Blizzard’s Diablo series offered us a certain kind of gaming experience. In many heroic adventures the player-characters are often supposed to overcome large numbers of enemies. Diablo pitted the player against endless hordes of enemies. It wasn’t much for the roleplayer who liked to make decisions, or the players who love stories and dialogue. It wasn’t for the puzzle enthusiasts. It was all about people who like random numbers and mowing down hordes of zombies, or killer apes, or zombie killer apes, or whatever the local monsters are like. It was a hack-and-slash experience.
So a few weeks ago, I heard about a game called Path of Exile from one of my corporation mates in EVE. I was told it was basically Diablo, but free to play (the good kind of free to play, with micro transactions that are cosmetic rather than pay-to-win). So I decided to give it a shot, and quickly got hooked on that old familiar gameplay of cutting down monsters and collecting loot. But I quickly found out what the difference is between the old Diablo I enjoyed so much and the new Path of Exile: it was prepared to give me exactly what I want. Jewels, rather than being consumed, could pop in and out of sockets where in Diablo once you affix one of these bonus-granting adornments, it’s permanent. Every item could be traded for every other item, and each randomly generated magic item could be re-rolled. This meant that with enough time and determination, one could assemble a hero’s kit that is almost exactly to the player’s liking whereas the Diablo player would need not only time and effort but also luck to ensure that the rare items they find are the ones they want.
All of the skills gained from level up were passive. I find that in any game when I have the choice between passive and active skills I always tend towards picking the passive skills that synergize with each other because I have a fear of being empty. I am, as a rule, willing to trade flashy displays of power for being able to do something all day long. That is how I build characters whenever possible, but PoE is giving it to me in vast quantities. Behold the skill tree:
Yep, PoE is the game EVE Online players play when they decide the EVE skill tree is not vast enough. All passive, all can be made to synergize with the active skills I already have. I don’t think I have ever seen my mana globe deplete any more than a tiny tick. I am at a relatively low level still, yet I seem to have an unfettered ability to make everything the way I wish it to be. It seems like I am being given everything I want, but somehow it feels like it’s almost too much choice and not enough challenge. Unless I am just looking for something mindless to do, I can’t help but feel like this game doesn’t have a risk/reward balance that makes it great as a game. It’s more like an interactive Dawn of the Dead. Which, if that is what you are looking for, great, but I feel like the best games I have played are capable of saying “no” to my desires every once in a while. But, if I have hardly thirty minutes to play something, I am more likely to go for some over-the-top zombie mowing than I am looking for fleets, taking just one more turn in a game of Civilization, or getting on to planning the tabletop adventures I wish I was running. But, all in good time. I hope for this fall to be good to me in terms of having more tabletop to write about.
You know the guy. He quotes Voltaire and insists that anything and everything is up for debate in a truly free society. He loves posting in comment sections and social media and insists that it’s debate time, any time, or else you’ve conceded that he’s right. He’s the guy that Dr. Nerdlove is talking about in this Twitter thread. What that guy is really doing, though, is trying to lure you into a game not worth playing. One where gish galloping is not only a valid tactic, but almost essential to winning. Most of the time I see it as a game better not played than won, but sometimes I will engage if I am feeling up to it (which is not required at all times) and if I am it’s usually aimed at the silent reader rather than trying to convince the self-righteous logic-warrior that he’s wrong. He’s the kind of guy who will claim that white supremacy can be defeated by calmly and rationally outlining the logical reasons why it’s wrong. It never ends that way, ever.
If we are to support the sort of society that values human life of all types we must stop consenting to this game and his rules. I refuse to debate those who would engage in apologetics for the torch-wielding mobs on their own terms. But as someone who could be described as a “debate geek” how can I say this? Well, there are some things worth debating and there are some things that must not ever be in order to maintain a society where liberty even has a chance to flourish. That white supremacy must be rejected is, as far as I am concerned, not up for debate. How best to respond to the troubling fact that they feel it’s no longer necessary to remain in the closet is up for debate, as are the landmarks on our cultural landscape that inform what kind of people we are. That’s why I go on about video games, tabletop, and fiction on this blog in the way I do: it all adds up to what kind of society we live in.
