Star-Fired Beef

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WIP: Steam Challenge – Dear Esther

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Time played: 2 hours

From what I gather, Dear Esther has polarised the gaming community. It seems you either “get” it, and you proclaim the wonders of the experience and hail it as life-changing; or you don’t, and you bitterly declaim your lost, wasted time, calling it a pretentious non-game, a tech demo, a ‘walking simulator’ if you’re feeling charitable. Is it even a game? The debate on that rages on.

One might be tempted to call it an interactive story. Even that invites contradiction, as while there is a very small amount of control available to the player, there is no real interactivity beyond movement. In addition, there seems to be a story, but the deeper you go, the more questions are raised. What is real? What is symbolic? What is projection? Do seemingly scattered thoughts and memories a story make? Is this just madness?

I can really only say that this is art. The music, sound effects, narration, and graphics are all astoundingly excellent. They come together perfectly to present a totally immersive atmosphere, but only if you are open to it. Do not try to impose yourself on Dear Esther. Do not demand anything from it. Come to it from a place of wonder, and you will be rewarded with an extraordinary experience.

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WIP: Steam Challenge – Crysis

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Time played: 20 hours

This is the first FPS I’ve played for a good while, and as such it took a little time to readjust to the controls and feel of it. I’ve spent so long in MMOs that I instinctively hold a mouse button in order to move the camera, which is frustrating when it makes you waste ammo and/or attracts attention. But I got back into the groove, and Crysis was a very enjoyable FPS that lived up to the hype it received over the years.

As a game that was released in 2007, only a couple of years before I got my mid-range-at-the-time computer, my rig was able to play it reasonably well, but it showed why you basically needed a cutting edge rig to play it when it first released. Even today, it is purrrrty. I noticed the same level of quality in the tropical areas of ArcheAge, which uses CryEngine 3. I was able to run Crysis smoothly at the top settings, which made for a breathtaking experience at times.

The game takes place on a remote subtropical island off the Korean Peninsula. You are a special forces commando (of course, seems like most FPS games in the last 10 years put you in that role), wearing a nanosuit that enhances your capabilities. By switching modes, you are able to run faster, gain superhuman strength and jumping ability, become more resilient to damage, and even cloak. The suit also gives a logical way for you to regain health without needing medipacks or health pickups. It’s very consistent with its in-game logic, so immersion is easy to maintain.

The game is on rails, but there is a lot of space to work with in order to complete objectives in your own way. There are subtle barriers – mostly cliffs – that contain you so you don’t go off script. The story is okay, but not great. It’s fairly predictable once you have done the first couple of objectives. I much prefer games like Half-Life and Portal for their stories than Crysis. It feels like the story is more of an excuse to show off the technology than anything.

The AI enemies are simultaneously really well done and also dumb as fuck. If you pick off a sentry that is in view of others, it will trigger calls of alarm and perimeter sweeps will be made, if they haven’t already spotted you. They fan out and try to surround you if they can. However, it is ludicrously easy to draw them into a bottleneck and slaughter them as they appear, even on the hardest difficulty setting. Add to that, the cases where they bump into each other, causing them both to fall over, and the cases where they all bunch up outside the room you’re hiding in, allowing you to pop out, shoot one, then pop back in without them coming after you. Those latter cases are rare, but it was still disappointing when it happened.

There are really two distinct parts to Crysis. There is the jungle fighting part, the first half of the game, and then there is the “everything’s gone to shit” part. I liked both – the jungle part, while really fun, was very much in danger of dragging on too long, so the second part was way more enjoyable than it might have otherwise been, simply because it changed things up. The boss fight at the end was suitably epic, although for some reason it was the one time I had to drop my graphics settings to low, otherwise my graphics card would overheat.

The ending was clearly signalling a sequel, which I appreciate – one of the things that bugged me about the Half-Life – HL2 transition was the apparent lack of continuity – but it also robbed me of my sense of closure for the game. I don’t have Crysis 2, nor do I have an overwhelming urge to find out what happens next – as I said, the story wasn’t fantastic – so I’m left feeling a tiny bit unsatisfied.

I’m sure I can live with that, though. The overall verdict is positive, but I’m not putting it up there amongst the best games I’ve played.


ArcheAge, why do you make me feel so conflicted…

So I’m playing ArcheAge.

After quickly coming to the same conclusion as Aywren that it was not worth playing as F2P – in my case, not owning property could be acceptable, and the lack of offline LP was bad but could be coped with, but the final straw was the fact that you can’t list auctions unless you are a Patron –  I ponied up and have had nearly two weeks under my belt as a fully functional member of ArcheAge society. I even managed to get on the unofficial Oceanic server, Kyrios. I tried a little of the Harani starting area on another server while I was waiting for Kyrios to start accepting new characters again, so when it came time to make my “real” character, I chose the Elves. I’m not a fan of the default ears on the AA elves, and given that they are indistinguishable from both Human races otherwise, I guess there was really not much point to my choice. I made the ears as small as I could, and covered them with a thick head of hair, and off we went.

