Tuesday, November 27, 2018

If you don't communicate your rules

This post comes out of a new series of writing I do on ASOIAF meta and other topics of popular culture over at the Patreon of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. If you like to read stuff like this, chime in just 1$ and you get access to everything I write. If you throw in 2$, you even get access to mini-podcasts I'm doing with Sean T. Collins answering questions by listeners of the podcast. Give the Patreon a look
I like playing the X-COM games. In case you never heard of them, you're tasked with defeating an alien invasion that threatens the whole world, which has taken the sensible step of pooling all its resources into an organization that has around three squads of very good soldiers and can respond to exactly one crisis at a time because they have only one transport. When the aliens become stronger, your funds are cut. Exactly what you'd need to do in case of an invasion. It reminds one of the premise of Pacific Rim. 
Anyway, the games are round-based tactical strategy, which means you order around your squad on a tactical map where each soldier has certain actions he can perform and try to outsmart the aliens. Between missions, you research new tech and perform other more strategic tasks. It's good fun if you like that sort of thing. 
If you REALLY like that sort of thing, you install the "Long War" mod. It's a giant fan-made modification that blows up the length of your average campaign from the reasonable twenty-ish hours of the basegame to something around 80-120 hours. It also offers a wealth of new options in upgrades, skill trees, strategic choices, etc. And it's fiendishly difficult to boot. 
Now, you might say: "Stefan, don't be such a coward! Difficult games have their challenges, and I'm glad that there are games like this!" And sure, I can see that argument. But the Long War mod does have three problems that for me destroy what in theory I could really like. 
You will inevitably fail. This is ok, again, it's upposed to be difficult. The problem is that your failing happens around ten to thirty hours before you notice it. That means you can be forty hours into the game and only then realize that you fucked up thirty hours ago. 
The second problem ist that your failing comes in the form of a vicious cycle. One mistake, or simple bad luck, can start such a cycle that will lead you into an ever devolving drain of further failure with practically no chance to escape. That's bad. The same happens for the base game as well, but because that game doesn't suffer from problem number three, you usually notice your failing earlier and don't lose too much time. 
So, problem number three is the one I can't excuse. The other two you can file under "high difficulty", and if you like that, fine. The third, though, I don't accept. It's not communicating your rules clearly. 
The Long War mod does something quite a lot of more complex video games do (Paradox Interactive is another perpetrator here): it gives you a ton of interlocking systems that work quietely in the background that you can influence indirectly and which are HUGELY important. But the game doesn't explain to you how they work or how you can influence them OR THAT THEY'RE EVEN THERE. 
And that's not difficulty, that's just bad programming. You can essentially only play the Long War mod (or one of those Paradox monsters) when you open the fan-made Wiki in another window and permanently cross-reference it. Because it's not like that stuff would work randomly in the background, work as essentially a Fate putting down her weight on the scales of destiny. That's Darkest Dungeon, and you can do that, and it makes a game difficult, and that's ok. 
Long War and other games guilty of this sin simply outsource writing a good manual or tutorial to the community. And that's really, really not ok. 
And then, because these people hate you, there will be semi-regular updates that change whole features and variables, so you'd need to constantly start the learning process anew.
I'd really like to like Long War and other games like this. In theory, they're totally my thing. But Problem Number Three breaks them for me. Sorry.