Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Cat God - a thousand monkeys in a thousand random places

For some years now, "achievements" have been a big buzz-word in electronic games. With cloud sharing, even single-player games attempt to create a false sense of competition between players by giving them endless lists of obscure and/or repetitive tasks to perform. Go here. Kill a thousand of these. Give us this many dollars. And post it all to your online profile so all your little buddies can see just how obsessive you are!
These ideas have a way of circling around within the industry in a barely distinguishable spiral of incompetence. I've talked before about how the concept of static leveling, after its supposed success in MMOs, came back to potentially wreck some single-player games like Oblivion. This time it's The Secret World that's ticked me off and the problem seems to once again be one degrading concept corrupting another.

I interrupted my recent stint in Calradia because I remembered that I missed out on Issue 3 of TSW's post-launch releases while busy with my old LotRO guild last year. So as Halloween is come around again and the Cat God come out to play, I decided to once more take up arms for the Templar cause. Which apparently involves chasing pussy. Okay, fine, whatever.

Though I haven't finished the quest arc yet as the last step is a group mission, Issue 3 seems to have the same problem as Issue 5 but with the order reversed. Instead of a grind with a big finish, The Cat God starts with an interesting gimmick and presentation then gets bogged down. Though the puzzle-solving is initially a good mix of logic and footwork, the references quickly become painfully obscure. I'm reasonably well-versed in history and mythology by most standards but even I have to roll my eyes at being casually asked what the half-legendary queen Boadicea supposedly poisoned herself with (spoiler alert: hemlock sure was popular in the ancient world.) Worse still are the in-game references. When you're asked to figure out in-game locations from off-hand mentions of "garden" or "stone" it's obvious that this has little or nothing to do with detective skills. Though this is a single-player mission, its writers treated it as though they were conversing not with one player but with the entire player base.

This is insulting. You are telling me that you assume me to be a cheater and therefore give me puzzles intended to be solved through cheating. You are insulting me by giving me a single-player mission which assumes I'll be asking others for answers. The clues in the second mission of The Cat God are too painfully obscure to be worth the time investment as a single player. I can comb one map for locations mentioning "garden" or "stone" and I can be amused at one or two red herrings. But several red herrings every step and gardens and stones which might be anywhere on half a dozen maps? This is obviously intended to be solved not through perspicacity but sheer brute strength of numbers. A thousand players all checking random leads will inevitably run across the answer and then copy it off each other. I am being given a brain-teaser but being treated as a herd. We are not amused.

However aggravating that's been in itself, it's more interesting to think of how exactly the developers came upon this attitude toward the tasks they throw at players. The overall trend, we must keep in mind, is toward nominally multiplayer content that's really single-player, not the other way around. Except for at least one area of gameplay.
One of the oldest types of "achievements" were exploration markers. Deeds in LotRO, badges in CoH, lore in TSW, by whatever name these are one of the most nonsensical demands placed on players. The so-called "exploration" variant commonly has nothing to do with exploration. Instead of rewarding players for seeking interesting locations or logical destinations like say mountain peaks or the deepest reaches of a cave, exploration markers are almost always some random spot in an open field or some random crack among thousands in a wall. The point is not to give players something interesting to do, but to simply reward monomaniacal, mindless combing through lists and vistas. It's not worth the time investment for an individual but easily handled by a brainless swarm.

One monkey out of a thousand winds up writing Hamlet and reads it to the others. One player out of a thousand winds up stepping on a fennel plant and tells others where to find it, and 999 monkeys each individually have to go where the first one made the discovery just to checkmark that mission step. This is a disgusting way to set up a supposed puzzle. It's bad enough to have let the concept of exploration degenerate into this without letting it infect puzzle-solving. If I wanted to be part of a faceless community that just cycles buzzwords within itself I'd sign up for facebook. The saddest part is that this is below even TSW's own standards. Just like Tyler Freeborn, The Cat God shows worrying cracks in its coherence, various post-launch decreases in the quality of TSW's most prominent features.

My guess? Their launch tanked, they lost funding and the remaining skeleton crew can't polish anything near enough to make it interesting. Issue 6 I'll talk about some other time and I'm curious if Issues 7 and 8 have continued this pattern.

addendum: Having played through the 2013 version of the Halloween event, I was at first alarmed at the seeming expansion of this pattern. However, out of the ten locations involved, only two were utterly nonsensical and random (Ellis and Tyler) while the rest were characters one might more or less expect to have a ghost story to tell. One in five... not great, but at least things haven't gotten worse in a year?
Also, the story of the gypsy girl's diary? Beautiful.

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