Getting from A to B, getting that right, and getting it wrong

There’s a whole genre of games that can be broadly summed up as being all about the player getting from A to B. Multiple genres, I suppose, but for now I’m focusing on the more narrative-driven cRPG games over, say, platformers and roguelikes.

You go from A to B, overcoming obstacles in the way, and are rewarded by the story progressing.

I’m going to further narrow this down to focus on the two games I played recently, Cyberpunk 2077 and Death Stranding.

They both had a ton of money poured into them, they both have arguably excellent world-building and story-telling, they both look beautiful, but one has a premise and core gameplay loop that works, and the other does not.

Cyberpunk 2077 gives you a ton of options. You can sneak around, and are highly encouraged to do so. You can quickhack to ping targets to see them through walls, hack cameras, remotely disable optical implants, etc. You can snipe, or use cover to get into protracted gunfights. But in the attempt to allow anyone to play any way they like, extended play reveals a path of least resistance: the quickest and easiest way to get from A to B. You run around and shoot everyone in the face (or body). This never fails, is extremely fast, and there’s no gameplay reason not to do this every time. Thematically, it is jarring. Your bodycount must be in the hundreds, and yet you can still talk about not killing people for revenge in the cutscenes. You never become wanted by the police for murdering so many, or feared for going cyberpsycho. You do always get from A to B in the shortest possible time, and the story gets doled out accordingly.

Death Stranding, on the other hand, solves so many issues in ways that keep the core gameplay alive.

First, it’s normally not you that has to get from A to B so much as what you have strapped to your back. All the early threats threaten that cargo: falling over on rough terrain, or due to exhaustion, the rain (timefall that ages everything it touches), the porters-gone-crazy who try to steal your cargo. This makes the threats more interesting and varied, so there can never be a one-size-fits-all solution. Further, it neatly sidesteps the old problem of save-reload on failure. No matter how bad things get, you can probably try and recover the cargo.

Second, even when you gain the ability to take down human threats, you have a really compelling reason not to kill them, and interesting and appropriate consequences if you do so.

Third, in addition to the ever-present environmental hazards, there are invisible and invulnerable threats that always remain scary and disorientating and that, again, mostly threaten your cargo. You can’t just shoot them in the face, and you can’t even engage in the usual tiresome crouch-move-from-cover-to-cover stealth game. The rain keeps on falling, there’s no cover, and you can only hold your breath for so long.

Finally, it lets you feel smart when you finally do trivialise all these challenges, and ensures you can only do so to cover old ground. By managing your resources efficiently (or going online), you can build elevated roads from A to B (but not C) that bypass these obstacles. But only once you have been to the destination and key points along the way. Then rain becomes storms, storms become snowfall. Then you get ziplines to traverse mountainous terrain, but again, only once you have been to the destination and plotted out lines of sight. (I think this also hooks into the appeal of “work” games, like Shipbreaker and Viscera Cleanup Detail - learning to do something relatively complex well - but it is still fundamentally a game of getting from A to B, so not really that similar)

So, two very different games, but I think one does getting from A to B well, and the other does not.

For my next essay, why Cogmind does getting from A to B well, and Dungeons of Dredmor does not (just kidding, I know no-one here has ever played or will ever play Cogmind!)

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I haven’t played Cyberpunk, but it is sad that the creators of one of my favourite open world games (The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt) have overlooked something like that (being able to shot your way off to go through the game quicker). Obviously most of that game quality comes from an amazing IP that wasn’t theirs, but they did a great job with it. And as far as I can remember, you couldn’t get away with it on Witcher.

Maybe they left it there intentionally, for the devs/journalists to be able to cruise it quicker?

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I can only guess that they lacked experience in making a competent game of clicking-on-heads.

Witcher 3 was good, I remember that much. Not as good as a souls-like in terms of pure A to B gameplay, but it managed to make the swordfights reasonably entertaining. They did end up being rather one-note though. I think I played it with a huge patch that was supposed to make the swordfights better. Or maybe that was Witcher 2?

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I haven’t played it, but I remember conversation about the original Deus Ex having in effect a triple game: for each challenge you could shoot it, stealth it, or hack it via minigame. By accounts they seem to have got that balance more or less right.

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Yes, I remember enjoying the Deus Exes. I’m sure they were going for the same thing with Cyberpunk 2077. In retrospect, I can’t be sure whether the Deus Exes actually did any better. Maybe they did, by virtue of making the firefights more deadly, or maybe there was a path of least resistance that I just didn’t look for at the time. Whether that’s just me getting more jaded, I’m not sure.

