Monday, August 17, 2015

Massive Chalice as pre-apocalyptic existential game industry dread

(SPOILER WARNING: this post has some not-really-that-important spoilers for Massive Chalice.)

Massive Chalice is a pretty OK game -- it's an XCOM with a much better base-building / squad-management component, where you can also convert squad members into resources -- collective XP buffs, faster upgrade times, bigger numbers. The same song and dance as any strategy game, but it also tries much more new stuff than the average strategy game. You breed your squad members like Pokemon, and when they age out of battles, you recycle them for new breeding stock or upgrades. It's an ideal commercial indie project, 50% old "solved" systems and 50% new systems.

So it's jarring to me that it averaged 6/10s 7/10s from games press (and probably not super-great sales) considering how much it tries to do and with relative success at it, this is at least an 8-out-of-10er, but I can also understand why gamers would look at this and think "it looks cheap." Here are all the checkboxes that Massive Chalice refuses to tick:

LOTS OF "INTERESTING CHOICES" AND MEANINGLESS DEPTH. It has only 3 core character classes (there are actually 3 more extra classes, but they boil down to 2 more archers and another grenadier class) and each core class has 2 special weapons with special abilities. The tactical battles basically exist only to justify your bloodline management choices, not the other way around. Battles are very minimalist, with very simple concepts of cover, and no overwatch function. I'm not sure if it "works", but at least they had the courage to wonder, "do we all have to do it like XCOM?"

GIANT FANTASY LORE CODEX. This game, refreshingly, doesn't give a shit about its fantasy lore, which makes it impossible to wiki and impossible to cosplay. How can you perform obsession about a game that isn't obsessed with itself?

RESOLUTION-DEPENDENT GRAPHICS. Massive Chalice has a fairly novel vector-y art style, with lots of flat swaths of color and very little surface detail. This requires you to actually make an aesthetic judgment about the visual style, rather than quantifying it as a metric of fidelity. How else will gamers know whether this has "better graphics" than XCOM?

All three of these design choices basically run counter to Massive Chalice's competition -- XCOM, Shadowrun, Shadowrun Electric Boogaloo, etc.. These choices were also the right choices, choices that are well-executed and thoughtful and "advance the medium" or whatever.

But as interesting and clean as it is, I don't think anyone really "loves" Massive Chalice. I suspect Massive Chalice doesn't really want you to love it. It's about inhuman time scales, how the labor of countless generations can still feel ultimately futile and pointless.

It's clearly a metaphor for game development. The metaphor didn't really strike me until the ending credits...

Imagine you've just beaten Massive Chalice on Normal difficulty. The past dozen or more hours or so have seen countless people live and die, generations and dynasties start and thrive and perish. You have probably seen at least 200+ different character names in your playthrough... and then the last 95% of the game credits look like this:

It's thousands upon thousands of names, specifically all the Kickstarter backers. What's particularly stunning about this sequence is that it uses the same timeline interface as the main game, so we can selectively pause and scrub back and forth, etc.

The ending cutscene "twist" is fairly predictable and foregone -- the monsters can never be truly defeated, and the price of beating them and securing a few centuries of peace is utter destruction and sacrifice, yadda yadda yadda...

But if this idea of countless names and generations of collective human labor is supposed to mime the crowd funding campaign and agonizing development of the game, then this ending takes on a much darker tone. That means the monsters in Massive Chalice aren't a metaphor for aging and time, but rather they're a metaphor for precarious survival when working in video game market capitalism.

Double Fine is one of the very rare indie studios that consistently makes pretty good conceptually-rich games that also sell enough for it to survive. It maintains (expensive) offices in San Francisco, pays a lot of staff, and does community outreach. It seems like they have "the life" that so many indie game developers dream about, a respectable commercial and critical sustainability.

But what if they didn't have that "holy grail" of security? What if Massive Chalice totally flops, or giving away Broken Age part 2 doesn't lead to a bump in sales? What happens when Spacebase DF-9 does poorly, a pre-production project gets canceled, and there are heavy layoffs? What do those thousands of Kickstarter backers add up to, exactly?

If you watch the Double Fine documentary, you get to see a lot of that game developer anxiety play out over a long period of time. In the last episode of the series, with principal work on Broken Age completed, some very tired people wonder what their "legacy" will be, and contractors wonder when their next gig will be and how lucky they were to even score this one. In commercial game development, the end of a project is traditionally the time when your adrenaline drops, and then launch sales numbers and reviews come in and decide whether you'll get to eat or not. There's never any real relief.

In this sense, Massive Chalice is one of the darkest games I've ever played. It's a game about how we're all doomed to drown.