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Month: September 2017

Things I Will Be Doing In October 2017

  1. Raising money for Extra Life. I have played for my local hospital in past years, but seeing what’s going in Puerto Rico lately, it seems like they can use all the help they can get. So please, if you have the means, put something up on that page.
  2. Closer to home, I have registered for Intrigue Con in two weeks, and will once again provide highlights from the games I play there. Read my post about Intrigue Con 2016 here.
  3. Continuing to run Alastair’s great series of posts about delving the dungeon of his Steam inventory, aptly named Full Steam Ahead. The next one will be about Wargame – European Escalation.
  4. Next week’s post is going to be about in-game money: is it something we should consider to be worthless because it (usually) can’t buy physical goods? Do we “earn” it? How does it make or break the game?

Full Steam Ahead – Jade Empire: Part 2

In the last blog post, I talked about how much I enjoyed the game, and then I launched into a play-by-play breakdown of my latest new game in Jade Empire. I covered what I had been doing in my various log ins, hoping to give you a sense of the depth and wonder of this game. If I fail to get that sense of awe across, it’s certainly not because the game is lacking in anyway. It’s just hard to capture what makes this game so great in short segments. I’m going to to keep playing, and I’m going to try to finish the game. However, this time, I want to write less about what I’m doing, and more about what I’m feeling.

Chai Ka is the feathered lion. Ya Zhen, the Toad, is his evil counterpart in the battle for Wild Flower’s life.

The supporting cast for this game is utterly fantastic. I know I briefly touched on Sagacious Zu and Wild Flower in the last post. That was briefly after we met Black Whirlwind, a gigantic, violent mercenary. What he lacks in the depth of character, he makes up for with ridiculously exaggerated stories about his own fighting prowess and drunken escapades. You also meet Mad Kang, an inventor of the wondrous flyers that trace the clouds above the Jade Empire. He soon replaces your broken mosquito fighter for a beautiful prototype called the Marvelous Dragonfly. You meet Sky, a roguish scoundrel whose jokes and unabashed flirting hide a traumatic past. You meet Henpecked Hou, a former champion of the arena turned bun-maker by an overbearing wife. You meet Silk Fox, a femme-fatale who is, in truth, the disguised Princess Lian, daughter of the Emperor. She is convinced that her father is unaware, or is being manipulated by his advisors, but she cannot imagine his guilt. You meet Zin Bu, the Magical Abacus, a member of the Celestial Bureaucracy (A fictionalized version of China’s traditional pantheon) who is charged with tabulating all the damage the player and their party caused during the game.

Bioware’s games, such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age frequently use this play style. One main player character, supported by an ever growing group of followers, supporters, and compatriots. Jade Empire is no different in this respect, but it’s hard to remember the last time I was so engaged in the stories of the supporting NPCs. Even minor quest givers have interesting stories, breathing life and complexity into the Jade Empire. The game does an amazing job of, in one moment, making feel as though I am the most important person in the world, that the whim of destiny has left the fate of the Empire on my shoulders. In another moment, I am reminded that I am but one person in a massive world.

Sonder is a term which describes the moment of realization that everyone around you lives a life as complex and intricate as yours. I’m sure that some of this blog’s readers have experienced sonder, or had moments approaching sonder. It is a profound experience, at once connecting you to the world and people around you, and simultaneously defining the vast chasms of understanding and empathy between us.

Never, in years of gaming, has a game been the source of sonder for me, until Jade Empire.

After years of fighting his conditioning as a Lotus Assassin, Zu returns to their headquarters to stand by you.

The game controls very well. My father is a golf enthusiast, and when asked to identify what he likes about golf, he usually talks about the interplay between rules and technique. For example, everyone knows, theoretically, how to win golf: complete the course with the fewest possible shots. However, it requires immense skill to actually place the golf ball, a small, light, easily misplaced sphere, hundreds of yards away, using nothing but an over-glorified stick. The combat in this game feels the same way: You know you have to beat an enemy into submission, but can you use you the skills available to you to make it happen?