That’s why today I am going to ask if Ready Player One a good book and a film to look forward to? That’s up for debate, too, and I don’t think it’s purely trivial. There is a conversation to be had about a book that’s getting an adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg which is, essentially, white guy nostalgia. Not that it isn’t important to put out the big fires, but understanding the cultural landscape we inhabit will help us see fire hazards.
If you search the internet for reactions to Ready Player One you will find mostly positive coverage, some effusive praise that I think reaches a fair bit too far (the trailer calls it a “holy grail of pop culture”), and a small section of people who think it’s cool to cast me as one of those torch-wielding white supremacists if I am looking forward to the film in any way. And I am, a little bit. I have previously described the book as a cool idea wrapped in a plot that’s a satisfactory vehicle but not especially inspiring or original. It’s not high on my priority list, but there is a good chance that I will give the movie a watch. Alex Nichols offers a more nuanced critique that I agree with on many points, except that I don’t think that stroking white nerd nostalgia is what makes it bad. What in my mind separates the book as it is from a great book is that it does its thing so uncritically. If you have read the book, you eventually come to see that Halliday’s was a deeply troubled mind and that for all of its technical and artistic brilliance, OASIS is a deeply problematic system. I don’t think that the narrative would suddenly disintegrate if the over-narrative was less self-indulgent than the game inside. Some parts of Ready Player One are indeed the purplest fan service that has received attention outside fan fiction sites, but a lot of it read better to me because I’m the direct target audience. But it did leave me wanting in terms of looking at how the entire premise of the egg hunt was in fact a big red flag pointing to some very ugly things about the OASIS. When I mentioned to my wife that I was going to mention the book in today’s post she recommended that I look up the Thug Notes review. I thought, oh good, here’s a guy who us going to take this book to task for its biases. But he doesn’t, except in a single comment about the conspicuous lack of Run DMC. I don’t think that the narrative would have been better with meticulously researched examples of stuff that was popular outside of white suburban nerd-dom stuffed into OASIS, but it would have been better if the characters in the overworld could see how narrow and self-indulgent a lot of what’s inside is, even as they obtain an education that they could not otherwise get in the dystopian “real world.” I reject outright any implication that it’s the Turner Diaries but with video game references, but I must also be very critical of the fact that highly concentrated white guy nostalgia is being cast as the holy grail. I think because of the attention that’s building, it’s worth debating.
So yeah, think that I ought to have sympathy for the Nazi march? Go away. Think that Ready Player One is either unironically good or the actual worst thing in the world? Debate me.
Last episode, I said I would spend some time talking about the special place games like Sleeping Dogs occupied. In short, I meant to spend some time talking about games that I did not or could not play due to technical limitations. However, I then got caught up in my enjoyment of Sleeping Dogs, and never got around to talking about those kinds of games in the blog.
I’ve only spent three hours in in Supreme Commander 2. I distinctly remember the game freezing up or closing without warning multiple times as I was playing. Unlike Sleeping Dogs, I never came back to Supreme Commander 2. Using Steam’s categories system, I banished Supreme Commander 2 to a folder called “Doesn’t Work”. My computer has been upgraded since then, but I never came back to SC2. At least, until now.
Supreme Commander 2 is a real time strategy game, or RTS. Unlike some other strategy games, where players get turns to carefully plan out each individual action, RTS games all happen in real time. Everyone is free to move, build, or attack whenever they like. This results, in most RTS games I’ve played, to a mad dash to gather resources, improve your defenses, and attack the enemies before they have a chance to do the same to you. Unlike Total War: Shogun, you won’t get a serene chance to review your income and resources at your leisure. You are locked into the micromanagement of resource gathering, unit and building construction, researching new units and abilities, and combat on any number of different fronts.
SC2 takes place in the far future, in a universe where humanity has split into three different factions. At the beginning of the game the factions are held together, barely, by a tenuous coalition. Because the game needs a story, or the combat needs a purpose, or any number of other reasons, the coalition immediately collapses and the factions are thrown into conflict with one another.
