Friday, November 15, 2019

Best Avoided

There are certain enemies in certain games that are a real pain to deal with.  Among those there a small select few that are downright panic inducing for some.  The first time I can remember it happening was when a friend of mine freaked out upon encountering a band of monks in the original Bard's Tale...needless to say it didn't end well for him.  I've heard people online claim that the psychic monkeys in System Shock 2 or headcrabs in Half-life 2 trigger a similar reaction, one of primal fear.  While I've never been all that upset by any particular type of video game enemy, there are a few that I have learned to dread.  Here's three in particular...

From Demon's Souls to Sekiro, Hidetaka Miyazaki has a knack for creating monsters the get under your skin (figuratively, and sometimes literally...).  The "winter lanterns" in Bloodborne can kill the player's character simply by holding line-of-sight with them for a short period of time.  Personally though, I feel like that enemy (troublesome as it may well be) is not nearly as bad as the croaking basilisks in Dark Souls.  Normally, when one dies in Dark Souls it's a slap on the wrist, but being struck down by a basilisk results in being cursed - a status effect that does not go away upon subsequent deaths.  It's a pretty big debuff and not easily removed although it does have a few minor perks as well.  Even so, in a game known for its punishing difficulty being cursed is the last thing most players want.

XCOM has earned a reputation for being quite challenging early on.  One of the most difficult parts of the game is the first terror mission involving chryssalids.  Believe it or not there was an even worse kind of enemy in XCOM: Terror from the Deep, the "tentaculat."  Basically a big floating brain with a beak and tentacles, the tentaculat bears a strong resemblance the the "grell" found in the table-top RPG Dungeons and Dragons.  Gameplay-wise, they are tough and have a high movement rate, as well as the ability to move vertically or horizontally.  Their form of attack is identical to a chryssalid's zombification, complete with hatching a new tentaculat upon death.  I had a full squad of veteran aquanauts nearly wiped out  by just a couple of these things...bad times.

The last example comes from Dwarf Fortress (a game I've been playing quite a bit as of late).  No, it's not the werebeasts.  Yes, those things can destroy an entire fort if proper quarantine procedures are not put into effect, but the enemy that has caused me the most grief is those accursed "bogeymen."  Fast, hard to hit, and likely to ambush the player anytime they travel alone at nigh, I have lost more good adventures to these guys than I care to count.  Needless to say, I'm glad the next version of Dwarf Fortress will be giving them a much less ubiquitous roll in the the game.  Although, it's my understanding that they might be even more deadly...

Friday, November 8, 2019

Hammerspace

The title of this blogpost is a term derived cartoons.  Particularly, instances where a character produces an item or object far too large to have been concealed on their person.  Often times this would come in the form of a mallet pulled seemingly out of nowhere.  Where did that come from?  For all intents and purposes it was tucked into some kind of pocket dimension, accessible to a particular individual at a moment's notice.  The old table-top RPG Dungeons and Dragons had a similar concept with the magical "bag-of-holding," essentially, a container that drastically downsizes anything places within.  Video games designers were quick to adapt the concept of hammerspace into their games, but I don't think they were ever (generally speaking) entirely comfortable with the concept.  Space Quest III's narration text, "You shove the ladder in your pocket."  Followed by the word "Ouch!" was the first instance I can recall a designer pushing back on the absurdity of it all, albeit for laughs.  So, why are game developers willing to turn a blind eye to something that is completely unrealistic on a fundamental level.

The simplest answer is they are not.  In fact, I get the impression that a lot of thought and energy has gone into trying eliminate hammerspace.  One of the most common solutions is an encumbrance system.  These weight limits were fairly ubiquitous in early table-top RPGs and (unsurprisingly) ended up being incorporated into a lot of CRPGs.  In more recent years, the concept has fallen out of fashion (Demon's Souls is the last game I've played that used it).  One of the problems with an encumbrance system is it still doesn't really reflect reality in that players can still haul way more stuff on their characters than would ever be humanly possible.  In some cases this would result in hilarity in games like Diablo and Dungeon Siege, causing a massive explosion of dropped equipment all over the screen when a player character was killed.  Another big problem with abstractly measuring weight is it doesn't account for bulk.  Some objects (say, for example, a big bag of fluffy cotton) aren't particularly heavy, but do take up a lot of physical space. 

One way to simulate both weight and volume is with inventory tetris.  It can be found in games like Betrayal at Krondor, Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space.  Again, it isn't a popular solution among gamers though it is perhaps a bit closer to reality.  The problem with such a system is instances where an object is very small but incredibly dense, such as a bar of gold.  Oddly enough, the original XCOM (released way back in 1994) had a system that accounted for both space and weight - calculating burden against the strength of the carrier and adjusting movement rates accordingly.  Even so, the system had its quirks.  Armor (or lack there of) was not factored into weight restrictions and a 80 item limit on missions was the result of programming limitations rather than some kind of lift capacity on the in-game air transport craft.

Taking a step back, it's easy to see why a lot of game developers give into the temptation of hammerspace.  Managing inventory is a tedious task and in loot-driven games can be an outright punishment in that it forces players to leave valuable booty behind.  That is unless a core aspect of the fun is logistical planning.  Darkest Dungeon, Astroneer and most recently Death Stranding are built around making important decisions based on limited inventory capacity.  In an interesting case of reverse cross-media influence the table-top RPG Torchbearer uses an inventory slot system very similar to what was invented in video games.  Another instance where this sort of restraint can be interesting is in the case of equipment definingly the character's role.  Some FPS games let the player carry all the guns, but others such as those in the Halo series force the player to decide on a class (made up of two guns) and stick to it.  An alternative approach might be to make encumbrance restrictions adjustable in the options menu, or perhaps tied to the difficulty setting.  Regardless, the takeaway here is developers that don't want hammerspace need to integrate the limitation in a positive way rather than a negative one.