Jade Empire provides a variety of different fighting styles, from hard hitting martial styles, to the valuable supporting styles, to powerful magical projectile styles, to flashy but unbalanced weapon styles. There are also the impressive transformation styles, which allow a player to become a powerful demon, or a golem, or even a ghost. However these magical forms come at a cost. You cannot heal while you are transformed, the force of the transformation constantly drains magical power, and your ability to dodge is greatly limited. New styles are constantly unlocked and discovered throughout the game. Furthermore, these fighting styles are augmented by magical gems and passive techniques scattered throughout the game.

If done improperly, this massive amount of skills could be overwhelming. However, you collect these skills as the game progresses, meaning that while there’s always something new to try, you will usually have some reliable techniques to fall back on. There are some games that give you enough skills to do exactly what you want, whenever you want.; Graham wrote about this a few weeks back. There are some other games which give you a multitude of options, but only a few strict paths actually give you victory.

Jade Empire sits perfectly in the sweet spot for me. While I tended to fall back on a combination of Legendary Strike and Spirit Thief, I would occasionally supplement it with the petrifying effects of the Stone Immortal, leaving the Horse Demon transformation style for only the toughest enemies. This isn’t to say that the versatility of the game made combat easy; combat was brutal, punishing mistakes and frequently forcing me to fall back to my latest quicksave. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Liftoff from Dirge, ancestral home of the Spirit Monks

The story is also wonderful. I’m torn between wanting to give you the blow by blow of everything that happened, and preserving the story for those of you who wish to experience it yourselves. Suffice to say, there were many moments that made me laugh, a few that made me feel triumphant, and at least a few surprises that made me feel like an idiot for not seeing through them sooner.

As you play throughout the game, you become familiar with the game’s central moral philosophy. The way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist. Morality systems are (say it with me now) nothing revolutionary. However, most games present rather obvious moral choices such as, “donate money to orphanage, but only after providing loving homes for every orphan” or “Burn the orphanage down, after donating money to the election campaign of an obvious villain.”

Open Palm and Closed fist are more nuanced than the standard good/evil morality systems. Open Palm is a way of charity and benevolence, of walking in accordance with one’s place in the grand scheme of things. However, it is easily exploited. Furthermore, it strictly forces people to accept their lot in life, however miserable it may be. Closed Fist, conversely, is a path of attaining one’s own power. Frequently it is greedy, violent, and chaotic. However, it occasionally does a better job of promoting one’s individual rights, a encourages its practitioners to help others realize their own strength. Using even these simplified definitions, it’s easy to see how not every Open Palm decision is morally good, and not every Closed Fist option is morally evil.

Without going to much into the plot, I will describe one scenario in the game. A vile and corrupt magistrate, Judge Fang, stands in your way. However, he also stands up to the Jade Empire’s vicious secret police, the Lotus Assassins. Removing him from power benefits you, but not necessarily the people of his jurisdiction. One can either kill him, or professionally embarrass him.  In addition to this, the player becomes acquainted with Gentle Breezes, Judge Fang’s courtesan. Judge Fang treats her violently, and frequently takes out his frustrations on her. Although my playthrough was almost exclusively Open Palm, Gentle Breezes and I lured Fang to a secluded spot where I killed him and his bodyguards. The game considered this a Closed Fist option, but I couldn’t allow myself to. I had a drama teacher who once said the best drama comes from multiple right decisions being in conflict with one another; the converse is also true.

I may have walked the path of the Open Palm, but I know I wasn’t always good.

I really don’t know what more there is to say. This game was a wonderful experience, and I’m glad I finally, after nearly 24 hours of play, got to finish it. I know I frequently use the screenshots to showcase something funny about the game, or insert some levity into these posts, but this time I just wanted to capture some of the beauty of the game. These screens might lose some of their significance being removed from the context of the story, but I hope you’ve found them visually appealing.

I feel good finishing this one, the same way I feel after reading an especially good book or walking out of the cinema after great movie, However, as Chai Ka says, “Without endings, there cannot be beginnings.” Chai Ka was right in the game, and his words hold true outside the game as well. Thanks Jade Empire. It’s been spectacular.

The last screenshot before the epilogue. I’ll let you find out for yourself how it ends.

