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Month: December 2017

Your Own Objectives

My wife was recently insisting to me that success should be self-defined rather than looking for external validation. Those aren’t easy words to hear for a man who is several weeks into trying to install a laundry sink, who is still in the middle of a long litany of leaks and return trips to the hardware store. That laundry sink which he could have paid someone to install, but was talked out of the service by the sales staff at the hardware store because it’s so simple and easy for anyone to install. In that light it’s easy to dismiss the notion of setting one’s own victory conditions because leaking fixtures don’t care what your personal goals are, they leak anyway. Yet neither of the two recreational games I have been playing to the exclusion of any others in recent weeks have such clearly defined success and failure conditions. They are both games that one wouldn’t play without the desire to set one’s own objectives. I haven’t been getting into any new-to-me video games (Alastair has that covered for now), but have been continuing to play two of the three most mentioned video games on this blog, Terraria and EVE. If you were hoping for an Undertale post this week, tough spaghetti. And in keeping with my commitment to this being a games blog that sometimes mentions EVE rather than an EVE blog that sometimes mentions other games, that leaves us with Terraria.

Surviving the first night in a hut like this is a good initial step, but don’t award yourself any medals for an accomplishment of this scale.

Some finite games have very clear victory conditions. The “sandbox” type games don’t have a specified end or victory condition and are only limited by the constraints of the medium and the amount of time we can spend with them. When the choice is placed upon us of how to measure progress it can be difficult to get the balance right. Victory conditions should be a challenge; merely surviving one night in Terraria is a good first step, but that’s not winning the game. However, victory conditions should not be impossible for mere mortals either, such as the complete purification of a large Terraria world from the ever-expanding blights (corruption, crimson, and hallow). Perhaps some of the linear content (such as fighting through the series of boss monsters) is the most obvious goal, but I don’t think that’s what sold 20 million copies of the game.

I abandoned my first medium-sized world because I knew that I wanted the blight to be under control but would never have the time and motivation to bring a world of that size back under control after letting it go for as long as I did. So I created a small world and got to work on using my advanced gear to immediately contain the crimson. I didn’t get it perfect, but seems to be stable at 1% crimson. My objective is not necessarily to play through all the boss monsters, though that is a perfectly valid goal. Having defeated Golem in my first world, I was able to assemble one of the best defensive armour sets available in the game yet once I summoned Duke Fishron I was quickly dispatched. At that point I decided that I would rather build for a while. Now, knowing that constructing one large base is more optimal than building a village of houses, I have a glorious tower.

The workshop section of the tower that runs from the very top of the map into the underworld.

It’s a great base as far as I am concerned. It houses all of my NPC allies. Every storage area is labelled (a big deal to those whose first workshops grew organically from one workbench and a single chest into a tangled mess of hoarding). In other sections of the tower, using the quirks of the fluid physics in that game, I can generate an endless supply of any of the three liquids (lava, water, and honey). My materials lab can also put out an endless supply of gel, an important crafting ingredient for torches and bombs. I also have a spider nest cordoned off that generates what I need to produce silk. Essentially, if a crafting material can be farmed, I can do it in this tower.

Water, lava, and honey are the three liquids in Terraria which can be combined to make materials such as obsidian. This is my setup for being able to manufacture whatever I need without having to search the world for materials.

All of this to say: the way I play the game is not according to a scoreboard or number of boss monsters defeated. The goal of building a home base to do these things was entirely up to me to conceive, achieve, and evaluate. I can show off my stuff, as I am doing in this post, but it’s not for anyone else to decide whether this is success or failure at playing this game. External validation is possible, but the way I choose to play the game makes it unnecessary to the core experience.

Who needs to explore deep caverns to find the glowing mushroom material for crafting? Not this guy.

Things seem to be going well with setting my own objectives in this particular game. Next on the list is to build some impressive pyramids (to fill the holes I made in excavating the crimson caves) because my world didn’t generate with a natural pyramid. I may even resume fighting the boss monsters as intended one day, but for now I am getting back to improving the tower instead of working on the sink.

