympathize with the idea that an indie developer got caught up in a hype machine, and I’m totally on board with seeing small indie games try wildly experimental gameplay techniques… I don’t buy this argument on behalf of NMS…”


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Pure Exploration is not a Valid Standalone Mechanic

Politics in the Witcher 3 – Part 2

Could it be better to be conquered by an aggressive state than to live under an oppressive, but peaceful government?

The Nilfgaardian Empire is an aggressive state. No one doubts this. The government is explicitly imperial and conquers weaker states merely by virtue of having a stronger economy and army, rather than upon any claim of legitimacy. Unless one happens to be a Nilgaardian and is directly benefiting from its aggression, everyone is in agreement Nilfgaard’s expansion is unjust. The empire’s expedition into Temeria and eventually Redania in The Witcher 3 is just the latest example of this.

However, based on the evidence we see in the game, there is a good case to be made that living under the Nilfgaard Emperor is better than living under any of the other government in the known world. Nilfgaard has a strong culture of law and order, which has apparently ensured the foundation of a thriving economy based on an efficient judicial system and the respect of property rights. Non-humans and magic dabblers aren’t exactly accepted with open arms in Nilfgaard, but they are tolerated by imperial degree. Even witches are allowed to live and practice their craft in Nilfgaard as long as they accept oversight from the government.

The states which Nilfgaard attempts to conquer seem backward in comparison. Their economies are rooted in traditional medieval structures, as opposed to Nilfgaard’s manufacturing focus. Novigrad is still a bustling trade hub, but its economic influence has weakened since its dive into radical religion. Temeria and Novigrad are both under the influence of the Church of the Eternal Flame, which preaches persecution against anyone connected to magic, and non-humans. This eventually leads to oppressed citizens literally being burned at the stake in Novigrad. Likewise, witches are all officially outlaws and are ruthlessly hunted by church and government agents, to be executed or tortured indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Skelligan Jarls have been devoted throughout all known history to a lifestyle based on raiding, raping, and plundering, overlaid with an absurd honor code which demands ritualistic self-sacrifice.

It was blatantly apparent to me fairly early on in the game that the Nilfgaardian Empire was the more just regime internally, but… was the destruction wrought by their conquests worth the gains accrued by its citizens relative to peace under a worse government?…”


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Politics in the Witcher 3 – Part 2

No Man’s Good Game

“What “is” No Man’s Sky?

I ask this question because nearly every defense I’ve read of the game, from errant Youtube comments to early pundit analyses, contains some variation on the statement, “I enjoyed No Man’s Sky for what it is.”

As far as I can tell after twelve hours of gameplay, NMS “is” best described as a road trip. Or at least, the core gameplay feels a lot like driving a car for an extremely long time in one direction while stopping every ten minutes for gas. Because like a road trip NMS is empty, boring, and basically intolerable without music, podcasts, friends to talk to, or all of the above.

But NMS isn’t just any road trip. It’s certainly not like driving the entire length of America’s famous Interstate-80, which takes drivers on a beautiful tour of nearly every geographic wonder in the country, from California’s quasi-Mediterranean beaches to New Jersey’s… underrated farmland. Instead, NMS’s road trip is more like driving the length of Siberia, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostock, in the sense that no matter how far you drive you’re pretty much always going to see the same thing out the window, with very minor variations.

Ok, maybe that’s not fair. Because the player doesn’t actually spend most of his time travelling in NMS, and what travelling is done is either local, or accomplished via a loading screen hidden by a kaleidoscope which is supposed to simulate interstellar travel. Rather the player spends most of his time gathering materials which will either be used to craft fuel which can be used to continue interstellar travelling, or which can be sold to merchants to buy other materials which can be used to craft fuel to continue interstellar travelling. And by “materials,” I mean the same four or five chemical elements which are found in roughly the same locations on every planet. And by “merchants,” I mean one of the three types of alien beings which always stand in the same exact place in the same three or four identical structures on every planet and space station.

So NMS is basically like taking a road trip across Siberia where the driver runs out of gas every fifty miles and must scavenge the local countryside for raw petroleum (which might not be that hard to find in Russia) and bits of valuable rocks, like gold and silver, so that he can sell the valuable rocks to reticent, immobile Russians (who exclusively speak Russian) and then buy chemicals to refine his raw petroleum so the driver can refill his car and continue on the road trip…”


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No Man’s Good Game

Politics in the Witcher 3 – Part 1

“More often than not, ambitious video games that try to be about an important topic end up just mentioning a topic repeatedly without offering any engaging commentary on it. Bioshock tried to be about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, but doesn’t represent the philosophy accurately and ultimately just used a complex philosophy as mere window dressing. Watch_Dogs purported to be about modern surveillance states, but reduces the nuanced tradeoff between security and privacy down to lame mini-games and bad jokes rather than take any serious look at a prescient issue.

