Times Scanned

January 20, 2014

Rust and DayZ

This post is more of a larger examination about how I feel about games like DayZ, Rust, and to a lesser extent, Minecraft.

These three games are all examples of a true sandbox genre, where the game's developers don't make any attempt to impress upon you a story or reasoning for your character to be within that game world, beyond maybe a general theme like "survive the zombie apocalypse" in DayZ, or simply "survive" in Rust and Minecraft. Instead, they simply give you a game world and leave it to you to make your own story.

In Minecraft, there's more of a focus on pure creation.  If desired, the unpleasant elements like enemies (and in certain cases, other players) can be left out entirely. Minecraft isn't really the focus of my ideas here, but we can come back to this later.

In games like DayZ and Rust, however, these elements are a part of the game. In fact, it's a focus. There's no single player DayZ (unless you end up on an empty server) and Rust is focused around a person's interactions with other people.

It is in these interactions that we can see the best elements of humanity come out: people work together, sacrifice for each other, protect each other, and generally try to bring some semblance of order to a game world. Those of you who know me well enough can guess that I'm probably sitting in this camp - if given the option, I prefer to play cooperative games over adversarial ones, and I find very little enjoyment in game modes like team deathmatch or capture the MacGuffin. In Minecraft, I usually want to help someone build something cool.

For every person on the "good" side, though, there seem to be a few on the other, not-so-good side.

These are the people who troll others on DayZ - who hold up a loner at gunpoint on the road, force him to give them all of his items, and then execute him with a single round to the back of the head. DayZ is fairly realistic as far as games go, and one well-placed round will kill your character. There are no re-spawns, requiring someone who has died to remake the character and start over from scratch.

Or, in Rust, it's the guy who builds a larger house around the smaller house of a rival so he can't leave, or the guy running around and shooting people with an assault rifle while they can barely scrape together enough hides to make a loincloth.

The primary defense you'll hear here is "it's just for fun," or "it's just part of the game, don't take it so seriously." And while, yes, it is just part of a game, and conflict can be interesting in certain contexts, those games are vistas in which people are allowed to do unpleasant things to other people with very little consequence.

Most people are familiar with the "Greater Internet Fuckwad" theory, originally posited by Penny Arcade: (nicer versions include "Jerkwad and Dickwad.")


For the most part, I think this theory largely appears to be true; though it's changing as the internet evolves. The integration of our "real life" identities into sites like Facebook, and then using Facebook to interact more and more with the internet at large is slowly eroding on the anonymity aspect of the theory. Within these circles, I think people are more prone to be civil, although you still end up with some who simply do not care.

However, in many forums, sites, and games that still exist in the Wild West of the internet, the frontier that Facebook and other sites haven't quite gotten to yet - people are only known by the handle they choose, and there aren't really any consequences for being a dick apart from getting that handle banned from the site/game. They can simply make another and go back to whatever it was they were doing. For these communities, the theory is still in full effect: if there isn't a fear of reciprocity or reprisal, some people are going to be assholes simply because they can, and because nobody can stop them.

In a game like DayZ or Rust, and even Minecraft, where the game is designed to be lawless and open, the effects of this are obvious. The defense of "well, he/she shouldn't have been traveling alone" (which is sadly used still far too often in our world) implies that "might makes right" is the only measure of ethics and power.

"I don't act that way in real life!" is something that is often said by people who play games this way. Of course they don't - as a society, we have laws and we have police officers to enforce those laws. It's why people go to jail.

In many cases, games give us useful windows for experiencing things that we wouldn't otherwise. DayZ gives us a chance to live during the aftermath of a zombie outbreak. Rust gives us the change to experience almost a quickened snapshot of human evolution. And a lot of those people are using those games in positive ways.

But, just as a thought experiment, what about the people who use that freedom to inflict harm on others, where the game's objective is not explicitly to "kill the other guy?" What does that say about them, especially if they give the excuse "it was just for fun?" What does it say about the guy who burns down my house in Minecraft because it's "fun?"

