Forging a Path – How to Capture Replayability

As luck would have it, the steam summer sale fell in the middle of my awesome vacation. I, therefore, had no time to play any games. Luckily though I managed enough of an internet connection to buy a few and have them waiting for when I got back to America.

One of the games included in my haul this summer was Valdis Story: Abyssal City. The game is listed under the tags Metroidvania, Action, RPG, Platformer, and Indie, so the chance that I wouldn’t at least semi-like it was already slim.

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The art throughout is bright and bold, similar to Dust

In short, I really loved the game. The single best thing I can say is that the game has extreme replayability. As soon as I finished the game the first time (in around 6 hours), I immediately started up another file on a harder difficulty. There are a bunch of reasons for this, all of which symbiotically reinforce the others. First, there are four difficulty levels: normal, hard, veteran, and god slayer. When I first started the game I opted for hard, but found it too challenging and moved to normal. Now I am replaying it on hard and having no difficulty. That leads into the second quality that assists replayability – the game is heavily skill based. Initially I could not even progress through the game on hard, and now on this second try I am flying through it. Third, the RPG element of the game is no pushover. The skill, spell, stat, and alignment systems ensure that you get fairly comprehensive control over your character and reward different play styles. The system, on the whole, is complex enough that you can make mistakes, again ensuring that more experienced players who make smart choices early on have a better chance as the game progresses in difficulty. Finally, if all that wasn’t enough, there are four playable characters, each of which is drastically different – entirely different skills and spells, as well as weapon choices and attack patterns. Just because you’ve mastered one character doesn’t mean you’ve figured out the game.

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Each character does have loosely defined attack, defense, and magic skill trees, but even within them the differences start to appear. Because of the system of prerequisites for skills (denoted by connecting lines downwards) it is important to pick skills not only for what they do but for what later skills they help unlock.

Secondly, the game gets a solid B+ for story and an A-/A for visuals and sound. You very quickly begin fighting against both demons and angels, so rest assured that it’s not a standard you’re good/you’re bad go fight the other people kind of thing. The story also manages to create a fairly fleshed out and engaging world to explore, which is always a really nice thing to have in any metroidvania (which by definition require some amount of exploration). I can’t give top marks for the story only because it is a little short, and that the dialogue is a little shallow and cookie cutter.

Visually the game is beautiful. Areas are bright and diverse, colors are bold and the fast paced action is accented by quick flashy animation. The overall feel of the game is helped by the epic soundtrack which wonderfully captures the difference between demonic and angelic settings. I particularly loved the boss battle (of which there are many) music, which contributes to both the epicness and the time sensitivity of the fight.

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The first of many, many boss battles. You are graded on your performance on each one, which is yet another reason to replay the game over and over again.

Where the game starts to stumble, ironically, is in being a metroidvania. Some features that should really be considered standard are simply missing. For example, one big one is the ability to access the world map. As it stands you can only access the map for the area you are in, so it’s up to you to remember how that area connects to the other areas you’ve explored and what path to take to a specific one. On a related note, there is no hint feature telling you roughly where to go. It was really nice when the game would at least point you in the right direction after you’d wandered for half an hour or more not sure how to progress, a feature that became fairly standard starting with Metroid Prime. Without such a system, you’re stuck re-checking every reachable room to see if there’s something to do there with a new ability you didn’t have the last time you were present. This isn’t all that bad here, as the whole map in Valdis Story is pretty small, but I did have to look up a guide once just to save myself an hour or more of useless wandering trying to find where to use a newly found key.

Secondly, the game expects you to make certain logical leaps without giving literally any suggestion towards them. This is more of an RPG problem, and is an area of challenge that isn’t fun. Rather than understanding the puzzle and upon completion think, “YES! I am the best”, you are forced to try every possibility, eventually get lucky, and then think, “How was I supposed to know that was the answer??” After getting a new set of spells, it’s fairly standard throughout the game for you to have to use one of them to escape the newly sealed room, but (even after realizing that you now can’t leave) you have to go into the menu and read through all of the descriptions to figure out which new spell can get you out of this mess. It would have been really nice for an unobtrusive line of text to appear a few seconds after gaining the new spells, hinting you towards what new ability to use. Furthermore, the game would vastly benefit from a built-in glossary of game terms. It uses arbitrary fantasy words like affliction and reckoning, which clearly have in-game significance, without ever defining them. Even simple words like stealth don’t have a clear definition listed anywhere. I’m all for not throwing walls of text at the player, breaking immersion and slowing the game down, but that information really should be available somewhere in case I want to look it up.