I’m going to hazard a guess that it was mainly a better balancing of numbers. There’s a common flaw with “open world” experiences where the developers try to make sure you can overcome any part of the game at any time, so it has to be possible for a huge range of character builds, levels, and loadouts. Deus Ex avoids that pitfall by stricter railroading. The souls-likes avoid it by unashamedly killing you if you go out of your depth (and making death a relatively mild punishment), and decoupling the numbers from the challenge to a large extent - you can always win if your timing is sufficiently good, and will always lose if not.

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I must admit that combat was the Achilles heel of the game to a degree, at least in open world mode with random monsters. Combat scenes with bosses I believe were better balanced, although I played the game over 5 years ago, so I could be wrong. But otherwise it was great game, and considering the combat was more than decent, says a lot.

I believe open worlds may have that innate problem with their design. I never played Deus Ex through but often in it I tried stealthing until things went belly up and I had to shoot my way through (which was punishing). The last Metal Gear I played (Phantom pain???) was more balanced to that degree, where you could either stealth your way through, or go guns blazing, but you were always likely to do better the stealthy way. Assassin’s Creed games often went the other way around, where stealth was an option but combat tended to be favoured, or at least ithey were often set up to ending having to fight your way through.

If anything, I have always believed that these games lack the diplomacy side of things, but that results being less entertaining in video games, so imagine that is why it gets overlooked very often.

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Death stranding is a genius game in my view. The game at times really sets you up to struggle and feel like you’re crunching snow with every step or curling your toes to grip any graspable rock you can find on the ground. You solve your problems in game literally one step at a time and then when it’s time to reach your destination the feeling is both a genuinely natural feeling of relief and delight. I really love that game.

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So I haven’t played Death Stranding for two major reasons:

  1. Kojima is a nutjob when it comes to narratives and I am extremely wary of another “But the Internet is EVIL and full of PROPAGANDA and HUMANITY is FLAWED and LET ME TELL YOU…” cutscenes that last hours and are unskipable and leave me more confused at the end than the start.
  2. The title is enormously obtuse (“Stranding” is a gerund, a verb-acting-like-a-noun, which implies that the full title is something like “Death, a noun, is Stranding things,” which brings me right back to that first concern).

I have played a lot of Cyberpunk 2077, and I never took the “shoot everything in its face” approach to any problem unless I had absolutely no other choice. There are a few railroaded combats, but up until right at the very end combat always felt risky: you could get quickly outgunned, at which point “tricks” became very important to keep you from dying (hacking turrets being a personal favourite if I messed up, which I did sometimes). In fact, I eventually became an unstoppable force of nature through hacking exclusively (there are hacks that inflict damage and then jump to other uninfected characters nearby, and it doesn’t reveal where you are, which, again, is important to not getting your face shot off).

Maybe I did it “wrong”? I had a great time sneaking around, hacking cameras, ninja-stabbing people with silent takedowns and then hiding the bodies. It was everything I wanted from a game like… oh, I dunno… Metal Gear, without the utterly baffling story.

And the story is so good that I could forgive the handful of missteps.

Now, I have problems with Cyberpunk 2077. There are moments where V makes choices or says things that are patently idiotic. But I’m willing to suspend disbelief because as a whole almost everything hangs together pretty well.

Would I like Noun Gerund more? I don’t know, although from what you’re describing I suspect not. I hate not being able to defeat evil. I don’t want to run from the scary things, I want to shoot, or stab, or explode them. I think both The Witcher and Cyberpunk 2077 manage that very well: monsters/enemies feel extremely threatening, and you often spend far longer preparing for a fight than in the fight itself. But the game let’s you decide to go in gun blazing, or not.

To put the long, ramble-y meandering aside to rest: why would you choose the shortest path from A to B if you’re having a great time at all the midway points? Is the goal of a video game to finish it as quickly as possible, or to enjoy it as much as possible?

It’s not a totally reductive question. Matt Lees asked it once about one of the Final Fantasy remakes that allowed you to automate and speed up combat.
“But if we’re speeding up the game,” he asked, “does that mean I’m playing less of the game? Is that a good thing? If I can automate it to the point that I don’t play it at all… why am I playing it?”

I’m paraphrasing, but the question holds. Sometimes choosing the easiest way to do things is fun. Sometimes choosing the hardest way is fun. I’m not sure I would enjoy a game that tells me “You can do this thing, but don’t.”

… actually, that’s not completely true. I loved the first Dishonoured and most of the Deus Ex that I played, and both of those explicitly tell you that you can kill, and sometimes must kill, but you’re rewarded for not killing, and I loved that option. Is it easier to just stab people? Yes. But figuring out a way that you didn’t have to? Ah, that was great… one of the big weaknesses of the Assassin’s Creed series is that lack of variety. It’s always some variation on “Go There, Stab Him or Her, Find Out You Stabbed The Wrong Person, Stab More.”