Full Steam Ahead – Mount & Blade

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 5 hours

According to Steam, I have spent only 5 hours playing Mount & Blade. This isn’t entirely true. I played hours and hours of Mount & Blade’s demo back in 2008, on my old Steam account. I didn’t buy the game, because at the time, I was very worried about my Steam purchases spiralling out of control.

Ironic, isn’t it?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a stupid idiot.

Fast forward a couple years. I was able to find a physical copy of Mount & Blade at Zellers, of all places. It was a good price, so I decided to pick it up. Once again, I played it a lot. However, this was on my old computer. It died, and took with it all I could remember about my steam account. I lost all the info for that account, and I had long since abandoned the email associated with with it. This meant I would have to pick up what few games I actually had on a new account for my new computer. Mount & Blade was not among them.

Fast forward another few years. During one of the Steam Summer Sales, the Mount & Blade series was one of the daily deals. At this point, I hadn’t been following the series for a while. Two new games had come out, the sequel game Warband and the spinoff With Fire & Sword. I played the original briefly, but I pretty quickly devoted more time to the improved Warband. Still, the original holds a special place in my heart.

I ride for Calradia, a fictional continent trapped in ongoing wars between five different nations. Mount & Blade is definitely a sandbox, letting you find your fun in a variety of different ways. Want to play the political game? Become a scheming noble! Want to become a filthy-rich caravan master? Max your trade and leadership skills! Want to become a well-read do-gooder? There’s an option for that! The possibilities are near endless. Rather than continue an old game, I start up a new character called Tethrathoth, the numeric value of an absurdly large number.

Quick aside; in googology (the study of large numbers) the number Tethrathoth can become larger. One of the largest numbers in the Tethrathoth family is, I kid you not, the Great and Terrible Tethrathoth. The game won’t let me name my character the Great and Terrible Tethrathoth, so I name him B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth, for a couple reasons.

  1. BIGG is the name of yet another absurdly large number (it is actually an acronym for bewilderingly incomprehensibly ginormous googolism).
  2. My character looks kind of like the Notorious B.I.G., because I can choose to use my freedom of expression to make my video game characters look kind of like 90’s rappers.
It was all a dream! / I used to read word-up magazine!

Great. Terrible. Notorious. Those are some lofty titles, and I intend to earn them.

I’m a bit rusty, but if memory serves, a good first step is amassing a decent following, recruiting villagers from the various nations, training them into soldiers, and hiring on hero characters to help bear the brunt of combat. Mount & Blade doesn’t feature a morality system like some other games. Instead, your progress is measured in renown and favour with individuals and places. For example, looting and razing a village doesn’t make your character grow horns or their eyes glow red. It merely lowers your favour within that village (and perhaps with some of your followers). You choose your path to success.

You also get to choose what success means to you. With B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth, I manage to win a few tournaments and melees, make several profitable business deals, and raise several villagers from peasants to battle-hardened veterans. However, I won’t be satisfied until I can look B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth’s face and see someone great, terrible, and notorious. In the world of Calradia, that means joining the war game.

I sign on as a mercenary in service of the Khergit Khanate with a company of 39 soldiers. We are summoned by Sanjar Khan to present ourselves at a siege in the Nordlands. On the way, we spot a caravan owned by the Kingdom of Vaegirs, one of the Khanate’s many enemies. However, I forget that caravans are not to be trifled with. After getting overwhelmed by heavy cavalry, most of B.I.G.G.’s army is killed, with a few of being captured. The caravan which captured us parades us around for a few in-game days before running afoul of another Khergit army. We lost all but 5 of our troops, as well as valuables, supplies, and prestige within the Khanate; it’s a devastating loss.

While captive, B.I.G.G. had some time to think about some things. He came to this conclusion: He might lose. He might see his friends and allies get killed. He might be captured again. But he was going to make every enemy who opposed him pay in blood. That’s what it means to be terrible.

I was a terror since the public school era.

B.I.G.G. starts by killing the Vaegir caravan that captured him. Then, he raises what few forces he can before rushing to meet Sanjar Khan. The battle goes poorly, resulting in yet another near-complete destruction of B.I.G.G.’s army. He escapes, rebuilds, begins sacking villages, attacking weakened armies, laying siege to castles, destroying everything and everyone who he come across who seems weak. He is mistrusted by many allies, hated by his enemies, and feared by commoners and criminals alike. That’s what it means to be notorious.