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Do you know what stealth means by default? I don’t.

On the whole, though, the game is incredible. Even as a metroidvania I loved it. It struck the right balance of exploration and fun “ooo I remember an area where I can now use this new ability” backtracking. The combat is intense and extremely skill based (as opposed to button mashing), and even the platforming was challenging and kept stages fresh.

More than anything else, Valdis Story: Abyssal City truly shines in its replayability. Capturing replayability in single player campaign-based games is a challenge that designers are constantly trying to defeat. Unlike sandbox games, multiplayer games, or single-player match-based strategy games, single player campaign games usually struggle to present any value after completion. In this regard, they are closer to books and movies than their other game companions. Once you’ve experienced the story and seen what’s behind each hidden turn, that’s kind of all it has to offer. You might re-read your favorite book or series a few, maybe even ten or more times, but that’s nothing compared the thousands, even tens of thousands of matches enjoyed by the standard LoL or Smash player. Stories are, inherently, finite. So long as it is pre-programmed or pre-written, it has to come to a hopefully satisfying conclusion at some point. Yet, single player campaign games are nonetheless judged by the same expectations of playable hours as other games, and thus are constantly looking for ways to give the player more to do.

One avenue of doing this is to create more and more subquests, small but branching storylines allow (but don’t force) the player to explore the world while simultaneously continuing to experience story content. This isn’t a bad option, but for better or worse it always seems to detract from the main story. One example that comes to mind is Skyrim. Yes, there is a central story in Skyrim, but most people don’t seem to care. All Skyrim discussion that I’ve seen bleed onto the other parts of the Internet (i.e. Imgur, Facebook) usually refers to weird physics quirks and funny NPC interactions, as opposed to interesting plot points and underlying themes. Despite Skyrim’s certainly epic story, it is discussed more like Minecraft than like Harry Potter. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the last thing you want to do when crafting an epic story is to add content that detracts from it.

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I think I can say with confidence that this is the most important thing to come out of Skyrim. This meme.

Valdis Story, for all of its missing help features, does something so right that the story is both important and central, and yet I want to play again. The answer, I believe, is the right combination of challenge and choice. Give me enough challenge that I am basically unable to complete the game on the hardest difficulty on my first playthrough, and am instead forced to use an easier one instead. It is thus clear that I have not bested the game; there remains a further challenge to conquer. Give me enough choice that I am aware that I may be making mistakes on my first play through, ones that I could make better if I knew what I was doing. It is thus clear that the path I took through the game was not the only one, nor likely the best one.

If the game doesn’t have additional levels of challenge, no amount of choice will get me to play again. If I’ve already gotten the gold medal, so to speak, using set of choices A, there’s no point in doing it again with set of choices B. I’ve already won, no need to do it again. If there’s not enough room for choice, on the other hand, additional levels of challenge will feel redundant. I did the best I could with the options available and was able to attain a high enough proficiency at the game to beat it. Allowing me the ability to try again at a harder challenge, but not make significant alterations to my play style, means that the only way I’ll beat the harder level is to, as they say in the biz, “get gud”. I, the player outside of the screen, have gained knowledge by my first play through the game. Let me use that knowledge!

Crucially, none of this detracts from the story. I approached and beat the epic final boss of the game for the first time with the guilty knowledge that my victory would be a bit hollow. I knew that I was playing on the easiest of the available difficulties. In the real story the final boss would be impossibly difficult to defeat. I’m still invested in the story because it was made clear that a full and fulfilling conclusion was still just outside of my grasp, and that I would have to play both smarter and better in order to achieve it.

Overall, I give Valdis Story a 9/10. Would I play it again? I already am.

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AES’EA – Ever After We Lived, The End

It’s really good to be home. I woke up very tired and mildly hungover, which makes a lot of sense giving how much I must have drunk the prior night. Moreover, there’s a non-zero percent chance that there was something extra in the last couple drinks I had. So, all in all a great start to a full few days of traveling.

Regardless, the show must go on (or rather, the show must end), so I pulled myself together and we headed out to the Chiang Mai airport. We left ourselves plenty of time because our first flight technically marked the beginning of an international trip, but had no problem getting through security and departing immigration in under an hour. I lounged around the airport for a few hours, spending the few remaining baht I found in my wallet and binging Steven Universe, my new guilty TV obsession. When did Cartoon Network get so trippy and randomly super deep? It’s nothing like the Cartoon Network I remember from my childhood, and yet oddly reminiscent of what it was, somehow.