A great example of how not to do it is Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Weapons degrade as they are used, and certain weapons are more effective against certain types of enemies.  This incentivises the player to carry a lot of (and a wide variety of) weapons.  However the game places a strict cap on the number of weapons Link can carry.  It should be noted that the number is (even at its lowest) still more than what is realistic.  Instead of this neither-here-nor-there system, a much more enjoyable approach would be to tie weapon usage into some kind of progression system.  Want the player to use more variety?  Give an EXP boost based on cooldown timers, or number of times used.  Want players to haul around fewer weapons?  Provide a stat boost (speed, damage, stamina, health, etc.) if they carry below a certain limit.

In truth, I don't mind hammerspace as a concept.  The "Tain" in the Myth series or "Dite" in Metal Gear Survive hint at the storytelling potential of having an in-fiction pocket dimension.  Alas, the vast majority of the time hammerspace it just hit points of a different color - concepts overused by developers because they lack the creativity to come up with an innovative alternative.     

Friday, November 1, 2019

One Straw too Many

Aside from the Homeworld series Warcraft and Starcraft were some of my favorite RTS games growing up.  For whatever reason I never got into Diablo (although my brother did).  I also never played World of Warcraft because, as I have stated in the past, I'm not a fan of MMORPGs.  As one might guess, I haven't been very interested in Blizzard's more recent releases either; Hearthstone?...pass.  Overwatch?...No, thanks.  Even Starcraft II failed to get my attention since so much design focus was placed on the E-sports side of things.  Still, I always held onto a glimmer of hope that the studio would return to the aspects of their games that interested me the most.  Sadly, ever since Blizzard was bought out by Activision, I feel like whatever talent the studio had remaining simply disappeared.

It's something that really began to show at the last Blizzcon with Wyatt Chung's rhetorical question, "Do you guys not have phones?"  In other words, their focus had become totally fixed on mobile platforms, microtransactions and tapping into the Chinese marketplace.  My understanding is that China is an especially lucrative place for video game companies, not just in terms of new player potential but a lack of stigma when it comes to loot boxes and pay-to-win gameplay elements.  Those things, along with free-to-play or fee-to-pay games, have become a plague on the industry.  The fun and interesting parts games are inevitably eroded away by more repetitive, more obfuscated, and more addictive gameplay whenever these revenue models are utilized.  It has reached the point now where playing live-service games is about as enjoyable as chain smoking.  Honestly, I don't see why that kind of electronic entertainment should be tolerated any more than regular casinos.  Taking the most unhealthy parts of video games and magnifying them to make a quick buck is as devious as all the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas...yet, despite all the awfulness associated with this industry trend, Blizzard keeps marching toward that golden grail of gambling in video games...piling those straws on that camel's back.  That is until just recently, when a big chunk of wood got chucked on top.

Actually, I'm not alluding to Blizzard laying off a bunch of employees despite record profits.  No, that was a big stick, but "log" I'm referring to here is the banning of Blitzchung by Activision/Blizzard/PRC for taking a pro Hong Kong stance.  It's one thing to be selfish and money grubbing, but quite another to be complacent in denying people basic human rights.  Upsettingly, this isn't even an issue unique Blizzard or the video game industry.  In fact, quite a few American companies such as Apple, Disney and Google (the providers of this very blog hosting service!) have been guilt of disturbingly similar behavior.  I've seen a lot of people trying to frame this as a free speech issue, but I fail to see what's controversial about being for human rights or opposed to hate speech for that matter...It's not taking a political stance so much as having an ounce of moral integrity.  Something a lot of the head honchos and these companies (and the NBA) seem to lack.  It's particularly duplicitous coming from places like Disney, who stylize themselves as being progressive.

Another thing I've seen some people online try to do is claim that this is actually just racism against Chinese people.  While I'm sure that is a motivating factor for some, I don't understand how it invalidates calling out American companies and the Chinese government on their human rights abuses.  Just to be clear, if we were to consider this form of whataboutism valid then it could be used to dismiss any criticism of any institution.  Don't like the way Spain is handling Catalan?  You're just racist toward Spaniards.  Don't like Brexit?  You just hate the Britons.  Don't like the way the American government handles...well...anything recently?  You're just prejudiced against fat, orange men with bad hair - You get the idea.

The camel's back is broken and this has been a long time coming.  Blizzcon is just around the corner and I hope protestors make things truly awful for all those executives and Blizzard and Activision.  I also hope that in the future things become awful for any corporate executive that doesn't have the moral fiber to put fundamental human rights before profit margins.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Monday, October 21, 2019

Exhuming the Past

Retro-style graphics are certainly a popular choice among indie game studios.  I have to admit, I have a soft spot for pixel art.  It tends to bring back memories of playing games on my Apple IIc.  Nostalgia aside, there is a good reason to utilize older visual styles in that they tend to be less resource intensive than high-res textures and massive poliginal count 3D objects.  That said, there is one style that might be better left buried.

The original Sony Playstation had some great games and, thanks to its CD-ROM drive, high quality music/sound for the time.  What it didn't have though, was enough memory.  Textures, in particular, were very blocky with a tendency to warp when viewed from certain directions.  The lack of filtering and low polygonal models didn't help things either...even so, there are a few surprisingly nice looking games.  Just last month, I posted some animated GIFs from Vagrant Story that still hold up surprisingly well.  Another game that uses the limited processing power of the PSX to its advantage is the first Silent Hill.  The short draw distance introduces clastrophic aspects of horror by blanketing the player's surroundings in fog or darkness.  The monsters that emerge from the gloom are also murky and shrouded, giving off vague impressions rather than particular details.  It ends up working extremely well in this case because the player's brain is forced to fill in the gaps (a key aspect of the horror genre).

Perhaps influenced by the original Silent Hill, a number of more recent indie horror games have tried to emulate the visual style.  Inspired by a post on the 4Chan message board and made into a game for the Haunted PS1 Summer-Spooks Gamejam in less than 30 days, Lost in the Backrooms is one such example.  Currently, it's available for download over at itch.io for free.  Overall, it isn't a bad game (especially considering the constraints under which it was made), but Lost in the Backrooms does end up feeling a lot like the "Blair Witch" except with a bunch of empty halls instead of a forest.

