The Pull of the New

Hey, referring to the prior blog, maybe I was deluding myself!

Still, I got the chance to play a lot of games on first release, something I haven't done... maybe ever? Apart from a few big-name franchises I'd really loved, like Phantasy Star, Grand Theft Auto, or Elder Scrolls, I've tended to stay away from the initial release of games, especially now that the price is often a bit much for me. That's not to say I haven't used Kickstarter to get the jump on a few projects, most of which arrived pretty much intact, as well as some direct paying for smaller games on release, although those tended not to be forbiddingly expensive.

But to play them around when they came out on a regular basis has been a privilege. It's also been a great way to sample how buggy code can be. We all know it; whether or not a newer version of the code ever comes out, the first releases are likely to have problems. People who pay full prices, or even premium pre-order prices, get to hit the first wave of post-tester code. As someone who advocates (in my spare time) for paid testers, I know some of the problems stem from people, often independent designers, throwing their game at friends and family, which is rarely a good idea. Unless those friends and family trust that you won't take the criticisms personally, and if they have a healthy understanding of games, you're going to get some great feedback in certain areas, but you're setting yourself up for a mess down the road. And the bigger companies, often trying to keep a massive group afloat, will often drop the small problems in favor of making the launch no embarrassing, and keeping everybody paid and only moderately overworked. At some point things break down, especially in poorly managed companies, and you'll see character models that could fit quite well into horror movies, or stuff that totally isn't buggy but is so safe and boring as to be a different species of embarrassing altogether.

So why buy when it's fresh out of the gate? I have indulged in this often enough that I feel like I might know. I did it for Rogue One just recently, and apart from the game series above I have gone after a few specific titles I had to have. I guess, especially now, it's easy to fill up on other people's impressions of things. Maybe there are some people who are completely impervious to external impressions but it does seem to affect how I view things, at least initially, and there's something clean and pure about going in without knowing a thing. Especially with movies, music, TV, books... this can be kind of exhilarating, like you're the first person to see a new land (even if you're pretty much not unless it was procedurally generated, and I don't think they're doing that so much in the old media). There is also a sense that you may be the first to do a thing, even if you never even talk about it I guess there's a human tendency to like to be first, or at least be perceived that way, if only by yourself. And conversely, you feel like a member of a community who has bought into this new thing, and are experiencing it along with everyone else in the world playing it, like a club; you get to be the first to get the references to the game, the first to maybe make a few. You could be an internet sensation! (Probably not).

I suppose you also feel like you're supporting the team that made it. Even if it isn't a Kickstarter you're throwing money at them for making a smart-sounding promise, or being a team you've come to rely on. And if you do expose yourself to games media leading up to the release, you may have a few reviewers you trust to give you a decent impression of what's coming up. Even if your taste differs you've come to predict how they'll react to things you like and be able to figure out if you might want it. I tend do that more with games than with other things, because so much can go wrong in games even when it seems like a great experience.

But it's price, ultimately, that seems to dictate my hesitance of late. I was on board with No Man's Sky until I saw the price, and after it was released the price was the thing that made me glad I didn't get it. I could have enjoyed it for cheaper, and I probably will later on, especially with the updates they seem to be sticking to. Too cheap, and you wonder if it's worth it, too expensive and you wonder if they're trying to ride a popularity wave, and reasonable prices could probably be statistically shown to be in a certain range, but everyone probably has their own idea of what they would be, and you wouldn't really know that until after you played the game...

(...There's an idea. A rating system that's a currency value. What you would pay if you had the choice (including not bothering even if it was free). Since I just said everybody has their own idea about pricing that may weaken the argument a bit, but with stars it's sort of the same, you get people who are just happy to be here, and others who are searching for a better experience than most games can offer. Still, I can imagine pricing being something we could relate to, especially since there's a dissonance there. When you get a review copy for free, as objective as you can be, you have to leave the price judgment up to the reader, and if that information isn't up front, someone may diminish the role of price in their decision making. The controversy may come in relative to actual price, like you have a game that's 20 dollars and the rating says 10, as authoritative as you can be as a reviewer would that have been a realistic price for that team, even if it's ultimately not worth the purchase? Regardless, the price is important)

Having written about the games I got to see early has given me a chance to warn people about buying the bad ones, or maybe given a few people the inspiration to pick something up if they could afford it, but it's also shown me just how much out there isn't as great as it seems. It's one of the reasons why big publishers no longer supporting early reviews bugs me a bit. Competent reviews help us decide, give us something other than the official line to go by. But that's assuming the pull of the new is absolute, that in absence of other people's impressions we should just buy the thing immediately. With refunds being easier in some places maybe it's not as big a deal anymore, but maybe we should hold back. It won't kill us to wait a few days, but there are some people out there who really need to escape to these other worlds, as risky as that is. I can understand that, too.

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A Hedgehog in the Fog

Thought I'd write a thing.

Managed to get an article published for a magazine. It feels good, slightly, for a little while, but I realize this sort of thing is something other people do reflexively. It's like climbing a mountain only to realize it's barely a foothill. Or at least come to terms with that; I knew this was nothing compared to what others do. Personally though, it felt like a milestone, like the first bit of flash fiction, the first time I edged out a bunch of entrants to make it into a contest collection, writing (briefly) for a game that never was released.