I guess the main reason I went with an Elf is for the racial mount. Horses, even though they are incredibly well animated, are boring compared to lions, weird demon-faced kangaroo-things, and…elk! I’d heard great things about the quest to obtain your first mount…and, well, here is my little baby:



After playing with him, feeding and washing him, my little baby grew up into a magnificent companion:


Ready for the Wild Hunt…

I’m playing as an Eidolon at the moment (Shadowplay/Auramancy/Witchcraft) to get as many tricks and instant-speed attacks as possible. This was shaped by my early experiences with AA…namely, that it isn’t going to be easy for me to actually do anything in realtime.

There are several reasons for this. First, is the joy of Australian ping. I don’t want to be casting at half the rate of my opponents because my feedback is terrible – I figure instant speed casts let me at least remain on par with amount of actions before I die. Second is that my computer is fairly old, at least 5 years now, so the demands placed on it mean that my animations are not smooth and responsive very often. It takes a while, even on normal graphics settings, for my immediate surroundings to draw themselves in, and even longer – I’m talking minutes – if it is a crowded place I am zoning into, such as a city or housing area. Taking the public carriages and airships makes for a very jerky and disjointed ride. Third is that I am still kind of starting out. I have only just managed to secure a plot for my first garden (#Bragtoberfest! Awww yisss) and I am just saving up stone, iron and lumber for my thatched farmhouse when I can nab a plot of land for that. Only then will I start thinking about possible PvP or action-intensive activities – the only thing I’m doing until that stage is trying to complete the trade run to get my scarecrow farm, in case I can’t find enough land for the farmhouse.

So PvP is going to be a nightmare until I get a new rig. PvE combat is okay at the moment as long as I am careful, but I’m resigned to avoiding much combat for the near future.

So let’s talk a bit about the stuff I like and dislike about the game. The dislikes are mostly to do with the way F2P has been implemented. It’s one of the poorer implementations I’ve seen – you can’t really play the game properly unless you are a patron (subbed). I am very unimpressed by the fact that all the three races I have tried (Nuian, Harani, Elf) are virtually indistinguishable from each other apart from clothing and starting mounts. They even have the same emote animations. I have played through the whole storyline chain now, and there are two points that I came to really dislike: the narrator uses a gratingly forced dramatic style that seems to want to imitate the Galadriel narration at the start of the LOTR movies, but fails horribly; and the cutscenes where this narration happens is very poorly placed – it comes right after the quest you’ve just completed that reveals the info the cutscene is (re-)explaining. It’s basically telling you what you’ve just done, with (towards the end, at least) very little extra lore  or contextual information.

Oh, and the fact that everyone is The Beautiful People – even the old folks are just young folks’ bodies and faces, with grey hair and hunched over a bit – is starting to creep me the fuck out.

There is a ton of stuff I love about AA, though. Many small things, like mounting up gives you different animations depending on where you are in relation to the mount. The incredibly deep and time-consuming crafting system. The animations in general – this is the first MMO I have played where movement animations are as smooth and natural as WoW’s, both for players and mounts. Rift, LOTRO, even TSW, the running animations just felt slightly off. Not so in AA. I love the travel trade-offs: you can travel around the world quickly, but it’ll cost you in resources (LP, materials), or you can take the public transport (which has all the pros and cons of, well, public transport), or you can ride your own mount, which saves resources at the expense of convenience and time. I love the armour choice trade-offs: plate gives you more physical defence, cloth gives you more magic defence, and leather gives a balance of each. You can get bonuses for wearing the set – leather gives you extra crit and evasion, for example – or you can mix and match without penalty.

I’ve liked the looks of the gear so far, even though short skirts are still the norm for Korean MMOs, it seems. And damn, AA does baby animals so well…


My new battle puppy, Loupe! He’s all grown up now, too. That’s Menashi in the background, looking classy as always.

It remains to be seen whether I will extend my stay in AA beyond the next month. It has its hooks in me, but there are enough irritations to keep it perpetually on the edge of losing me.


WIP: Steam Challenge – Analogue: A Hate Story

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Time Played: 7 hours

This was an enthralling experience. Analogue: A Hate Story is an interactive visual novel that has you as an investigator trying to find out what happened to the people aboard a Korean colony ship that was recently discovered adrift in some remote part of human-controlled territory, after being thought lost centuries ago. Through interacting with the ship’s AI, you have to piece together the story and recover as much data as you can to bring home to your employer.

If you are after action or mind-bending puzzles here, you’re out of luck. You will be reading and clicking links to read some more, except for a single timed event about halfway through that requires you to add typing to your repertoire. The main story is drip-fed to you, and it will take several attempts to unlock it fully. There are 5 possible endings, I believe, and if you like this game at all, you’ll want to go back and see them all.

I loved it. This was my first visual novel experience, so I am now a definite convert to the genre. The story is bleak, drawing heavily on medieval Korean culture for inspiration. Women who play this are hereby warned: you will probably end up really pissed off at some point. That’s about as much I can say without giving away spoilers, as there isn’t much else to the game that I can talk about.

I’m definitely looking forward to playing the sequel.


15 Influential Albums

As usual I’m behind the curve on this, but here we go. Let me tell you a story of my stop-start expansion of musical tastes…

I was a very sheltered child, lasting all the way through high school. Even in my early teens I was only bold enough to buy the albums of such greats as Mariah Carey and Joe Cocker. The Commitments soundtrack. That kind of thing. I didn’t start exploring music until my late teens. Even then, it was a gradual awakening. So for me, “most influential” really just means expanding my musical horizons. Let’s look at that journey, once you stop cringing! I’ll try to keep it in rough chronological order.

