The new world order of SimCity

Nothing gold can stay.

For decades, SimCity has entertained would-be mayors and city planners with complex simulations that approximate the actual running of a city. Sonce the beginning, SimCity gave players dictatorial control over the destiny of a small settlement, letting them grow it into a sprawling metropolis, and then watching it crumble into ruins with a spate of natural disasters once players got bored. It was and is a winning formula, the ultimate power fantasy.

Enter SimCity 2013, the first proper game in the series since Sim City 4, nearly 10 years ago.

Everything players love about the game is still there, upon first inspection. Zoning, streets, power plants, a ludicrous amount of detailed graphs, everything is accounted for. Indeed, it could be argued the removal of the tedious water pipe and power line requirements was a much needed improvement.

Take a closer look, however, and SimCity transforms from a utopia into a dystopian, bizzaro world where everything is just wrong enough to cause that twinge of discomfort.

The most crucial of components, the absolute control you could wield over your city, is gone. Instead of an infinite variety of choice in choosing a location for your municipal empire, you are told to choose one of a half dozen regions in which to build. Also lacking is the ability to reshape the land itself, forcing your city to drape itself across the landscape rather than integrate itself in its hills and valleys.

The space in which you are allowed to build has been limited as well. Instead of spreading to the farthest corners of the map, an ugly white line serves as a constant guardian over the "city limits" that arbitrarily prevents you from crossing. This results in the almost comical patchwork nature of the region, with a massive residential or industrial complex existing adjacent to pristine, untouched land.

Most damning, however, is the fact that your city is anything but. Instead of a grand, self sustaining megapolis, SimCity now limits you to one section of a "greater metropolitan area." Cities are forced to specialize, as the space you are given to build in is too small to create an independent settlement.

SimCity is a game about communities, but was never meant to be one.

That is where the development of this game went so horribly wrong. At some point, someone (cough EA cough) decided that the focus of SimCity should be on multiplayer, on cooperative building, on community. That flies in the face of anyone who enjoyed the previous entrants in the series.

SimCity is about being an almighty tyrant, not about being a helpful group member. It is sad that SimCity itself has forgotten that.

Instead, the creators of the game are the tyrants. Forcing the userbase to connect to a server system that currently barely works, refusing to give out refunds for a game that people can't even play, forsaking the infinitely creative modding community in order to send out carefully focused grouped DLC packs; all of these thing hurt so much more because players remembered a time when they were the ones in control.

Now, they can't even control their own game.

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Failure is Awesome: My X-COM Experience

I have never failed so hard at any game before. I have also had the most fun I've had gaming in a very long time.

X-COM is an amazing game. Defending the earth from merciless alien invaders with the slickest production values I've ever seen in a turn-based strategy game, has never looked better. It is entirely serious without being ridiculous in its sobriety, it respects the fiction of the universe it has created, and it has some damn fine sound design.

But all that is secondary to the barebones mechanical design of its game systems, and how they impact the player.

Here's a quick rundown of its general combat design. First, your dudes!:

  • Soldiers can generally move, then do something. Any action other than moving or opening a door ends your turn, unless you have an ability that overrides this rule.
  • Actions include shooting, reloading, entering overwatch(ready an action to shoot the first alien critter that pops up), using a medkit, hunkering down, firing a rocket, etc.
  • Soldiers automatically take cover if placed next to anything. A soldier in partial cover, hiding behind a car or something, gains a small defensive bonus to dodge shots. Full cover, as granted by hiding behind a corner or behind a larger truck, increases that bonus further. Getting caught out of cover generally means you are dead, and hit percentage jumps from base ~50% to base 100%.
  • Getting to a position that flanks a creature removes their cover bonus.
  • Weapons have ranges. A sniper rifle loses almost no accuracy over long distances, while a shotgun drops very quickly.
  • The more missions and kills a soldier gets, the more he or she is promoted. The more promotions you get, the more abilities you unlock for the four classes of soldier, and the stronger that soldier becomes.
  • Your soldiers can and will panic if they got shot, poisoned, or see a friend die. When they panic, you lose control of them, and they will either fire wildly or run to cover farther from the aliens they can see.
  • Rookie soldiers die in 1.1 shots from the weakest of enemy aliens. Throw them up against anything stronger then a floater, and watch them get vapourized.

Aliens generally have the same options available to them as you do, with a few extras thrown in.