January 6, 2014

Gone Home (PC)

Welcome to 2014! In an effort to get back into writing again, I think I'll be posting game reviews of the games I beat this year. This was something I had intended to do in 2013, but the general insanity of the year had prevented that. Hopefully I can make this work.

(Warning: this review contains minor spoilers. If you haven't had the chance to play the game yet and are interested, go buy it off of Steam. It's not very expensive, and it's very short. This is a story that I think that most people really need to experience.)



Admittedly, I'm a little late to the party. Gone Home was released in August, but I didn't buy it until November, when Steam did their fall sale, and then it sat on my hard drive until the new year. It'd be safe to say that I was putting it off, but I was finally able to play through the game.

It was totally worth it.

In Gone Home, you play as Katie Greenbriar, a 20ish-year old college student returning home after a year studying abroad in Europe, and find yourself deposited just inside the entryway of the new house your family had moved into while you were gone. It is this house that serves as the setting of the entire game, and progress is made by exploring each room of this surprisingly large house.

The game is set in 1995, and the house has been meticulously decorated/created by the developers to truly fit the time period - VHS tapes of the X Files and Walker Texas Ranger make up the bulk of the family's entertainment, your father has found work writing reviews of VCRs and LD players, there is a large room of the house dedicated to storing vinyl records, there are a bunch of cassette tapes in the house, though these are mostly Sam's (Katie's sister), and the 90's flavor of alt punk is quite apparent in her room. The SNES is a major fixture of Sam's life, as it turns out. The nostalgia is quite strong in this game, even for someone like me who was born in 1985 and doesn't remember the first part of the 90's all that well.



When Katie first arrives, however, all of the lights are off, areas of the house have been ransacked, her entire family is missing, and it's up to you to figure out why no one is there to greet her.

Gameplay

I'll be blunt - the game plays like a first person shooter. Katie moves about the environment using the WSAD keys. There's a little dot that represents where's she's looking, and positioning this dot over items will enable her to interact with them by pressing E or clicking on them - she'll pick up an item, read a newspaper clipping, press a button, or open a door. For items that are picked up, moving the mouse around will spin the object around to let you get a better look at them, and pressing the right mouse button will zoom in - either at the object she's holding, or at whatever the dot is hovering over. It will be very familiar to those who play FPS games frequently, and novices will likely pick up the controls fairly quickly.

It is -not- a twitch title, despite how the game may look at first blush. I'm not spoiling much by revealing this, but there is no combat, no quick movement, and no need for quick decision making. It's an exploration game that is meant to tell a story and immerse the player in the experience, first and foremost, and uses atmosphere to great effect.

I want to take a step back here and talk about the unknown for a second. There's a group of reviewers and critics online who feel as though they were lied to, and were expecting more of a horror experience, in the vein of Amnesia: Dark Descent.

I think a major underlying theme of Gone Home is the fear of the unknown. The house starts off almost totally dark, and the darkness retreats as Katie finds and turns on light switches and lamps.  As I mentioned, the beginning of the game is extraordinarily creepy - there are loud cracks of thunder, some lights will flicker on and off , branches scrape against windows, and the house settles frequently and shifts in the wind, leading to all sorts of creaking noises. Sometimes, it even sounds like there may be someone else in the house - noises like furniture scraping in far-off areas, keys jiggling in locks and the like are heard fairly frequently in the earlier sections of the game.


I think some of these noises play on the theme of the unknown. Katie is a 20-21 year old - arguably barely an adult - who is now stuck in this giant house by herself and something strange -if not outright terrible - has happened. What if some noises are the creation of Katie's imagination? They seem to disappear when Katie has mostly explored the house, and I don't think that's an accident.

Sound

The attention to detail in the sound effects of the house and the objects inside of it, as I've just mentioned, is absolutely fantastic. Katie makes footsteps as she moves around, and some areas of the house creak and shift as she moves through them. The effects do a wonderful job of pulling you into and immersing you into actually being inside of this huge, creepy house.