Another obscurity is Paratopic.  Once again, it's an indie horror title.  The look is very PSX era aside from better draw distances.  There's also a story of sorts (albeit told in a very convoluted manner).  Perhaps that, too, is in the spirit of the original Silent Hill.  There are more examples I could go into: Back in 1995, Vaccine, Banned Memories, Devil Daggers, Garden Variety, Prototype Mansion and Dusk.  However, I think people familiar with the visuals of those games will understand what I'm getting at.  No Gouraud Shading, low-poly rendering and little to no filtering on blocky textures, are the hallmarks here.

Getting back to my original point, the presentation in these games is very...grimy.  The 3D objects are too jagged to have the impressionist vibe of Overland.  Simultaneously, the textures are too muddy and unfiltered to give off the clean simplicity of Grown Home.  I understand that what I'm saying here is highly subjective.  By all means, if PSX era graphics are your prefered aesthetic don't let me ruin your enjoyment.  Some people still like CRT monitors and vinyl record players after all...I, for one though, would be happy if this particular mold-ridden corpse of game presentation was not brought back from the dead in a big way.

Monday, October 14, 2019

First Fortress, Final Year

We're now into our third year, and the amount of migrants has gone from a sporadic trickle to a nonstop flood.  The miners, carpenters, and masons are working like mad to to get enough bedrooms made for everyone.  In addition to that, we have a mayor and captain of the guard demanding sumptuous accommodations for themselves.

On a more positive note, we have converted the old meeting hall into a hospital (complete with soap, beds, splints, crutches, traction benches and a chief medical dwarf).  Our militia has swollen to seven, two of whom are noteworthy.  The first is "Iron Fist" the planter.  He got the nickname after beating a wolverine to death in the strawberry garden with his bare hands.  The other is a newly arrived hunter who has already roused my ire.  Before I assigned him to the military, he took to hunting opossums near the stream with his crossbow.  That was perfectly fine, but one day he decided to bring down a wild mare.  In this endeavor he succeeded by killing just such a horse.  However, an enraged stallion chased him away before he could collect the corpse for butchering.  The image of a dead horse rotting in the sun doesn't sit well with me.  Equine symbols have become synonymous with the fortress.  There are five such statues on display outside, and countless stone figurines of horses have been traded to merchants in exchange for goods...this may well be an ill omen.

We have three more artifacts, two of which are rather unimpressive (a hatch cover and a bone amulet).  The most recent one though is a nice leather shield.  I gave it to Blue Bell...may it guard her well.  There would have been yet another artifact in the fort if not for a lack of desired construction materials.  The dwarf in question was a wood burner who, due to excessive obtuseness, went nuts and attacked our poor bookkeeper while he was on the way to his office.  Another dwarf tried to intervene and suffered a serious leg injury for his trouble.  Eventually, the human hammerman put the berzerk dwarf down for good with a blow to the noggin.  I don't have anyone officially appointed to the position of Hammerer, but it seems this human has preemptively assumed the role.  Overall, the incident was a bad bit of business with two dwarfs now in the hospital and a third dead one consigned to our tombs five z-levels down.

All the new rooms have been carved out so I decided to have the miners do a bit of exploratory digging.  Thus far, the only metal I've found that can be smelted out of all this rock is zinc.  I really need to get some better equipment for my militia so that they'll be ready in the event of a...what's that?


Oh no!  Get everyone underground!  Hurry!  A group of ten goblins has arrived outfitted with iron armor and weapons of iron and silver.  I call out the militia while the goblins are preoccupied with a couple of water buffalo we have (correction, had) in a pasture outside.  Now, here is where I make a serious tactical blunder.  Thinking that the stream will be difficult for the goblins to cross in their heavy armor, I send out the militia to attack while their forces are split on either side of the waterway.  My spur-of-the-moment plan doesn't work at all.  The archer goblins on the far bank let loose volleys of their deadly arrows, hitting one dwarf in the leg (dropping him before he can even swinging his weapon).  There is a brief clash...and my dwarfs are massacred.  Even Iron Fist is helpless against the goblin onslaught...but what's this?  There are only five dead dwarfs.  Where is Blue Bell?  Where is the Beekeeper?

As it turned out Blue Bell was engaged in her favorite off-duty pastime, hauling huge boulders in the mines far below.  She heard the alarm, but for some reason didn't drop the big rock she was carrying.  Hence, she missed out on the disastrous initial skirmish.  As for the Beekeeper...he overslept.  In fact, right after his companions-in-arms were slaughtered he stumbled out the front door (sleepy-eyed) toward the goblins.  I ordered him back inside, but he ignored the command and instead continued his slow advance as surprisingly ill-aimed goblin arrows flew past all around him.  Closing in, he entered a martial trance and hacked left and right as he drove right through their center.  Sadley, the blows from his copper axe couldn't penetrate iron armor.  Even so, two of the goblins were injured by the shear ferocity of his blows.  Then it happened...an arrow hit the Beekeeper in the arm causing him to lose his grip on his axe.  More wounds follow and he perishes after being impaled by a goblin spear...twice!  Poor Beekeeper...he had the heart of a warrior.

The situation has become dire to say the least.  I've ordered the doors locked, but we have no hope of repelling the siege.  With more than seventy dwarfs still inside (including a baby and six children) we have no choice.  The fort must be evacuated.  The question is, how do we get out?  Remember that this fort is built into one of two hillsides with a stream between them.  My miners have managed to dig a tunnel under the flowing water to the other hill.  All they need to do is clear a little more dirt and we'll have a way out.


We've broken through to the surface, and the dwarfs are fleeing out the exit in single file.  The human bard has agreed to lead them to the safety of her hometown not far to the south.  The goblins, who were milling around the front entrance, take notice.  The exodus is taking too long because there are so many dwarfs.  We need more time.  I ask Blue Bell to do the impossible; she must fend off the goblins.  In a bit of comradery the human hammerman joins her.  The goblins approach and many blows are exchanged.  The hammerman goes down despite a heroic effort.  Blue Bell, with bronze spear in hand, strikes down one goblin...then another.  The fighting rages on for awhile, but she is pierced by many goblin arrows...dying much like Boromir in Lord of the Rings.  Her noble sacrifice was not in vain though, the dwarfs have escaped...and while the fort is lost, as long as they survive things can begin again someplace new.  Strike the earth!