You have to wonder what it'd be like if writing didn't feel so cheap. Seems like the coherent written word is barely above ipsum lorem in esteem when it comes to filling up space. Wallpaperers. Images, moving pictures, sound. Those beat writing out. You have to close out the world in order to let the words come to life on the page.

Game writing is an exercise in humility. I joke about the ipsum lorem thing but in games the written content really COULD be ipsum lorem and people would likely still be able to play most games, like I did with Metal Mutant when the only copy I'd gotten a hold of was the French one and the only French I knew was the stuff related to English. There were a few language dependent moments in that game, but they were just multiple choice obstacles, pretty much, and weren't the reason I was playing.

Reading takes a bit of patience, probably because reading is relatively new to humanity. Takes a moment to spin the propeller and get the brain ready. But it had a good run of time as literacy skyrocketed, with newspapers and books becoming a dominant form of spreading information and entertainment. The image and the sound have found a way to spread themselves now, through recordings and data compression, and the word's being pushed to the side again. It won't leave, obviously, but it's easier to reach just about anyone with the louder media than it is with language-dependent scribbles, translation software not withstanding.

I used to be asked about my icon now and again. It's Yozhik, from Yuri Norstein's adaptation of the book Yozhik v tumane, a hedgehog trying to find his way through a foggy forest. That short film still holds a bit of magic for me, but the first time I saw it I didn't understand what was being said. No subtitles. That was freeing in a sense, I was able to impose my own understanding on what I was seeing. As it turns out, this was sort of like Yozhik's own experience. He interpreted what he saw with his own wild imagination, making things more beautiful, but also more frightening, than they would have been otherwise. I found a decent enough translation later and understood more of what was going on. It didn't diminish my interpretation, but it did change it, making it more precise.

We still read, but it seems like we only try to get the gist and move on (or leave angry comments!). I do the same, a lot of the time. Writing's a subtle art and it's astonishing when a compelling article actually keeps my attention all the way through, especially when it's a long one. The reflex is to figure out what's being said and stuff it into a mental folder. Part of the written word feeling a bit cheap is that there's so much of it, and many publications now have less editorial control, always having to keep up with each other and the near instant communication speed. The quality drops, and the esteem for writing drops with it. Vicious cycle, I guess.

This tendency, and venues like Twitter (the mutterings about extending the character limit to 10k make me wonder what it would become), tend to force us to compress our thoughts into an equation in order to convey information, diminish knee-jerk criticism, and get sufficient attention to justify the effort. This rush to make a word bullet kills the subtle art, and arguably lets demagogues get bigger audiences, though I think it does make some people better editors.

Wherever writing is going, I write because I have to. Writing helped me deal with growing up, helped me find a spouse, helped me find friends here and elsewhere, helped convince people I was more than I seemed. I wish I could say I now live off the writing I've done, but that's not the case. Not yet, at least.

Even if I'm deluding myself, I have to hope that some day I'll make my way through the fog. I may never, but I'll have left a trail words that others might follow, so they won't get lost.

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Life's RNG

What if I fail. Like, forever. I don't think success wasn't meant to be for me, in the sense that I can see these things I come with mattering in some hypothetical sphere. The articles I'm working on right now may be a bridge to greater things, but I don't think it's guaranteed, even if I do well. Games tend to reduce things to systems, and you can reload if you failed. Like some sort of god you can keep rewinding until you win. Can't really do that in real life, although you can be blessed to be interested in a subject that is a big enough field that you can fail and come back later with something evolved from the lessons you learned without being permanently barred because you missed your one chance.

I will be writing something some of you may read in the coming months and it won't be here. But I can't help but think about what comes after that, if anything. Maybe it was always a dogpile, people scrambling to stay on top without being crushed, but even if writing isn't being eradicated it is changing, rapidly. I just hope that I'll be able to endure long enough, and get enough feedback, that I'll learn what I'm doing wrong and be able to make something of myself in a field that actually matters to me.

Not sure if the game mentality helps or hurts, here. On the one hand it gives me an attitude that I can eventually figure out how the system works and master it. Even if I'm not getting younger I can at least learn from what I did wrong, maybe, and build on that. But... maybe there isn't a system. Maybe there's more luck to it than the people who make it let on. Not necessarily because they're deliberately obfuscating, but if you luck out enough to make it it doesn't necessarily clear that that was why you made it. It seems like the attitude is that you have to believe to delusional levels that you're already there, just a few more steps and everything will work out. But people have been believing that for millennia, in one form or another, and most people have it pretty bad. I've managed to avoid a lot of hardship in my life, and what I have endured I had the breathing room to mostly recover from. Maybe I'm already lucky, in that sense. Praise the RNG.

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Thank you, Ryan.

It's rare for me to feel strongly when I hear someone famous has died; I think about all the people I've known much better whom I've lost over the years and feel I have enough on my plate. But there were a few people who were well-known, whether they were familiar just to hobbyists or were household names, whose loss was a shock to me. I think it had to do with my investment in what they were doing and how well they were doing it, and in a way they became distant family-members through my indirect connection to them.

