/Twerk: Machinarium, Borderlands 2, content degradation


I’ve been busy lately — I started a triweekly column (that is, every three weeks) at Bit Creature and had a piece published at Unwinnable.

The Unwinnable piece is about Machinarium and the way its themes, puzzle design, and story come together to illustrate how limiting top-down systems can be. Those systems might include, say, computer programming, or government, or systematic oppression.

A commenter accused my interpretation of “being entirely [my] own invention.” I think it was meant to be cutting, but it’s a compliment of the highest order: I certainly didn’t set out to be derivative.

If you liked the piece, please consider donating to Unwinnable — it hosts a stable of talented, insightful writers that deserve to be paid for their good work, as do the editors the curate it.

My Bit Creature column runs every third Wednesday and is purposefully free-form and open. In my first entry, I wrote about Borderlands 2, with which I continue to be deeply obsessed and about which I plan to write more.

The article is about how the game’s different moving parts create a sense of irony that is a step removed from the dialogue or writing.

After submitting the piece, I realized that I’d missed a few other moments that illustrated my point, both of which deal with semi-sentient Hyperion loaders. In the Bloodshot Stronghold, would-be Vault Hunters are asked to find a new home for a disembodied AI core; in the Eridium Blight we find Mal, a robot that desperately wants to be human. Both quests end with the robot trying to kill you, as every robot in the game has tried to do before.

The players’ experience with Borderlands 2 tells him that all robots are dangerous, but the game’s RPG designs compel us to perform their fetch-quests and missions for them anyway. This tension is partly responsible for the game’s humor.

My second BC feature was somewhat more ambitious, attempting to detail the ways that RPGs are resistant to content degradation.

One point that I wish I’d made more explicit: the Mass Effect series as a whole is great at keeping content fresh and relevant because it represents such a vastly unknowable space. Players are most engaged when moving into and mastering new territory. Because it’s three fucking games long — and because your choices in each persist in the others — it’s almost impossible to feel like the narrative systems can be completely exhausted.

Here’s an interesting snippet that I had to leave on the cutting room floor, as well:

An interesting tangent: halfway through Persona 3, a character named Shinjiro Aragaki dies. Though Shinjiro is a member of the protagonist’s team, his death doesn’t seem to reverberate the way Aeris’ did. This is partly a cultural issue: Persona 3 doesn’t have the cultural cachet that Final Fantasy VII has, though I think it’s a much better game. But it’s also true that Shinjiro is less important to Persona’s gameplay system than Aeris was to Final Fantasy VII’s — Aeris occupied a niche that was hard to fill; Shinjiro, who focused on physical attacks, is much easier to replace.

And another interesting point that just occurred to me — content degradation can also be used to explain why we find grinding so boring: not only is it repetitive, but it shrinks the player’s mental model of the game so drastically that everything else becomes irrelevant. When you have to grind in an RPG, the rich, lush, explorable gameworld shrinks to whichever cave or patch of grass you’ve chosen, effectively hamstringing the genre’s most attractive qualities.

“Heir of the Shadow Broker” by Dead End Thrills


One response to “/Twerk: Machinarium, Borderlands 2, content degradation

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