Two Minute Game Crit – Weapon Degradation

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.


Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

Weapon degradation. Lots of people hate it. This whole business of weapons having a durability stat that you have to monitor in order to stop them from shattering into a billion pieces. And this is considered disruptive. There’s the sense that, when weapon degradation is working it interrupts what videogames are normally for, which is hitting things with other things. And when it’s not working it’s because you’re putting in the busywork to keep the game from annoying you.

This is not universal. There are plenty of games that are remarkable for their use of weapon degradation, like Fallout 3 and Dark Souls and The Last of Us. You can see the trend there that these have narratives which centre on survival, and the world being banjaxed. We can tell when needless busywork or additional stuff contributes to a game on a whole or takes away from it. As always it’s all about what the stuff says in the respective context.

One of the best games with weapon degradation, one of the best games in general, is Vagrant Story, a wonderful, incredible jrgp dungeon crawler Square did between Final Fantasies once upon a time. It’s got this great big cast of characters but the protagonist, a peacekeeper named Ashley Riot, spends most of time alone as he’s a solo operative.

Instead of friends, he has weapons, lots and lots of weapons. Your life is consumed by the introspection of inventory management and stat planning.

For our purposes, look at the two bars on the top left here, DP and PP. DP is Damage Points, which decrease as you wear out the weapon, usual durability stuff. PP is where it gets interesting. These are Phantom Points, and they increase as you use the weapon. The higher both of these bars, the more damage the weapon does. When Damage Points reach zero the weapon becomes kind of a dud, but you can spend a weapon’s Phantom Points to repair its durability.

The narrative of Vagrant Story is all about themes of body and soul, balancing identity and power through self-sacrifice. So Ashley’s weapons are building up a phantom, a ghost, an identity, but the more of a sense of personality they get the greater the risk to their strength. They grow fragile.

This all contributes to the weapon’s other, highly important stats of class and affinity, which also change through use and also build up in each weapon a sense of character. And then you can make your own weapons out of parts and give them their own name to call them by. ‘Wand’ might not be the best example of that though.

So, Vagrant Story. A great example of how to do weapon degradation.

Two Minute Game Crit – The Absence of Is

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.


Hi this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne.

What can the act of dying tell us about the afterlife? This is the question underpinning The Absence of Is.

Spoilers, by the way.

You play as one of a team of researchers experimenting with recording the images that fill a mind as it edges towards death. The images come from your colleagues, and them locked in vats in the laboratory. It’s your job to sedate them right to the brink of death so your machines can do their thing.

When you play back the initial footage, it shows a kind of ‘life flashing before your eyes’, highly-symbolic near-death experience story. As the sessions go on, the visions veer farther and farther away from reality and become more abstract and hostile. Objects representing trauma – a door, a monument, a desolate home – recur as motifs and eventually consume each person’s mind.

So they all end up dead but even at that there’s a little trick going on here, because I think this game is actually more cynical than it lets on. It’s much more interested in themes of unknowability than themes of discovery.

Take its use of mechanics – you’ve to flick switches to alternately sedate or revive your teammates. It’s dreadfully cheesy and seems inconsistent with the game’s otherwise sombre tone. Like its just there to introduce the sense of challenge and a failstate.

But when you consider that the game‘s not interested in answering what seems to be the central question and instead leaves everyone else dead and you still no wiser for it until some unrealisable tomorrow, then the possibility of accidentally killing a colleague too early is valuable in highlighting the loss, and your inadequacy, when you hit the inevitable dead end.

It’s a framing device, and sure on a whole, The Absence of Is is framed rather oddly. It’s supposedly based on an unpublished novel of the same name written by one of the developers.

So players who want to look into the game’s underlying message have to pine after this inaccessible, perhaps non-existent source material. It puts them in basically the same place as the research team. Albeit, hopefully, a little bit more alive.

Two Minute Game Crit – Competing Ideologies

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.


Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

So, here’s a simple and useful way to look at videogame narrative.

If a game has a story, a good thing to check for is how the ideology of the protagonist meshes with those of the villain and the player. If they resonate or clash, the character interactions will probably be more interesting and satisfying.

The Assassin’s Creed games do this blatantly in these lovely soft moments after a kill. Stabby Man will have a chat with Dying Man where they briefly discuss their ideologies. He’ll either say ‘your ideology is stupid and I hate you’, or ‘I like your beliefs but you’re a bit of a prick.’

Let’s look at a less obvious example, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Like many Japanese games, there’s a big thing in the Ace Attorney series about building a positive legacy for future generations. Phoenix Wright is symbolic of this in how he fosters an extended family of apprentices and kids who’ve been neglected by fate. Throughout the game, he puts stock in the importance of community to the point where he’ll operate purely on blind faith in his client. Usually, his investigations reveal some tragic moment in the past that must be respected and remembered for us to be able to move on.