Deep Forest – Boheme

I bought this album by mistake. Or rather, I knew what I was buying, I just thought it was the first Deep Forest album, you know, the one with all those iconic songs that made them famous. Anyway. Deep Forest introduced me to the “world music” genre. It showed me that I am a sucker for songs in a foreign language, especially if they are wholly or partly traditional music. And with tracks like the one above, Deep Forest showed me that music can stand alone on it’s own merits, no lyrics needed.

Live – Throwing Copper

This was the album that started my breakout from the Top 40 straightjacket. I felt like a real rebel buying this. I felt like a badass playing this loudly in my car (alone, of course, never with passengers!). This was hardcore! It even had swearing! Oh my past naive self…On the other hand, songs like Lightning Crashes, The Dam at Otter Creek and Pillar of Davidson were my first real taste of the kind of song that I like to classify as “epic”. Slow starts, building over time to reach a crescendo that leaves you feeling spent when it’s over.

The Tea Party – Transmission

This was the first Tea Party album I bought, but I’m including the whole first 4 albums here as being influential. This was my introduction to Eastern-influenced rock, and a Tea Party album would make it into the top 3 of my ‘desert island’ albums. Transmission was their attempt at bringing a more electronic feel to their sound, after the acoustic Splendor Solis and the more Arabian-influenced-but-still-traditional rock of Edges of Twilight. Favourites from Transmission are Psychopomp, Transmission, and Temptation.

Tool – AEnima

It took me a long time to step into the embrace of Tool (I danced around it for a couple of years since being exposed at uni), but when I did, it was a mind-blowing step forward for me. Not only was Tool a lot heavier than anything I had previously listened to, but it rewarded investigation into the themes of the songs. My friend has dubbed them “thinking man’s rock” and I can see why. I much prefer their next album, Lateralus, but I wouldn’t have got there if it weren’t for buying AEnima. Mostly love it for the well-known songs Forty-Six & 2, H, and AEnima, but I also really like Eulogy.

Enigma – MCMXC A.D.

This, along with Deep Forest, cemented my indoctrination into New Age Hippy Crap Music. Ambient music can be surprisingly good, if you are open to it. Plus, it has a sultry lady breathing French at me, which, as discussed, I am a sucker for. Add in Gregorian chanting, and how can you not love it? The rest of the album was pretty good, too. This was also one of the first albums that felt to me worth listening to as an album, i.e. from start to finish rather than my preferred method of shuffle->repeat.

Propellerheads – DecksAndDrumsAndRockAndRoll

This was my drum & bass artist of choice in the late ’90’s. It was a toss up between this and Fat of the Land by the Prodigy for big beat electronica of the time, but I never actually bought the Prodigy so Propellerheads win by default. Standouts for this album are Bang On (which has an intro I never get tired of), Spybreak (which made it big as the music for the foyer fight scene in The Matrix), the Bond-like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the above History Repeating.

Sneaker Pimps – Becoming X

This group, along with Massive Attack below, got me into trip-hop. I am including them both because Sneaker Pimps, on this album (I dislike their later work), feels more pop-oriented to me, rather than Mezzanine’s dark, surreal sound. I also have to admit succumbing to hipsterism, since hardly anyone I knew paid them any attention and I rarely found anyone who knew them. It was the first time I kind of felt smug about being “in the know”. How Do, and Low Place Like Home, are my favourites, but only just – I love most of them.

Massive Attack – Mezzanine

As mentioned above, I was drawn to this album by the dark, surreal quality of the music. This was the first album I ever bought on the strength of having heard one song from it (Teardrop). It was a risk, dropping $30 on potentially only one song, but boy did it pay off. This is as close to a perfect album as I have ever encountered. It encouraged me to take more chances with album purchases – which is fairly irrelevant nowadays, what with it being so easy to buy single tracks online. I am a MASSIVE (geddit) sucker for dark, intense music overlaid with a breathy, ethereal female voice, it turns out! The above song is my absolute favourite song, but closely followed by Angel and Black Milk.

The Living End – The Living End

The Living End is the closest I have gotten to punk in my album collection. Or maybe not – I do have some Offspring and Green Day, and as Izlain noted about Tiger Army, psychobilly is apparently the correct label for The Living End’s style. But I don’t think those others are really closer to punk, just a bit further around the campfire. Most of their songs on this album are blue collar, youth oriented themes. I really like All Torn Down and the anthemic Prisoner of Society, as well as the above.

Spawn Soundtrack

This album led me to not keep dismissing soundtracks as viable sources of musical greatness. I have never actually seen Spawn the movie, I bought this based on the above song I heard on the radio. I was intrigued by the heavier side of the genre mixing that was going on in the album – each song is a collaboration between two quite different artists. Slayer and Atari Teenage Riot? Check. Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps? Check. It helped to ease me into industrial music.

Avalanches – Since I Left You

Another album that is best when listened to from start to finish. This just made me finally appreciate the talent and creativity of DJ’s. Since I Left You is an album composed entirely of samples – there is no original or live music here. The title track and Frontier Psychiatrist are the standout tracks for me.

Shivaree – I Oughtta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump

Shivaree awakened an appreciation for a cabaret, lounge-style of music. The whole album has grown on me over the years, initially I was mostly interested in the single above. I love Arlington Girls and Arrivederci.