Ryan's death was one of those shocks.

I have maybe one private message from Ryan, a short note about Beatles Rock Band probably not being possible for a Quick Look due to copyright issues, 4 and a half years ago. I starred it, just so I could find it again, though I didn't think this would be the reason why. My interaction with him directly was minimal, though once in a while he'd quote a wiki page that I'd helped edit, and I felt like, through him, I'd actually contributed to a podcast, yet this little community has been around for a long time, internetly-speaking, and it was built in part through his efforts. I remember him especially for his energy, solid podcasting skills, his needling (and sometimes deliciously surreal) wit, and his low tolerance for bullshit.

It's better for me to get out of the way and let others who new him better say their piece, but I had to say mine.

Thanks for those smiles, Ryan. Rest in peace.

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Brief Note on FTL

Played a lot of FTL. At the start I enjoyed it, I was unlocking things and running into impossible odds and dying like you're supposed to in games like this. But what's remarkable is how much luck plays a role in this game. Unlike a game like Spelunky, which has tons of random elements which become predictable when you see how they work and fit them together, FTL's randomness doesn't really calm down. Many games in, I'm still blindsided by an event that puts me in the middle of a battle with multiple drones plowing into my shields before I can even charge my weapons up, or puts me up against a ship with a shield level that my weapons just can't break through no matter what I do. So many of the basic encounters depend upon you finding a store that sells weapons, having the scrap to be able to buy one, and then having the scrap to upgrade the weapons generators in order to be able to cut through the slowly increasing level of shields from enemy ships. Some starting weapons loadouts are doomed to be obsolete after 1 or 2 sectors, meaning if you're not lucky enough to run into a weapon, you're pretty much fucked. That, and the end boss disobeys some of the rules you learn throughout the game. Maybe the roguelikes this game was styled after have bosses that do that? I don't know, I've never gotten to the end of a traditional roguelike. It doesn't feel as smooth as roguelikes I have played, though, whether or not you'd consider this to be a roguelike at all.

There's a lot to enjoy: the text choices, when not cheap, are fun and add a lot of atmosphere to what is a fairly static presentation. When luck is on your side, or you succeed despite your lack of luck, it feels like a triumph. And the miracles and good strategy that turns a possible defeat into a victory are rewarding, as well as the sense that you're actually PROUD of your crew for surviving, even if it was really just you telling them what to do.

I can't say I regret my purchase of FTL, but I feel like it needs finer tuning to allow for more ship configurations to at least make it a decent distance before being annihilated. If it was just difficulty I wouldn't even mention it, but it seems to be difficulty coupled with being randomly slapped upside the head, which for some folks isn't so pleasant. I still do play it now and again and once in a while I unlock something new, though many of these newer configurations seem more challenging to get right, and so many designs seem to suggest that moderation in all things (i.e. getting shields for the shieldless, etc) that you're sort of picking your own handicap a lot of the time. If I ever beat the game, I'll let you know.

Any questions you want to ask about the game, feel free. That includes players who are wondering about others' experiences.

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A Summary of Cryptic Comet's Games

When I haven't been playing Darklands or writing essays of varying levels of clarity, I've pretty much been playing all three of Cryptic Comet's releases. I helped playtest one of the games, but I found each of the games different enough that there really hasn't been any replacement when I want to just sit down for a little while and play a game to its conclusion. They all fall under the strategy game umbrella, but there tends to be so much chaos in these games that they feel much more tactical. It's not so much about memorizing development charts or anything, despite all the scary numbers and dry-looking UI that kept me from trying Armageddon Empires for... years I think, the games tend to be light on the rules for specific events. The depth comes in putting all the simple rules together, then dealing with problems while things are flying at you from all directions. It's sort of the difference between games like Doom, where the emphasis is on running and gunning, and more incremental, event-based shooters that have come since. Cryptic Comet games have enough random events that it becomes more about you experiencing the system and getting surprises and cool combinations of abilities that help you pull off a win, and they always have good art and music, as well as doing whatever theme they're setting up justice, both in general atmosphere and gameplay. They're not for everybody, but I enjoy them long after fancier games have faded from my memory.

The games are for sale from the Cryptic Comet website. The prices aren't like you'll see at Steam (unless you get roped into one of those massive bundles); they're a bit more on the hobby side of the pricing divide. These games definitely don't copy anything that's out there, though, which is damned inspiring. I'll talk briefly about each of the games, if you're curious.

Armageddon Empires

Armageddon Empires was the first, and in some ways it's the one I enjoy the most relative to my time investment. In it you take control of forces that survived a global apocalypse, each with different types of forces that develop in different ways and have a whole set of possibilities that, while not mutually exclusive from the others, tend to make them play out in different ways. The game treats this fragmented, post-apocalyptic scramble for resources and allies mechanically with a collectible card game style mechanic where you have a deck of cards that represent troops, bases, leaders, scientists and doomsday devices. Each card requires a certain amount of resources to play. You get these resources at the start of every turn, and can find more as you explore the randomized map to set up resource gathering equipment, as well as finding hidden caches and resource generating buildings. Thing is, at the start of every turn, you also have to roll to see which side in the conflict goes first for the round, and you can modify that chance by spending resources. The more you spend the more likely you are to get a ton more action points and a jump on your ruthless AI opponent (especially useful when you've finally figured out where they are and are looking to strike), but you'll have fewer resources to spend on new cards and to fuel some existing cards' abilities.

