Did I Ever Tell You What the Definition of Insanity is?
It’s no secret that games have become an excessive time sink. Just a few years ago, your average game tended to be a 6-12 hour experience. Nowadays, you’re asked for a 20 hour minimum from any game trying to be a somebody. Q1 2022 has been particularly time consuming. All the biggest releases this period have been massive open-world games littered with side-quests and collectables galore. We got Pokemon, Horizon, Elden Ring, and Ghostwire all within three months. Between the lot, I’ve sunk over 150 hours. That’s a lot of time I could’ve spent outside…
Or playing Tropical Freeze
But this isn’t a blog about how games are too long or that gaming, as a lifestyle, is becoming increasingly at odds with one’s physical and mental health. In fact, we’re not even talking about half the games just mentioned. As I’m confident you’ve already gathered from the title, dear reader, we’re talking about the Ubi-like today. “Oh,” you inquisitively cry, “but what is an Ubi-like?” O’ Fearless Reader, I’m a tad disappointed in you. Here we are, in the year of our savior: 2022, and you still need this explained to you? Well, all right. Just because I like you so much, I’ll give you a quick rundown. But QUICK – I still haven’t emotionally recovered from that ImSim examination…
Mechanically, the Ubi-like comprises primarily of a checklist sandbox. There’s always an open-world, its map drowning in icons of all the things your dopamine addicted brain demands you do for that RUSH. That core gameloop of running around a map doing the same 10 or so missions over and over again is the defining characteristic of Ubi-likes. But there’s also a lot of frequent tropes that affiliate a game with the moniker. Said sandbox isn’t just filled with random things, but specific staples. This includes map revealing mini-challenges (often towers of some sort), enemy bases, and a litany of surface level side-missions. Combat usually takes cues from Rocksteady’s Arkham series, unless it would rather just be some shoot-shoot-pew-pew FPS. They’ll have some form of stealth gameplay, one which feigns emergence despite being simplistic. Can’t forget a skilltree that plays up power progression but doesn’t diverge enough to encourage completely different playstyles. Really, this whole faux-genre revolves around a single, bold question: Do you want to play Far Cry 3 again?
Insanity is doing the exact same f***ing thing...
But you know what? There isn’t anything inherently wrong with any of that. I’m sure many gamers can attest to some Ubi-like that they’ve derived an immense amount of joy and entertainment from. I myself quite liked Far Cry 3 – I mean, like, 10 years ago. Though I have played Ubi-likes fairly regularly since and can’t say I’ve ever outright hated one. There is certainly a reason they’ve grown to dominate the world of AAA gaming. With that said, there’s always a nagging issue I’ve had with any Ubi-like I’ve played. One that, while perhaps bolstered by their oversaturation, has always struck as a fundamental problem with their core design. They all get really boring half-way through.
Although I can have quite a lot of fun running around a map engaging with the game, it’s not long before it all degrades into repetitive chores. There’s a lot of reasons for this. I’ve always wondered why developers thought making a set of about a dozen challenges and repeating them ad nauseum would be a good design choice. And, you know, maybe don’t make your game so long if half of it is padded content. But it’s easy to just say these games are too long and call it a day. Rather than spotlight something I would think of as self-evident, I want to explore another novel solution. You see, what’s really going on is these games lack the depth to carry a 20+ hour experience. A way to circumvent that, besides being bothered to actually add more depth, is so obvious it’s hard to believe the pseudo-genre hasn’t done it already. Can you guess what it is? It should be pretty obvious… I-it’s subversion.
...over and over again...
Humor me now, dear reader, as I explore a recent Ubi-like that came so, so close to brilliant gameplay subversion. I speak of Ghostwire: Tokyo. All right, so without getting into too much of the nitty-gritties, Ghostwire is essentially a spell-flinging FPS. You have three main “weapons” to rely upon throughout the game, as well as a non-magic bow and a few ofuda – because this game is very Japanese. So normally you just run around blasting The Grudge and The Ring in the face with magical particle effects. However, they eventually introduce a mechanic where you lose all that sorcery stuff and have to rely on the aforementioned bow and paper. You might be thinking, “you still have a means of defense; it doesn’t sound like a big deal to me.” And you’re half right. You see, later enemies can tear your powers right out of you. But it’s really easy to brute force the challenge required to regain them, making it a mere seconds-long nuisance rather than a game-changing handicap. It’s not a big deal. Not the way it was implemented, at least. But there’s a lot of potential there the game fails to utilize.
It's about half way into Ghostwire before it introduces this handicap mechanic. It first happens in a cutscene; that means the state is persistent for the half-hour the narrative demands it. When it first happened, I was nervous and excited. All that spooky cannon fodder I’d become desensitized to instantly became a lot more intimidating. Even more so when I realized my surrogate detective vision was disabled and the audio cues signaling a nearby enemy went silent. I was weakened and blind. Even scared. Engaging enemies was too risky; if things got hairy, all I had was a low rate-of-fire bow with sparse ammo. I had to consider ammo all of a sudden! Whereas magic ammo was replenished with every kill, bow ammo could only be found in the environment or bought. And you can only hold 10 at a time (upwards of 20, if you somehow thought that was the best use of skill points). Ghostwire had been almost pure empowering action up until this point. Then they just flipped a few switches and turned it into a survival horror.
