Back on the Digital Farm: Part 1 Littlewood

Really should have noticed the version number on this screen before hitting play.
Really should have noticed the version number on this screen before hitting play.

2019 was a particularly rubbish year in our little house. We went through losing family members and job redundancies which pushed us into challenging times mentally and financially, which alongside all the other life stuff changed the way I was able to approach and play games – up until recently a major part of my life.

Having a high load of real-life stresses affects people in different ways. Personally, I get a terrible loss of focus – not great for gaming – and huge guilt that I should be doing something more useful, even if there is nothing more productive for me to do – even worse for gaming. So, at the bequest of my partner, I needed to get a few things back into my life that perked me up and would try and lift me out of my funk. Distractions from the wonders of navigating the welfare system and looking for work are important and being assured by my partner I was still entitled to some down-time I had a look to see what I might pick up to ease myself back into playing games more.

I have a thing for farming games, going right back to Harvest Moon’s eventual EU release in 1998. I had a second-hand Super Nintendo and no games other than Mario All Stars, Mario Kart and F-Zero when our little indie game shop guy suggested I get his only copy of Harvest Moon. I’d like to think it was because he knew it would be just the sort of thing I’d never try but would like if I did, more likely it was because in 1998 I was about the only person browsing his SNES section of games in his shop and he needed to shift new stock. Anyway, I got it and lost most of that year to it. When I got a GBA SP I bought HM: Friends of Mineral Town and lost weeks and months of time to that. Since then I’ve been snagged by the odd Rune Factory, 360 era Faming Simulator and later Stardew Valley. It’s something about a series of repetitive tasks, the drip feed of new crops, tools and things to do and, weirdly, an in game grind that I don’t mind all running together to make that “I’ll just get this thing done” feeling strong enough keep me hooked. I’ve fallen foul to a few farming games that don’t get the balance right and become as tedious as farming games sound to almost everyone who doesn’t play them.

So, when I was looking to find something to hook me back into a bit of mental down-time, and few of the more intense (or maybe just active) genres just didn’t help, I thought I’d try and go back to a bit of digital farming. I had played a lot of hours of Stardew on Steam before migrating to another boatload on the Switch (so as not to hog a screen for countless hours of sowing, watering and harvesting) and as often happens after one of my farming binges I got burned out on the genre for a bit. I found that I had a number of farming games accumulated in my unplayed pile on Steam so thought I’d pick a few and see how they were to get up and running over the next few weeks. To stop myself falling down the trap of just playing for playings sake guilt I’ve been suffering I thought I would look at the games against what I’ve enjoyed in this genre before and put the ramblings up here. Writing something that isn’t a personal statement on a job application is a mental godsend! And with that here are my thoughts on the first farming game I ploughed into.

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Littlewood is unfinished. I didn’t realise that as I idly clicked to start it up, after investing a good few hours I thought to read up about it a bit more and saw all the early access notices and updates. Usually I would have held off starting it until a full release but now that I was knee deep in the grind I thought it might be worth seeing how an early access farming game worked without all the systems balanced and the game loops that these games live or die by not quite refined to full release standard. And, after getting to the end of the first year, it’s much less early access than I anticipated but still a little way off being a full game.

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The first thing I really get from Littlewood is that it’s a game that seems to have been born from a Venn diagram of a number of other games. This particular one has Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing/Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past at the heart of it. It proposes that the adventures of a Link-like character have come to a close and it is now the time to rebuild the village and world after a destructive evil force has been vanquished. This setup also helps with usually inexplicable amnesia that all these games’ protagonists seem to suffer from and why everything has gone to pot, leaving you with the task of putting everything straight. The tone, backstory and graphical style draw from the SNES Zelda frequently and lovingly; making it easy for anyone familiar with that game to just hop right onboard the narrative ride it takes you on. The rest of the game seems to sit comfortably between the broad strokes of the Animal Crossing series with the slightly more focused aspects of micromanagement present in the Harvest Moon games.

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While Harvest Moon and Stardew offer many things to busy yourself with, whenever I play them the largest portion of my time is filled with the crops, animal care and the mining/foraging. Littlewood makes these tasks important but much less time heavy in the day to day routine of the game. This is achieved in part by simplifying the process required for these jobs – for example, once a crop is planted there is no watering or care, just a wait for it to be ready to harvest. The game also changes the mechanic many of these games use to push things along – the ticking clock of the day and the stamina bar are merged into one single countdown. So, any activity that uses stamina moves the day along, any that doesn’t, such as walking about, talking to folks can be done with no expense to the day. This takes such a lot of pressure off the game and made each day less about a feeling “of will I miss anything?” to a much more gentle stroll through the chores.