Easy Star All Stars – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band

I already had Sgt. Pepper, so I was really intrigued by this take on it. Shockingly, I had not really had much exposure to reggae/dub, so this opened that door for me. Hurrah for wider musical tastes! I think I actually like the intro and outro tracks on this album the most.

Drapht – Brothers Grimm

I was working as a volunteer at my local youth radio station at this time. A lot of my job was opening the mail (i.e. the cd’s that labels sent to promote their artists) and listening to all the stuff to determine what was suitable for the station. As such, I got to listen to a lot of variety – a lot of which I disliked, but there was always a pleasant surprise every day. Prior to listening to this album, I was ambivalent about Aussie hip hop, and I still avoid American-style rap (especially gangsta rap). But this opened my eyes to the possibility that it didn’t all suck. I loved that there could be hip hop that was fun, and that could deal with some really serious, personal stuff too. It didn’t have to all be about bigging yourself up or crapping on about your ride or your bitches’n’hoes or how tough you were. I am increasingly of the opinion that many of these hip hop artists are better poets than most actual poets. I fell in love with Jimmy Recard first, then discovered Dreams & Dreamers, Lost, and the above Falling.

All India Radio – Fall

Another volunteer find. Ethereal female vocals are a major weakness of mine, and this lo-fi approach was similar enough yet different enough from trip hop to interest me. I love the magical beauty of the album. Persist, The End or Near, Endless Night, Asphyxiate, and the above are all standouts for me.

Wellyn – An Intimate Universe

A final volunteer find. This one was so underground that even the radio station didn’t want it, so I got it instead. It’s so underground that I can’t even find it on youtube. You’ll have to listen to them here instead. I mostly included this album because it, even more so than the Sneaker Pimps, makes me feel hipster-ish.

Special Mention: Bastion OST

Yes, Bastion the video game. This was the first time I ever sat up and paid attention to a game’s original soundtrack. Now I’m a convert.

So there you go. I am mightily aware that my tastes are still rather tame compared to many people, but given where I started, I am happy enough with where I stand nowadays, and the fact that I am way more openminded about music than I was 20 years ago.


Raiding, Responsibility and the Joy of Discovery

Are being part of a raid team, and enjoying the discovery of new group content, mutually exclusive?

Raid Responsibility

I love group content. I love the feeling of being a part of a well-oiled machine that can adjust itself on the fly. It’s one of my greatest memories of my youth, being a valued and valuable part of my various club and state soccer teams. I loved that individual performances do matter, but not as much as the overall teamwork does. I found a similar joy in group content in WoW, particularly raid content (and battlegrounds, but that is another topic).

One thing that I found distasteful whenever I encountered it, even at second hand, was the existence of players who felt no responsibility to the group. You know the type: erratic attendance without explanation or apology; impatience with others who made mistakes while expecting understanding for their own; focus on loot acquisition to the detriment of overall raid performance; etc.

I believe that being part of a raid team comes with certain responsibilities. Those responsibilities can be the usual, everyday ones, or can be group-specified, but all of them have the intention of providing the best chance of success whilst maintaining interest and fun for everyone. The usual, everyday ones include such basics as being respectful and nice to others, being aware of schedules and adhering to them, and having the courtesy to inform the group if you cannot attend or have to leave early or are running late. A lot of raid groups have the sometimes-spoken, sometimes-not expectation that you are as familiar, as practiced with your role as you can possibly be. That you know how to spend skill or talent points, know how your abilities interact with each other and with other players’, know how to gem and enchant for best performance.

And it seems that the standard expectation, nowadays, is for players to already know the fights before the group starts the raid. I’m not just talking about remembering the fight from previous attempts/nights/weeks, or from having done it on LFR, I mean even if they have never actually done it before.

Discovery and Challenge

I love the feeling of the process of mastery. I love the problem-solving aspects of it. Some of the best raiding experiences I had with my guild were when we changed up the “accepted” strategy for a boss fight and incorporated our own ideas based on our group’s capabilities and strengths. It didn’t happen often, but when it did happen I felt the success was more worthy, more intense, and more fulfilling than when we simply followed the dance steps laid out by some other guild. I was happiest when we not only had the challenge of executing a strategy, but also when we had the challenge of coming up with one to execute, and of refining it or trying out ideas through trial and error.

I believe that not only does discovering and overcoming a raid boss without following a guide help build stronger social bonds between teammates, but that it promotes creativity and diversity in thinking, as well as reducing the prevalence of elitist attitudes. The more teams that tackle the problem of a raid boss independently, the more likely it will be that a greater number of viable strategies will emerge. The current climate of two or three strategies available through the popular boss guides pushes people into the “right way” mode of thinking, where anything that isn’t the “right way” is by definition wrong or bad. That discourages experimentation and, I believe, hurts the raiding community as a result.

What Gives?

In the cases where you are joining an established raid team that has either been working on a raid/boss for many weeks, or has the raid/boss on farm, I can (albeit reluctantly) accept that the responsibility to the team outweighs the right to the joy of  discovery, and so I would agree that players coming in to an established team should be expected to know the fights as well as they can before the first pull. But what about new content? When your raid team finally gets past a wall they’d had before you joined, or when a new raid tier is released?