There isn't a lot of music. Most of it is in the form of these little cassette mix tapes of bands from the "Riot Grrl" movement of the 90's that you can "use" on the various tape players to play them. It's not really my style of music, but I found myself listening to each tape at least once to feel a little less lonely (and also to see if anything secret was hidden on them.)

There is a bit of voice acting from three different actresses - Katie (played by Sarah Elmaleh) has a short piece at the beginning of the game that she leaves on an answering machine (the 90's, remember?) and a third character, Lonnie (unknown actress), leaves two voice messages. Sam (played by Sarah Grayson) has the bulk of the work, as she narrates her journal entries.

Story

This isn't Katie's story. We get a few hints about her personality from the phone message that serves as the game's introduction, and there are a few postcards found around the house that she sent home from Europe, and she'll even share her thoughts (through text) about certain objects when moused over, but that's about it. All we really know about her is that she's been in Europe for the past year.

Instead, this is Sam's story, which is ultimately a love story. It's told through narrated journal entries addressed to Katie and are triggered by examining certain items in the house. It begins as a standard teenage angst tale, until Sam meets Lonnie, a JROTC student set to go into the military.

The trouble is, Lonnie's female.

The central themes to this story are ones of love and acceptance, as well as navigating the tumultuous waters of homosexuality in a time when many people feared or outright rejected it. It's about a person's first love. It's about someone struggling to figure out who she is and what the future means. It's about someone weighing her obligations and what's expected of her against what they want. It's about wanting to be accepted by one's parents in a time where misinformation about how you are was destructive.

The girls spend a lot of time together and explore the house, leading them to discover a whole bunch of secret passages and hidden rooms that connect different parts of the house, which Katie stumbles upon later. It's in these hidden areas that we see their personalities shine through. They do silly high school things. They make a Riot Grrl fanzine. They build a couch fort. They go ghost hunting. Sam describes their "first time." (Interestingly, Katie will automatically put this letter down after about 10 seconds - regardless if you've finished reading it - and will refuse to pick it up again because it's too personal.)

They simply enjoy each others company and maximize their time until the inevitable end of that period of life comes to an end at the end of the school year, when Lonnie ships off to basic training.



There are a bunch of side stories: Terrence, the girls' father, used to be an author whose books never quite panned out, leaving him reviewing VCRs. Jan, their mother, is a park ranger - while she's successful, she seems to be infatuated with another man. The house itself was referred to as "the psycho house" in the town and was owned by Terrence's great uncle - Oscar Mason - who apologizes for a "past transgression" the rest of the family never forgave him for, and left the house to Terrence in his will.



The darkest part of the game has to do with a revelation that the player can completely miss if they aren't paying attention, and the discussion of it is outlined well here, (major spoilers) and this sheds a lot of light on where Terrence is coming from in his dealings with Sam.

However, the game isn't without hope, and as the player draws closer to the end, things recover a little bit. As for Sam and Lonnie? Well, I won't ruin the ending - as I've mentioned, this is a game that needs to be experienced by gamers and non-gamers alike. I will mention that when the player finally gains access to the attic, it is one of the most tense moments in the game.

I think this speaks to the strength of the writing, and what a successful, if not at least interesting, experiment this game is, because of how well the things that are told to you mesh with things that are simply implied. I was a little bit scared of the darkness toward the beginning. I smiled when I saw the SNES cartridges. I scoured the whole house looking for every shred of information. I was actually invested in what was happening. I felt for the characters. I was driven forward because I wanted to see what happened next. And yes, I may have teared up a little at the end.

Gaming doesn't see a lot of these sorts of experiences that speak to what the medium is capable of doing very often. And  when these kinds of experiences pop up, we should pay attention and think about them.





September 27, 2013

The Problem with Streaming

As some of you know, I do a fair bit of video game streaming: you can see me struggling through anything from computer games to console games on my stream over at twitch.tv. I best reason I have as to why I do it is that I find it fun and to connect with other, er, video game enthusiasts.