  • Aliens are either stationary or on patrols when an X-COM team arrives. if you move up, they get a free move to to scramble into cover once they see you. This essentially means that it is impossible to get the drop on any alien in the first turn you see them with a single soldier.
  • Sectoids can buff another sectoid by linking minds, increasing the parameters of the second sectoid while the first channels. If you kill the channeler, both aliens die.
  • Thin Men are extremely mobile infiltrators that explose in a poisonous cloud when they die, and can spit poison at your troops. Poison ticks for one damage a turn, very lethal when you have 4-7 hp.
  • Floaters can float around, rendering your cover useless. They are also a lot tougher compared to sectoids and thin men.
  • Mutons are beefy tanks that can intimidate soldiers, making them more likely to panic, and can buff other mutons.
  • Chryssalids are insectoid aliens that move like the wind and can eviscerate humans in melee. Anything they kill raises up again as a slow-moving zombie, which will quickly transform into another Chryssalid after a few turns.

There are plenty of more aliens out there, but I've died before having a chance to see them.

As a disclaimer, the only experience I've had playing X-COM is on Classic Ironman difficulty. No loading past saves, every action is permanent, yadda yadda.

I've lost the game about 6 times now, after playing around 14ish hours. My best run had me fighting off Mutons and Chryssalids with Captains and Lieutenants. My worst run had be calling it quits after the third mission ended up with everyone KIA and Mexico pulling out of the X-COM project.

What I love about this game is that it absolutely does not pull any punches. The AI will ruthless cut down your soliders if they are left exposed, and those dead soliders never come back. (Unless they are lucky enough to be critically wounded, and you get a medkit over to them before they bleed out. Even then, they'll be in recovery for a month.) It perfectly captures the tense fear of the original, especially when you're halfway through a 'very difficult' mission and everyone is already wounded.

Rushing things is begging to get killed. If you double move up to a seemingly safe piece of cover, only to have three or four aliens scramble away from you, that solider is dead, as he or she is likely too far away from allies to get any support. The aliens will easily flank your solider, kill him, and laugh at your pitiful tactics. X-COM is a game of patience. Moving soldiers painfully slowly, from cover to cover, having each trooper being covered by two others, is they way to go. Once you've found a nest of the buggers, that's when you try to flank and hope to hell you don't stumble into another group while trying to do so.

I recall one defeat where I found two sectoids hiding in a liqour store. I decided to have one soldier stay out front and keep the aliens hunkered down in cover, while the rest of my squad would head to the backdoor. Such a plan had worked fine in the past, allowing my operatives to bust in the door and shoot the aliens at point blank range. This time, however, rounding the corner and entering the alleyway behind the store revealed three(3!) groups of Thin Men that slaughtered my unprepared flankers.

That's been a common theme amongst my failures: getting greedy. Whether its thinking, "My grenade will take these out just fine, so its safe to move up," and walking into a second group of aliens, or feeling confident enough to try and stun an alien for capture instead of of going for the long-range kill, there is almost always a clearly-identifiable error I made that got my soldiers killed.

And there lies the genius of this game. Aside from the occasional questionable call on the game's part of determining flanking, your failures are your own. I've certainly been frustrated at a 86% accurate shot missing, but if I need that 86% chance of hitting shot to connect to avoid a soldier dying, I should of made it 100% or not of taken the chance at all. The game is almost sadistic in its glee of exposing the flaws in your positioning, or exploiting a careless mistake. I recall one mission that went flawlessly until there was only one sectoid left. All my dudes were out of ammo, so I kept everyone in their cover and reloaded. The lone sectoid brazenly walked up to one of my guys and put a bullet in his head at point blank range. He had seen my whole squad reload, and knew it was safe to approach. If I had switched one or two to pistols and staggered my reloaded, Sargent Lyra "Harpflank" Heartstrings would still be with us.

The customizability of your fragile soldiers makes every death all the more heart-wrenching. Heroic sacrifices, like Pandora Box running ahead of a VIP to take the overwatch shots of four Thin Men so the VIP could made it to the extraction point, are tearfully remembered. Horrific mistakes, like Fancy "Esquire" Pants' rocket misfiring and blowing up two comrades, are burned into your memory.

I wish more games allowed the player to fail so spectacularly. Watching panic levels rise ever higher after a single botched mission is crushing, piling on the punishment. You've already lost 4-6 soldiers, here's some more bad news. These soul-devouring disappointments are the requisite counterweight to the soaring highs you experience when you ace a mission with no deaths and no injuries. Seeing the depth of the fuck-ups that are possible makes victory ever sweeter.

In an age of guided experiences and padded rooms, a kick in the balls from an updated 94' classic is a refreshing breath of clean air.

A word of advice to anyone playing X-COM: research alien materials first, and give your rookies those vests. Otherwise, they will get one shot.


Why saving the world sucks.

Something I wrote for a college submission portfolio. Not completely related to VIDEO GAMES, but this is a blog, so whatever.