The total of all this is exploration, resource management, and strategic gambles. In the generous demo you get 30 turns before it shuts down, but I usually manage to plow through the game in that amount of time and it doesn't feel so much like a limit. The demo has two of the four factions, and I tend to play the humans; the machines are harder for me to do right. I get some satisfaction out of getting an army mobilized and sufficiently strong to blast through whatever the enemy has built up over so many turns, and usually the randomness tends to flatten out enough that I'm able to impose some order on the random draws and random terrain. Makes for a good, relatively short game.

Solium Infernum

The next was Solium Infernum. In it each player is an arch fiend vying for the throne of Hell after Lucifer abandoned it. The games can be long, and unlike with the demo of Armageddon Empires there is no set time limit to completion. There are conclave tokens which are randomly drawn which give you an idea how close you are to the end, but there can be several turns where a token isn't drawn, and this feeling of uncertainty bleeds through to just about everything. The chaos in this game, appropriate for Hell, is ramped up quite a bit. You gather resources through demanding it from your subjects, but the tribute they can give you varies from turn to turn. While sometimes this can mean you don't have enough resources to follow through on your plans, it also forces you, like in Armageddeon Empires, to react tactically to situations that the game hands you.

Players are AI, but can also be hotseat players or PBEM players. The biggest lament I hear from people is that there's no online play, and yeah, that can slow multiplayer with other humans down. I'd bet 99% of my games have been just the single player, but they're still fun enough. This game doesn't emphasize exploration as much as AE, the wrap-around board where you move your legions to secure territory and places of power has completely open information from the start. The source of chaos comes from the archfiends themselves, since they can play event cards that require a legion to be donated to storm the gates of Heaven, or make you master of the bazaar, letting you gain resources when other players spend them in the bazaar, but you're forbidden from buying there until the event expires. A well-played event can often change the course of the game. The legions themselves level up sometimes when they survive battle, and their abilities can be modified through artifacts, and through praetors, leaders which you can also train to send to arena battles to solve disputes. Actually, if there's a mechanic I think is the most original when compared to other strategy games I've played it's diplomacy: since you can't fight everyone directly (even in Hell there are rules) you have to bitch slap other players through insults and demands, which are a really well balanced series of options that force players to think about the consequences.

There are a crazy amount of options too, like rituals that can lay waste to legions or bribe away enemies, multi-part scrolls that can enhance your abilities, tons of relics which can give you extra powers or rituals you can perform, many legions to choose from, all with this hellish, crazy artwork that references popular culture that manages to be both nightmare inducing and funny at the same time. It's probably the single most ambitious of the three current games, and as such takes the longest to learn. The tons of ways abilities and events can combine, too, often bring about some unexpected results, but that tends to happen when you do the board game equivalent of stuffing everything you can into a single box.

Six Gun Saga

The lightest and quickest of Cryptic Comet's games is Six Gun Saga, a game I first mentioned a while ago, set in a fictional town in the mythic old west in the United States. It's a single player card game where you are dealt from a shared deck different "dudes," which are historical and fictional characters with different levels of ability, deeds, which give you locations you can use to get money or leverage certain powers with. On each card, in addition to the stats of the character or the abilities of the place, are special abilities and cash values, as well as a playing card value if you attach it to an existing posse, which is useful in the game's seven card stud style combat. You usually never hire characters or build buildings. Instead you sometimes spend a card to murder one of your opponent's dudes, or to give one of yours more health or gunslinging ability. You can give a character permanent powers that let you draw more cards, hold more cards in your hand, or be able to move the posse they're in an extra space per turn. All of this is in pursuit of victory points, which you gain by occupying story cards with appropriate characters (a lawman will be needed to access the Hang 'em High card, while only Apaches can start an uprising), as well as killing members of rival posses.

The way the game plays out, you often feel like you're telling a little story, where a character might, despite his gout and getting ambushed while going to the outhouse, manages to rob the bank and cost the rival gang, who happens to own the back, much needed influence in the town. Too bad he fell off his horse and died on turn later... While the AI doesn't feel as strong here as it does in the prior games (especially Armageddon Empires), this storytelling angle always pleases me if I bother to exercise it. That, and the game's very fast to play and relatively inexpensive. The demo lets you play 15 turns against a few different opponents, while the full version has a different scenario (the Weird West) and many more bosses to choose from and play against.

Occult Chronicles

Next up in development will be an investigation game where the player is trying to stop the world being swallowed up by horrors, a la Cthulhu. It looks like it'll have card challenges similar to the poker-style combat of Six Gun Saga (only using tarot cards, naturally), and have a bunch of nasty surprises to deal with, I'm guessing.