I complained to a guildmate about this topic during Cataclysm, while we (as a guild) were progressing through the first tier of content. I wondered why we weren’t tackling new content without guides – I should note that our guild was fairly relaxed when it came to requiring people to read up on fights, since it was usually impossible to tell who had and who hadn’t, and the raid leader always did a short reminder of the mechanics before the first pull – since we had demonstrated repeatedly that we had a smart, capable bunch of people, and he replied that some people just didn’t find that fun. He said he’d vote against going in blind, because he hated feeling unprepared, and he didn’t like the thought of spending time learning the fight when we could be just practicing our execution instead. Those extra wipes were a waste of time and effort for him, and he said he knew that there were some others in the guild who felt the same.

After getting over the shock of the idea that even in a guild as close as ours, who thrived on challenges, there were people who wouldn’t enjoy that extra challenge, I felt my heart sink. I knew that because of the power of guilt, the joy of discovery would become outweighed by the duty of responsibility every time. It is inevitable. When even one person in the team feels like they have to be prepared by watching guide videos, they create pressure on the rest of the team. Nobody likes knowing that their teammates are impatient or frustrated with them for not having the same familiarity with the mechanics. Nobody likes feeling that they are holding teammates back. And when half or more of your team is in the “be prepared” camp, the pressure to not disappoint them is immense. Responsibility to the team comes to trump the joy of discovery. This is not even considering that many guilds actively require you to have done that prep, and are capable of removing you from the team if you don’t! That fear can either add to, or sometimes just stand in for, the sense of responsibility.

At first I accepted the necessity of raid teams working in that way, that the fun of some trumps the fun of others. But by the time I stopped playing WoW, I had come to reject that that was always the way things had to work, that the joy of discovery was necessarily trumped by the duty of responsibility. The fact is, my rapidly waning enjoyment of raiding would have been given a massive shot in the arm if the group I was with was willing to go in blind, to learn and master the fights on our own merits. Why should the top guilds in the world be the only ones who get to explore and experience new, minty-fresh raids on the PTR? Why do the rest of us have to be locked in to the choreography that they develop, or at least locked in to that choreography as a starting point? Obviously they are more skilled, more dedicated players than we plebes, but it’s not like we are unable to come up with similar strategies on our own. Or different, yet viable ones. Hell, the mere fact that those players are operating on a whole different level of performance can mean that their strategies may not be suitable for us.

Alright, I know, I’m whinging now. But the point stands: it doesn’t have to be this way.

Unfortunately, I can’t see any way to reconcile the two camps. There is no reason for the Prepared folk to accommodate the Discovery folk when a) they most likely have the majority, and b) they have what appears to be the superior argument: you’re comparing the Discovery folks’ enjoyment being at less than full (i.e. they are having fun, just not as much fun as they could be having), to the Prepared folks’ lack of enjoyment if they agree to go in blind (i.e. they stop having fun altogether for some period of time). Yet the denial of their full potential enjoyment is not insignificant. It can’t be suppressed forever. It does take its toll on players like me. It does contribute to leaving games earlier, or being reluctant to start raiding in other games. And it is difficult for Discovery folk to push for accommodation, because they come across as selfish demands. Maybe they are.

But what solutions are there? The most obvious – and least realistic, in my opinion – is to build a raid team solely of Discovery folk. Given how hard it is to build and keep any raid team together these days, placing a massive condition on your potential candidates just seems like a long-term project with a high chance of failure. What else? You could try to negotiate with your current guild to stagger the approaches to each raid tier. Or raid, if there are several in one tier. One raid you Prepare for, the next you Discover. I get the feeling that this is only slightly more realistic than building your own raid team.

The existence of readily available, already-spoiled guides for new raids as they come out (even before they are released, in the case of WoW) is a major cause of this tension. I don’t like how they have robbed me of the joy of discovering and solving raid fights with my friends. I don’t like how, when there are a variety of reasons and motivations to raid, one of my favourites is doomed to lose to any conflict of interests. I don’t like the idea that raids are “solved” before anyone ever steps into them on live servers, and that finding your own solutions is looked down upon as a waste of time. I don’t like how my only viable options seem to be to either settle for a fraction of the fun that raiding offers, or just not raid at all.

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WIP: Steam Challenge – A Valley Without Wind

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Time played: 11.6 hours


A Valley Without Wind is an odd duck. It’s had this rather unique ability to both repel and attract me simultaneously. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface after nearly 12 hours, yet I also feel like I’ve seen most of what the game has to offer.

I hated the intro music. Over time I have become used to it, but it’s still just barely tolerable. I’m not a big fan of chiptunes, it never really clicked with me as a genre so all I ask from it is that it not be actively off-putting. AVWW failed that mission, so it was harder to get into the game as a result. I’m sitting here trying to recall the in-game music, which for the life of me I cannot do, so obviously it was either bad enough for me to suppress, or (more likely) it was just unremarkable. So that was the first hurdle.

Then there are the graphics. I have seen many, many reviews on Steam that just despise the art style in this game. I don’t understand that at all. I quite like the art direction now, although when I first started I had to overcome some cognitive dissonance. For a game that plays much like Terraria, it took a while to shake the feeling that a less pixelated, prettier art direction was appropriate for the genre. It’s pretty smooth, and although it has it’s own animation quirks, it feels like a good example of art design to me. In the beginning, though, I did have trouble coming to terms with it, which was another hurdle to full enjoyment of the game.