...and expecting s*** to change
Palms sweaty, I set forth to give this new challenge all I had. What did my courage uncover? A few enemies designed to have their back turned for an easy stealth kill. And not much else… Well, I guess that's not fair. The immediate aftermath of losing your powers is a room filled with enemies you have the option to fight through. Or you can forgo that option and get on a catwalk, bypassing the whole thing. And everything discussed thus far takes place in a linear area removed from the sandbox. You do eventually escape it and enter the wider world at large with your handicapped status intact. But the streets are suspiciously free of confrontation. You really just run to a waypoint, watch a cutscene, then run to the end of the whole endeavor. During that final run, the game does throw a few basic enemies at you to dispatch with only bow in hand. But the potential strength of the subversion here didn’t lie in crippled combat sections. The strength was altering the way the player reacts to the world, forcing them to lean on stealth for survival. It could’ve been brilliant! A subversion of the typical power progression seen in alike titles, one that would’ve lent itself to the spoopy ghost universe the game had built. The game even has indie horror-like sections where the environment shifts and contorts. Except they’re never scary, because they have no stakes. Just put two and two together, man.
I can imagine an alternate universe Ghostwire that waited until the tail end of the game to do the exact same thing. Waited until that EXACT point when the player reaches the bottom of its mechanical depth. I can imagine Ghostwire actually working in level design built around such limitations. Something that lasted a few hours as opposed to 30 minutes, and explosively ended with regaining your spell-flinging – perhaps now stronger than ever. I can imagine all the tense situations I would’ve been forced to face. All the fear, anxiety, and pressure. And I can imagine the unadulterated thrills upon once again destroying enemies with ease. The potential for subversion was so perfectly laid out, I can’t help but wonder if the developers had more planned originally. No doubt making what amounts to a completely different, if asset adjacent, game is too much for the typical development schedule to permit. Unfortunately, as it is, Ghostwire will remain another missed opportunity for the Ubi-like. Soaring so close to glory, before descending from grace. But there is an example of that perfect subversion I so yearn for from Ghostwire and many of its kin. A game that so perfectly encapsulates the power of subversion. It’s a game of few equal. A game of boundless imagination and polish. It’s f’n DANKEY KANG, boyzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!
What? You thought I mentioned it for no reason?
There’s a pretty well-known blueprint Nintendo uses for linear levels. Effectively a 3-step process, it goes like this: focus on a single concept, compound upon that concept, then bring those explorations to their conclusion by way of added complexity, fusion, or just a straight difficulty spike. It’s an effective, tired and true formula. One that’s seen even Nintendo’s most generic titles *cough* New Super Mario Bros. *cough* excel in creative, polished level design. The Donkey Kong Country franchise mostly adheres to this. But there’s always a sense that the titular stubborn ape gets into more messy experimentation than his mustachioed frienemy. As such, Donkey Kong has often gone one step further, walking into the domain of our beloved subversion. Take, for example, one Wing Ding from the incredible Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze.
Wing Ding begins by introducing its design motifs. After a quick, unassuming platforming romp through the interior of some building, Donkey Kong is brought to a halt. DK’s kept company by a very smashable door blocking the way forward and three conspicuously arranged bells. Echoing the iconography established to signal a DK-patented roll, the game silently provides guidance. A roll reveals these bells can be rung, the ringing of which destroys whatever blocks your path. So that’s the concept: ring bell, smash thing. But then, upon emancipation from the closed-in corridors of the opening, the level reveals its true form. DK’s greeted by pinkish hued clouds bathing the bottom of the screen and mountainous peaks in the distance. And a single horizontal vine beckoning him, nothing below it but the promise of death. Donkey Kong leaps towards it and grabs hold. He begins sliding down it – music swelling and visuals dazzling – as we are shown the level’s second motif. This is a laterally scrolling level through the skies; we’ll be sliding down vines while timing DK’s rolls (really twirls, while on the vine) to ring any incoming bells. This will clear our path and save us from that ever-looming fall.
That. Is. Crazy... Wait...
Okay, so a lot of that paragraph was just needlessly describing Tropical Freeze, but – GOD – the game is a masterpiece. But don’t worry, we’re getting to the point. Anyway, that’s pretty much how the level plays out. Sliding, twirling, rocking. It’s all great fun, but there’s not too much depth to what is essentially an auto runner with two inputs. While on a much smaller scale, the motifs of Wing Ding become stale in much the same way as the gameloop of Ubi-likes. But don’t forget, Wing Ding goes a step further…
After all his sky bound escapades, Donkey Kong hops into one of this famous barrels. It aims the simian into the background, its sights trained in on a giant bell. One might assume that’s curtains for the level. Maybe Donkey Kong will smack into the bell and there’ll be some cute animation revealing the goal post. A lot of levels have ended like that thus far, and the motifs felt like they reached their conclusion. But Wing Ding isn’t finished just yet. Once the bell is rung, its destructive reverberance violently shakes the entire structure it was set on top of. DK recoils from the impact, tumbling all the way to the structure’s lowest point. Just as DK steadies himself, the entire building begins crumbling below him. And so begins the level’s final challenge: climb or die. This is a complete mechanical shift from the rest of the level. While the destruction theme had been well established at this point – because, again, Tropical Freeze is a masterpiece – the level had been a trial of speed and timing through horizontal design. Now it’s been subverted, becoming a frantic vertical platforming gauntlet. It flips the whole level on its head. Or at least 90 degrees. And despite that, it doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Of course a level parading bells of mass destruction would end on fat man bell. It’s narratively and logically justified. All because Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a goddamned MASTERPIECE.
Anyway, something-something-something Assassin’s Creed. Yadda, yadda, yadda ASS-ASS-INS CREED. Amiright? More importantly, you should definitely play Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. Dunno why you even read this blog when you could've been playing Tropical Freeze instead. Seriously, go play it. If you don’t, Lanky WILL find you.