Next Episode: Wargame – European Escalation

What You Permit

If you’ve been following this blog for some time then you will expect that when the gaming world and social issues intersect that I am likely to have an opinion on it. But I don’t think I want to spend too much time rehashing why it’s bad to use racial slurs when you are a YouTube celebrity with millions of followers. What I am interested in is how those in positions of authority respond to incidents like this. Something else happened in the gaming world this week, and that’s the collapse of CO2. No, sorry, there hasn’t been a breakthrough in carbon dioxide emission reductions. CO2 in EvE Online stands for Circle of Two, which had been a big alliance in the game for many years. The short version of this story is that a player in the alliance with very high level access to their resources handed over the castle keys to an enemy alliance because he became convinced that the supreme leader has been running the alliance into the ground. Much drama ensues after this betrayal. This is classic EVE as I have come to understand it. Upon learning of the betrayal, gigX (the former CO2 leader) logs on and makes a death threat against The Judge (the betrayer). He is immediately banned. Kotaku has the most in-depth story I’ve read on this so far. What does this have in common with PewDiePie? In both cases, a man went way too far with his words. The difference is that one is banned, and the other is still on his platform.

Gangs of Catalyst-class destroyers are a common tool among the nefarious villains of New Eden.

One could say that CCP is promoting in-game subterfuge and political intrigue by not making the subterfuge and betrayal against the rules. They even include “being the villain” in official advertisements about what one can do in the game. However, when gigX crossed the line into making real-life threats (a big no-no in EvE’s EULA) they didn’t hesitate to ban him. There was no debate over whether words were just words or anything like that. A line was drawn, he crossed it, and he was banned for life without consideration of how much money he had tied up in the game. This is a good example of how speech that isn’t necessarily illegal (local police might not find the threat credible enough to get a warrant) still leads to unfortunate consequences for those who violate community standards.

PewDiePie, meanwhile, still has his popular YouTube channel despite establishing a repeated pattern of behaviour which, while it may not be illegal, is rightly seen as morally reprehensible by decent people. It’s upsetting but certainly not surprising to see some of the usual canards about words being “just words” and all that. First, let’s keep in mind that defences that boil down to “this is not illegal” are usually very poor for establishing the acceptability rather than the legality of the conduct. I don’t think it would be right to bring the full force of the state down on PewDiePie because he dropped an n-bomb on the internet. But that’s not the only alternative to considering what he did to be acceptable. There are individual actions that one can take: I won’t be watching any of his videos and I will encourage others to abandon him as a matter of principle. I will allow YouTube’s response to colour my view of their platform. But, as a society, we need to be denying an audience to these kinds of people. If we fail to do this, then we leave too much room for something akin to a missing stair. The term is usually used in the context of sexual assault/harassment, but I think we could also apply it other kinds of psychological abuse, such as making your fellow online game players wonder if they are actually in real life danger (which has happened over MMO games more than once in the past decade so it’s certainly possible though not very common). It is certainly the case that at my D&D table it would be a terrible failure on the part of our group if a player threatened another player in an explicitly real-life context and we just worked around it rather than addressed it. Whether it was my house and my campaign or one I was just playing in, I would demand that person’s removal. In the case of the Judgement Day scandal, I don’t think The Judge is genuinely scared of gigX. But in this corner of the gaming community, there is a danger that “oh, that’s just how he is” becomes a way to permit behaviour that really ought to be unacceptable.

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.” – Cliff Pervocracy

The troubling aspect of the commentary that objects to the gigX ban is that he should be given consideration because, like PewDiePie, he is a content creator and many people like him. So, the reasoning goes, deny him his platform and droves of people will quit in disgust and ruin something for many more people. I think this is a terrible line of reasoning because it seeks to excuse something that ought not to be acceptable simply on the grounds that the person is popular. If anything, people in these positions of power should be held to a higher standard because they are the ones with more power to set norms in the community. It’s not that I believe that YouTube racists with less than 100 views or the nobodies threatening CODE. agents shouldn’t also be banned, but banning those guys doesn’t send as clear a message when they have no power in the community. Rules and codes of conduct only hold meaning if the popular and powerful are expected to maintain at least the same standards of compliance as the people whose objections can more easily be ignored. If the continuation of the game really does depend on the acceptance of this kind of behaviour, maybe it’s better off not being played at all.