The blog with updates on the game in development is at http://www.crypticcomet.com/blog/, with the base link giving you access to demos, manuals, and the shop.

I don't think these games are perfect; each has their quirks, sometimes due to all the different variables crashing together. Sometimes the chaos will ruin you with no chance to recover, and sometimes you'll so dominate the AI opponents that your score will skyrocket. Par for the course when chaos is a big ingredient. Also, despite a lot of strategy games out now they're more single player focused, so with the exception of Solium Infernum it's always going to be you versus the AI, and even in Solium Infernum if you want to play multiplayer it's going to be by sending files over email or having friends around the same computer. But while they aren't as polished as big titles, they try things no one else seems to have done, and do them in very interesting ways. This is coming from someone who has played some of these games a lot.

Not sure when Occult Chronicles will come out, given that Cryptic Comet is basically one guy working in his spare time I won't hold my breath, but I'll probably play some of these games while I wait to see what's next.

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Mary Sue conquers the world. Again.

(See below for a correction)

Maybe you haven't heard the term "Mary Sue"; I hadn't until a few years ago when fan fiction writers briefed me on what the hell they were talking about. The Mary Sue, loosely defined, is a relatively flawless extension of the writer, whose mere presence seems to conquer those around him or her (not bothering to keep it gendered here, it applies to any character as far as I'm concerned), whether that conquering is through battle or just general charisma. The world revolves around the character, and the character can do no wrong.

Sound familiar? Many, many games have us play the role of a Mary Sue, often creepily so. While I haven't played Dragon Age 2, I felt upon reading that you could make any or all companions your sexual playthings to be disturbing, not because I'm opposed to the old in-out in-out, but that it seemed like the characters had no wills of their own. Other Bioware games tend toward this, but it's not unique to Bioware of course. Many, many games have us somehow being better than the rest by default, and sometimes they contrive reasons for us to be so because otherwise it would feel ludicrous in a world where everyone else seems relatively fragile. You probably have a few in mind right now.

Perhaps it's down to taste, but I tend not to feel very fulfilled if these sorts of accomplishments feel preordained. Maybe that's why I like it if the game is tougher; the challenge forces ME to be better, rather than the game simply rewarding me for following the training it gave me. It's also an argument in favor of emergent situations I think, because it prevents the designers from anticipating that we want a predictable ladder of empowerment as our only reward.

There is a bit of empowerment in just about everything. I probably can't shoot as straight in real life as I do in Borderlands, and I certainly can't get shot then take a bit of a breather and be OK again. This is fairly common in games that don't instakill, and they let us experience stuff that would easily wipe us out if we tried it for real. It's that point that many game critics miss; we do it because we KNOW it's bad to do in real life, yet don't mind trying it out, rather than we're training ourselves to do it later.

Yet taking that empowerment too far seems to bring a falsity to it all. Part of the pleasure of games is the unique stamp we can put on it, and I think that's why some degree of character customization is frequently the standard, even in games where the protagonist is already defined. But we're smart enough, usually, to see how this advancement can often lead to a monotonic-feeling game experience if we're bound to win regardless. The stamp, then, doesn't matter, so we're taken for a bit of a ride, then dumped off at the end. That initial feeling can be great, but it's likely to be forgotten.

Another part is challenge, or at least uncertainty. Going into a situation with the feeling that things may go wrong is sorta bothersome, but it helps make the payoff more thrilling. This holds true for losing as well as winning, strangely, because seeing that things can go wrong, while a bummer, can often show us that there's no safety net. Even if we wind up loading again, we learn from our mistakes and, in a way, customize the experience by improving our approach. Too much death can suck, too, but too little not only leads to short playing times, but a sense that we weren't really playing a game.

Even games with little customizability and challenge can still be worth it if the story is decent. A game that lets you try all sorts of different options, or at least tells one strongly narrated story, can make up for the lack in these other aspects, even if it winds up feeling less of an actual *game* in the bargain. Part of what makes a good story, though, is challenging the idea that the character's destiny has to be taken for granted, that there's some sort of conflict involved, either with themselves or with their environment, or at the very least a conflict with our real world expectations (though the latter has diminishing returns if the world DOES change; it's why a film that was revolutionary for its time, for example, may feel dated and overly cautious to us now. That, or if the world's attitudes are exaggerated, like often happens in Mary Sue tales).

A tangent to a strong story is strong characters. Not all games have characters, really, but some of the most memorable aspects of any game are often the characters, because they're things we're very likely to relate to (or hate). I think the essence as to why the DA2 Universal Seduction Initiative bothers me is that the characters lack any sort of center. They exist as extensions of the player character to what seems to be an excessive degree. Maybe this all works for some people, maybe it makes total sense in-game somehow, but to me it's the social equivalent of managing to hold all offices in the land simultaneously, like you can in Oblivion. Characters aren't human, per se, but they're proxies for humanness, and violating their fictional agency takes us in some weird directions.