I’m tired of saving the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and all, with resealing the ancient evil that’s awakened or stopping the megalomaniac that will ‘rule the world or see it burned to ash’. Fun stuff. Judging from the amount of novels, video games, and other forms of media I see with themes of planetary salvation, I think I can safely assume plenty of other folks are in the same boat. But, like a box of cereal you leave in the pantry too long, it's getting kind of stale. Sure, it still tastes okay, and it isn’t going to make you sick or anything, but maybe it’s time to refresh your stock.

It’s been at the point, for a long while now, where the vast majority of mainstream (or popular, if manestream gives you hipster vibes) fantasy has become rather predictable in its storytelling. I’m painting with a broad brush, I know, but that’s my point. No matter what the starting point is, be it a orphaned kid living on dusty desert streets, the capricious tomboy rebelling against her protective father, or a ragtag band of mercenaries hired in a tavern, fantastical fiction seems to always end up with the heroes saving all of humanity.

That’s not to say that epic storylines that deal with the issues brought up by literally having the weight of the world lying on a character’s shoulders can’t be engaging and entertaining. Many are, from modern tales like the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, to the classic fare of Tolkien and all who came after him. Long, grueling tales of heroism, sacrifice, and redemption, with characters fighting for their lives every other page, are quite useful for putting your own problems in perspective. Having Bill, up in marketing, steal your lunch every Tuesday is aggravating, but petty in the grand scheme of things. But, invariably, the vast majority of fantastical fiction published each year deals with saving the world.

Sometimes the story is blatant about it. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin, lets the reader know in the prologue to the first book that there is a very real and very dangerous threat to the world lurking just past that 700ft barrier of ice. This is a series praised by critics and consumers alike, with engaging characters, rich worldbuilding, and generous servings of sex and violence. Season Two of Game of Thrones is available right now on HBO. It is a series that prides itself on its grey morality, gritty realism, and stunning twists in its narrative. But, the reader knows as soon as soon as her or she finishes the first book, who will save the world.

Books like Mistborn, on the other hand, can be a bit more subtle. The first book gives no impression that the third will end up with the protagonists literally remaking the world after the apocalypse. Mistborn appears as a heist film transformed into a fantasy novel for almost the entirety of the opening novel. A strong female lead, an inventive magic system and a repressive government make for an interesting read. But, it too falls prey to the almost obligatory duty of raising the stakes until the characters become gods. This is a prime example of a point I’m trying to make:

Saving the world dehumanizes all characters involved, and lessens the emotional weight of the tale.

I won’t let it be said that I claimed all fantasy must undergo that escalation. Richelle Mead’s Succubus, a series involving the trials and triumphs of a succubus living a normal life in New York, crafts a compelling story about love, lust, and not giving in to your darker emotions.. Although she fully utilizes the fantastical elements available to her, Mead keeps the story feeling ‘real’ by having her heroine suffer through the daily 9-5 grind, pacifying angry landlords, and other mundane tasks. The most responsibility Mead foists onto her character is saving a single man’s soul.

But that is a common trend only in urban fiction. In full-fledged escapist fantasy, with author-crafted universes, civilizations, gods and histories, that sort of slice-of-life storytelling is fustratingly rare. Perhaps the effort the authors put into their imagined worlds subconsciously guides them to give their characters equally epic problems. If that were true, however, shared-universe fiction wouldn’t have the same issue. The average Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance novel may start fairly low-key, but escalation is nearly unavoidable.

High Fantasy has a dearth of novels that don’t involve world-shattering prophecies or deific warfare. There are some exceptions, of course. A notable one is The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. A novel about a group of thieves trying to pull off a big score evolves into a crusade of revenge against the crime lord that betrayed them. There’s some magic involved, and the issues involved are deadly serious, but it never pulls the rug out from under the reader with a revelation that everything and everyone depends on the heroes’ success. I consider it one of the greatest books of the last decade.

But for every Lies and Scott Lynch, there are a thousand other novels and authors that insist on injecting drama and tension into the story by raising the stakes until they can’t be raised anymore. I’ve grown increasingly tired of the bait-and-switch, rags to riches story that pervades fantasy. So many writers start their characters off living a normal life in an extraordinary world, then make their protagonists extraordinary themselves. It has become rote. When otherwise exceptional storycrafters do this, it can ruin the experience.

Catherine, a video game published by Atlus, is a personal example of mine. Atlus marketed the game as a dark, urban fantasy puzzles game, and their track record of engaging characters and riveting storylines had me excited for their next project. I kept abreast of any spoilers, and wanted my virgin playthrough to be as entertaining as possible, so I invited some friends over to take turns playing through it. Soon we were enthralled by the chronicle of Vincent, a twenty-something computer programmer feeling trapped by his girlfriend Katherine’s insistence on getting married. He’s afraid to commit, although her loves her greatly, and doesn’t want his ‘pretty awesome’ life to change. He gets drunk at a bar one night, and ends up making some bad decisions, resulting in him waking up next to Catherine, a barely-legal blonde that just wants to have fun.