I’m very much torn on the gameplay. I like the minute-to-minute gameplay, exploring maps, collecting treasure and shooting enemies. I love the world-level objectives, where you have to push back the Wind, improve settlements and take down the continental bosses and their lieutenants. But there is a problem: there is nothing in between those two extremes. There is no intermediate objective that exploration is fueling, that in turn leads into the world objectives. You basically make it up for yourself.

For example, there are a tonne of missions that you can find, from boss towers to rescuing survivors to closing void portals. You get some world-map-level rewards from completing certain missions, but there is no indication as to what you need to progress. Do I only need one of these buildings, or should I keep farming for a dozen? Who knows? Since the world-level objectives are so far off, I find myself just poking my nose into every (procedurally-generated) map and building and dungeon because I have nothing better to do. It becomes very repetitive, even after you get used to optimising your map clears. Every so often I go back and remind myself to work towards taking out the lieutenants, but soon enough I get engrossed in map completion – and there are endless maps.

The point at which I put the game down for good (or for the near future, anyway) was realising that THERE ARE ENDLESS MAPS. This game literally does not end. When you defeat a continental boss, there are other continents for you to explore and liberate. And as far as I can tell, the world is infinitely big, so you will never actually beat the game. So, like I said at the start, I have barely scratched the surface of the mechanics (I defeated the first lieutenant of the first continent) and the world, yet I feel like I’ve been doing essentially the same thing all this time. There are hints of a deep and complex lore behind it, but it manifests so rarely that I have been satisfied with the bare background lore.

I do recommend giving AVWW a play if you can get it cheaply, it’s a fantastic take on the Metroidvania style of game. But it’s not something you will be able to sit on the fence about – either you’ll get to a point, like me, where you feel that you’ve done enough, and you’ll uninstall it; or you’ll become obsessed with it and sink a huge number of hours into it. I don’t think you can just potter around casually every few weeks in AVWW. It demands more.



Cannot Be Gamed

I generally don’t talk about myself, but I’m going to participate in Jasyla’s survey, for Science.

When did you start playing video games?

I first played videogames while in primary school – grade 4 or 5. I can’t actually remember which came first: we got a Tandy something-or-other home computer (wiki doesn’t have the model I remember so I think it must’ve been some local branded version); or I started playing during lunchtimes in the school library. These events were pretty close together so I guess it doesn’t really matter. I didn’t spend that much time on them at this stage, though, I really only started getting into videogames a few years later. Then I was introduced to the C64 that friends had. Oh man, that was a great gaming system. It wasn’t until I was in uni that I first had any games of my own – we never had consoles and were rarely allowed to play games on the PC we had. That was strictly for homework.

What is the first game you remember playing?

At school (Apple computers) there were two games which I don’t know the names of. One was a car-body design game to teach you about aerodynamics, the other was a platform adventure game that played a lot like Prince of Persia but in a Conan-style setting. Both of these were miles ahead of the first game I played at home, which was called Return of the Killer Tomatoes. It was a Pacman-esque game and was, like all our other games, on cassette. We also had a wild west shootout game – think Pong, but instead of a single “ball” bouncing back and forth you had two players able to shoot across. Add some cacti to hide behind and presto! We didn’t even have a colour monitor.

PC or Console? 

PC for the most part. I do not own a console at this time, the last one I did own was a PS2 that only got played for a couple of months before being relegated to DVD duties. My first console was an N64 and was much beloved. I’ll probably pick up another one in the future and hunt down the games I never got to play when they were current.

XBox, PlayStation, or Wii? 

My first choice would be Nintendo, but PS4 would be a close second. Daylight third, then XBox.

What’s the best game you’ve ever played? 

I would say that the Civilisation series (including Alpha Centauri) has received the most of my attention and love over the years. There is, however, a case to be made for Goldeneye, and its successor, Perfect Dark. The developer, Rare, totally carried the N64. Seriously, without Rare, that console’s game lineup would have been almost uniformly subpar.

What’s the worst game you’ve ever played? 

I’m gonna say Starcraft.

The attempted port to N64. An RTS with no multiplayer capability, no ability to designate groups, no ability to map jump (only scroooollllllllliiiinnnnggggg) and trying to play it with a controller? Madness.

Name a game that was popular/critically adored that you just didn’t like.

Quake. I loved Wolfenstein and Doom, but Quake just did nothing for me. The next shooter I loved was Unreal, then Half-Life came along and blew me away. I hated Morrowind, I don’t think I got more than an hour in. I’m enjoying Oblivion, however. And even though GTA San Andreas is one of my all time favourite games, I couldn’t stand GTA IV.

Name a game that was poorly received that you really like.

There was only one fighting game of note on the N64, Fighter’s Destiny. It seems that I was one of the few who liked it, despite its flaws. Steel Storm: Burning Retribution is a more recent game that I have played a good way through and enjoyed it, though apparently it wasn’t liked by the general public. And I am not sure if it was poorly received per se, but Diddy Kong Racing was an excellent game that suffered from being forever in the shadow of Mario Kart. I much preferred DKR.

What are your favourite game genres?

I don’t really have a favourite. I find that I get burned out or bored by the same type of gameplay for very long, so I mix it up by playing one genre for a while and then moving to another one when I feel the need for something different. I am not a huge fan of racing unless there are weapons involved (see DKR), sports games, or fighting games (I think I’ve moved away from them).

