And why I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
At this point, you should all know what this is, but for those who haven’t been here: It’s time for more BATTLETECH anecdotes and navel gazing. At 194 and counting, BATTLETECH earns my trophy for most played game of 2018, period, and it continues to warrant my attention, appreciation, and introspection. Even after all this time, it still has stories I want it to tell, and stories I want to tell with it.
For those not familiar, by way of setting things up: In November 2018, BATTLETECH released its first expansion, Flashpoint, which, among other things such as a less-scripted career mode and some balance alterations, introduced something called flashpoints. In BATTLETECH, flashpoints are pre-written vignettes (distinct from the procedurally generated missions that fill most of the game’s runtime) that often include consecutive deployments, forcing players to field their squads without a chance to repair first, usually involving and hinging on your relationships with various galactic powers. A revamped reputation system also encourages you to pick sides between these forces more, and to be more judicious about the kinds of situations you put yourself in, lest there be unintended consequences. The changes might seem small at first, but they provide substantive texture to the game and help even out the procedural, sometimes rote-feeling normal missions and the very scripted story missions with some worldbuilding and carefully placed decision making. There is, unfortunately, one small hitch, that appears to be part and parcel with this new update, which is the fact that the game’s loading times have gone from ponderous to downright sluggish. In the words of the devs, as of November 27th, 2018:
“Hey! We wrote about this in the FAQ but there is an issue with the latest update causing the initial loading take insanely long for some! It might take a good while but know that if you leave it on the game will load eventually! We’re currently investigating the issue and hope to have a fix ready as soon as possible”
In a game that is already slow, one that some folks have characterized as painfully obtuse and cumbersome, tacking on a 90+ second load time on launch, and a good 20–30 seconds on each loading screen, is a dangerous thing indeed. A friend of mine, mentioned as the yin to my yang in one of my other mech pieces, on experiencing the same thing simply put the game down before the campaign’s completion, waiting until future expansions and fixes to continue. BATTLETECH can chug along, at times, and making it chug more is understandably driving people away.
And yet, here I still am. And though there are plenty of other things on my plate, I’m still finding time to cordon off for another slugfest or bout of fevered mech customization. And while the answer to that is, on some level, ‘cause I like it’, I’ve been trying to work out a more satisfying answer.
It comes back to what I’ve touched on before, but only delved into partially: The degree to which BattleTech invites its players to create their own journeys. It ties into the mechanical realities at play in being the money-grubbing miser or the generalissimo, as I talked about before, as well as in specific cruxes such as flashpoint choices about listening to suspicious but clever crooks, but it comes out more in the gaps between those things. It encourages players to take the blank spaces between those already painted and fill things in themselves, to create stories out of things large and small. I’m not sure what it is that makes this encouragement so successful for me — I tend to check out of the Skyrims and Fallouts of the world because they don’t give me enough to latch onto — but I think it has something to do with both an effective balance of text and subtext and the game’s success in creating just genuinely unique, interesting occurrences with surprising regularity. It’s easy to dramatize a story about a character nearly dying and giving her girlfriend a heart attack after being shot straight out of her bruised and battered Blackjack when that’s a thing that’s happened to you amidst the sands of a forgotten world as your other mechs are rapidly cut off and surrounded, unable to help. From there, the story of how that character refuses to ever use that mech again, sells it despite a long and intimate history, and relegates herself to the back lines only to be laid out again on her first outing as a long-range warrior unspools itself. BATTLETECH works as a narrative simulator because it provides the events themselves, plus enough context and flair to make things interesting, and then allows you to stitch the connective tissues together with as much drama as you see fit. And, though Dekker may die in every BATTLETECH playthrough, his death still feels like mine and mine alone.
An easier way to say it: The game is still just damn fun, and it’s sparked me towards more daydreaming than I’ve had the pleasure of doing for a long time, and that’s worth more than a little to me. Flashpoint has contextualized these stories even more fully, giving me an even richer tapestry to work with, and long loading times are certainly not enough to keep me from that.