The story takes a turn into the bizarre by introducing nightmares that plague Vincent every night. His conflicting emotions surrounding, freedom, commitment, guilt, and responsibility are embodied by the twisted demons that haunt his dreams. The story constantly increases the tension by revealing Katherine suspects she may be pregnant, having Vincent discover that Catherine is an obsessive stalker, and that in the city he lives in, young men are being found as dessicated husks in their beds.

Eight hours in, it is four in the morning, and all in attendance that are still awake are glued to the screen. Catherine and Katherine have finally met, and Katherine is understandably outraged. A struggle ensues, and, in the end, Katherine stabs and kills Catherine with a kitchen knife. The entire room was amazed. Video games have long been maligned by much of the public as emotionless escapism, with critics of the medium describing it as ‘desensitizing youth to violence’ and, with less controversy, dismissing the plot of video games as simplistic at best. But here was a video game that had the guts to bring itself down (or perhaps elevate itself?) to the very close, very vulnerable, very un-videogamey realm of love and intrapersonal conflict.

We decided to take a quick break to drive our sleepy friends home, and used that forty minutes to speculate on the Vincent’s future. Would he take the blame for the woman he loves murder, and allow his unborn child to grow with its mother? Would he let Katherine go to prison? Would they both run away, discarding their previous life? Any of these would of been far more interesting than the choice the developers made.

Catherine turned out be a succubus serving Lucifer, and Vincent makes it his duty to save mankind from the punishment of falling to lust incarnate. (Spoiler: it’s death!) The game continued on for another two hours, with Vincent eventually beating Lucifer and saving the males of the world from being sucked dry by agents of Hell, but I didn’t really care after that point. It was like a punch to the gut. I was Vincent, until that point. I knew how it felt to screw up up so royally that someone’s life would change forever, and while I have never violated someone’s trust so horribly, I certainly have felt the touch of betrayal myself in the past.

But as soon as the story transformed from one man descending into a hell of his own making, into a man literally descending into hell to smack Satan upside the head, it lost all emotional resonance to me. If the game had ended on that cliffhanger, it would of been a pinnacle of achievement in videogaming. Instead, the events before that point lost much of their relevance in the endgame, tarnishing their impact in hindsight.

Catherine is merely a clear-cut example, a microcosm of the larger issue. Why do the creators of otherwise compelling fiction feel the need to ratchet up the risks and stakes of their stories, especially in high fantasy? Where is Seinfeld meets Middle-Earth? There is a reason sitcoms and dramas are very successful in modern television: people relate to them, their characters dealing with the issues that pop up in everyday life. I am still waiting for the sitcom that has a hippie, tree-hugging elf dealing with a technology obsessed gnome neighbour insistent on using his trees as fuel. I know why it will never exist on television (period/fantasy pieces are expensive), but in the medium of the written word, such barriers are irrelevant.

When a story slowly ramps up the responsibilities placed upon its characters, instead of opening the floodgates like Catherine did, it is a bit more tolerable. When a narrative has strong characters that play well off one another, snappy dialogue, and all the other elements that make up a good story, the impact of changing the scope of the novel is lessened. But it is still there. When the stakes are raised to a certain point, multiple plot points become much more or less likely: Heroic sacrifices go up in probability, the morality of the characters involved become much more black and white, etcetera. When a story becomes less of a surprise and more of an inevitability, it loses much of its allure.

Much of the criticism I lay upon modern writing cannot be applied to one of the most ancient of texts. The story of Homer’s Odyssey dealt in epic fare, but kept the motivations of its protagonist pure and mundane: Get home. That story of the simplest of desires has entertained audiences throughout the ages, and continues to do so today. Perhaps modern authors could learn from Homer’s example.

Fantasy authors should not feel obliged to match the epic worlds they create with epic tales to match. Far too much of fantasy today is rife with apocalyptic plots and threats of mass extinction. Where are the tales of the layman in an extraordinary world? Why do authors pigeonhole themselves into saving the world when a equally or even more compelling tale could be told about the crazy antics of a womanizing wizard? A single child surviving an orc raid, and never being given the chance to avenge the fallen. A pirate captain not concerned with angry ghosts and cursed treasure, but with keeping his crew in line and securing filthy lucre. Mixing the drama of truly human stories with the wonder and imagination of high fantasy should be a concept embraced, not ignored.