When games use theme and mechanics to criticise Big Business, mate, I love it. I get to occupy two cartoonised depictions of 2015’s cultural dichotomy at once.
I get to enjoy the cutting satire, the mischievous take-down of those corporate fat cats. This game about manufacturing pharmaceuticals is the next step toward the revolution. I’ve named my fake company “Glaxosmith-CRIME”, right? Yeah?
But also I get to enjoy them entirely straight-faced without any self-examination. I can be the important man in the nice suit. The one who says it doesn’t matter that our company produces a facial cream which gives people nightmares. It’s too expensive to fix this.
Think of the Profit Margin.
I’m too good at the latter. I’ve internalised too many Jack Welch aphorisms from the motivational poster at my work. “Take a seat,” I say, to a weary Liz Lemon “Let me tell you a thing or two about Dave Brailsford’s Aggregation of Marginal Gains theory.”
Starting a game of Big Pharma means taking on an overall goal. Make enough money by a certain date or produce enough high-grade anti-anxiety medicine or some such, then get dropped into overseeing a massive factory with only one room initially available and a bit of start-up cash to buy automated conveyor belts and equipment. I have my Starcraft-like opening build totally figured out: I check which of my starting ingredients is cheapest to turn into something that’ll give a consumer a slight tingle and then I build a few production lines pumping out pill after pill of that.
It’s so difficult not to overextend. In my first few games I blew all my pocket money investing in researchers that can reduce the cost of production or devise new machinery… before I was making enough consistent profit to afford them. Don’t do that. That’s a little strategic advice from me.
Since then I’ve learned that you can’t be in the red too long or you’ll never get out, you can’t invest too much without leaving yourself a little bit of “oops I have to fix all of this immediately” money, but you also can’t be too scared to allow yourself a spending spree every now and then. Bringing in too much cash without re-investing it means your company is never going to grow any further.
In my games now the early profit line is rising above and below the surface like we’re on the opening screen of Ecco The Dolphin. I’ll have a little bit of money in reserve but until the nerds in the lab figure out a way to make the pills $3 extra at the point of sale and how to spend 10% less on Quartz then we’re not going to be building a production line for gout medicine any time soon.
It’s so difficult to find the right balance, I’ve gone from elated, buying up more factory space to make another production line, then learning a competitor has just released a better version of my existing wares and I’m practically out of business.
So inevitably the game incentivises cutting corners, say, choosing not to dilute your pills down quite as far. If the machine adds $10 to production but doesn’t make as much back in profit? Don’t do it.
No solution in Big Pharma is elegant, if the pills are good it’s probably a happy coincidence. The machinery’s expensive and floor space is in short supply so the less of it the better. Each machine used to alter concentration spits out its result in a different direction, so designing a path from reagent delivery to the “get this medicine out of here” shoot is never a perfect crow-flies route.
At best, the series of conveyors and machines takes up as little space as possible. Until you have to redesign the entire path to make the resulting chemicals better formulated for more specific tasks, turning painkillers into migraine relief, requiring a totally new set of machines and messing up your tidied pathing in the process.
There’s still a lot of missions I’m nowhere near skilled enough to go near yet. My hope is that I’ll discover the game that I truly want. I’ve bought it hoping that I’ll be able to write my own narrative of selling medicine with a side effect, while also selling medicine which cures it. I’m horrible.
I’ve yet to see any “Potentially Fatal” side effects. I hope I do. I hope my factory gets shut down. Because of course I’m not going to fix that. It’ll be too expensive.
Big Pharma is still in Beta, you can get it Here for $19.95
We’ve recorded so many episodes it’s impossible for us to remember what happened on any of them. This one, though? This one’s the episode you’ll cherish in your quiet moments.
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Mat watched Wrestlemania for the first time in a Decade! Everyone else watched a whole lot of Steven Universe! Did we manage to find any time for video games? An hour of audio content suggests… possibly?
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I don’t think “Dyscourse” is a good name for the video game it’s been affixed on. The post-it slapped to the game’s box with “Dyscourse” scrawled over is barely affixed, about to come loose and drift slowly down like a fluorescent square leaf in a humid ketamine autumn. Underneath there’s the placeholder title: “It’s A Game About Crash Landing On A Desert Island But We Don’t Know What To Call It Yet”.