Regardless, we eventually got on the first plane and began the journey home. All told, my trip home included:

  • Four flights – CNX -> BNK (Bangkok) ->AUH (Abu Dhabi) -> JFK -> IAD (Dulles)
  • Going through security four times
  • Going through some form of international customs twice
  • A two hour uber ride from Dulles airport to home in Charlottesville

Summed up, the trip took a grand total of 41.5 hours. I arrived at the Chiang Mai airport at noon on Saturday the 2nd, and got home at 6:30pm on Sunday the 3rd. Additionally, Thailand is eleven hours ahead of the eastern United States (and thus there are eleven hours of travel not accounted for by the time differences between arrival and departure). Thus 12:00-6:30 + a day lost + 11 hours of time change = 41.5 hours. The trip wasn’t so much bad as just unbelievably long. By the end I was falling asleep on my feet, but somehow managed to make it home.

The vacation on the whole was amazing. I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone considering a longer, less traditional vacation to jump at the chance. If you have the ability to take the adventure of a lifetime, don’t pass that chance up. In that direction, here are some tips should you decide to take a trip that is in any way similar to mine.

Pack smarter, not more. One big thing I didn’t realize is that the standard bag weight of 50lbs is only an American thing. Many of our flights throughout the trip had a 15kg bag weight limit, which converts to just over 33lbs. Thus if you truly do pack a 50lb bag, you’ll either have to throw out a third of it, or pay an extra $100 for each 15kg-weight limited flight you take. I was lucky enough to have only packed around 38lbs, but I did have to carry a very heavy carry-on through a bunch of airports, which is never fun. Also, on a larger scale, vacationing on the go means physically moving your own luggage a lot more often than a single destination vacation. Every pound of luggage you leave at home is a pound you aren’t carrying from location to location. Make sure to bring what you need, but try to avoid the “I’m not sure when I’ll use this but it can’t hurt to pack it” mindset.

Second, hostels are awesome. There are of course the simple arguments for such: hostels are usually cheaper and usually more centrally located than their hotel competitors. If both (or even only one) are significantly true, picking a hostel is an easy decision. Even if the hostel you are evaluating is equivalently priced and located to a hotel, I would even still push for the hostel. Whereas hotels are focused on an individualized vacationing experience, hostels naturally push the current occupants together towards a more group oriented experience. When your goal is to get out and experience the area, there’s little better than having a group of similarly-minded new friends who will both nag you away from spending the night doing nothing on your computer and also accompany you on your adventures. Each new person you add to your traveling group reduces the likelihood that you waste a day or night, and because you aren’t even technically traveling together you can break away from them at any point if you discover you have different vacationing goals.

Finally, ahead of the vacation, think about how full your want your vacation to be. In an average day, how many activities are you going to try to do, how many activities would you be satisfied doing? Just one? Two or three? For whole day activities, how long can they be? Are you ok with twelve hour activities? Sixteen? Are you ok with having a day to sit by the pool, read and drink something cold? Or is the very suggestion offensive? Different people vacation in different ways, and thus have different expectations of what a vacation should be. Personally, I need a chiller vacation. I’m perfectly happy doing one main activity each day and filling the remaining time with aimlessly walking around the area and relaxing. Moreover, I tend to need a lot of sleep, so after a few early mornings and heavily physical activities, I need a lazy day. I am able to persist, but it stops being fun and stops being interesting once I’m tired the moment I wake up. You, of course, will have your own travel-related quirks. Remember that the point of vacationing is, ultimately, to have fun and at least mentally (if not physically) relax. If you ever catch yourself thinking, “I need a vacation after this vacation”, you probably packed it too full. It’s your vacation! There’s nothing stopping you from just doing fewer things per day. Alternatively, if you’re just not enjoying doing nothing as much as you imagined you would when you were overworked and planning the vacation, get off your ass and do something else!

So, that’s it. Thanks to all who kept up with my travels along the way! This marks both the end of the vacation, and the end of semi-daily posts. For next time, back to the regularly scheduled programming.

AES’EA – Ethics

By this point, we were on a roll with cramming in touristy things at the last minute. Given that we finally made it to the city, we decided to spend our last morning taking a six hour biking tour. The tour (through the company Grasshopper) was a bit light on biking but immensely enjoyable. I felt like we actually saw the city as our tour guides weaved us through back alleys and through crowded marketplaces.