Epilogue

So concludes my first attempt at Dwarf Fortress.  Not a bad run, all things considered.  I learned a lot and have already begun a new fort in another world utilizing what I learned from my first try.  Incidentally, I did go back to the fortress in adventure mode to properly entomb the remains of Blue Bell and the Beekeeper.  I figured they deserved that much, at least.  I also found the artifact earring, amulet, and hatch cover, but couldn't recover the leather shield...possibly because the ASCII icon for it looks exactly like any other piece of leather clothing.  While I was looking around near the stream outside the fort, I happened upon a wandering bard.  After chatting for a bit, I gave him the hatch cover.  I didn't have any use for it, but perhaps it will inspire him to share the tale of this fort and the dwarfs that once dwelled within.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

First Fortress, Second Year

Looking through my dwarf's personality traits, it appears that most are polytheistic.  In order to satisfy their spiritual desires I've ordered the construction of a temple complex arranged in a clover shaped layout.  The "petals" are three rooms, each dedicated to a different deity.  I selected the three most popular, but for the rest I added a stairway in the center of the complex that leads down to another chamber for general use.

A human caravan came to trade, and had a variety of interesting items.  We didn't have a whole lot to offer in return, but with our meager bins of semi-precious stones and carved nicknacks we managed to secure some fruits and vegetables...as well as a bar of silver.

No sooner had our trade negotiations with the humans concluded than one of our dwarfs entered a strange mood.  He promptly claimed a workshop and after gathering up quartzite (plus that one bar of silver), got to work on a mysterious construction.  As it turned out, the object was just an earring.  I had it placed on a pedestal just outside the entrance to the temple area.  Even though it's nothing special in terms of value, it is the first artifact made in the fortress.


More migrants...and a lot of them!  We now have a much wider range of skill sets in our labor force: a planter, a lye maker, an armorsmith, a milker a beekeeper and a butcher.  I'm going to have to expand the housing accommodations...since our fort has over twenty dwarfs, I decided to build a tavern too.  The meeting hall just isn't big enough anymore.  The craftsdwarf is hard at work whittling wooden goblets, while the carpenter puts together chairs and the mason carves some stone tables.  We've stocked up quite a few barrels of apricot wine, perry and (of course) beer in an adjacent room.  As for someone to run the place...I decided on the Milker since there aren't any milk producing livestock around anyway.

Our fort now has its first baby boy, and it was the tavern keeper who gave birth.  She must have been pregnant before arriving here.  Less than a week after the little was born though he almost ended up being the first death.  A wolverine spotted him while he was "helping" his mother pick peaches.  The animal must have thought he would make an easy meal.  What followed was a frantic struggle between mother and wolverine while the militia leader rushed out from her newly completed training hall to help.  Incidentally, I gave our military commander the nickname "Blue Bell" owing to her blue pet peacock and the name of our community" (The Bells of Color).  Anyway, Blue Bell still didn't have a proper weapon at that time.  In fact, all she had was a wooden shield.  Apparently, that was all she needed though because she bashed that wolverine to a red paste before collapsing from exhaustion.  Thorin Oakenshield would have been proud.  Among the dwarfs there were surprisingly no injuries.  I should feel relief, but a disturbing thought crept into my head...what if that wasn't an ordinary adult wolverine, but rather the young offspring of something far larger?


More migrants have arrived, and after trading with some dwarf merchants, I've decided to add two more citizens to the militia: a hunter (armed with an elven bow) and the Beekeeper (who has some talent with an axe).  Hunting is unnecessary at the moment, what with all the fish we're catching, and the Beekeeper has been unlucky with the six hives we placed outside for him.  It's my understanding that wax and honey aren't especially lucrative industries at the moment anyhow so perhaps military service is for the best.

Humans have come to visit in the past (no doubt to sample the booze).  However, two in particular wish to join The Bells of Color.  I agreed despite some unspoken reservations on my part.  One of them is a bard with a beautiful singing voice and a knack for telling interesting stories.  The other is a soldier armed with a warhammer so big it would make a troll blacksmith blush.  Speaking of trolls, there's a bridge going over the stream now that would make a good home for one.  I also decorated it with a few horse statues in various poses.  It seems to have gotten the attention of some real horses.


Sometimes I really hate being right.  A giant wolverine attacked a fisher dwarf as he was returning to the fort with his catch of the day.  It bit his leg so he punched it in the head.  Then it bit his arm.  So he punched it in the head again with his uninjured arm.  That gave the beast pause.  Although the fisher dwarf was too badly hurt to make an escape his ferocious defense bought enough time for the militia to come to his rescue.  The Hunter put at least a half-dozen arrows in the giant wolverine before the Beekeeper closed in and dealt it several harsh blows with his axe.  Once again though it was Blue Bell who got the kill, this time, with a bronze sword.  Overall, everyone seemed more upset by the rain (which began falling) than the vicious animal attack.  Dwarfs....     

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

First Fortress

As you have probably noticed, I've been mentioning Dwarf Fortress a lot  in recent blog posts.  Well...the reason for all that is I have been trying to teach myself how to play the game.  I gave adventure mode a shot for awhile, but (after getting devoured by a pack of boogeymen) decided to move onto fortress mode.  After watching Kruggsmash's crash course introduction video, I was able to get off to a decent start.  So, with respect to Dwarf Fortress tradition, here's my story.

Year One 

According to the map selection screen, the place I have chosen is a savannah region; a temperate zone tucked up against the mountains where a stream winds between two hills.  I decided on the slope that was closer to the wagon and had our miner get to work.  The dormitory, farm, brewery, and meeting room all came together fairly quickly.  For fun, I had my seven dwarfs chase down a wild hare.  What ensued was a re-enactment of the famous Monty-Python-and-the-Holy-Grail white rabbit battle.  One dwarf, in particular, was bitten no less than six times.  Thankfully, none of the bites drew blood.