The three factions all have slightly different styles of gameplay and aesthetics. The United Earth Federation (UEF) is your standard militarized human force of the far future They favour hard hitting attacks from a distance, with lots of artillery and naval gunning. The Cybrans are technologically enhanced humans, featuring cyborgs and genetic augmentations. Their units are cheap, spidery robots. The Illuminate are a group of humans who made contact with an alien species, adopting their philosophy, culture, and technology. Most of their land units hover, leading to a quick, surprising army.
Massive Armoured Command Units (ACUs) provide the backbone of your military. They are slow, but tough as nails. They are equipped with devastating weaponry, and can be upgraded to make them even more fearsome. Furthermore, they are your main construction unit in the game. Despite the efforts developers have gone to to make each army feel distinct, gameplay boils down to the same pattern of gather-build-destroy-repeat. The addition of unique experimental units adds some excitement to the mix, but at the end of the day it’s just another unit, albeit a massive one.
Part of me wonders what a RTS without any combat component might look like. A game that used the same systems for building your base or civilization, a game that required the same careful management of workforces and resources, a game without the looming threat of attack. A game where the development of your world was the goal, as opposed to a step in the process of building your armies. I think I might like that kind of game sometimes.
In any case, Supreme Commander 2 is fundamentally not that game.
However, the game is undeniably fun. The designers knew they weren’t designing a military simulation game, so they decided to have some fun with. The Illuminate armies can build flying saucers. The UEF gets an experimental tank called the Fatboy, which is, essentially, a massive artillery platform supported by 4 smaller tanks. The Cybrans get Cybranasaurus Rex, which is described in game as an experimental lizardbot. The game is played on an exaggerated scale; you can zoom in so close you can practically see the nuts and bolts on your tanks, or zoom out so far all you can see the the symbols that represent them.
A phrase I’ve used before in this series is nothing revolutionary. Supreme Commander 2 fits that description nicely. The story is pretty standard science fiction fare, the gameplay is like that of any other RTS, and all in all, there’s not a lot to say about the game itself. Instead, I’ll talk about what the game represents in the place of my games library.
The “Doesn’t Work” folder was not a huge folder. There were, at most, a dozen games in there. Some of these games wouldn’t launch because of hardware issues. Some of the would run slowly, to the point of being too annoying to play for leisure. Some, like Supreme Commander 2, had bugs that would cause the game to close without warning. Hell, a couple times during this playthrough, the game would still randomly minimize for no reason whatsoever. The point is, the “Doesn’t Work” folder was useful for sorting my Steam library into more manageable categories. Some of these games work much better now, like Sleeping Dogs and Supreme Commander 2. Some still don’t work 100% correctly. Some I won’t find out about until I get to them in Full Steam Ahead.
Let’s consider this in a different perspective though. I own 130 or so games, and in order to keep the numbers simple, we’ll say that I had 10 games in the “Doesn’t Work” category. Imagine if every time you bought a dozen eggs, chances are that one of them, for some reason or another, was completely unusable. That’d suck. Or, to keep things in the context of games, imagine you are a golfer, with a bag of thirteen clubs. Some of the clubs are better than others, some are used in different situations, but on of those thirteen is non-functional.
In real life, you can go through the egg cartons in the store, finding one with perfect eggs. In golf, you can pick and choose clubs that best suit your style of play (I know some golfers would argue that none of the clubs in their bag work properly, but that’s just golf humour). If a club doesn’t work, you can return it to the store, or sell it yourself, or give it to a friend or charity.
For a long time, Steam games, once bought, could not be refunded. or returned. If you upgraded your computer accordingly, maybe you could play the games, or you could hope for a patch to make them playable, but you couldn’t get your money back. So far, I’ve been lucky. The two games from the “Doesn’t Work” category I’ve encountered in Full Steam Ahead so far have ended up playable. Still, it doesn’t feel great to have a game that is unplayable due to technical limitations.