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Fresh squeezed, 100% fruit juice. Delicious, nutritious, less than $1
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The three kings who built a large chunk of Chiang Mai, if memory serves. The one on the right seems displeased by something, but the one on the left is like “bro chill it’s k”
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The pyramids here seem to be much more similar to those found in Central America. This particular one was damaged in an earthquake not too long ago.

The tour even included lunch, eaten in traditional style for Chiang Mai. The dishes are served in small bowls in the center of the table. Each person gets a personal basket of sticky rice, with which they make balls and eat the dishes from the center using the rice as a spoon. It was quite fun, and as is seemingly the case with all non-American eating traditions, it forces you to slow down.

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All of the dishes were made white-person spicy, which was a thoughtful touch if a bit sad in its necessity. Really really tasty though!

We passed a few hours lounging at the hotel, and then our final night of our trip was upon us. For dinner we found a.. wait for it.. all you can eat sushi + Korean BBQ style place for 399 baht a person, about $13. We definitely got our money’s worth there.

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You know what’s even better than unlimited amounts of food? Unlimited amounts of food that is endlessly paraded past your seat. By the time I was done I had a stack of plates a foot tall. 

Now we get to the part of the trip that got a bit dicey. Do know in advance that it all ended well and it’s in the past, so no need to worry; I’m fine. We went out to a bar throwing a superhero-themed party, and over the course of the night I was very nearly sucked into a scam of some kind. I’m not sure what the scam was for, or how much I stood to lose, but suffice to say that I caught on to what was happening just in the nick of time and got out entirely unscathed. The only money I lost was an extra few dollars on a tuk tuk that I didn’t properly negotiate.

Looking back on the night and trying to figure out where the scam began, I’m both angry and sad. There was a long string of social interactions, each (in retrospect) designed to push me towards the next. Was every single person I talked to that night part of the same scam, each promised a cut of whatever they could extract from my wallet? Was not a single interaction I had genuine? I’m honestly not sure. The most telling factor was when people were fully avoiding questions. I really dislike the “if it feels off there’s something wrong” rule of thumb, because sometimes people are just awkward and I (as one of those people) feel bad for thinking less of people because of it. Still, it seems that sometimes being willing to go with the flow comes back to bite you.

I made it home safely and collapsed into bed. Tomorrow, back home.

AES’EA – Sunk Costs

The best thing about vacationing at my age and in a very small group is the flexibility it allows. After two days at the Panviman resort, Ethan and I decided we’d rather just book another hotel down in the city itself. We managed to find somewhere quite cheap ($35/night) and, being smart and rational people, weren’t bothered by the sunk cost of leaving our existing reservation. For those of you who haven’t taken or don’t remember introductory micro economics, it’s quite worthwhile to do a bit of research on what sunk costs are and how to think about them. Having correct mental accounting will prevent you from making many bad decisions that resulted from wanting “to get your money’s worth”.

But now, back to the trip! On our second to last day we followed through on our hotel transfer. Thus, we spent the morning packing up and checking out. For the early afternoon we decided to check one big Thai box – we had to see some elephants!

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We paid ~$1 for the privilege of feeding them bananas and sugar cane logs. It was pretty clear that the elephants knew exactly what was up, as they all started vying for attention as soon as we walked close enough to feed them.
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Yes the elephant is being guided by a trainer, but the whole painting thing is still really impressive. I’d also love to show one of these to an art critic and have them tell me what the artist must have been thinking while painting.

I’ve always felt a little uneasy at zoos, and this experience was no exception. For most zoo animals, elephants included, you can very easily tell that they aren’t really suited to the zoo life and are heavily influenced by their surroundings. We tried our best to pick an ethically upstanding elephant viewing location, but honestly every location claims to be perfect and there didn’t seem to be any official seal or other telling mark that we could use to break the tie. If the ethical treatment of animals is extra important to you, and you plan on seeing any in Thailand, I would recommend that you do your research ahead of time and have locations already picked out; once there, it’s impossible to tell.

We were satisfied after seeing the show, and so returned to our resort, grabbed our luggage, and headed down into town. After fighting with the desk attendants about the type of room we had, we decided to walk around town for the rest of the afternoon and evening. For dinner, I was (and have been for a while) really craving wings. As luck would have it, we passed an American-style BBQ place called Big Daddy’s relatively quickly after leaving the hotel.

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Any place that randomly adds a few onion rings to your order is A-OK with me

All of the travel was finally catching up with us, so we returned home to our new, non-resort but much more conveniently located hotel.