Characterization & Character Creation, WH40k Darktide

This is not a full-on review of the game. If you like the developer FatShark’s previous title Vermintide 2 (Vt2) or other games in the Left 4 Dead co-op genre, and you’re willing to experience the teething problems of a game that needs a few more updates for performance and stability, then you might enjoy this. It’s certainly the best L4D genre game I’ve played despite still feeling rough at times. I’m having fun playing it with friends. 

Also, the setting is Warhammer 40K, which is such a powerfully cynical and dystopian flavor as to be nearly intolerable (it’s certainly intolerant). If you know you hate the fiction of 40K, you probably don’t want to engage with this either. I waffle on the topic of 40K: my enjoyment of it relies on knowing my fellow players aren’t actually unironic fash-enthusiasts.

But this post isn’t about all that. It’s about how Darktide’s character customization systems work, what they imply to me, and how they affect the game. 

Darktide’s character creation is fascinating to me. But it’s especially fascinating because of how it differs from Vermintide 2, and from other games available right now.

Vt2 has five different basic characters to choose from. They’re distinguished from each other in many ways (gender, voice, appearance, play style), and each has a large number of voice lines—some one-liners, and some conversations which emerge when different characters are present in a given mission. All those things, and especially the voices, have a big impact on how the character is portrayed in my mind. I’ve played enough of the game, and heard enough of their conversations repeated across the missions, that I can talk along with them at times.

Honestly, that reminds me a little of how much I played the original GTA 3. I listened to GTA3’s radio for so long that I could sing along or talk along with all the different stations.

But like those radio stations, Vt2’s characters and their voice lines are static. They eventually repeat. Each mission, you pick from the several different character options, each one with a distinct voice. I’ve played enough—and their voices are distinct enough—that I can tell who’s talking whenever someone speaks. Sometimes the characters are amusing, sometimes they are awful, sometimes they tease each other in a ridiculous fashion. Anyone who’s played the game for a while knows who I am if I call someone else “lumberfeet.”

Other multiplayer FPS games have done similar things to Vt2 with their characters’ voice lines. Apex Legends has a host of different characters, each with a distinct personality and voice. They don’t have mid-game conversations per se, but they do have intro and outro lines and do automatically vocalize things that you’re doing (there are barks for your reloads, for you pointing out a location, for changes in the game state as the arena shrinks, etc.). Apex Legends’ in-game characterization is evocative and gradual, slowly revealing more details about them and their view of life as you play them longer and experience more of their barks. They also have tie-in comics sometimes, and little movies for each update. But the characters aren’t really conversing with each other much in-game, or building up the setting’s fiction mid-match.

And, as with Vt2, characters in Apex come pre-made. You choose the flavor you want, you don’t make your own.

Contrast that all with Deep Rock Galactic. DRG makes frequent use of voice lines, with different voices for each of the four classes in game. But while you can customize your dwarf’s appearance in far more detail than is possible in Apex Legends (DRG pays a lot of attention to hair, facial and otherwise), your dwarf remains something of a cipher. You’re just another dwarf mining in space for the Company.

Darktide has taken a different approach here.

There are character classes, archetypal options a little like those that were baked into the characters of Vermintide 2. But there are so many more options to choose from during character creation. Choosing an archetype is just the first step, followed by choosing a childhood, a profession, a defining moment… you’re making a backstory for your RPG character.

And it’s not yet evident to me how they affect the final game.

Some of them, I think, play into what voice lines your character uses. Certainly your choice of voice is restricted by what planet your character comes from. But I can’t tell whether my choices have much impact in the game beyond that. Maybe in the future FatShark will introduce elements of the game that are dependent on characters’ backgrounds (presumably cosmetic, so that you needn’t pick a given background for mechanical reasons). I’d happily give my Ogryn a floppy hat specific to his youth on an agricultural world, where he spent all his time herding great big beasts. Or maybe FatShark will record more voice lines that have to do with those backgrounds, and my friendly Ogryn will opine on farming.

But while I’m fascinated by how customizable character creation is right now, it doesn’t yet feel like it’s living up to its full potential. The plethora of options available, and the considerable difference they imply, feel like they should have more impact in-game than I’ve found so far. And I suspect that developing that further is on FatShark’s todo list—somewhere behind all the technical fixes they’ve already pushed out, and whatever other fixes they’re still planning to implement.