There's no shortage of quality or variety when it comes to lumber here: walnut, willow, apricot and ginkgo are everywhere.  There's also a particularly large peachtree growing out of a shoulder of land just above the hillside entrance.  Its branches extend nine z-levels above the trunk, and the roots go at least three z-levels down.  Just before the end of spring the banks of the stream became white.  For a second I thought is was snow (as absurd as that sounds), but as it turned out there's actually just a lot of cotton grass in the area.


We have a pair of fisher dwarfs who have had a lot of luck catching river trout.  Birds-of-prey and herds of horses frequently visit us.  One of the cats we brought along has become a legendary climber while the other has proven to be quite the mouser, catching several rats and even a frog.

While the carpenter's workshop has been cranking out tables, chairs, barrels, bins, beds and doors, the miner has been digging down through dirt and sand to the bedrock.  It's mostly quartzsite, but there are traces of cobaltite, sphalerite and cinnabar.  I had the stonemason get started in his new workshop.  I have a special request for him.  The merchants came, but sadly we didn't have anything to trade.  After the fact, I asked our resident craftsdwarf to make a couple dozen quartzsite figurines.  My intent is to trade them away the next time a caravan arrives.  The image I chose was of a dwarf contemplating his pickaxe in outstretched hands.  Incidentally, I saw our expedition leader walking around with one in hand before going to bed.  Maybe, for dwarfs, these things are the equivalent of plush toys?

Two new migrants arrived.  One of them has a pet blue peacock following her.  This new arrival has the occupation of "fish dissector," but her skill set mostly consists of combat abilities.  I put her in charge of the militia since we already have enough dwarfs fishing right now.  There aren't any good weapons lying around right now though so I hope trouble doesn't rear its ugly head...speaking of rearing, that special stone carving project has been finished by the mason.  It's a statue of a horse rearing triumphantly.  I had it placed by the trunk of the peachtree that overlooks the fortress entrance.

Fall has come and we have no shortage of fresh fruit.  The brewer has gotten to work making peach cider, which will please more than a few dwarfs.  I've heard more than a little grumbling about having to drink the same old grog all the time.  Down bellow our miner and mason have been working on more permanent accommodations.  So far we have nine smoothstone bedrooms complete with doors, cabinets, chests and beds (of course) in various states of completion.  I've also assigned our resident craftsdwarf to practice a bit of gem cutting using some semi-precious stones we found.


It's winter and the elves are here to trade.  They don't have much of value, but in the interests of diplomacy we offered some of our figurines in exchange for a bow and some arrows.  Spring can't come soon enough...

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Creature Creativity

Despite the tendency for fantasy media to look to the past for inspiration, the nature of fantasy bestiary has evolved over the years.  There's a big difference between kobolds in Dungeons and Dragons versus the original fairytale ones.  Another good example would be Santa Claus' elves as opposed to J.R.R. Tolkien's elves.  In fact, Gary Gygax (co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons) came up with several of the IPs more iconic monsters based on some cheap plastic figurines he bought.  Three of the most notable examples are owlbears, rust monsters and bullets.  In fantasy video games too, it's possible to see original creations.

The first Bard's Tale (released way back in 1985) is one of the earliest examples I can recall with regards to seeing an entirely new kind of fantasy creature.  For the most part, the game simply uses bog-standard fantasy monsters.  However, there is one standout exception, the ghostly "lurkers"/"maze dwellers."  Of course, the original Legend of Zelda came out for the NES the following year...and that game introduced a whole slew of new creatures ranging from Moblins to Octoroks.

More recently, with Witcher franchise has introduced some new kinds of beasts into the fantasy lexicon.  There are the arachas, which appear to be the result of combining a flowering plant with a giant hermit crab.  Another example is the nekkers, a race of burrowing humanoids that feel like a compromise between a ghoul and a goblin (not to be confused with the video games Ghosts and Goblins or Ghouls and Ghosts.  One other standout monster in Witcher II is the draug.  At first, I thought this was what would happen if Treebeard the ent decided to take up a great sword and set himself aflame.  In actuality, though, it's a kind of malevolent spirit that appears on old battlefields in the form of a golem made of shields, armor and weapons....that also happen to be on fire.

Possibly the longest list of original fantasy bestiary (in a game trying to emulate a high fantasy setting) is Dwarf Fortress.  I think this is in large part due to the game not needing 3D models or animation for its creatures.  The amount of variety is also impressive, ranging from the goofy and harmless (flesh balls and floating guts) to nightmare inducing (green devourers and pond grabbers).  Unlike more recent editions of the Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons, Dwarf Fortress isn't afraid to have creatures that are more than just something that's out to ruin your day.  A wide variety of real-world animals are in the game, as well as not-so-real-world anthropomorphic versions of most in-game animals.  Some are not especially interesting, such as osprey men and rat men.  One I do rather like though is the utterly worthless slug man.  Basically, it's a child-sized slug with a pair of arms and hands which it uses to drag itself across the ground.  Even so, its slow.  It doesn't fight well, and can't be butchered for anything of use.  The slug man is just some random creature one might happen upon in the shade by a riverbank...perhaps munching on some local vegetation...

Aberrations aside, above ground flora is about what you would expect (not counting the specially designated evil zones).  Underground, on the other hand, has an entire original ecosystem built on caverns filled with forests of oversized mushrooms and fungi.  Fantastical subterranean creatures exist as well.  There is a species of primate (called drunians), large herbivores (called draltha) and even molmarians (basically a naked mole rat configured like a centaur).  Some creature are not hostile, but can cause problems.  Crundles and golaks often frighten dwarfs because of horns and claws, in the case of the former, or big tusks in the case of the latter.  Jabbers are giant dodo birds that can be domesticated and even taught how to fight.  The same is true for the somewhat misnamed beak dogs (in truth they look like Final Fantasy chocobos with parrot coloration).  Werebeasts are another feature of Dwarf Fortress.  It is possible to come across a generic lycanthrope, but just as likely to encounter something more exotic like a werehorse or weretapier.

