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More Orbs (Morbs)



The people just can’t get enough orbs. Video game companies might be letting you down on that front, but we’ve got you covered. In orbs, specifically. You should absorb them if you don’t want them to flicker and disappear! Anyway, on this week’s episode of Aftermath Hours, we bring you all the orb talk you can handle. 

Chris, Gita, and I pick up right where Chris left off in his soon-to-be award-winning orb blog, talking about all the best recent-ish orbs (Ikargua, Returnal, Crackdown) and finding orbs in unexpected places (Suicide Squad, for better or worse). We also reify Chris’ already robust definition of orbs and lament the specific ways loot has supplanted orbs in modern gameplay loops. It’s just a good conversation about orbs. What more can you really ask for? All podcasts should be this. 

Eventually – though with a great deal of regret – we move on to other topics, including undersea Soulslike Another Crab’s Treasure and the IRL Soulslike that is Taylor Swift lore. We also spend some time on the Drake vs Kendrick Lamar rap beef, in which Drake is currently struggling as a result of recently being reduced to a pile of ashes on the ground. Then we wrap up by discussing the student protests that have been taking place in our collective (aside from Luke) backyard of NYC and what listeners can do to aid their own local protest efforts. Speaking of, you should grab the Palestine Relief Bundle if you haven’t already, and here’s a link to the National Bail Fund Network.

You can find this week's episode below and on Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you prefer to listen to podcasts. If you like what you hear, make sure to leave a review so that we can ascend to the top of the charts and usher in a second glorious orb age. 

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Chris: I don’t think a projectile is an orb in the classical sense, but I think that it would be folly to not recognize the place of the projectile orb in the lineage of that – particularly [shoot ‘em ups]. I’m thinking of Ikaruga specifically, in which projectiles become orbs.

Nathan: Yeah, you can absorb them if you switch your ship mode.  

Chris: If you can absorb them, it’s an orb. Otherwise it’s a bullet.   

Nathan: I mean, is “orb” not just short for “absorb”? Can we agree on that? 

Chris: The other thing worth bringing up is Housemarque. Housemarque loves particle effects. So if you look at Returnal, it’s probably the best PlayStation-exclusive [example]. It’s up there with Geometry Wars.

Gita: It’s one of my favorite launch games for a system. I got really stoned and tried to explain what I like about it to [PC Gamer’s] Tyler Colp and was unable to. It’s not a Soulslike, but it still has that pure character action thing. It’s not a looter, but you can still sort of decide on a loadout as you go through. But it has this incredible gameplay system where it rewards streaky-ness in a way that Dark Souls games don’t. In a Dark Souls game, your streak can be interrupted at any second. But with Returnal, when you get going on a hot streak, it keeps giving you more powers to continue going on that streak. There is something absolutely intoxicating about that feeling when you have a system that works.  

Chris: That’s pure gameplay. That’s what it is: The orb represents pure gameplay. It represents a purity. And I think when people get nostalgic for the PlayStation or the Xbox 360, I think people do mean this sometimes – though not all the time. Sometimes they mean “I like when there were really badly-rendered women with huge jugs.” I guess fair! I don’t care. But this is also a thing. There was a game-y-ness to it. This came up when the Resident Evil 4 remake came out; it had a little bit less of that arcadey feeling, that cleanness. I miss that, and I miss what that represents.

Worth noting, people have asked about Crackdown. Crackdown’s orbs are atypical, but they are orbs. They are upgrades. But the issue with Crackdown is that you can’t [do it again]. You know the Bugs Bunny thing where Daffy does the magic trick that kills him, and Bugs is like “Whoa, that was a great trick,” and Daffy is like “Yeah, but I can only do it once” while floating up into the clouds? That is Crackdown. The reason why Crackdown 1 was so good – and then 2 and 3 were not – is that you just can’t replicate the rush of the agility orb. For the record, for people that don’t know, the agility orb was the thing people liked about Crackdown.   

Nathan: Yeah, that was it. Crackdown was otherwise not a very good game. 

Chris: It’s not a very good game! Kind of really bad Verhoeven, basically. But you’d basically get an orb, and it’d increase your vertical jump, and they placed them subsequently higher and higher, so it created this [really satisfying progression]. I remember people at the time being like “This is so fucking cool.” And it was.

Nathan: If we’re considering Crackdown orbs orbs, that’s my personal favorite orb. I just loved the progression of being able to jump abnormally high – basically like Master Chief – at the start and then puzzling out the ways you can advance through the city. You were like “There’s an orb over there, and maybe if I jump on top of this one building and then this other one, I can get to that. But there’s this other orb way up here that I have no idea how I’m ever gonna reach.” But then five hours later, you’re jumping, like, 25 feet in the air, and you’re like “Oh yeah, I can clear this easily.” And you would slowly but surely make your jump a little bit higher with each orb. It just rules. By the end you’re like “I’m a god now. I can jump anywhere.”  

But, to your point, Chris, once you reach that apex, there’s just not anything else to it. You play another game that’s similar like Crackdown 2 – which was just a worse version of Crackdown 1 with multiplayer – and the rush is gone. You’ve already done it before. You could put it in another city and still have a similar experience.  

Gita: The thing that makes Returnal satisfying to return to over and over is not actually the difficulty level but the way they combine the orb-influenced gameplay with a very good, unresolvable narrative that repeatedly plays tricks on you. I read somewhere that Housemarque’s narrative designers all decided privately on what events they thought were true and which events they thought were not true. And also they decided to not tell each other, so every writer working on it would have a different interpretation of the plot.

There’s three tiers of the lore you can get in the in-game dictionary, and I have sat down and tried to put these things together in a coherent way. It’s impossible on purpose. It gives you a tantalizing hint and an incredible mood and tone to live within. The majority of the focus is an incredible pure gameplay experience.

Chris: Yeah, pure-ass play. 

Nathan: You know which game that recently came out has orbs? And that I think missed a lot of the points of orbs, in addition to missing many other points? Suicide Squad. Suicide Squad also takes a lot of obvious influence from Crackdown while missing the point of Crackdown, too. It’s still a big, open city you can jump around, and you have superhero powers and all of that, but you’ve got your mobility abilities pretty much from the outset, so the appeal of growing that is not really there. The orbs don’t make you jump higher.

The game also includes loot, so you have loot and orbs in the same game.

Chris: Yep, the Destiny issue. 

Nathan: You can level up to gain skills and increase your stats, but then also you find weapons with other complicated stats. It quickly becomes a game of not even inches, but centimeters or millimeters, where each individual thing you do increases something tiny and minute. You can’t really feel it, and it’s like “Why am I here?” The unfortunate part is, the bones of that game are solid. Combat actually feels pretty good. The traversal feels pretty good.

Chris: Yeah, these are classical orbs, but a game can use orbs badly. It’s funny because it does seem to be gesturing at something closer to what we’re talking about. The parts are there. They just need to make a better game.        

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