Ah, I don’t know what I’m saying any more. It’s late.
I’m glad you enjoy Verbing the Adjective Noun, and I am definitely not saying you shouldn’t enjoy it or that you should enjoy Cyberpunk 2077 “more” or “less” or whatever. Your feelings about the games are valid and interesting. I just wanted to toss in my (insert low-value coinage) here.

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Great game, I had forgotten that you could go about hardly killing anybody. I loooooved the aesthetics and some of the skills. If it wasn’t for the whaling industry (I know it was a gimmick to make it more thematic), it would be higher on my list.

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Let me preface this by saying I have no idea of Kojima’s other output, preferred themes, or whatever. Many of the character names and the game title are silly, yes. And the cut-scenes are long and numerous, though I didn’t find them onerous.

Unfortunately this simply isn’t true.

The problem for me is that it is a false choice in Cyberpunk 2077, given the incentives and means the game provides you. It is not a false choice in Witcher. Indeed, there is no choice. You do the swordfights, and you have to win. Prepping for them properly makes that easier. I think that the Witcher games are fundamentally better than Cyberpunk 2077 because of this: the thing you do again and again is fun, and balanced.

The only reason to do things slowly and inefficiently in Cyberpunk 2077 is to play the role of doing so. There’s no other reward for stealth, no in-game incentives. You can easily shoot everything in the face, and no-one calls you out for murderising everyone, ever, and you maximise all the rewards possible by doing so.

Perhaps Cyberpunk 2077 could have been a better game if it had been designed from the ground up as the stealth game you played: make that good, and make it the gameplay loop that you have to engage with. That’s arguably what the Deus Exes did, and they worked, iirc. The problem with that is that you lack an interesting partial failure state. Reloading when you get spotted is boring, making the firefights too difficult to survive is boring, and making the firefights too easy makes a mockery of the stealth.

This is another discussion, I think. There are whole games built around “optimising the grind”. Most JRPGs are, games like Factorio are. It’s a fun thing in its own right, I suppose, though for JRPGs in particular, I often find it gets in the way more than anything else. That’s not something you do in Cyberpunk 2077 though, not really. Everything is scaled to your current level, and there’s no need or reason to optimise the grind in any way - you just have numbers that go up as the game progresses, and it changes very little except to support the illusion that you are getting “stronger”.

I think this is also another discussion entirely. But it is also not something Death Stranding does. You can always do the thing, you just have to deal with the consequences. Whereas Cyberpunk 2077 lets you do whatever, and there are no consequences.

I don’t want this to devolve into attacking/defending Cyberpunk 2077, though it might be too late for that. I should make it clear that I enjoyed the game, enjoyed the story, and finished it, and totally understand that not everyone would be irked by the flaws in the same way I am.

But it is essential to understanding my argument to dissect the game and identify those flaws, to talk about what other games do differently. If you start with the assumption that those flaws don’t exist (“combat always felt risky: you could get quickly outgunned, at which point “tricks” became very important to keep you from dying”), then no understanding can be reached.

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I also adore cyberpunk 2077 but really it was a game of two halves almost reversing death strandings strengths. For me 2077, and when I played it at launch this was true, the game had almost zero good about its mechanics of action. The cars were crap, the traffic was crap, the fighting devolved to hacking too easily. The movement and other aspects were just there to facilitate the other half of the game which was to convince enough a) the characters meant something and b) the choices you made were as a result impactful. I really enjoyed the moments of narrative in the game and the way it built the illusions of choice and the tensions that evoked.

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It seems to me that one point of contention is that the game (not a specific game, the modern AAA title) has multiple things in it, because it’s trying to appeal to lots of people.

Alice wants a shooting driving hacking action game. Alice finds the cutscenes boring.

Bob wants all the feels and is mostly about the cutscenes, and would just use cheat codes to get to them but everyone tells him that’s bad, so he plays through the other content as efficiently as possible.

Bob wants a minimum-effort path through the action. Alice will be disappointed that that even exists.

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This is interesting. I noticed towards the end that instead of clicking on people to kill them, I could also more slowly click on people to cause them to commit suicide, despite having no hacking skill. Similarly, despite having no stealth skill, it took an inordinately long time for anyone to notice me, and I did dispose of a lot of bodies in dumpsters. If I could do that without any specialization, I assume it would be even easier with some specialization (ram recharging after being spotted, invisibility on demand, etc.).

So, perhaps a key problem is that the game is just geared to be a power-trip, however you play it. There are no obstacles in getting from A to B.

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That’s a problem with games like Cyberpunk 2077, sure. My point is that it’s not a problem with Death Stranding, which is what prompted the original post, because I found that interesting.

(Also, I’m Carl, not Alice or Bob: I want a tight, well-designed gameplay loop and progression above all else, but I also really enjoy the narrative, as long as it is done well. I would have thought there are more Carls than pure Alices or pure Bobs.)