One thing that has already that got me hooked is a simple Hearthstone-esque card collecting game that on the surface has a nice level of complexity to it. Any farming RPG trying to get a bite of the market needs to have its hook that the others don’t have to set it apart from its peers. Littlewood might have just that in this card game. I’ve not ever really engaged in standalone card collecting games but I got hooked into this as much, not more than some of the more common aspects of the game. If this becomes a multiplayer function this game could really have more of a catch for me beyond getting the village and farm all spick and span.

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The grind of the game is pretty generous thus far – new crops, décor and items drop frequently enough to keep the player’s interests up and the other parts of the wider world that are available to visit offer a nice amount of variety given the early access status. Mining, forestry, trading and friendships are all present and correct along with bug gathering, museum donating and fishing – the cornerstone of any good farming RPG. The game never slips from being anything other than charming and the world is a place I found myself invested in making a better, and far more organised place.

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There is a definite point at which the game reaches the visible walls and barriers of being incomplete though. After a busy summer season, autumn is noticeably barren of events and change. Winter seems much less polished graphically than the other seasons and has less of an impact on changing the gameplay often seen in similar games. Then there is the frequent “insert text here” placeholders for certain achievements and signs that bar your entry from “soon to be added” locations. The developer seems very open with the game’s state (if unlike me you actually look at the discussion page before jumping in) and from looking over the blog it seems the updates and expansions come frequently. However, for games like this where they hang so much on that drip-feed of content, it makes it hard to recommend starting something that you know will be much more full experience should it be given time to get to full release.

Littlewood was like dipping my toes into the shallow end of the pool before committing to an actual swim. In hindsight, had I jumped straight into a game asking for a much longer commitment to see through to a feeling of achievement I might have found myself giving up. But, as a way to limber up to something asking a bit more dedication from me it has been a great starting point. Should the progress on this game continue on the trajectory it’s currently on I could see this being a really great title for PC owners that want that little bit of Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing in their life. Maybe even to Stardew levels of appreciation – especially if it is as mod friendly as Stardew is. Hopefully the wait for Littlewood to get to a finished state isn’t too far off but even like this there’s a few good hours there of lovely game to maybe be enough for some.

I hope 2020 brings more good times to everyone, although it seems to be determined to carry on with the vein of 2019 so far. Personally, I aim to get back a level of normality and, hopefully, employment that makes playing a game a treat again rather than a distraction from the actual daily grind. Until then I am off to pick a finished farming game from the backlog to move onto and test out the chore-factor of.

EDIT: A week after this blog an update added load more events to the game - although still a little light on content comapred to some RPG farming games the events are better spread through the year now.

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The Walking, Running, Jumping & Standing Still Dead Film (1959)

(Old Blogger blog from April 2015)

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State of Decay has been a wonderfully clunky, not quite what it could be but still a great deal of fun to play addition to my digital pile of games that I hope that one day I get to finish. As I am unlikely to ever probably invest my time in the franchise behemoth that is a GTA game again it has been a nice alternative and stopped me having to return to Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare for a third time. Both Rockstar and Undead Labs’ games are very close to giving me exactly what I am looking for in a zombie based videogame barring the odd ‘if only it had’ moment. If I could go back in time to when I was sat in the makeshift computer den under the stairs tap the hunched over me on the shoulder and pull the Amiga joystick from my grubby mitts and say,

“Hey, stop playing Horror Zombies from the Crypt don’t you realise there is going to be much better stuff to come? In fact you will have so many zombie games you could fill your entire collection with games that involve the rotting hoards in some way shape or form.” I’m pretty sure that 11 year old would have jumped out of the cubby hole and spent the next 15 or 20 years being so excited about this prospect that he would have never slept again and as a result actually become the sort of shambling monstrosity himself that he longed to headshot to kingdom come in a videogame.

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My love of the shambling, rotting flesh-bags started sometime between seeing staying up to see the TV premier Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and the between fingers viewing of Dawn of the Dead at friend’s house. This viewing was on a video that must have been a fifth generation copy; the kind where the shadows of the film have a strange static effect that added an air of eerie and ambiguity to any night-time scene. The slasher horror films of the day, which my friends seemed so obsessed with, and their supernatural, unkillable killers such as Freddy, Jason and Michael always freaked the hell out of me with their inescapable bad guys, to the point of putting a self-imposed ban on myself watching them. Zombie movies however – for all the gore they contained – never seemed as hopeless. I had always felt that with a bit of common sense I would be able to survive the worst zombie apocalypse the world could have thrown at me unlike most of the fools that populated the films. They became my go to horror genre and although now when I try to recall them my entire memory squeezes them into one big maggot infested endless escape sequence, at the time they all stood out as wonderfully diverse catalogue of grease paint and prosthesis.