As of typing these words, B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth is level 14. He commands 40 soldiers of varying levels of skill and from a diverse array of backgrounds. Vaegirs, Khergits, Swadians, Nords, mercenaries, farmers and farm women. He is on a mission to track down a spy when suddenly, the game freezes and crashes.

In all my years of playing Mount & Blade, I have only ever had the game crash when using mods (believe me, we’ll talk about mods during a later post). This is the first time I have ever had this game crash on me using basic settings.  I’ve now played Mount & Blade 19 hours on this profile, and I know for a fact I could play this game for another 19 without running out of things to do. When it crashed, it set me back to just after the battle with Sanjar Khan, just after B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth had lost everything for the second time. Honestly, I’m not even that upset, because if I had the time to, it would mean I could do it all again.

That’s what it means to be great.

If the game shakes me or breaks me/I hope it makes me a better man, take a better stand.

Calradia, the world of Mount & Blade is, graphically speaking, not pretty. The gameplay is varied, but repetitive. Combat can be brutal. Losses set you back significantly. But it’s a world that hooked me as easily this playthrough as the first time, nearly ten years ago. Most games on Full Steam Ahead, I play until I have enough material to write about. To be perfectly honest, I long ago got all the material I need to write about Mount & Blade; I’ve just been playing it for fun.

There are two more Mount & Blade games in my library. Warband expands the world of Calradia, adding a new faction, new game modes, and new quests. With Fire & Blood is set in real-world eastern Europe during the age of Europe’s empires. What’s more, all the Mount & Blade titles have active modding communities. World War I? They have it. Westeros, from the Song of Ice and Fire series? They have it. The Star Wars Expanded Universe? They bloody have it.

I might be done with this game for now, but the world of Mount & Blade clearly isn’t done with me.

 

Next Episode: Street Fighter IV

Part of Something Bigger

Sometimes we play games that are extremely limited in scope. There is one way to finish a game of cribbage, by following the one track you are on to the finish line. Even chess, though there are so many ways of getting there, has only two endings (checkmate or stalemate). This is good if one wants to be finished with the game in a short amount of time. In order to be passionate about something like that, though, there must be another level to the game. Perhaps you are looking to increase your Elo rating to advance competitively, or to enjoy a brief moment of glory among family and friends before it’s time to move on. But it’s not the win itself that drives excitement, it’s the bigger picture whether it’s a score and a formal title or building and maintaining relationships. To be passionate about these games one must look at each instance of the game as part of something bigger.

A fleet taking down a player-owned starbase in EVE Online.

Other games, generally the ones I write about a lot, lend themselves to making the player feel like they are indeed participating in something that is bigger than their own experience. This is one reason that I appreciate games with immersive plots and storylines: it makes me feel like other things are going on in the in-game universe other than what is here and now in front of my face. Another way is to offer a chance to explore a world, as one can in the Elder Scrolls series. But in my experience, the most effective way to keep a game going indefinitely is to weave the social experience into the game itself. The tabletop RPG does this by ensuring that the boundaries of the game are malleable. Not that a dungeon crawl is an invalid play style, but that reminds me more of the single-instance games I mentioned at the start of this post. The campaigns we tell stories about are usually the ones that involve more than violence against the undead and making it to the end of the dungeon. The ones we remember tend to be the ones where the social interaction shaped the experience more than the dice or the rule book. Lastly, the MMO sandbox has clearly defined rules but leaves the objective and the ends up to the player.

Why did I spend an evening participating in the fleet pictured above and below? It wasn’t because of anything in particular to do with getting a structure kill on a scoreboard or what was inside that base. It was because I was a part of a corporation and I want to have good standing in that small team. I want my corporation to advance within our alliance and be a part of building that. I want that alliance to be successful because I believe in the values they profess to uphold. It’s all about being part of something bigger than my own ISK wallet and ship hangar.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

So, if you like to be done with games in the space of minutes or hours, play something limited in scope. If you like persistent games, I think the key is to fully engage with the story and/or social aspects because those are the things that make the player part of something bigger. And, incidentally, if you play EVE and really liked that code of conduct that I linked, recruitment is open.