One last tidbit I wanted to mention is...well...what the website TV Tropes likes to call "our dragons are different."  Contrary to the norm, dragons in Dwarf Fortress can't fly (some do have vestigial wings though...).  Carp started off a bit counter to expectation, too, in that they were incredibly strong and aggressive - able to rip the arm of an unsuspecting fisherdwarf in one go.  Whether this was a coding error or a joke is hard to say (perhaps the former became the latter?).  Regardless, more recent version of the game have humbled the mighty carp by turning it back into something that resembles the real thing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Insane Depth

Dwarf Fortress was once described to me as a game from a divergent timeline, one wherein video game development took a strange turn around the year 1980.  Instead of games slowly getting better and better graphics, the emphasis was placed entirely on under-the-hood environmental simulations, physics calculations and algorithmic generation.  In this alternate universe everyone is content with ASCII graphics because anything more advanced would draw processing power away from what really matters - emergent storytelling.

The Chronicle of Syrupleaf was the first Dwarf Fortress story I ever read.  At the time, I though the game was an interesting little curiosity.  However, I didn't dwell on it.  Later, I read Oilfurnace and it was only then that I began to see the potential of the game to inspire people to tell stories.  More recently, there have been epic sagas such as Honeystoker and Monster Slayer told with narration and artwork via youtube.  It's impressive stuff that can suck you in over time.  Almost paradoxically, the simple presentation invites your imagination to create vivid images that surpass anything that could be made from polygons and 3D animation.

I can remember the first time I played Dwarf Fortress.  nearly a decade ago, I started the game up in Adventure Mode and, not knowing the ins and outs yet, proceeded to explore a wilderness area at night without properly specing out my character.  Even though the visuals were quite crude, the game does a good job of conveying a mood.  Trees blocked my line-of-sight as I made my way up a forest-covered hillside.  Soon, I was discovered by a pack of wolves which (sensing an easy meal) proceeded to attack me.  A brief melee ensued and after being injured I attempted to flee, leaving a trail of blood behind me.  Predictably, the wolves finished me off not long after.  Welcome to Dwarf Fortress!  This game has one of the most brutal difficulty curves in video gaming history.  As fans of the game are wont to say though, "losing is fun!"

I think I'm going to give the game another proper shot in Fortress Mode.  It's an intimidating prospect since (by the developer's own admission) the UI is terrible and there's no in-game tutorial to speak of.  It appears these hurdles will be mitigated when the eventual Steam version of the game is released.  Even so, I'm kind of curious to try the original out so I can accurately compare it to new version when it eventually becomes available. 

   

Monday, September 9, 2019

In Control

It seems that Remedy Entertainment's latest game, entitled Control, is a surprise hit.  I haven't dug into it much yet, mostly because I'm waiting for an optimization patch so I can play it at a respectable framerate on my PS4.  Even so, what I have experienced reminds me a lot of the SCP Foundation.

In case you haven't heard of it, the SCP Foundation is a creative/collaborative writing website dedicated to highlighting stories about the weird, terrifying, and darkly humorous.  The framing device is a shadowy government agency (Secure-Contain-Protect) that has amassed a huge collection of artifacts and entities with supernatural properties.  True to the Foundation's namesake, their job is to keep paranormal anomalies out of the mundane world we all inhabit.  If you are familiar with the "Men in Black" film franchise, the "XCOM" video game IP, the "X-Files" TV series, or the tabletop RPG "Delta Green" then you probably already have a good grasp of what SCP is all about.

At the the time this blogpost is going up, there are around 2,000 entries in the SCP database.  Each follows an intentionally dry/clinical format reminiscent of declassified government documents...although some sections retain the [redacted] label in parts for stylistic purposes.  My tastes tend to lean toward the lovecraftian stuff with some of my favorite entries being the following:

SCP-30 "Homunculus"
SCP-55 "Unknown"
SCP-79 "Old A.I."
SCP-106 "Old Man"
SCP-2406 "Colossus"

If you have played Control and are familiar with SCP, then the similarities between it and the FBC (Federal Bureau of Control) should be obvious.  It's nice to see an attempt to adapt the themes of SCP into a video game, but it's also worth mentioning that there already are several free fan-made games such as SCP - Containment Breach and SCP: Secret Laboratory as well as a demake of the former.  The first two titles are played from the first-person perspective with gameplay similar to Outlast or Slender: The Arrival.  The demake is pretty similar with the main caveat being it is a 2D sprite based side-scroller.  They are neat games, but only really have niche-appeal.

One other piece of media that Control draws a lot of inspiration from is the bizarre horror novel "House of Leaves."  I must confess, I have yet to read the book.  I did get the chance to thumb through a friend's copy a long time ago and was surprised by the formatting.  Certain pages had text spiraling like a vortex, or reversed lettering so that it was only legible in a mirror.  In other places the text was overlapping, scattered piecemeal across the page, or even arranged in little boxes.  It was all very meta, and the crux of the story is about a house that has interior dimensions larger than the outside...much like the "Oldest House" in Control.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

KSP2

The orientation of Duna in this picture is all wrong
It should be shaded vertically, not horizontally
Some new titles were announced at Gamescom 2019, but the only one that stood out to me was Kerbal Space Program 2.  It's great that this spaceflight-sim is finally getting a sequel (even if it isn't the original design team that is working on the game).  Based on the limited information that is currently available it sounds like this will be truly sequential in that it will be adding new technological advancements, as well as expanding the scope to include interstellar exploration.  However, there are a few worrying inaccuracies in the trailer...and also some aspects of the game that remain unaddressed despite being vital components of the experience.  Let's start with the good stuff.

The thing that I think everyone will notice right off the bat is all the graphical enhancements made to the rendering engine.  I'm not talking about the trailer.  That is entirely made up of pre-rendered cutscenes.  Rather, what I'm talking about is the short clips that we've seen thus far of gameplay.  Surprisingly,  KSP2 is using Unity once again.  Considering the scale of the game though I wonder if the developers had to write a bunch of custom code in order to make the time and distance scales that the game deals in manageable.  Regardless, it's nice to see all the classic parts making a comeback, along with old Kerbonaut favorites like Bob and Valentine.  As for new things...wow...as far as I can tell there are some really impressive pieces of hardware such as the Project Orion and Daedalus spacecrafts, as well as a VASIMR drive.  It's a bit more sci-fi than the original game, but I like it because it feels like a natural evolution for KSP.  Now for the more troubling stuff.