Remove all of these elements and the work becomes a mindless march toward an inevitable conclusion. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing if you happen to get off on it, this is the internet after all, but too much of the same is withering, and making a game bereft of interesting conflicts and three dimensional characters or cool, unexpected ways to interact with the environment feels like the exact opposite of true empowerment to me: having everything handed to us, narratively or through gameplay, makes the game, and more specifically the main character, and by extension us, weaker.

Any games you tried that managed to subvert that Mary Sue tendency at all? There are entire categories that do, I suppose, like racing games and competitive strategy. It does seem to lean more toward single player experiences, so I guess that's more what I'm thinking.

Edit:

I've been told that, at least as far as some players know, it's not possible to get into bed with EVERYONE AT ONCE. Apparently my half-remembered picture of all the characters on the bed together, their personalities forgotten because the player wanted to [whatever euphamism is in vogue nowadays] with no regard for what happened before or what their individual tastes might be, was false. If it's not possible, then the DA2 example no longer fits, since, despite what some people seem to have gleaned from the above, I wasn't talking about the whole game merely because I mentioned that specific aspect of the game.

As someone told me, at the very least it'll be an excuse to play Dragon Age 2.

Not that I'm eager to do that since I haven't even completed the first one yet. Should have taken the Dwarves telling me I wasn't ready for the caves more seriously.

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A Return to Darklands

I'm willing to bet most of you probably haven't heard of Darklands. Its messed up publishing history, where it was released with some rather nasty bugs, didn't help it achieve the legacy it deserves, and it doesn't help that it lacks some rather straightforward user-interface choices that would make it a lot easier to play. Yet, it is still one of my favorite computer role-playing games.

I think part of the reason I'll always like Darklands is its willingness to be different. So many games emulate success unthinkingly, never asking WHY we assume some RPG convention is needed. In the conversion from pen and paper rules to software, too many things are often kept, often limiting the systems, since a computer can do many more complicated things than a bunch of people can with dice and paper. Since there are things pen and paper games STILL can do better than software, not playing to the strengths of computing often leaves many of the games feeling a bit weak.

Still, there's something to be said for simple mechanics: while Darklands' innovations are manifold, with many ideas still feeling fresh today, it sometimes crushes itself under its own systems. Reading the cluebook that you often find accompanying digital packages of Darklands helps illustrate this, since when talking about character creation it will tell you straight out that many skill and attribute options are inferior to others, such that, despite all the options that seem to be in the game, you're almost better off accepting the default party, something that's counter-intuitive for me in games with character creation.

Creating Your Motley Crew

The game in practice is still fun for me, but is still an exercise in trial and error to get things right, and this starts from the very beginning (make sure to match up nickname and full name, and get the gender right. There's no going back unless you want to make the character all over again). When creating a world, you also are allowed the option of creating your own characters instead of using the defaults provided. Each character is given several base attributes that determine their ability to fight in battle, use weapons, dodge attacks, notice things in the environment, learn, and interact with other people. The game doesn't tell you this, but it's possible to completely expend your starting points and not have problems later on, but for YEARS I would hold off on adding attribute points to everything because I assumed unspent points would carry on to skills later. This doesn't seem to be the case, at least not substantially so, and often starting with high levels of attributes helps you get past starting-level difficulties very easily.

Something that also only becomes clear through repeated new games or reading the cluebook is that certain attribute combinations are not only vital for having a decent party, but are pretty much mandatory. You wouldn't know it, but the wizard-type characters are heavily dependent upon Charisma, since the way they often acquire new alchemical formulae. Charisma is also considered to be vital for your leader, defaulting to the character in the lead. The ability for your team to be able to defuse situations is often the difference between survival and reloading, especially if you start by venturing out of the town gates early in the game. Agility, strangely, as well as Perception, are considered by the cluebook not to be as useful as the other stats. I don't quite agree, but often it proves true when Endurance and Strength are what help you more than anything else in combat. If you come into this game looking at every attribute like you do ability scores in Dungeons and Dragons and its clones, you're in for a bit of a shock.

After attribute allocation you advance the character five years and begin their first career. These alter base attributes by a bit, and give you starting skill points, as well as skill points you can allocate to the skills. The skills are abbreviated, so you have to refer to the manual to know what they mean. It becomes second nature after a few minutes, or after a while playing, which is what, but again, not every skill is made equal. Often a thief-style build will help you in certain specific situations, but with four character slots you have to be careful not to have a dedicated thief and just hope that they'll make up for their lack of weapon skills with sly tricks. This isn't a class based game, technically, so you're basically building a "class" from scratch, often having to remember to add weapon skill points with each career advancement to prevent your character from being useless in combat.

You can choose several careers, and this is often required to get some of the rarer careers. The downside is that after a few advancements you start to run into age-based penalties to your attributes. If your character gets too old, they become effectively weaker, so having to balance this out is an interesting, and unlike many of the character building above, apparent challenge. It's common wisdom to spend a few more careers on your alchemist, so that they have sufficient enough skill in alchemy not to blow up the inns where you mix your potions. Critical failures there are some of the more devastating non-combat failures in the game, so it's smart to make them as capable as possible.

Once you finish mixing up your skills, your character will be allotted starting gear, and you can pick an image, colors for that image, and heraldry.