I originally started back in 2010, and it was a significantly different culture back then: twitch.tv was still a part of justin.tv, most of the people who streamed were from backloggery.com (which is a site that, as the name implies, helps you track a game backog) and streamers mostly seemed to stream for fun.

League of Legends was around, but let's be honest: the game that really re-launched E-Sports here in the U.S. appears to be StarCraft 2. LoL may have eclipsed it in terms of popularity, but SC2 definitely set it off. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 2010, I streamed a far bit. At first it was more simplistic games, like the Mega Man X series and shorter games I could generally beat in one sitting, but soon I was branching out to longer games, like Link to the Past and Super Mario RPG. Each time I streamed, however, I would easily reach 25-35 viewers at any given time.

In July of 2010, StarCraft 2 launched, and E-Sports sort of started to take off, but it really didn't get huge until 2011 or so. My streaming slowed down in that period, and I would very rarely would break 8-10 viewers at any given time.

Streaming sort of became a monstrosity during 2012. It even got so large that justin.tv decided it needed to spin its gaming division off into a separate website - hence the arrival of twitch.tv. Every StarCraft II player has a twitch account. Any time a new game launches, we see hundreds of twitch channels devoted to playing the game. Now, when I stream, I typically hover at about 5 viewers - though my popularity is slowly beginning to rise, because I try to put a quality stream together. Most of these streams are just sort of slapped together.

There are a few reasons for this. The barrier to entry for streaming isn't quite what it used to be. Streaming computer games simply requires streaming software, and Open Broadcaster Software is currently the best because it's easy to use and free. Any good computer headset can be used for commentary (which is crucial.). It's honestly not -that- hard to put together a stream.

The more important reason is money.

Twitch.tv has a partner program they started a year or two ago. If a streamer reaches a certain threshold of viewers, streams consistently, and can repeatedly draw an audience, Twitch may grant that streamer partner status. It's similar in the way YouTube has their partner system, in that a streamer will gain a cut of any advertising revenue that Twitch may make off of that stream, and they also give control of when to play ads to the streamer (Ads typically play for a viewer as they enter a streamer's channel.) Twitch is, in effect, playing people to play video games, and this is every gamer's dream.

This has led to over saturation of the streaming market. Most streamers do it now in the hopes of becoming a partner and making money - the problem with this is that if most of the audience becomes streamers, the audience basically disappears. Twitch's chat services on the channels can oftentimes simply stop working, and our dashboards and viewer lists can't keep track of changes in real time anymore. And deity help you if there's a StarCraft II or LoL tournament happening - Twitch is essentially crippled for all other users during that time. Streaming is becoming harder and harder to actually do.

March 20, 2013

Illusion of Gaia (SNES)

It just dawned on my that this blog's three year anniversary was somewhere around here. What better way to celebrate than with a new post?

I've been meaning to post this for a while, but I've been so caught up with school and other life-related drama that it kept slipping.

This is the second of games beaten on my stream back at the beginning of February, and I have to say, it was an odd experience.

It turns out that Illusion of Gaia is actually the second game in a trilogy, which I didn't find out until I was midway through the game and a viewer decided to point this out after I mentioned that the storyline to the game seemed disjointed. There are a lot of references to events which are never explained, and that you wouldn't have known about unless you played the first game. It turns out that the game is loosely set between Soul Blazer (which I have never even seen) and Terranigma, which was never released in the US.

The game is set in a fantasy version of our world, meaning that there are a lot of references to real world civilizations and religious sites, like Angkor Wat, the Tower of Babel, Mayan and Incan ruins, the Great Wall, hanging gardens of Babylon, etc. It follows the story of Will as he searches for his father, who was lost exploring the Tower of Babel, and as he investigates a mysterious comet headed for Earth.

Mechanically, the game plays like a Legend of Zelda clone. Will has a flute, a keepsake from his father, and can swing the flute like a sword, or block projectiles and use his "psych" power to pull some objects toward him by spinning the flute in front of him. The combat is very similar to Link to the Past, but not as good.