Good on the developers for showing the rocket buring retrograde here
But I don't think a ringed world and moon could be that close  
Scott Manley very astutely pointed out a few scientific inaccuracies which I have relayed in the picture captions attached to this blogpost.  They aren't deal breakers, and for all I know they might have been done intentionally in order to create more spectacular visuals.  Either way though, I hope they are fixed by the time the game launches.  Those matters aside, the real make-or-break feature here is the way the development team decides to tackle research and missions.  Back when the original KSP was still in early access Squad (the original developers) introduced a "career mode" which utilized three currencies called science, funds and reputation.  It was a neat idea on paper, but in practice proved to be both boring and unrealistic (with regards to how space agencies actually operate).  When you get down to it all human endeavors involving outer space amount to three things:

  • Advancement of Scientific Understanding
  • Achievements in Human Spaceflight
  • Improving Infrastructure for Profit

Any human designed mission is going to be one, two or all three of these things.  So, I don't see why it needs to be any different for Kerbals.  That might sound bland, but if done correctly I think it might be possible to provide players with a dynamic mission tree that fosters a compelling single-player campaign.  Whatever they end up doing though it shouldn't be reduced to the level of "get points so you can get more points."  If I wanted that kind of experience I would play a cookie clicker instead. Obviously, sandbox mode can still be an option in addition to being an excellent stepping stone into multiplayer (a feature already announced for KSP2).  I just hope sandbox mode isn't the only way to play the game at launch.  For a 60 dollar retail product, I expect there to be a bit more to this one the the original.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Thursday, August 22, 2019

All Because of an Axe

Respawn Entertainment (makers of Titanfall) released a game a little while back called Apex Legends.  It's one of those Free-to-play multiplayer titles capitalizing on the battle royale craze that is sweeping the online shooter market.  By most accounts it's a good example of the sub-genre, but there has been one big catch; the parent company of Respawn is none other than Electronic Arts.

Yup...EA, the video game publishing company that has become the embodiment of bad business practices is pulling the strings.  So, unsurprisingly after reviews had come out praising the game, the dev team decided to introduce an "event" involving pricey cosmetic DLC sold via loot boxes.  Introducing "surprise mechanics" in video games still seems to be EA's modus operandi despite all the controversy and backlash surrounding this particular monetization scheme.  Predictably, there has been a lot of community friction recently.  To say things have become ugly would be an understatement, I think.  What caught me off guard though was the development team's reaction.  After trying the "we're sorry (but not really)" approach certain employees at Respawn decided to vent their wrath on customers.  Basically, the counterattack headed by the community manager and project leader has been spearheaded by claims that the player base is being overly hostile and abusive.

It's accurate to a degree, but doesn't address the fundamental issue - exploitative  monetization practices.  Complaining about socially inept basement-dwellers being mean on twitter or reddit feels suspiciously like an attempt to deflect criticism and draw the discussion away from what started the problem to begin with.  It's also worth mentioning that some of these toxic elements are teenagers who are irate because they are being psychologically manipulated.  Are these kids being articulate when it comes to expressing frustration with being treated like idiot cash-cows?  In many cases certainly not, but in their defense they're not adults.  On the other hand, I'm pretty sure everyone working at Respawn and EA is in their 20s and 30s (if not older).  Yet, some these people who hold positions of power in a multimillion dollar corporation sink to the level of irate children when called out on their scummy behavior.  It's a sad state in that the opportunity for a grown-up conversation has been lost because of all the temper tantrums.  Sign of the times, I guess...

Of course Vince Zampella (the president of Respawn) eventually did step in and attempted to clear the air with an apology message...which failed to address the fundamental issue of quasi-gambling in-game microtransactions in any way shape or form.  Instead, the discorse is entirely framed around who's the victim here - gamers or game creators.  The truth is both are...at the hands of triple-AAA publishers like EA. 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

It Should Have Been A (Video) Game

Normally when I do one of these, I call out films that I think would have been better as games.  This time though I want to focus on a tabletop RPG, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.  Unlike the 3rd or 5th editions of the game, this particular take on Dungeons and Dragons placed a huge emphasis on miniatures and grid-based battlefields.  It wasn't a bad game, but it didn't feel like it had much in common with all the other versions of Dungeons and Dragons that came before or after.  It was also really heavy on rules with a lot of exceptions baked into the design.  In turn, this placed a major burden on the players and the Dungeon Master to memorize a bunch of "powers" -  special rules for all sorts of modifiers and effects that could be going on at any given time.  Here's the thing though...if you're going to go that route, why not make it into a turn-based tactical RPG video game instead?

The reality is 4th edition was designed to capitalize on the popularity of World of Warcraft.  Even a lot of termanology, "agro-drawing Tanks," "high-DPS Strikers," and "nerf/buff Controllers" became a regular component of conversations about the game.  Unlike MMORPGs though, 4th Edition didn't have an integrated computer program to deal with the bookkeeping.  Thus, players tended to suffer from the dreaded "analysis paralysis" that happens when there are too many details that have to be considered at any given time.  Combat could stretch out into multi-hour battles.  Hit point bloat didn't help in this respect either.  Particularly, certain monster sub-classes (usually referred to as "brutes") were tedious-to-fight punching bags...oh and leveling up required a lot of time and energy to figure out as well.

Now, I get that rolling dice is a big appeal of tabletop gaming. However, I think there is a nice compromise in the form of what Tharsis did.  It's not the same as rolling actual dice, but there's a nice tactile quality to Tharsis that definitely feels more enjoyable to engage with than say the bare-bones RNG program used in Dicey Dungeons.  Gathering together a couple of friends in the same physical space is a tricky proposition these days, but having a online multiplayer component could solve that problem.  Alternatively, it's pretty hard to play Dungeons and Dragons by yourself, but a video game version of it could have a solo campaign in the same vein as Final Fantasy: Tactics, Vandal Hearts, or Shining Force.  Heck, if you really want to go all out make a Dungeon Master construction set complete with interlocking tile sets, encounter builders, treasure tables, etc.  A tutorial could go a long way toward teaching newcomers the ropes.  Dungeons and Dragons is not an easy game to learn, especially when you're not familiar with tabletop RPGs...as a video game though, it could have been a much more approachable product.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Curmudgeon Creep

As I grow older, I find myself increasingly annoyed by little inconsistencies in video games with respect to the IPs they are adapted from.  Maybe I'm being grumpy or maybe I'm just overly picky, but I'll try to get at the heart of what's bugging me by talking about three different properties.