So fast forward to 2015 and the ubiquitous role that the undead hold in the videogame market you’d think I would be covered in the glorious sheen of bliss at all the various ways I can smash the groaning hoards. Yet here I am about to unload my grump at them. For a brief moment a year or two ago I thought everyone had grown sick too and things were about to take a turn for the less rotten style of enemy. But the exponential success DayZ and other releases from the same time dragged them all out of their graves again. My displeasure at the vast majority of the current crop of undead hack-a-thons is not down to the a misrepresentation of the less than living stars of them. I am not a zombie fanboy about to start jumping up and down because the zombies can jump up and down, or pop a gasket because they use weapons, or even start bleating on about the disparity between the classic Romero-esque animated corpses and the newer sprinty models. For a start, these are entirely fictional creations and suggesting the blueprint set by one director in a couple of films is more than a little bit obsessive. Personally I don’t care too much if the undead are a bit more fleet of foot or are able to hold a baseball bat to help open a brain or two. It always puzzles me how people who get so upset about running zombies don’t seem to question how a body with no blood-flow can see, hear, smell and touch which they all seem to do without too many issues. But then what do I know?

No, my issues are more to do with the lack of imagination that the undead are used in the exceptionally vast range of titles they find themselves being the antagonists in. The sandbox style of State of Decay and Undead Nightmare are great exponents of recreating the way in which I had imagined myself in a zombie movie. While the visceral combat is key there is also a large amount of eerie wandering about, making often difficult decisions and scraping about for every last bullet and bandage. Adding a new member to this group of games shouldn’t be a sin, especially as new technology gives developers more scope to create more of whatever they feel is missing. I also feel the rotting figures work very well as the target of the players’ ammunition within a hoard style game which has been so soundly illustrated by Treyarch in their Nazi Zombie mode. But even this after a few games becomes more about the enjoyment of the arena itself than the enemy models being faced.

This is where I feel our (or certainly my) patience is being pushed somewhat within the whole ‘zombie as the bad guy’ game. As an enemy the poor old zombie is criminally unimaginative which is only highlighted by its overuse.

George A. Romero proved to film-makers that with a limited budget and small crew the zombie genre was an excellent way of making something that felt much bigger, a much more expansive film than the receipts and shooting time would lead you to believe. The film’s high percentage return meant that many others followed suit and tried their hands a getting some of those hot zombie box office dollars. While a few of these coat-tail riding flicks are interesting in their own right most are nothing more than cinematic fast food - cheap, bland, regrettable and ultimately unsatisfying. While there were many games featuring zombies before it, Resident Evil (and admittedly Doom with its reanimated soldiers but that played more in influencing FPSs) and its acclaim and success had a similar effect on the games industry that NotLD did on movies. Many zombie filled titles followed over the years some great, some imaginative if a little shonkey but mostly they were poor to average games hiding behind their rotting cover models. It could be said that this is a trend for all videogames but the problem is when the poor to average games sell in the numbers that other genre games can only dream of. Which leads us onto another reason why the poor zombie becomes so heavily peddled.

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Can’t be bothered to programme complex combative AI? Use zombies. Your ambitious complex combative AI doesn’t work properly? Use zombies. Can’t think of a suitable enemy for your game set in the jungle (or any other non-military setting)? Use zombies. Can’t think of a suitable bullet sponge? Use zombies. Need some DLC but can’t think of a sensible way of expanding your existing story? Use zombies. (You are exempt from this last one if you are a certain Western themed game that I mentioned earlier)

Am I alone in thinking that the zombie becomes an easy excuse for things not being quite up to muster? Why does this enemy continuously walk into the wall? It’s a zombie. Why has this particular enemy not spotted me? It’s a zombie. Why is this character’s eyeballs rolling around in a really creepy manner inside their skull? It’s Assassin’s Creed Unity. Or a zombie. It would seem not only are zombies popular they are also very easy to pass the coding blame onto.

I am not suggesting we should invoke an undead ban in games, but just that videogames featuring zombies should be videogames about zombies. Stubbs the Zombie, despite being a touch short, was an imaginative attempt at being a role reversal zombie game. The Left 4 Dead games offer a situation where without key teamwork you will almost certainly fail, or worse, have to leave the stragglers behind for the greater good. Recently State of Decay has helped wean me off Destiny and get back to actually playing a variety of games instead of just chugging away at one. This is mostly down to the relative freedom of pace the game gives you. While many of the objectives have a time based window to do them in the consequences that arise if you don’t are more about living with the guilt, or the lack of a shiny new stick to hit the undead with than a simple fail state or end of progression. All these feel like zombie games specifically. There are a few others too that although I have not had the opportunity to play myself have read or heard good things about. It really isn’t all bad when it comes to zombie games.