On the other hand, Manfred von Karma is driven by pride and vanity. He’s manipulative and selfish to the point of enacting revenge on the son for a slight caused by the father.

If we extend these as ideologies, Von Karma, who is shown as westernised, would be a classical liberal: egoistic, self-governing and individualistic. Whereas Phoenix is more communitarian: a reformist, communally responsible, and with values for tradition.

This is why von Karma makes for a good villain: antithetical to Phoenix, he sees himself as above the law and exploits the system to enhance his reputation. To some extent, all the villains in Ace Attorney hold positions of power or place themselves outside of society.

So, how are we, as players, involved in all this?

Puzzle solving in Ace Attorney is all about finding the hidden relationships of objects and people, or of people and events, in order to discover their history. It’s highly focused on building these connections to lead you first down the wrong path and then down the right one.

Like Phoenix we solve each case by delving into the past, even 15 years into the past, to receive the future with an optimistic note. We have to trust there’s a solution to each puzzle which means we have to trust our client is innocent. And because it’s linear we have to depend on Phoenix’s rambling to get us there in the end.

Two Minute Game Crit – The Games of Sophie Houlden


This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.


Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we’re going to be looking at the games of a specific developer, Sophie Houlden.

Sophie’s a one-woman indie machine, carving out these absolutely gorgeous, beautifully designed games by the dozen. Let’s look at just three from her catalogue which I think lend you a good idea of what she’s about.

Sophie has made a ton of puzzle games, my favourite being BOXGAME. You move around the faces of a box and you have to trick the camera into giving you a new direction of gravity so you can kind of… fall the right way.

Sophie’s a wizard at designing these genius mechanics that are simple to grasp but hard to master. Where you intuit solutions by playing around rather than through planning.

It’s good, so, that she’s also an incredible animator.Even just moving your wan around in BOXGAME gives this sense of elegance in motion.

This is partly why I love TheLinearRPG. It’s a stripped down mock-up of a lot of modern RPGs. You run along the line to make the mechanics happen, meanwhile the story unfolds rather detachedly as a backdrop.

The crisp aesthetic is a veneer of polish over this skeletal frame, which can be interpreted as a mockery of design priorities in the industry. But, what fascinates me most this is how it uses abstraction of form to convey its point, given it’s not actually an RPG.

When she wants to, Sophie has some hand at spinning narrative through form, as is the case in Runcible Sky, with its hub-and-branches structure.

It focuses on inspiration in one’s mortal life and the disbelief of life after death. Each vignette is a snapshot of your wan’s past, and on viewing them, the final moments in her fading life slowly gain their substance.

“Runcible” is an inkblot word, it has no meaning other than what we infer from it. And likewise, we can search each vignette for some great authorial design, but maybe we’re better off taking what we got from them and accepting that as our meaning.

Sophie’s games are many and varied, you can find most them by visiting her site. The best are on her shop though so be sure to pick something up for just a few bob.


Two Minute Game Crit – Drama and Composition

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.


Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I am Stephen Beirne.

Final Fantasy VII was a masterclass in storytelling. We’ve no shortage of dramatic, epic, expensive games these days, so the fact that a game might have Themes isn’t so unusual now as it was in 1997.

But what makes Final Fantasy VII so impressive, even by today’s standards, is how it related the drama through its broader composition, such as: its recurring motifs of a combined heaven and earth; the use of space and geometry to differentiate wealth from poverty; and the precariously attuned relationship of nature and technology.

One of my favourite things about it, though, is how it ties in themes of identity and existentialism.

There’s tons of scenes we could use to sample this but the best is probably this one here, during Cloud’s flashback to the Nibelheim Incident. Sephiroth‘s having a crisis of identity, and he locks himself in the library of the Shinra mansion while he researches his origins.

The way this scene is shot tells us that the farther he goes through the corridor, the deeper he delves into his past, and the more it affects his perception of his identity. Even though he’s kept centred on-screen, his stature diminishes, and he’s obscured by all the books piling after him.

When Cloud returns to check on Sephiroth, his whole demeanour has changed. The shot of the library’s corridor is repeated but now with reversed connotations. He strides right up to the camera, and takes a dominant position in the foreground, making good use of the Futch angle. There’s nothing this time to clutter him from view, and his trajectory brings him out from the diminished place of his existential crisis to this point here, large and emboldened.

The symmetry tells us a lot about his dramatic change in character, so this shot serves as a nice reference for when Sephiroth became a villain.

This is also matched in other structural ways on either side of the scene, like changes in his speech patterns and combat behaviour. Whereas before he used to revive people, after leaving the Shinra mansion…


There’s no doubt he’s a villain at this point.

So the next time you come across a story-focused game, have a think about its composition and how it reflects its drama.