Another weird thing is the starting gear, since I created a rather diverse party that followed pretty standard archetypes: a charismatic leader fighter, a pious fighter with a smattering of saint lore, a dedicated priest with the highest virtue and healing skill, and an alchemist with a bit of tinkering. When I checked their inventories, NONE of them had any armor, though they had a pretty good selection of weapons (except for pious guy. He started with a bow with no arrows, and no melee weapon at all). I'll admit this roll was DEATHLY unusual, and it took a while for they were able to secure decent armor from the corpses of brigands. Usually it'll be armor and a club. I'm not sure what happened but it's down to careers I think.

H. R. E. Punk

Once you have a party together you start in a random city in Medieval Germany, during the Holy Roman Imperial period. The setting is one of the game's great strengths, as it permeates to how time is told, how currency is converted, and adds flavor to characters and organizations which could simply be generic mayors, traders and bankers. The beasts, too, draw from the lore of the period, so you'll find the classical wolves and giant spiders, but also strange wooly men of the wood, and enemies directly from Christian mythology, including demons, cultists, and pagan creatures. The game does not mince words when it comes to depicting the society as a reflection of how people saw it at the time, with hermits and cardinals cursing you if you don't pay them tithes, calling upon saints having instant and measurable effects, and pagans being inexorably connected directly to satanic forces.

These things, while they may be a bit shocking given our tendency now to make such religious questions generic and analogous, enhance the setting and make it even more strongly of the period. It doesn't take long before you're actively rooting out corruption, praying to saints for deliverance, and being pious to passers by, and interestingly the game doesn't seem to necessarily take your side in this. The mechanics reinforce these choices, but the modern player will pick up on some of the ambiguities regardless.

Alchemy is also a step more substantial than it was in history, with the philosopher's stone being a real thing that enhances your formulae. You work to gather jealously guarded recipes to make potions that anyone can use close up, or throw at the enemy if their throw skill is decent enough. These potions have a wide range of effects, and are pretty much the only "magic" that you can use once a battle has started, as praying to saints is never done in combat (presumably it would take too long, although you can prepare for battle or even prevent battle through the use of saints in contextual situations).

St. Michael and the Mechanics

I won't got too deeply into the specifics of the game mechanics, but I'll set aside a bit of time to praise the weapon system and a few other things. Weapons in the game are not like you would find in Baldur's Gate, often defined most by the damage they do and their magical abilities. In Darklands magic weapons are rare, but each weapon has its own traits that distinguish it. Some are easy for unskilled characters to use, some require more strength to wield effectively, some penetrate armor better and do better damage when they do, while others penetrate poorly but do better overall damage. All weapons, all items in the game really, are also defined by their quality level, which has a big effect on how useful they are. A long sword of 10 quality is, as far as I understand, not nearly as good as a very high quality club. It makes sense, and it makes weapon loadouts a lot more diverse and interesting, encouraging experimentation to start and specialization later. Armor is more abstracted than this, but there are no armor restrictions. Your alchemist can wear plate armor, as long as they're strong enough.

Saints are called by spending virtue, which everyone has. Anyone can learn about a given saint, and since some saints have low base-virtue requirements, you can have several characters call upon saints without taxing your main priest. Characters are further differentiated this way so, if you get used to creating characters in this game you can have some pretty interesting combinations and still have an effective party. But since the saints you learn about are randomly distributed you have more tactical decisions about who to learn about, and who learns about him or her.

Baldur's Gate may not resemble this game too much, but in combat you see what may have influenced Baldur's Gate's design. Combat is in a three-quarters perspective, and it unfolds in real-time with pauses. You tell characters where to go and who to attack, and when unpaused they do that, assuming their pathfinding tasks aren't too complicated. In addition, you can choose different attack commands, some of which put the character at risk for damage but increase the chances for critical hits. When throwing potions you choose where to fire them, and then unpause to watch them explode in the enemy's face. There are also situations where you explore castles or caves, and this is done in this perspective, allowing for some skill use to find traps and open containers.

Mainly, though, the adventuring is done through menus, and while some people may scoff at this, I think this is another highlight of the game, one that needs to be emulated more by games. Like in King of Dragon Pass, you are often given contextual decisions, each of which may lead to lasting consequences. You're also given these menus when navigating cities and towns, or trying to mount an assault on a robber baron's fortress. The city navigation is especially pleasing; you can allow your imagination to fill in the blanks as far as what the medieval town looks like, but it only takes you a few seconds to walk to the merchant district to buy supplies, then a few more seconds to go to the inn, put one to work, another to praying, another to heal up, and the fourth to brewing potions. Even within these menus there are chances to encounter interested parties who want to hire you, or bandits who will try to rob you, so it doesn't feel nearly as dry as it might sound. While we still see similar mechanics in games that use conversation trees, the power of contextual lists is so often painfully under-utilized, from what I assume is a conservative stylistic choice. While Darklands does have its flaws, these lists are always refreshing for me.