Acid for Blood
Alien, as a franchise, has always made a big deal out of their xenomorphs bleeding highly corrosive molecular acid.  It was shown that facehuggers have this biological defense in the original film, while the second confirmed that the queen and adult forms also possess this trait.  It has never been demonstrated in any film that the same is true for chestbursters, but I imagine it would be best to assume so.  Despite all this, video game adaptations of the IP seem to largely ignore what is a defining aspect of these creatures.  Only a small number of the games in this franchise account for splash damage when dispatching xenomorphs at close range.  As I recall, Aliens vs. Predator 2 (the game, not the movie) is the only title that visually shows the effects of acid blood by having little hissing clouds of vapor rise from the corpses of slain xenomorphs.  In truth the most accurate approach would be to have dead aliens sink into holes of their own creation.  More dramatically, acid eating through the flooring of a spaceship is almost guaranteed to be a disaster - electronics, plumbing and ventilation damage leading to fire, flooding, decompression, etc.  Yet, pretty much all Alien-themed games have the player running around blasting xenomorphs without any of these consequences.

Sabers of Light
Star Wars has demonstrated time and again that the only thing a lightsaber can't cut through is an energy field.  Sometimes it's like a hot knife through butter and other times more like a chainsaw through oak, but the fact remains; if it is matter then energy swords can slice it.  When it comes to video games though it seems like beating enemies (particularly bosses) repeatedly over the head with a lightsaber is the only way to get results.  It's almost as if these iconic weapons of the Jedi and Sith are only slightly more lethal than a wiffle bat.  Of course the reason for this is Star Wars games being rated "T" for "Teen" and not "M" for "disMeMberMent"...(Rated "MMM"?).  As for inanimate objects, it's much like the acid blood problem in that game devs really don't want to tackle the the challenge of poliginal deformation.

Command and Control
While not quite in the same league as the previous two problems, RTS titles (especially ones taking place in a pre-modern setting) almost always handwave how giving/receiving orders is accomplished.  Historically speaking, battles fought up until the later half of the 20th century were plagued by miscommunication or outright failed communication.  Obviously, pre-planning was important as well as delegating responsibilities to subordinates.  Nevertheless, pretty much every RTS gives players complete and instantaneous control over every unit on the battlefield.  To their credit, the makers of the Total War franchise do include the option to toggle on a limited area-of-control sphere centered around the field commander unit.  While I appreciate the gesture, in classic total war fashion it doesn't do much to address the more fundamental problem of dimwitted A.I.

Now, I'm sure if any developer were to read this blogpost they would dismiss my complaints with a flippant comment along the lines of "it wouldn't be fun."  Maybe...maybe not.  However, video games are an interactive medium and far too often developers treat their game worlds more like an amusement park or museum rather than sandboxes and a toolkit.  "Look, but don't touch," feels like a guiding principle of environmental design "because anything else would be too much work."  It's a shame, because games like Mario and Minecraft are what has proven to be successful...not FMV rail-shooters like Sewer Shark.  We have the technology.  We have the hardware.  Let's make the next generation of gaming more than just the same thing, but with 4K resolution at 60fps.       

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Definition of Insanity

The second post I ever made on this blog was way back in April, 2009.  The topic was about "OnLive".  Essentially, It was a cloud gaming service in which people could purchase games and play them on a variety of streaming devices.  It launched in June 2010, but failed to gain much traction and by August 2012 all of the employees had been laid off.  It was bought out for a tiny fraction of its previously estimated value.  Sony then resurrected the service in March of 2014, only to shutdown OnLive for good in April 2015.

Sound suspiciously familiar?  Google Stadia is basically the same thing.  Actually it's worse from a consumer standpoint in that there's a monthly subscription fee on top of having to buy games.  All the same technical problems remain; bandwidth shortages, data caps, infrastructural limitations...the list goes on and on.  Then, there's the issue of less customer freedom.  People using Stadia (much like OnLive) can't borrow, lend or trade games.  They can't resell games either.  If the service ends then say goodbye to all those games you bought.  Yes, Google is a big company, but have you taken a look at a website called "Google Graveyard"?  There are over a hundred-and-seventy projects that the company has abandoned or shutdown over the years (no reason why Stadia couldn't become one of them).

I've also been seeing some odd comparisons to streaming movies or music (from the director of the project no less).  First off, neither of those forms of media are interactive.  Second, the amount of time invested in watching a movie or listening to a song is typically orders of magnitude less than the time spent playing a single video game.  Even small studio indie game experiences are almost always longer than big Hollywood blockbusters.  Aside from some techno and classical music, songs typically don't go on for more than a few minutes.  If anything the closest media relative of video games are books...possibly choose-your-own-adventure books.  Guess what?  There aren't any streaming services for novels.  Sure, Amazon has their E-book reader and distribution system, but if you buy a digital book from them and download it to your Kindle (or whatever device) it's yours as much as buying and downloading a game from GoG is.

Perhaps the best question to ask is, "who's this service for?"  Hardcore gamers aren't going to go for it.  They want their own personal software library and some tricked out piece of hardware to run anything in it...the possibility of input lag alone will be enough to turn most of them off right away.  Casual gamers aren't going to go for it either...the service is too expensive.  Plus, the only place you're going to get the wireless bandwidth you'll need is via a 5G network...but here's the catch - transmitters for 5G have a really short range meaning that it's really only going to be available in the downtown parts of big cities.  If you live in the suburbs or (heavens forbid) the countryside then no Google Stadia for you.  Don't worry though I suspect it will go the direction of OnLive in very short order...a pity that Google doesn't seem to realize how ludicrous the idea of a cloud gaming service was and still is.