I get why Owlchemy would have settled on this name and presumably gone to a late lunch immediately afterward. Dyscourse. Discourse. There are conversations in the game, but they’re… bad? And the ensemble cast is on a “course” somewhere else, but instead they’re stranded after a plane-crash. Everyone in the story makes a “course” of action in order to try and survive the next day and hopefully get home, but maybe that also doesn’t go as intended. It’s clever, but it’s not very evocative of the setting. A game with the name Dyscourse could be set anywhere. Richard Hoffmeier could have called “Cart Life” Dyscourse and it still would have technically worked, but wouldn’t have felt any more appropriate there than it does here.
Maybe call the game “I’ll Land”. Like… Island, but… it’s referring to a helicopter pilot there to finally pick whoever’s left up at the end of the story. Maybe it’s also like how cats will always land on their feet; suffering through adversity but you eventually make it through unscathed.
See? That’s also terrible. It’s difficult to name something. I don’t begrudge the team for settling.
Dyscourse is a decent overlap of Telltale-style narrative-point-and-clicks and wildly careening choose-your-own-adventures. It’s very silly, which is at times charming and at others totally dissonant. It’s a ridiculous romp with jokes and mascots and comical irony, but it’s also a fairly serious game where characters die in gruesome circumstances. Then, usually, barely a moment passes before the next lighthearted quip.
The inaugural choice in Dyscourse is which of two people who’ve appeared on screen for the first time should be saved from minor grazes from an attack by angry crabs. That’s pretty funny, right? That’s some Monkey Island-type shenanigans. Some naughty crabs are having a cheeky nip at the shins of two poor lads down by the beach until they’re scared away by a barista holding a frying pan as a weapon. We know what we’re in store for in the rest of the story, right?
But… later on, depending on narrative branches, a choice could be “which person should distract a predator, knowingly being mauled to death so that others can escape”. Moments after that, maybe the choice is “should one of the injured and hungry survivors give up looking for a chance to send a radio signal and maybe just lay down and die”.
Dyscourse’s narrative branches are too short, failing to get enough light, blocked out by the bulbous overhead Thistle of limited game development budget. The scope is too wide. In emulating recent narrative adventure games it’s let down by its lack of ability to characterise its cast in limited time and the uncertainty over narrative path can lead to wildly veering tone.
The Walking Dead’s the gold standard in this genre now. It allows full five episode seasons of two hour long games to properly introduce the cast, display their motivations and have them plucked away unduly. Telltale also decided to keep the decisions largely maintained to limited narrative quirks. A character remembering your reaction and later having dialogue based on your choice leads to a story tailored enough to your decisions and also reigns in the narrative, prevents some choices veering wildly into an area that would require more development effort than absolutely necessary.
Dyscourse is a different game. Playthroughs are short, intending that the game should be played multiple times in order to see everything available. Most decisions can make the narrative go in wildly different ways. These veering turns have meant a lack of focus and direction, an inability to ensure that a certainty of character development arc exists and it leaves the main cast feeling one dimensional. Telltale’s fairly linear narratives and episodic structure work in its favour when developing tonally consistent words that allow for levity but are largely grim over all. They know that a horror beat occurred moments before and can write around it. Dyscourse’s total playthroughs are a little too short to feel like every character is properly given time to develop, and especially too short to ensure there’s enough of a buffer between tragedy and a quick gag.
The developers have said that there’s a novel’s worth of dialogue written for the game and though that’s an impressive statistic, it’s fairly worrying in implementation. Inevitably some paths are better produced and considered than others just as a reality of game development’s struggle against deadline.
After completing the first playthrough a tool for rewinding a day is unlocked and this can be used to savescum out a more preferable result or just see all of the other branches. I mentioned Cart Life earlier, a game that made similar decisions about terrible things happening to its protagonists and it also benefited from retrying after an initial completion with knowledge that couldn’t have possibly been obtained in the first attempt.
Cart Life was using this difficulty and lack of understanding to say something about adult life without a financial safety net. That being in this situation is perilous and would inevitably lead to sacrifices and misery for reasons utterly disconnected from your own actions. I don’t know what Dyscourse is saying other than it’s a game where you can try and save everyone the second time if you’re perfect at deciding which day is best to go gather food and when you should try and get some water.