Who is your favourite game protagonist?

Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate! I love the way that he is full of bravado one minute, and sheepishly self-conscious the next. He resembles an overeager puppy that is learning how to growl threateningly, only to bound over and start licking your face. I love that he has a porcelain phobia. “Grog me, barkeep!” should be a part of every adult’s lexicon.

Describe your perfect video game.

My perfect videogame would be able to tell what kind of gameplay I really want at any given time and direct me to, or create, that type of experience….it’s basically a Holodeck.

What video game character do have you have a crush on?

I gave Aywren a bit of grief about this, so I fully expect to get it back with interest, but I don’t really have a game crush. Unlike her, though, I just assume that it’s because I simply haven’t found my crush yet. I suspect it’ll be a character from an adventure game if it does happen. The closest I’ve come to a crush was Cate Archer from NOLF – she seemed to be a combination of Liz Hurley’s Vanessa Kensington and Heather Graham’s Felicity Shagwell from Austen Powers. And I got into her pants…>.>

What game has the best music? 

I am actually in the process of downloading the OST that come with my Humble Bundle purchases. So far there have been some amazing tracks and I can’t choose any one game as having the best. Some examples of my favourite game music:

Digger in-game music.

The Secret World theme music.

All the music from Goldeneye and NOLF.

Bastion end theme.

As Syp puts it in his Massively article: “If you’ve played through Issue #7 and explored a certain nursery, then you’re already familiar with this song. Sleepless Lullaby is the music that Orochi was using in its experiments on the lil’ kids, and it’s everywhere in the mission, from lyrics scrawled on the walls in blood to playing over radios in mostly empty rooms. It’s haunting and sad and more than a little creepy.” The song he’s referring to? This one.

Most memorable moment in a game:

My last relationship was with a Japanese woman I met in Japan when I lived there. Then I went home, we had a long-distance thing going for a year, then she came to Hobart to live with me. At that time, I was playing an RTS called Sacrifice a lot, and in that game you have a Navi-like advisor that yells at you when things are happening. The most common thing he yelled (in a fake British accent) was “Your creatures are under attack!” This line became a hilariously mangled part of my partner’s English vocabulary. I regret nothing.

Scariest moment in a game:

Up until last week, it was System Shock 2. The first time a ghost materialised in front of me I emptied my pistol into it – while yelling in fear – before I realised that it wasn’t going to hurt me. The sound effects in that game were incredible for inspiring dread: the slow decay of the doctor’s voice as she leads you towards her location, the hybrids pleading for you to kill them as they hunt you down, the cyborg nannies crooning softly, and those fucking monkeys…ugh.

Last week I saw the scariest goddamn demo video I have ever encountered. The new Silent Hill game. J3w3l has it up on her blog (it’s the last video), go check it out if you have the guts! I was terrified but couldn’t stop crying with laughter at the commentary.

Most heart-wrenching moment in a game:

Probably the ending in Bastion, the slow march (where that end theme from above starts playing).

What are your favourite websites/blogs about games?

The ones that are written by intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, interesting individuals.

What’s the last game you finished?

Analogue: A Hate Story. I have a post about it on the way…

What future releases are you most excited about?

This year: Beyond Earth, the new Alpha Centauri. After that: EQ Next, Elite: Dangerous, Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky.

Do you identify as a gamer?

I do. True story: Last year, while doing a business admin course, I was talking to my trainer about what to put on my CV. She wanted to see some hobbies/interests there, so I took a breath and brought up gaming. As expected, the doubt and subdued disapproval emerged pretty quickly, but in an attempt to be diplomatic about it, she started asking about when and how often, what kind, etc., but my answers were confusing her. It took me fully 5 minutes of conversation to realise that she assumed I meant casino gaming (gambling), not video or board gaming. And then it took another while to explain to her just how widespread and varied gaming is…I still shake my head a little at that memory.

Why do you play video games?

You don’t want to know the true answer to that.

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What I Played: Steam Challenge – Little Inferno

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Time Played: 4 hours


You guys. This game! I love it so much!

I’d seen the trailer a few times over the course of a year or two, each time it piqued my interest – but not enough to purchase it. Finally I saw it as part of a Humble Bundle and by Crom I snatched it up! Even so, it lay neglected, installed on my Steam list for many more months (years? I can’t tell) before I got the urge to actually hit Play. I was expecting an idle time-waster in the vein of mobile games, something that I could pick up for a half-hour or so of pyromania and then put aside in favour of “real” games.

Hooooooo boy, was I wrong. Firstly I discovered that there is a puzzle element to it, with the combos. As shown in the trailer above, you buy things from the store, and burn it. That’s it. That’s the gameplay. But you open more areas of the store (more catalogues) by earning stars. Stars are earned by burning two or three specific items together. Each combo tells you what items to burn in a cryptic way – some are easier to unravel than others. So there’s your first hook – solve the riddles to earn more stars to unlock more riddles and so on and so on. Suddenly an hour has passed. Games like Civilization have that “just one more turn” hook – Little Inferno has “just one more combo”. Then there’s the story.

