In Praise of Craftsmanship

The web-site is going back into mothballs for a while.  On Monday, I start at Magic Leap, and since everything I’m going to be doing is under the cone of silence, there won’t be anything to say publicly.

But, before I go, I wanted to give a big shout-out to the design team at EA Capital Games.  I’ve been playing Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes during this cross-country transition, and while it is not revolutionary or particularly inventive, it does all the little things well.  At its heart, it’s a re-skin of Heroes Charge (which is itself a re-skin of a successful Asian game), and while it uses the same core combat, equipment, and progression mechanics, it does so with lots of polish.

It’s hard to capture all of the little bits, in part because there are so many of them, but just for starters:

  • The crafting system UI obviates the need for understanding the crafting system; you drill down until you find the piece you need, then go directly to where you need to get it.  All precursor combinations are handled automatically.
  • The daily activities cover all of the core activities in the game, so you are rewarded for engaging with everything, every day.
  • The sim system allows you to grind without spending tons of time.  It is monetized, but so gently that you can still use it as a FTP player, which just incentives conversion more.
  • There are multiple dimensions of advancement that are revealed over time, including tutorials that introduce and repeat key interactions before unlocking major gameplay components.
  • The materials needed for different characters’ advancement span all of the gameplay modes.
  • You never need to see your inventory, which would be hugely cluttered and illegible on mobile devices.
  • When sending items to guild-mates, it shows you how many of that item you have before you have to decide whether to donate any.
  • The AI is stupid enough to give players an incentive to control the characters directly, but not so stupid that it can’t beat you.  This also levels out PvP matches considerably.
  • Players can select targets for the AI without directly controlling characters, which is faster but clumsier than controlling them in detail, a valuable tradeoff at times.
  • Combat is predictable but not deterministic; there are enough variables to allow for a wide range of strategies, but even exotic combinations make sense within the ruleset.

I could go on and on for pages.  From the raid system to the advancement maps, the timing of leveling over the first week’s play session, the variable timings for refreshes, the balance of the gachapon, the character/shard system, there is just so much that the team has done right, over and over and over again.  Clearly, there are excellent designers and solid design leadership on this team.

If you need a grindy RPG time-waster to carry around in your pocket, I highly recommend it.

Strangely Familiar Things

There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things on Netflix.  If you haven’t seen it, don’t read this.  This is full of spoilers.  Don’t worry, you can go watch it and come back; the internet isn’t going anywhere.

 

Seriously, major spoilers here.

 

I’m not kidding.

 

Okay, fine.

Like many other children of the 80’s, the show hits my nostalgia buttons, from the language to the clothes to the references, it does a great job of calling back to that era, with just a few stand-out anachronisms.  The performances are also really good, and at all levels.  In fact, I love that it has three parallel levels, just like a Shakespeare play, each dealing with the same issues and themes, but from different perspectives.  The audio is fantastic; the editing is excellent; the directing is spot-on.  I don’t want anyone to think I didn’t like the show, or appreciate it; I did and I do.

However, WTF is with Eleven sacrificing herself to defeat the demogorgon?  Sacrifice is heroic, sure, but couldn’t they have expelled the monster without destroying her?  Yes, there’s a circularity to it; she brought the monster into our world, so she takes it out again.  But, if she was powerful enough to bridge that gap without destroying herself, why does she have to be eliminated to destroy the link?  Narratively, there are any number of options available for resolving this (and yes, I know they can bring her back in season 2), but symbolically, what this says is that we should celebrate the sacrifices our precocious, talented, special young girls make to save our boys.

We really need to stop that.

Especially in kids this age, when they’re just starting to come out of childhood and start that journey through adolescence to adulthood, when we lose so many bright, talented girls because of the social stigma of being smart, confident, capable – all things we celebrate in our boys – we need to stop putting the burden on the girls to make way for the boys, to stand aside so that others can excel.  Girls are taught about self-sacrifice and maintaining the good of the group from a very young age, and apparently that applies even to girls who have been raised in brutal, laboratory conditions.

Slight side note – I nearly stopped watching the show in episodes 3 & 4.  The presentation of the brutality that Eleven experienced was so strongly coded in child abuse and neglect that emotionally, I could barely stand to continue watching.  I know kids who have been locked in closets by their parents; I know kids who have been left, isolated and cold and alone, exposed to the elements with no escape.  At some level, the treatment of Eleven has to justify her killing people to get out of the lab and again in resisting going back, but that really could have been done without such strong troping of child abuse.  That’s a kind of horror I have no interest in seeing in any format.

That’s not the only place that the show runs afoul of gender structures.  There’s the brains vs. sex troping of Nancy from the very beginning, followed through with the slut-shaming, and the “who will she choose”, as though her partner choices were the most interesting thing about her.  Barb apparently doesn’t merit a funeral or a family who is bereft at her loss – no journey to the upside-down to save good girls; no frantic search for clues when you’re the less-attractive friend.

The show has a similar blindness around race, it seems.  Lucas at least gets a home space represented (Dustin doesn’t even get that), but what does that house look like?  The show is constantly re-visiting the establishing shots of the Wheeler and Byers houses, and the class markers between them are crystal clear, but the secondary, non-white characters don’t even have a place in this space.  You could argue that this is self-aware irony, that the show presents a token Black character as a critique of the tokenism of the time, except that doesn’t actually advance anything.  That puts us back in the 80’s at best (ironic self-detachment is hardly new), but surely we can ask more meaningful questions about what it meant to be one of a handful of Black kids in the midwest; how being a geek inflects differently; what that Vietnam experience means beyond having military hardware available.

The show sails past all of this.  It tells a compelling story, and it does it well, don’t get me wrong, but we should be careful about nostalgia for privilege and erasure.  “Remember how nice everything was back when we could be as sexist and racist as we wanted to be” is a dangerous politics to enable.  When you venture through the veil, be careful what you bring back with you.