And still, all of this in mind, I quite like it. Cute character moments in the face of adversity are charming, though the cast rarely feel like cardboard representations of their initial appearance, they’re fun to speak to while setting aside the assumption they’ll have any growth. The game’s strengths are in its silliness, dragged down by a setting and tone which doesn’t benefit it.
I wish the team was making a different game, one which actually plays to their strengths. Something as ridiculous as Dyscourse is attempting to be without being brought down by an inconsistent tone.
Josh, Patrick and Tine did something very special and fun: they went to play Watch The Skies: Global Conspiracy, a megagame! So they decided to do a recording of what they thought of that.
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Released on November 14th for Personal Computers running Apple, Windows and Linux operating systems, 11-Bit Studios’ This War Of Mine is a video game.
The game supports only one mode of input, as such it is a “single player” game. The player begins This War Of Mine by using their mouse, touchpad or late 90s laptop cursor-nub to move a control pointer and “click” the “begin game” button.
In This War Of Mine the player either does or does not accrue resources, at their discretion. The game continues if the correct resources are found. It ends if they are not.
The player can control characters to perform actions. Clicking the environment will often move a character from one position to another. The player can control more than one character, but needs to select each one individually.
Players will encounter non-player characters. These characters cannot be controlled by the player.
If an area of the map can be searched to find resources, the character will search to find them if the correct icon is pressed. The icon looks like a hand. It sometimes does not look like a hand during certain criteria.
The game is set during a fictionalised version of a real world event where some things happened.
Materials can be crafted together to create bigger or more intricate things for performing tasks.
Characters can grow “tired” or “hungry” or “sad”. This will factor into gameplay decisions. Or will not.
This War Of Mine receives the rating of Score out of Score.
[Content Note: Mental Health, Alcohol, Eating Disorder]
Constant sobriety is the most boring solution to decade-long problem drinking, even though I’m happier now than any moment during my excess. I liked drinking, that’s why I did it so much. I catch myself wondering how to be sober but also keep funnelling shit-litres (the liquid equivalent of shit-loads) of booze into my fucking body. The second worst thing about quitting drinking is that, in the same way problems don’t disappear after being drunk enough to forget them, quitting means still having to navigate the remaining ills and try to find another less destructive way to unwind.
Darkest Dungeon has a lot of ideas about how to discuss stress, stress reduction, mental illness and the effectiveness of how it’s medically treated. It’s more interesting than good (proving the Arcane Kids manifesto true once again) since half the game’s formed of a repetitive JRPG which doesn’t introduce enough new ideas. Some overlapping systems elsewhere, though, have worthwhile allegorical points greater than the game they’re in.
A Rich Uncle becomes bored by their wealth and rather than take up yachting or self-publish an experimental hip-hop vanity project they open up a hellgate at the family’s estate and plunge the surroundings into eldritch horror.
On receipt of a note from Rich Uncle, Sad Nephew travels to his family home, intending to recruit adventurers to try and reclaim a lost fortune. Each of these mercenaries suffer excessive stress every adventure and begin to develop neurosis, needing to blow off steam and seek professional help to cure whatever habits emerge. All of this is done on Rich Uncle’s Sad Nephew’s dime, the adventurers eschewing payment for their risks and instead letting him cover their bar tabs and trips to the sanitorium, also paying for the potentially life-saving equipment taken along or, often enough, avoided in favour of giving them the less expensive meagre basics.
Each adventurer is only as valuable as the amount of time and money already invested in their training and upkeep. New meat arrives after every mission and each is free to recruit. This single mechanic informs the rest of the game’s decisions. Rapidly emptying coffers incentivise seeing the parties cobbed together out of whoever’s not stressed out too much as tools instead of humans with aspirations. In order to progress it’s impossible not to start role-playing as someone who has little concern for the wellbeing of the people they’re using in order to seek a fortune. There simply isn’t enough money to move forward and also work with the betterment of these mercenaries in mind, mostly there’s enough cash to ensure that most are just about combat ready and hope for the best. If someone’s too scarred by trauma, well, there’s a button to kick them out of camp and another which replaces them.