One thing I would like to be very clear about is that denial of audience is not the same as outrage. We don’t need anti-gigX or anti-PewDiePie rage posts; those would be counter-productive. Anyone who has watched Llamas With Hats by FilmCow will see that shouting at Carl’s heinous behaviour not only fails to deter him, but encourages it because it shows him that he still has an audience. Towards the end of part four, Carl calls us out on this: how can anyone be surprised at anything he does, given his history and the fact that despite it all, Paul is still there to see it and shout about it.

Carl is a dangerous sociopath with a long history of violence.

The series takes a turn after part 4, the originally intended ending, because somehow FilmCow’s audience kept demanding more. Although he continued to achieve greater and greater heights of depravity, it was all meaningless to Carl because he lacked his audience. He was not defeated by a powerful opposing force or by outrage and denunciation. It all fell apart when Paul decided to pack his bags and leave. That is why I support banning these objectionable people from their respective platforms: while we still let them make us outraged without denying them their audience, they keep on going. While we still continue to live with the guy who is hungry for hands, we are permitting him to continue.

What you permit, you promote. YouTube might do well to take some cues from CCP in this regard.

Full Steam Ahead – Jade Empire Part 1

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 33 Hours

Jade Empire and I go way, way back. In 2005, I read an article in the Edmonton Journal about a game inspired by Kung Fu and Chinese mythology. The article talked about the fact that it was made by a game studio in Edmonton, Bioware. The article talked about the basics of the story. Most importantly, for me at least, it talked about how the mechanics of the game made the player feel. I remember this article vividly, because it was the first time I had ever seen a traditional newspaper write an article about video games as anything other than a product to be reviewed or a piece of of dangerous escapism. I remember thinking that not only did the game itself sound cool, the way the Journal wrote about it made me think about games in a way I had never thought about them before. I still think about that article when writing my own pieces on video games to this day.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually played Jade Empire. By this point, I had played some of Bioware’s more widely known games (Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), and I wanted to see what else they had available on Steam. I was so excited when I found out Jade Empire was on Steam. I downloaded it, and it didn’t work. However, unlike some of the games I’ve already talked about in this series, Jade Empire never made it to the “Doesn’t Work” folder; I wanted to play this game so badly that I spent the next several hours downloading patches and altering file pathways so I could play this game. Finally, I got it to work, and it was every bit as good as I expected. Sure, the control scheme was a product of the mid 2000’s. Of course, the graphics were dated. Sure, the voice acting isn’t especially great (despite a fantastic minor villain played by Edmonton’s own Nathan Fillion). I didn’t care. I absolutely adore this game. It represents everything I love about Kung Fu, about Bioware, and about games in general.

So why haven’t I ever finished it?

Everybody Wants To Build The World

I met up with most of my regular tabletop group last night. It’s been a little while since we’ve played. We didn’t play our main game last night because it wasn’t until after dinner and social time that we realized that all the notebooks and character sheets were at someone else’s house. So we pulled out the playing cards and had a different sort of games night before getting on to discussing the current World of Darkness campaign as well as the next one coming up. It was exciting to talk about the new campaign, the new characters, the returning characters, the setting. Right up until the storyteller said something that troubled me. “I guess I am going to have to hurry up and end this campaign if you are so excited to start this next one.”

Every DM/Storyteller/GM shares the desire to set the scene according to their creative desires…

The statement troubled me because I have been in that exact same position. I know what it’s like and I want to avoid making people who are running the current campaign feel like the excitement is because what they’re doing is not good enough. At the same time, the friend who wants to start the next campaign is also a very good DM/Storyteller and I legitimately want to support that endeavour. I want for my friends the same thing I want for myself: to be recognized as a talented world-building creator of fun and engaging content for interactive gameplay. That’s the game-atop-the-game I want to play, where the winning condition for me is that people get excited for when it’s my turn and tell stories of their adventures long after they have been played out. What I want to avoid is making that strictly competitive; I would like for my friends to win just as much as I do.

So, my advice: be explicit in showing your appreciation for the person running the game you’re playing. Make an effort to avoid making them feel like they’re being pushed out of the storyteller’s chair. Then, remember how hard it was to achieve that balance when it’s your turn to run the campaign and you’ve got a party excited for the next one. Enjoy the fantasy world you’ve created while the players are still invested in it but be prepared to yield. Nothing ever lasts forever.