I'll mention this here: the game is actually kind of hard. The only healing items available are herbs (aside from talking to Gaia at a save point), and you only get twelve over the course of the entire game, so you need to be careful and not use any healing items until very specific boss fights. If you didn't know this from the beginning, you'd casually use herbs until you ran out, and unless you were very good, you likely won't be able to progress past the really hard boss fights that show up at the end.

The leveling system is different - instead of gaining experience from killing enemies, you gain stat points by clearing a section of all enemies. This pretty much means that you won't be grinding xp to out level the enemies, but the good news is that killing every enemy essentially maxes out your stats. The bad news is that you need max stats to even stand a chance against the final boss.

As Will slowly gains control over his Dark Matter powers, he gains two alter egos he can transform into: the Dark Knight Freedan and a being called Shadow, ostensibly the representation of Dark Matter itself. (It's never really made clear if these entities are alternate versions of Will or just folks who decided to help him.) You can't transform into these characters until you're in a dungeon and inside a dark portal (save point), and you don't even gain access to Shadow until the second to last dungeon. Most of the dungeons consist of wandering around until you find a dark portal, then switching to Freedan to finish the dungeon. When the dungeon is over, the characters automatically transform back into Will.

The game has what I've come to call a "boss rush" section at the end, where Will climbs the Tower of Babel
and must fight every boss over again. The ability to use Shadow makes the first part of this a joke, but there are two boss fights that are a pain to fight again, even with Shadow, and the last boss is a cheap ass.  Be prepared to throw a controller or two across the room.

The game is extremely linear. You don't really get to explore until you reach the final third of the game, and even then there are no side quests to do, really. The only side quest concerns finding 30 red jewels, which unlocks a special dungeon. "A dungeon?" you may say. "Great! More stat points!" Well, no. See, the dungeon doesn't give you anything for completing it except for the 12th herb - which likely wouldn't have made up for the herbs you have have had to burn just to get through the damn thing. That, and because the game is so linear, if you miss any red jewels during the game, you can't go back and get them, so you almost have to be playing this game with a strategy guide. And it ends up not being worth it anyway.

In all, I just can't rate this game very highly. Maybe if I had played (or even had known) about the prequel ahead of time things would have been different, but even with that it's still a super depressing game. The story is poor, and relies way too much on screwing over its characters - one of your childhood friends ends up turning into some kind of beast and then dying alone somewhere, with no way of knowing any of this unless you talk to his spirit toward the end. While the gameplay can be fun, the "no mistakes or you get punished" line it takes makes the game more annoying than challenging.

People are all about rating systems, so I'll give this game 2 Steee Thumbs Up out of 5.

February 8, 2013

Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest (SNES)

So I should probably start writing these again.

In the time since my last post, I've resumed my retro gaming binge, and have beaten two games: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, and Illusion of Gaia. The former is the subject of this review.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a game that, while it bears the Final Fantasy title, is kind of a side thing outside of the rest of the series The way I've heard it told, MQ is the game that Square made specifically for American audiences, back when they thought we were idiots who couldn't handle their regular releases. They still probably think this, but they've decided to ignore this and just take our money now. Which is fine, so long as we can avoid another game like FF:MQ in the future.

It's not a bad game. The story is servicable, a standard tale of "youth discovers something amiss in the world, goes forth to fix the problem." The UI is easy to understand, of course, but that has more to do with the fact that there are very few options to deal with. The game plays like most of the earlier Final Fantasties: two rows of characters line up, an order is established, and they attack each other until one side dies. It's RPG 101.

That said, it's not really a good game. There's hardly any exploration - even the most cursory of investigations will net you every item in the game. There's not much room for level grinding. The battlefields between each area really only serve to get you up to the correct level for the next area. Fighting each enemy in each area will take a excruciatingly long time, but will give you a bit of an edge, but not by much.

That brings me to my next point: the game is easy, but of course it is. It was made for us American idiots, remember? Finding weaknesses is a simple matter to cycling though your spells - or using simple logic.

