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Month: December 2017

Annus Revelati

At this time last year I was writing one of those retrospective posts lamenting the year that was. I’m not going to sit here and list all the horrific plays in political games around the world we saw this year. Almost everything that has excited and outraged us has been as surprising as a sunrise given the events of late 2016. Every violation of the rule of law and basic decency coming from the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world should be no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to 2016. That we now have unscrupulous players in Canada and other countries looking to imitate that example is as predictable as it is appalling. Yet despite all this I believe that rather than an annus horribilis, 2017 has been an annus revelati. If my Google/Wiktionary-based Latin skills are good enough, that should mean a year of showing, uncovering, revealing, and disclosing. We cannot help but see now what has been under the surface, whether it was intentionally obscured or simply invisible to those who chose not to see. This has been the year that we have been reminded of some of the things we have to take into play rather than take for granted as axiomatic truths.

As important as it is to keep the big picture in mind, it is very important that we also see the brighter things even if they seem very small in a very large world. For me personally, 2017 saw a number of happy events yet none of these were really new things. I got married, which showed the rest of the world the love that my partner and I hold between ourselves. Though in some ways it can be considered a new beginning, it was a fulfilment of the engagement that happened in 2016. I formally joined a Unitarian Universalist church, though I had been interested in the faith and attending services throughout 2016. I welcomed a second author to this blog halfway through the year who has been a HUGE help in making this project manageable at this time in my life. That, too, was suggested to me just as I was first starting: bring in guest posts sooner rather than later so that it seems less weird when it happens. It took a while, but I am glad that I did that with Alastair’s series. I got back in the DM’s chair during Extra Life, but I have spent more time talking about wanting to run more tabletop adventures than actually doing it in 2017. That adventure, naturally, revolved around revealing the sordid truth about the temple that loomed large over a destitute village.

The most exciting part of a tabletop adventure’s plot is usually some sort of revealing of the truth.

So, looking back on the year that has passed, everything that has happened in my world has been about revealing and uncovering the nature and consequences of what was already set in motion. Now it is time to look forward and think about what to do with what has been revealed. I believe that we can affect games much larger than ourselves by how we play our little games, whether recreational pastimes or the game of life as it plays out for our small individual lives. These are my recommendations to my readers for the year of 2018 CE on how we can work to improve our play:

  • Defend, but don’t play defence. Innuendo Studios is doing a fantastic series called the alt-right playbook, and in Never Play Defense we are reminded that a person can be effective without being right if they are playing aggressively. I’m not saying that you should ditch substance for bravado, but boldness is a better look than apologetic hesitation. I recently had the opportunity to inform someone at a game table that I am certain that my Romani friend would never attempt to “gyp” him of any points that he is due. Making this matter-of-fact statement was far more effective than something that started with “Sorry, but I am offended by…” There is no need to allow yourself and your loved ones to be attacked nor is there any need to turtle up and yield all of your ground. Now is the best time to speak up at your gaming table when someone is doing or saying something that could put you on the defensive and renew your efforts to be deliberate in what media to (not) consume. And, if you are so inclined, support Innuendo Studios.
  • Don’t apologize for what you are (not). Following that, when someone goes name-calling, embrace the ones that should not be an insult in the first place. A lot of what I write in this space might be labelled as “social justice warrior” ranting even though in terms of 4th/5th edition D&D classes I am probably more of a warlock than a fighter. But seriously, why should I yield this ground? I endeavour not to be antisocial. I detest injustice. I believe in fighting for what is right. Getting upset over labels only derails my intent and delivers the desired reaction to the sort of person who would wield such a so-called insult (refer again to the video linked above). So be a social justice warrior, or evangelical Christian, or whatever words people say in disdainful tones that, at face value, actually represent the kind of person you aspire to be.
  • Let go of the notion that everyone agrees with your rules. If you have not learned this again and again in 2017, then you have not been paying attention. The notion of a “marketplace of ideas” and quotes attributed to Voltaire about free speech are fine when an overwhelming majority of people in a society can agree on the basic rules surrounding minimal human decency and the existence of immutable facts which cannot be changed by the volume and repetition of spurious zingers. You can’t play a game with those who won’t agree to the rules. No fair play is possible when the torch-wielding mob is out to cause havoc. Such people must be dealt with in a different manner than people who can agree to a good set of basic rules but with whom you profoundly disagree with when it comes to how to solve particular problems.
  • Embrace a little bit of swagger. Remember that while your stated beliefs don’t make you a better person, telling the truth does. Your tweets don’t make you a better person, but playing fair does. The colour of your political party’s campaign signs does not make you a better person, but holding people accountable for their behaviour especially when it’s a popular person on your team does. So when you can be certain that you are doing and saying the right thing, do it openly and proudly. There is no reason to pretend that fair play, the rule of just law, and respecting the fundamental worth and dignity of every person aren’t for winners.
  • Read Crash Override. I am just getting started on it now, but the subject matter is really important. And it doesn’t matter what you think of Zoë Quinn personally. If you want to be a critic, be an informed critic. Know about the things you disagree with. Learn about (sub)cultures that you haven’t really been concerned with up to this point. But also, being sympathetic doesn’t excuse ignorance either; it is important to know what you are up against and what you can do to help. Games matter. The internet matters. Internet and gaming culture matter. These are important parts of, not distractions from what we call real life.

If a few more people do a few more of those things, I believe that 2018 will be a brighter year, even if just by a little bit.

Full Steam Ahead: Street Fighter IV

The word iconic seems to be getting thrown around a lot these days. Like its much-maligned pal the exclamation point, the word iconic seems to be overused to the point of of inducing weariness. As such, it has gone from being a widespread acknowledgment of excellence and cultural significance to a mere recognition of existence.

Many games and game series can be characterized by that latter definition of iconic. They exist, you’ve probably heard of them. You might recognize them if you saw them being played, but they mean very little to you in the grand scheme of things.

The Street Fighter franchise is easily the former kind of iconic.

Let’s go fight some streets!

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.