But then there’s the Witcher 3, a ridiculously massive game which delves into a huge range of interesting thematic issues including father-daughter relationships, infidelity, social etiquette, the value of traditionalism, social toleration, the psychological costs of warfare, and many others, yet somehow still manages to say more interesting things about the nature of good government than perhaps any other game I have ever played.

That’s a strong statement but I think it’s warranted. The Witcher 3 involves lots of politics, but it’s mostly kept to the background of the more relevant main plot involving Witcher Geralt finding and protecting his missing surrogate daughter, Ciri. Yet lurking behind the thrilling monster hunts, charming characters, and often bleak world building is a political conflict between four major countries, multiple important factions, and dozens of relevant characters who offer conflicting view points on how governments should be run. With a few notable exceptions, these characters rarely state their goals in explicitly philosophical terms, but their views can undoubtedly be plotted along political-philosophical lines. When this set up is combined with some of the best writing in recent video game memory, The Witcher 3 somehow manages to offer a more comprehensive analysis of the nature of government, law, and society than even the likes of the Civilization, Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings 2, and especially Skyrim...”



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Politics in Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Part 1

Liebster Award


Mr. TeaTime at Critical TeaTime nominated me for a Leibster Award which is a way for amateur bloggers to recognize one another. I haven’t read much of Mr. TeaTime’s work, but from what I have seen (his recent-ish Bioshock Infinite post) it looks pretty good.

In accordance with the award’s rules, Mr. TeaTime asked me twelve questions related to our shared topic. Here are questions and my responses:


  1. What game melts your cold critic heart? Meaning a game you know is flawed and has issues, but you cannot dislike it and will defend it until the end of time.

Colosseum: Road to Freedom was a 2005 PS2 release which I doubt anyone remembers today let alone cared about back then. While I’m not sure how such a buggy, incomplete mess of a game even made it to launch, it holds a special place in my heart for being one of the greatest mixtures of good ideas with bad execution I’ve ever seen.

Colosseum is the closest thing to Madden: Gladiator Edition we may ever see (which I wrote a bit about here). That core concept alone is so endearing that it’s a travesty no one else has picked it up since. You play as a slave (with a player-chosen country of origin and former profession) who in captured and sent to Rome to live and die as a gladiator in the hopes of one day saving up enough money earned from victorious bouts to buy your own freedom. Every day you either train at the “ludus” to upgrade your stats or go to one of two arenas where you can choose what fights to enter, earn money prizes, and shop for better equipment.

Seriously, it’s a great fucking system. It provides a more than adequate set up and motivation for the somewhat monotonous hack-and-slash combat where the next reward (an expensive new sword, a higher gladiator rank, etc.) is always just around the corner. Even the combat was a brilliantly original system where the location of a weapon strike was coordinated with placement of the button on the controller (ie. “triangle” aims high, “square” aims left, etc.). With proper tweaking there was tremendous potential for Colosseum’s combat to become a revolutionary take both on PvE and duel melee fighting.

But absolutely everything about the game was incompetently executed, if not outright broken. Enemy AI was generally braindead to the point that most gladiators wouldn’t even bother trying to defend themselves as you hacked away at their heads with an axe (duel AI was far better, but only by being recklessly aggressive, much like Super Smash Bros AI). The four combat styles (unarmed, small shield, big shield, and dual wield) were cool but helplessly unbalanced. There weren’t enough match types and most were slight variations on each other. A pointless story takes up too much time and laughably, blatantly rips of Gladiator at every available opportunity. The needlessly punishing weapon-drop system could more or less end your chances for survival at any point throughout a 20 hour campaign.

And yet I’ve played through Colosseum at least ten times. Back when it came out I introduced it to a couple of friends and we poured dozens of hours into its primitive multiplayer duels. There are so many great ideas buried under so much shit that if I even end up being a billionaire somehow someday, I’m going to find the old developers, give them a truck-load of cash, and tell them to remake the damn thing with some proper oversight and play testing.

Anyway, if you have a PS2 and can find Colosseum: Road to Freedom on Amazon or something, try it out.

Continue reading “Liebster Award”