Now, there's an asterisk here: the game is easy, but tedious. There are a lot of RPGs where you can sort of go into "cruise mode" and just spam the normal attack and win. You can't do that here. Each battle is a struggle to hit the enemies' weaknesses until they hit you with bullshit. Lots of enemies have auto-counter attacks with all sorts of nasty effects. You will learn to hate petrification, confusion, and paralyze attacks. You are going to die. A lot. And the fights will be time-consuming.

But here's where the game is idiot proof: even when it gets annoying, you'll simply restart the fight, and the odds are that things won't go the same way - so the game doesn't really punish you when it screws you. Ultimately, it's just a matter of repeating the fight until you get it right. Eventually, through gear, the main character becomes immune to almost everything, so "getting screwed" is slowly phased out.

The game also has a habit of giving you support characters - you can decide if you control these or not - that are typically slightly overleveled. There is a point, however, where the main character sort of becomes slightly more powerful than the support characters, but by the time this happens you'll likely be in the final dungeon and it won't really matter anymore.

It's also short. There are only 4 major towns, and maybe 8-9 major dungeons, none of which are very long, with an additional 5 or 6 miscellaneous areas. I think my save file topped out at 14 or 15 hours upon completion.

A note about the music: it has some of the best battle music in any game, but you will be tired of it by the time the game is over. It also sounds like they made one town theme, and remixed it 4 different times for the 4 towns.

So how do I feel about the game? I enjoyed experiencing it, because it is a piece of RPG history, but I wouldn't go back and play it again. I'd say experience it, but do it in smaller doses - this is not a game you want to sit and burn through in an afternoon - you will likely go insane.

January 3, 2013

Once More Unto the Breach

I feel like I should have a blog post from a year ago to compare things against. It turns out that I didn't make one in 2012, but I did make one in 2011. It kind of feels like a long time ago, doesn't it?

So, here we are, 2011.

What's new?

Not much.

Oftentimes I find myself thinking about my mental state. Am I still sane?
Are any of us truly sane?An idea was planted into my head: the passing of years doesn't really matter. Life moves in phases, which the years take part in shaping, perhaps, but a year doesn't really serve much use in terms of marking the passage of time. People can change many times over the course of a year. They can also remain in the same state for several years. What matters are events. Phases of times between events.

Sometimes I toy with the idea of letting go and joining my friend Jared on the lunatic fringe. Life would probably seem easier then.
But then I wouldn't be able to complete whatever it is I think I need to do. What is that, you ask?
I

'll let you know when I figure it out.

Until then, I remain.

And that was it. Apparently I felt as though I'm meant to "do" something.

I'm not sure if that's really the case. At this point, I think I'm pretty much just messing around until I die. I guess I'd like to create something before that happens, but again, not sure what that would be. Maybe a game of some kind. I don't know.

What I need is a way to make infinite money with little to no work, because in truth, it's getting harder and harder to get invested in anything these days, much less life. I wake up some says not especially caring if I survive or not.

Until then, I remain.

November 5, 2012

Three Months: State of the Union

I know that a while ago I intended for this blog to be at the very least a weekly blog. Instead, it appears to have become a monthly affair, and I have indeed fallen off the wagon so to speak because it'e been three months since my last "proper" update (I'm not counting the one in September, because that was ill-advised ranting.)

Blogging is funny sometimes. Of course, blogging is a part of human behavior which is, itself, also funny sometimes. It seems as though that I only blog when there's turmoil in my life, and the fact that the past few months have been relatively stress free could be why.

But so much has happened.

It's also funny because I often sit down to write blog posts, with a reasonable idea of what to write about, but I seem to lose steam in the process. I used to be pretty good at "stream of consciousness"-style writing, and I've lost that, likely due to disuse.

Jared oftentimes cuts his blogs short because he feels he is not expressing himself well. I feel the same at this juncture, with the thought that I'd like to add a second part to this later on.