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I found the story of death stranding really odd. I don’t know what Kojima is upto but you get these wild and wacky contrivances of plot (jar baby, the whole world is collapsed and controlled by Amazon, 3d printing is based on twitter likes) but some how they lead to affecting points about connection.

Also: sometimes it’s good to just go over to someone and have a chat.

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I actually liked the story, and was surprised to see it all hang together. Genuinely think there’s good reason not to spoil it.

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This is difficult to discuss.

Let’s start with a subjective truth: it was true for me. By the end of the game, right up to and including the fight with Adam Smasher, I was absolutely getting my butt handed to me by armed forces that caught me unprepared or out in the open.

Like, a lot. Up until I upgraded my Hacking capabilities to include that amazing spreading-virus-KO thing, if I got into a firefight it was Game Over seven or eight times out of ten.

Now, it is absolutely possible that I just suck at FPSers. I don’t think I do, but it’s been a long time since I played a pure FPS and maybe the genre has moved far beyond my humble skills.

Additionally, maybe I’m specifically bad at playing Cyberpunk 2077 because I absolutely was getting pasted by straight-up firefights all game long. One of the first side missions I attempted was to get the AI Taxi Service cars back, and one of the first of those involves an ambush… I had to retry the shootout four or five times before I managed to barely scrape by.

So I don’t know what to say about your “The gunfights were easy, all you had to do was point-and-click and things died” perspective. It very well might be true for how you played, but it wasn’t true for me.

Which, for the record and clarity: doesn’t mean I think you’re wrong. It’s just not my experience with the game.

I think the rest of the discussion evolves from this central point of conflict between our perspectives. If what you say is true (gunfights = cakewalk) then yes, I can see your point. If what I say is true (gunfights = almost certain death) then what I say is true.

They can both be true simultaneously, I suppose, depending on the player? There are no additional rewards for Stealth than for combat… although there are no fewer rewards via either route either. And there are definitely sections where stealth is required (or at least the game made it seem dang imperative to not be seen… the sneaky mission to get the ninja onto the float around midway in the game).

IMO reloading when you get spotted wasn’t boring, any more so than reloading after dying. The only time I was truly and utterly bored was when I decided to swim across the river through the middle of town: gods, that took forever. The game does a great job at making the scale of the city seem close but yeah, it’s not.

Now, looping back to your initial point: I can’t dissect what Cyberpunk 2077 does wrong compared to Death Stranding. I haven’t played the latter. But when I think about what CP’77 did wrong, the elements you are describing don’t describe the game I played.

Which could be a PEBKAC-sorta deal because I was running a totally suboptimized build with awful gear and I suck at CP77. 100% possible.

But I don’t think that’s the case? My complaints around CP77 have far, far less to do with the combat and its Stealth system, and more to do with story points and specifically trying to keep the cyberpsychos from dying on me (using non-lethal weapons is good and all, but occasionally they’d die anyways from secondary damage included in the nonlethal weapon-type… like, they would get set on fire).

Ah, there, that’s one point: I didn’t like that it was absolutely impossible to sneak up on a cyberpsycho. That’s a weakness of the game. It should’ve been difficult, but not impossible, and it was literally impossible. The psychos always knew where you were. You could get one shot off before they were on you like white on rice.

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I’m not sure which came first, but in Blades in the Dark (the TTRPG) the city is protected by a fence that is powered by demon-blood, and those are hunted by whaling ships.

The parallels struck me immediately. I love the idea of “whale blood” in the diegesis being justification for the steampunk tech. That’s neat.

And yeah, what a great game. I remember really liking the little of Dishonoured 2 that I played, but it didn’t stick with me the same way the original had, and I’m not sure why… I think I got about 2-3 missions in and then just stopped playing? Maybe my computer couldn’t run it. My rig is old AF and I am poor AF so that’s not changing in the near future.

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Fair enough, that seems to make sense.

One last nitpick though: it’s not true that different routes were equally rewarded. You actually got nothing for successfully stealthing around. In order to get loot, experience, and level up your ninjutsu (the only rewards other than story progress) you had to actually do the “silent takedowns” and ideally dump the bodies in dumpsters. To match the rewards for sprinting around and clicking on every face, you had to laboriously pick off every chump in the building, every time. Actually, even if you did, not raising the alarm meant you didn’t get the loot/xp/skill for the backup reinforcements.

Of course, when you pair this with another point I made, that there’s no great incentive to level up, I suppose this didn’t ultimately matter. But there did seem to be a lot of ways to spend money. I ended the game without being able to afford any of the apartments or vehicles, so I’d say the loot difference was significant.

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For the record, Dishonored got there first, and I think the Blades in the Dark writers acknowledge it as a big influence, as well as Thief (which is great!).

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