Reputable Adventures in Saving

The Save Often RPG maxim is in full force in Darklands. There are no autosaves, and the game has an unfortunate tendency not to put saves in the proper order, forcing you to read the in-game dates on the saves if you have more than a screen of saves in your list. I'll admit this sucks, and I've sometimes deleted my latest saves by not being careful enough. Still, saving is pretty much required because ONE rough encounter can mean the permanent death of one or more party members-- you COULD carry on after that and create a new character to replace them with one you create (perhaps with someone more capable), but I've never done it.

It's also easy to be poor for a while, so it's smart to live on the cheap, sleeping in groves in your starting city and picking fights with robbers in order to gear up and gain money. I tend never to do that, though; my wanderlust is too strong. This means more saves and more loading, but you're never restricted to a damned tutorial area. Once you figure the game out, that was your tutorial, and you never have to go down that road again, unless you haven't played the game in YEARS. The game still gates you, though, as your reputation will often determine whether or not you get lucrative and rewarding jobs. The higher-end stuff will have you searching for relics and taking on monsters, while lower-end stuff is more breaking into offices and finding ancient sites to loot. You never need take a quest or follow the main plot, though. Never. You can just wander the countryside righting wrongs, fighting wild beasts, burning down villages corrupted by evil, and discovering new cities, saints, formulae, and gaining reputation all the while: It's no first-person slasher, but Darklands out-Bethesdas Elder Scrolls in terms of the kind free-roaming stumbling into adventure that I enjoy.

The reputation you earn, in a sense, is like the party's level, and is your overall measure of success in the game. Since so many party-based RPGs now seem to level everyone simultaneously anyway, this game sort of predicts this. Individual characters advance randomly when their skills are tested, and this can happen at any time, but the substantial increases come through reputation. The world gets tougher as corruption spreads, but the benefits increase too as your reputation grows, both your own party's and your reputation in the regions you explore. When characters advance in skills, you'll get a little notice of this to the side of the screen after a given encounter, and you can also try to increase these skills through the use of tutors and study. To me it's much more interesting than level tiers, because every encounter can bring increases, though progress isn't predictable or steady.

Epitaph

The game has some bugs that pop in on occasion, but it's nothing like waiting for the other shoe to drop in Daggerfall. It's not pretty, but its visuals and art style for the splash screens are full of character, functional and sometimes beautiful. The music is drawn from the period (and later), and helps set the mood, while the sounds during battle have charming electronic clangs as sword meets skull. The gameplay is bumpy in places, lacking the safeguards we've come to expect in good game design, but there are plenty of surprises, satire, and daring design choices that make Darklands not only an adventure in mythological medieval Europe, but also an adventure in game design itself.

If you have any questions about the game, ask in the comments or in a PM, and I'll try to answer as succinctly as I can manage. The early part of the ride is a bit bumpy, and anyone who wants to try it can expect a few setbacks, so:

B E N E F I T _ F R O M _ M Y _ O D D L Y _ S P E C I F I C _ K N O W L E D G E,

if you dare.

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A Brief History of My Pripyat

Installation: went OK. It did that thing where the progress bar just sits there at 100% and you're sitting there wondering if something went wrong, but this is just my lack of faith in machinery. Once it was done doing its undisclosed things, it was ready.

Manual: Memorized the keys while it was installing, skipped the flavor bits so I could come into the world fresh, although I've already seen the movie Stalker a few times and am reading the Strugatskys' novel, which I know are only distant inspirations given the game's back story, but was trying to get in the mood.

Startup: Watched the intro movie, which has a different dialog than the subtitles, which I found funny, even though I know how this sort of thing can happen in localization. Could have been a bit less full of explanations, but at least I understood what my character's role was by the end.

Graphics Fiddling: took the greatest amount of time of anything here. The screen was wavy, I think because we still use a VGA cable. Any people familiar with current age video stuff? I'm betting if we upgrade the cable it'll make it look less burbly. I wound up dropping a lot of the settings just out of wanting the game to run smoothly.

Graphical Settings: I finally settled on something middle-to-low, but I'm not sure it made much of a difference to the wavy screen now that I think of it.

Experience: Walked forward through the low-textured landscape; the grass waving about was good despite my low graphics settings, and I told myself I'd get used to the compromises I made once I got into the game. I reach the crest of a small hill after trying desperately to climb up the sides of cliffs that surrounded the starting area, finding two dudes who are in the middle of a steaming crater. After accidentally dipping a foot in a chemical bath, which seemed to cause some damage, I walk up to the first dude. I don't bother to look up if I can hit a key to talk to the one who is staying back. He's encouraging another guy to go forward into the crater to measure something, so I follow measuring guy, then walk past him, and my chunky body promptly flops to the ground, dead.

Aftermath: I play a full game of Solium Infernum.

Returning to the game now. Hopefully I can make a sturdier mind-game connection or I may wait until I get a better cable. I'll learn the lesson from my predecessor and not be excessively curious. :)

Edit: Getting much farther now. Graphics still troubled, probably due to my machine being passable when the game came out, but have managed to find the starting Stalker base, and pop out now and again to die in all kinds of ways. Still can't figure out if there's a way to sell common junk, though. I'm secretly hoping not since it's a bit crazy to run into a vendor who will buy EVERYTHING.

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