I’ve enjoyed thinking about what leads these adventurers to your encampment. It can’t be an attempt to provide for a family at home if none of them are being paid in much more than a few spins at a roulette wheel in their off-hours. Each of them presumably hear of the potential for a fantastic holiday earned with only a few days at a time navigating a labyrinth slaughtering pig monsters and assorted cultists. A similar pitch that likely entices people to start working on oil rigs or at Butlins. A friend of mine says he once worked at a pub solely for room and board, the food he needed and whatever cocaine was left lying around. On his days off he’d just take a trip downstairs and begin drinking for free. He’s still a young man now, but has grown to have slightly different direction. Without much else going on at the time I can believe he saw this agreement as a good enough stop-gap. He was alive. He had fun. He worked long stressful hours too.
The most satisfying conclusion I’ve reached for this conundrum is that these adventurers might similarly be at a loss for other occupation. I wonder if they’d had training in coopering or thatchery they might still want to pull apart walls made of corpses so that they can reach a fight with a necromancer. Their skillset is built toward navigating dungeons. They are experts at murdering and hopefully at least intermediate tiered at remaining alive. Maybe this isn’t even what they want to do with their time on earth, but they’re unable to find another occupation. I feel this.
I’m similarly under-equipped to do much but work with the skills I’ve already obtained. I can serve behind a bar and I can write about video games. Both activities have their ways of negatively impacting my mental health. I mentioned before that I have to find new ways to unwind now; but even after watching five episodes of Steven Universe in a row I still don’t have much of a choice but to return to whatever stressed me out before*. My job is still my job. I still have to do it. The cause of stress doesn’t go away just because there’s a way to relieve it afterward.
Just because it’s possible to become calm again doesn’t mean the dungeon disappears. Just because you’re calm doesn’t mean that the ways in which problems with your mental health manifest go away. Characters in DD gain, to use the game’s nomenclature, “Quirks” as a response to stress. It’s often very video gamey, very Binary, reduced stats when they’re fighting, say, pig-monsters. Other times it’s obsession with performing certain activities, kleptomania, claustrophobia.
Darkest Dungeon’s best statement, perhaps one made unintentionally, is that getting treatment for a character’s negative traits doesn’t result in a reduction in stress. They’re still as stressed leaving help as they are entering. Therapy is stressful, even if it does lead to a result. It’s also not necessarily effective every time, which is great system design as much as it is a realistic and responsible portrayal of real-world treatment.
Characters also gain “Positive” Quirks as they deal with adversity, though labeling them this way might be considered a little thoughtless even if it’s thematically appropriate. I remember one of my crew returning from a mission with a trait where they eat less at high stress rates. It’s coloured yellow to signify this is a good thing and, in the context of the game it is (it means that your supplies are slower to run out, you don’t have to spend as much money), the Sad Nephew would see this as a positive, even if my real world reading is that this is grossly mishandled. No matter the intent, it suggests something positive from an eating disorder.
Darkest Dungeons wants its audience to rethink the fantasy tradition of adventuring and consider the actual mental toll of exploring a trap-laden ruin filled with monsters attempting to kill you. This theme carries a lot of baggage along with it. Thankfully the game does a fairly excellent job at normalising the existence of mental health issues and the importance of care, if it’s let down slightly by instances of poor consideration. It’s a successful conversation piece, not particularly interesting to play (which is why I’ve described so little of the majority of your activity within it) but there’s a thread here that’s so necessary to see in our entertainment.
*(Importantly: I’m lucky and thankful that my main cause of stress is essentially avoidable if another opportunity becomes available, that I’m not subject to other factors beyond my control. I can do little but provide my own perspective here.)
We hung out at this year’s Rezzed event in London’s naturally lit Tobacco Dock. Maybe you wanna hear about some things we played there?
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Adventures Of Square
Enter The Gungeon
Omega Agent / Deep / Taphobos
Cave! Cave! Deus Videt. Episode 1
Heroes Of The Storm
I hear we don’t have toddlers or pools in this episode. We talk about Russell Crowe, Maxis, whether or not we’re-a gonna win.
THESE BLOBS DO NOT DEFEND THEMSELVES.
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