But while filmmakers might have turned to making zombie movies as an effective genre to use their limited budgets this shouldn’t have to apply to videogames. In the last few years small teams and indie devs have shown that when it comes to games some imagination and time can create incredible worlds, wild and unexpected stories in settings that a filmmaker on a similar shoestring budget could only dream of (although recently homemade CGI movies are certainly changing the limitations of this). Recently I played The Swapper, Jazzpunk and Kentucky Route Zero, all small(ish) projects with very interesting ideas on the worlds they present the player with, and, as far as I have seen no ‘traditional’ zombies. I get that by slapping a lipless, rotting face on top of your bog-standard shooter or your parkour simulator will shift those extra few copies but they won’t make it a better game. And isn’t that what creators and consumers alike are looking to achieve, better games. The potential for imagination within games is limitless so why are we continually clipping our wings with a shoehorned walking corpse.

Of course if we just replaced all the zombies with aliens or robots I’d be happier but then that’s what you get from growing up on a diet of 2000AD. Of course, zombie alien robots are fine.

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A Question of Time...

(Moving posts over from Blogger to here. This is from Feb 2105.)

Two weeks, five days, twelve hours and a handful of minutes. That figure was the total amount of playing time I clocked up on the Gamecube version of Timesplitters 2. I was confronted with that figure when I thought I would take advantage of a rare day when I got the chance to break out one of the old consoles to try and remind myself of the golden age of my gaming life. Granted the figure is far below what I see people clocking up on DOTA 2 via my Steam account or other such time sinks but was still enough to knock me back into my seat.

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The only monkeys in the world I actively hate

I looked through my recent forays into games to see what the modern me had clocked up in comparison. Bungie, in all their worldly wisdom, have a rather in depth collection of data for Destiny which is where I have spent most of my recent digital vacation time so I headed on over to my profile. A discussion of the high and lows of my life within Destiny are large enough to warrant their own article but regardless of that it is unquestionably the game I have played the most in the last 6 months or so and yet when I saw the figures I saw that I had barely scraped into three days of continuous play. I was taken aback. I questioned whether the rather large amount of time waiting in lobbies was being counted but then as I didn’t ever play Timesplitters 2 outside of a same screen local multiplayer it would be just as fair if it isn’t factored in. The strange thing is, I wouldn’t have ever counted Timesplitters 2 as being the most played game I had at the time. I played it quite a lot but looking back I know I ploughed much more of my time into Halo: CE, Metroid Prime and Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (and probably more) than I did Free Radical’s time traveling FPS. Currently, I feel that all I do is play Destiny. Sure, I dabble a bit in Minecraft when I get the Lego itch and there are a few other games I’ve started to see what they are like but not seen through to completion. This made me really think about what I was doing then to have so much time available to achieve such gaming hours and yet still function as a human being that I don’t seem able to do now.

I should point out that during this period of the 128bit console releases I had not long left university and was in a reasonably interesting full time job. Thankfully I no longer have access to the game files for the systems I had while studying as I fear the hours clocked up while there would give my brain even more problems on how I managed to fit so much controller based entertainment into the week. Although, if I did, I could fully explain the lacklustre mark I got at the end of my university career. On the surface the me at the start of the 21st Century was not much different to the me of now. If anything, aside from working full time and being in a relationship I would even say that I socialised more then and had the time to play Sunday League Football every week. Yet past-times me was racking up the finished and replayed games at rate which I couldn’t even buy them at now. What happened? Am I just a big gaming flake?

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I spend more time here than I do actually playing. Or being at work. Or sleeping. Or...

A great deal has happened and not just to me. In particular, the games industry changed enormously. The internet got broader, options got vaster and the entire history of games got bundled up and made available to those who wanted it. All this in little more than 13 years. And despite on the surface feeling no different to the me who was venturing through his twenties, the late thirties me is a catalogue of worries and brain-freezes that seem to be common amongst almost everyone I know of my age. So while I fit into the tail end of the largest game buying demographic and consider myself an ardent gamer I’m clearly doing it wrong. So where am I going wrong?

So I did a little comparison of playing in the 2000s to the present by doing time log of an evening playing Destiny.

It read as follows:

1700 – Powered up 360

1701 – Looked through current Gold member offers

1709 – Wait while unnecessary and probably unaffordable purchase of a game I probably won’t play downloaded.