A funny side-note: I almost do a double take whenever I hear the voice actors from Vt2 voicing new characters in Darktide. Vt2’s writers and voice actors did an excellent job of tying together voice and character, and I’m really glad the voice actors got more work in Darktide—it’s a little like hearing old friends. But it’ll take me a while to get used to hearing them without them being one of the Übersreik Five.

I also don’t want to downplay the value of Darktide’s character creation as it currently exists. I’ve made up little backstories for my two characters so far, and had great fun with that. Part of that is because of who I am, and my predilection for story-making. But it’s more possible because of the smart move on FatShark’s part of making that bit of background more accessible to players. I certainly feel like my Darktide characters are more “mine” than any character I played in Vt2 ever was.

This means that even if FatShark never does anything more with the character backgrounds, even if they leave them as-is, they’ll still have done more to make character creation feel personal than any other FPS I currently play. No, it’s not up to my expectations as storyteller. And yes, I see more they could do with it. But I like it, and we shouldn’t underestimate readers’ creative role and the value of head cannon.

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Receiver 2: stay safe

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Hunted by kill drones, you’ll sneak through unnervingly empty buildings, scour for messages left by others like you, and hunt down tapes that teach you about the Threat and what you must do to defeat it—while you master every element of your randomly assigned firearm in order to perform well under pressure.

Receiver 2, by Wolfire, is an excellent game. It’s only on Steam right now.

But also, Receiver 2 is not for everyone. Not in a “only cool kids will like this game” way, but in a “you should be ready to engage with strong themes of mental illness, self harm, and the most serious approach to gun safety I’ve seen in a video game” sort of way. Like I said, not for everyone.

I really like this game.

It’s tense. It’s difficult. It is incredibly thorough and extremely well thought out (with a niggling exception that I’ll cover later). It’s the only game I know—besides its game-jam precursor—to bother modeling the underlying mechanisms of the guns you use.

Receiver 2 makes loading, safe-ing, and holstering your gun an actual skill. Learning to clear malfunctions by reflex is necessary, and mastering it is deeply satisfying in a way that simply tapping ‘r’ never is. Receiver 2 also discusses gun safety with extreme frankness, and pushes you to be aware of it constantly. If you screw up or forget, you may shoot yourself.

As someone who’s been a range safety assistant I deeply approve.

Intricately modeled weapons and foes, discoverable story and world-building, maneuvering through the tense spatial puzzles of kill drones’ blindspots in order to achieve your objectives—Receiver 2 is very good. I strongly recommend it, with two qualifications:

The first is that niggling exception from earlier, and something Wolfire says they’re resolving; the game revolves around uncovering tapes to advance through levels, but you lose a level of progress when you quit the game. That’s a problem, and it’s an unfortunate oversight. The game is already challenging, and has no save function, so demoting you a level when you quit feels needlessly punitive. Luckily, Wolfire has said that they’re going to fix that in a patch. Until then, I have read that typing ‘insight’ into the pause screen will advance you one level. Use as you see fit.

Second, if you aren’t in a good space to face strong themes of mental illness and self harm, especially around guns, I recommend caution around this game. I agree with RPS’ review of Receiver 2, but as someone who has dealt with depression and suicidal ideation I think they should have mentioned this content warning.

I’m keeping this non-specific in case you care about spoilers, but Receiver 2 deals with all those aforementioned topics head on. Now, Receiver 2 has one of the most straightforward and positive approaches to discussing depression and suicidal ideation that I’ve seen in a video game. But even though I knew that Receiver 2 had themes of mental illness and self harm, I was *not* ready for what I encountered. I’m glad that I’ve played the game, and I’m extra glad that I’ve *kept* playing because I admire some of Wolfire’s choices in handling these themes. But you should know that this game has difficult content—especially around suicidal ideation and self harm. I want you to be aware of that before you sign up for it.

Game Analysis: Devil’s Tuning Fork

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Devil’s Tuning Fork is an interesting exploration in design which seeks to weigh in on the classic question, “What is it like to be a bat?” (don’t worry, this will remain a game review and not an exercise in philosophical discourse) The game places you in control of a child who has fallen into a mysterious coma who must now explore a strange dreamscape in order to awaken. In order to escape what is eventually identified as a sort of dungeon you must rescue other children and traverse multiple platforming exercises/puzzles. And you must do this while experiencing what it is like to be a bat (sorry, I swear I’ll stop referencing Nagel’s paper.)  The overall tone of the game tickles my love of horror and the surreal.  But as it is with most things which I love, it isn’t perfect.

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