Yes, you read that correctly. I was surprised when I realised that there was a story. I didn’t realise it until maybe a quarter of the way through the game. At first it seems like just flavour, something to distract you from burning stuff. But it develops, and becomes more and more important, until you’re no longer doing combos for the challenge of unlocking more catalogues, but to unlock more story. It’s one of those stories that is vague enough that you fill in most of it yourself, that immersing yourself in the world is made possible by the hints and clues that are given to you. I feel that it’s a deeply philosophical story too, which is why I love the game so much.

It helps immensely that the main activity, the actual gameplay, is so incredibly well done. The fire is perfect, the way that various items react to being torched is sometimes creepy, sometimes guilt-inducing, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes satisfyingly awesome. The sense of being in front of a roaring fire is so well done (geddit? eh? EH?) that it makes just faffing about burning random things an absolute pleasure. I used to live in a house with a fireplace, so the nostalgic buttons were pushed for me on that front too. And the fact that you literally cannot get stranded without money means that you can simply relax and watch things burn without worrying about optimisation or hurting progress or “doing it wrong”. Everything you burn gives you back slightly more money than it cost to buy, plus there are occasional spiders that venture out that can be clicked on or burned for a little cash too. It’s just a great, relaxing experience, perfect for those times where you want to game but don’t want anything demanding.

In the end I clocked up over 4 hours on Little Inferno, but that is because I didn’t attempt all the combos – I raced through the story because I needed to see how it ended! I think if you took your time and went through all the combos, you could easily get another couple of hours out of it. And just sitting there, burning things in your fireplace and giggling, is a completely legitimate life choice that you will never be judged for.

This is a must play, in my books.


WoW: The Accidental Killer

I’m just going to say it: WoW killed innovation in MMO’s.

This is a slightly different take on the recent wave of “MMO’s are dying” sentiments floating around the blogosphere. I don’t believe for a moment that the MMO genre is dying, for the same reason that I don’t think the FPS or RTS genres are dying: there is still a steady stream of big name titles being developed and released, even though the rate of releases seems lower than a few years ago. But I think the prophesising of doom that has been going on for a while is due to the vast majority of MMO’s playing very very similarly. Similarly to WoW.

Yes, yes, I know that there were a number of MMO’s that came before WoW. But WoW was an iteration on those formulae, and we haven’t really seen anything revolutionary since. EVE Online grew up alongside WoW, which could explain why it has flourished for as long as – if not as spectacularly as – WoW, despite being so different. So why have there been no substantial advancements in the genre since Blizzard was crowned King?

I believe that the major reason is that WoW showed the industry that MMO’s could be big business. When you get the kind of money that Blizzard was raking in in the mid-late 00’s, other businesses want a piece of the action. Given that most of them were starting way behind Blizz and SOE, they needed to catch up quickly or drop out of the race entirely. They’d see the sheer amounts that WoW was making and their development model would not even consider the “build up a small but loyal following and expand slowly” idea – it’d be all “we need to tap into the existing playerbase”. They had to, in order to justify the money that investors were injecting into these projects. When you are dealing with that kind of investment, small and steady returns are not attractive.

Investors looking at WoW’s revenue stream would be dissatisfied with anything less than stellar returns from their own projects. This would mean that anything innovative, that wasn’t proven to work (as attractive gameplay) already, would be heavily frowned upon as a potential waste of time and resources. Thus, the path of least risk would be to copy the gameplay of WoW. Sure, you had to have something to distinguish your product, but it couldn’t be too radical a departure from what Blizzard had perfected. LOTRO would rely on the draw of the IP, as would STO and SWTOR and TESO. TSW would lean heavily on the setting and skill system (and my favourite, investigation missions).

When you are trying to steal players from another game, you can’t offer anything too radically different, or you have no foot in the door. By being able to say “this is what you are used to, but better!”, you can entice players away from Blizzard. On the other hand, as we have seen in the last few years, that works the other way too, where Blizzard has kind-of-copied popular aspects of other MMO’s to draw players back (or away from those games). But Blizzard was there first, already comfortably established, so any net loss after this exchange of player loyalties is something they can afford – the newer games cannot afford it nearly as much.

I think that the repeated attempts to challenge WoW for sheer profitability were the result of investors treating the MMO industry in a similar way that several other global markets operate. Take the mobile phone or tablet industry, for example. It is dominated by a couple of names, but they all do practically the same thing. Same with the console market. I don’t think that anyone really anticipated that WoW would not share the market at all. I think people – not least of all, the people with the development cash – expected one, maybe two major rivals to rise and compete with WoW, and then there would be all the satellite MMO’s picking up the niche scraps. And I think that the reason so many MMO’s over the last 10 years have been WoW ‘clones’ is because they all tried to establish themselves as that major rival. The result has been an MMO bubble, that is going to burst in the next couple of years.

I’ve recently become disillusioned by ArcheAge from the reviews/impressions of some bloggers in the beta, I don’t think that there is enough new in the game to really differentiate itself (at least, not in a good way). So that leaves me with my fingers crossed for EQ Next, and the two space MMO’s Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous. No Man’s Sky is also intriguing but I’m not sure how much of an MMO it is at this stage. I have a feeling that the only ways forward from here are either massively improved AI to provide both challenging, dynamic combat and immersive interaction, or a proper virtual world that is player-driven and basically just curated by the developers rather than designed by them. I have a dream game along those lines, that I’ll try to lay out in depth on this blog, but I fear we may be waiting at least another 5 years before anyone attempts anything truly innovative.


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