1715 – Think ‘while this is downloading I shall check on the slow cooker’ even though I have no need to as it is a slow cooker.

1720 – Select Destiny.

1723 – Get through the selection menus to the menu that lets you pick an actual part of the playing part of the game.

1727 – See who else is playing and then wait for them to finish their Crucible match to join up.

1735 – Find out they were about to log off have a chat about the price of DLC and whether it is value for money.

1745 – Go back to the selection screen, decide that I don’t fancy the daily heroic so have a browse around before going back to the character select screen to pick another save game to play. ‘Surely I will have more to do with a lower level player’ I think.

1750 – Start a story mission too high to play with my Level 6 Warlock get two thirds through and then die continuously until I eventually give up.

1805 – Go back to the menu screen and go back to a higher level character.

1808 – Select Crucible match.

1813 – Actually start a crucible match.

1817 – Leave Crucible match to answer the door.

1823 – Make a cup of tea for the visitor who shows an interest in playing Destiny. No local multiplayer means I get to watch them play.

1910 – Visitor leaves and prompting me to shut down 360 to have some dinner and actual real life interaction with my partner.

1940 – Turn 360 back on and reload Destiny.

1943 – Go straight to Crucible selection screen and try to actually start playing.

2010 – Everyone else who resides in the same block of flats as me decides now is the time to use their internet too thus rendering my data speed to a trickle and as a result convert my online game into a strange series of events that mostly involves other players glitching through time and space. Give up on Destiny.

2015 – Start browsing games to look for an alternative thing to play.

2045 – Come to the conclusion that everything I own is either too long, needs someone else or isn’t what I fancy right now.

2046 – Start the browsing again because I can’t believe amongst all those games I can’t find one to play.

2056 – Come to the same conclusion I had ten minutes previously.

2100 – Give up and start watching the news.

Compare this to a time log of me in 2002.

1700 – Turn on Gamecube.

1701 – Start playing Timespitters 2.

0200 – Realise I have to be in work in less than 6 hours and so turn off Timesplitters 2.

I do feel a bit bad using Destiny as the example as it is not the only culprit of this problem but it has been the most recent offender of prolonged menu viewing. This is mainly down to me only ever electing to play it in the vague hope I will one day get an Exotic Hand Cannon, which seemingly has the same likelihood of a positive outcome as buying lottery tickets instead of working to earn money would have. Sure it’s a nice chance to chat with your fireteam members over such interesting topics such as the loot we’ve not yet got, the stress of finding relic iron and why the eff I have still not managed to get any kind exotic bounties yet.

The thing is, it isn’t just the drawn out process of getting to start an online only game that is slowing things up in terms of actual game time consoles and PCs provide so much more other things than they ever did before. Upon turning the machine on we are bombarded by a series of links and adverts for other products we might be interested in. I realise that I am a sucker for this, perhaps a bit more than most, but surely I am not alone in pining for the days when slotting a disc or cartridge into a system almost certainly meant going straight into the game when powering up. I think I have spent more time browsing what I could buy on Steam than using it as a hub to start playing a game.

Maybe I am a bit of a relic now and I need to adjust to a changing marketplace. But it also explains my reluctance to purchase any of the current generation of consoles (or upgrade my PC). Added fidelity and even more space to make games larger than the ones I already found too large to complete anyway just aren’t enough to convince me to make the jump. I use the, “I can’t justify the spending.” line when asked but I haven’t ever really been able to afford any of the consoles I’ve owned but when you really want something you make the effort. I can’t ever say I would want retire as a ‘gamer’ but by not staying up-to-speed with the current platforms I fear I might give off that impression to those that do.

Strangely it is quite apt that it was the Gamecube version of Timesplitters 2 that I used as reference, as in that particular generation of consoles Nintendo’s little purple box was the first I got a hold of (not counting a brief fling with the Dreamcast that went no further than a quick cuddle before Sega neutered it). By the end of that round of console births I had a PS2 and Xbox but always favoured the Nintendo line-up more. Now, having had a Microsoft and Sony themed front room for nearly a whole decade for the first time in all that time I am tempted by a Nintendo home console. The Wii U for all its failings and questionable time of continued support seems to be the only console of the generation that seems to be about playing games and not taking over my entire entertainment setup. That and the fact that Mario Kart 8 plays like a dream and the upcoming Legend of Zelda game looks quite special might push me the closest to buying a new system since 2008.

However, if I decide to work my way through my backlog of games on the 360, PS3 and Steam it could be 2025 before I get around to getting one.

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