Alastair lives in Calgary with a wife and, according to medical professionals, a cat. He is, in no particular order, a playwright, a greengrocer, horrible at short biographies, and a fan of games of all sorts.
Every now and then, this list of randomly generated games throws me a bone. A few weeks ago, I got to play one of my absolute favourite games (and listening to the response, a favourite of some of our readers as well).
It may interest you to know that the original Mass Effect was not appealing to me the first time I played it. The first time I played Mass Effect was on a friend’s Xbox 360, and I found the controls to be unintuitive and imprecise, making even the game’s initial sections a bit of a slog for me. It wasn’t until I played the sequel years later (also on my friend’s Xbox 360) that I really got interested in the series. It’s a little backwards, but Mass Effect 2 is that game that got me interested in Mass Effect.
What makes something funny? Most people can agree on a definition of comedy just vague enough to be nearly pointless. Some definitions acknowledge subjectivity, and define comedy by its intentions as opposed to specific content. In short, comedy is intended to be funny. However, most definitions, while striving for accuracy as to what is funny, fail utterly in describing how something is funny. Furthermore, what one, or even most people may find funny can be unamusing, or offensive or hurtful to some. Comedy in a social context requires a careful balancing and understanding of others opinions and feelings.
In a way, comedy as entertainment should be easier. After all, it stands to reason that the audience of a comedy movie or show comes with a expectation and the desire to be entertained. Yet even this can come up short. At a live show, one can’t possibly gauge the individual preferences of an entire theatre of people. At a movie, jokes that aren’t working can’t be rewritten or altered to suit the audience’s tastes.
This being the case, I do not envy The Behemoth, the studio behind BattleBlock Theater. Good comedy is hard to pull off in any medium, especially an interactive one like video games.
Today’s game is the first brought to you by Steam-Powered Hope! Plenty of thanks to Charles, who decided he wanted to see an episode about Kerbal Space Program (previously scheduled for game #101) right now, and made a donation to the Calgary Distress Centre. If you want to see a specific game on Full Steam Ahead, ask me for details!
Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 3 Hours
One of the appealing things about many games is the way they can show me different experiences. For a little while, being a greengrocer with a penchant for games slides on to the backburner, and I can experience something very different. We’ve already seen, in earlier posts, games that put me in the shoes of an undercover policeman, and kung fu practitioner, a contract mercenary, and many others.
In most games, the designers are interested in making these experiences easier than they would be in real life. By improving controls, or providing easy to read visual cues, or perhaps including a comprehensive, easy to understand tutorial, game designers put a lot of work into making these experiences easier to jump into, our more fun to play.
Kerbal Space Program is a little different. It’s not that the designers didn’t care, it’s just that they cared more about providing an accurate rocket science simulator. The good news is that they succeeded. The bad news is that rocket science is very, very hard.
Generally, I assume that the average reader of Almost Infinite is somewhat well-versed in video games and gaming culture. That makes some parts of my writing very easy, because a lot of you will understand what I’m talking about without me going into what feels like extraneous detail. While my Steam library admittedly contains some really weird options, chances are a few of you have played a few of the games I’ve already covered. If I’m being perfectly honest, chances are that a lot of you have probably played the game in question.
Today is one of those rare days that I really hope you aren’t familiar with the game I’m talking about. I am actually quite excited by the prospect of introducing something completely new to even a small minority of our readers, because Mass Effect really is something you should jump into blind.
I’m not entirely sure why I chose to tackle my Steam library in random order. Variety perhaps. For the most part, this hasn’t negatively affected how I play these games. After all, most of the games I’ve played have been relatively self-contained. One doesn’t always need to play the preceding games in the series to understand what is happening in current game.
However, I think I would rather not be dropped in the middle of a story-arc as complicated as that of Half-Life.
If you’ve read my author profile on this blog, you’re aware that I’m a fan of games of all sorts. In board games, I’ve noticed an increased popularity of hidden-role games. Games like Love Letter, Two Rooms and a Boom, and Spyfall all involve keeping your identity and intentions secret from the other players in the room or at the table. These games often have very easy-to-learn rules, and most of the games mechanical weight is carried by the players’ abilities to bluff, act, and occasionally straight up lie to their friends.
One hidden role game that goes a long way back is known, at least to me, as Assassins. This game, often played over the course of days or even weeks, sees all the players assigned a hitlist of other players they need to “kill”. In the version I was familiar with, the “kills” were done with plastic spoons; contact with another player’s spoon meant “death”. However, if you were caught, you were penalized in some way, usually being forced into a makeshift “jail”, or being forced to forfeit your spoon.
What if the game was played on a luxury cruise ship in the 1920s? What if the game was organized by a multi-millionaire megalomaniac? What if, instead of “killing” other players with spoons, you actually killed with a bevy of ludicrously dangerous weapons?
If the preceding question pique your interest even slightly, The Ship might be of interest to you.
Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 4 hours and 63 minutes, respectively.
Telltale Games are a game developer which primarily makes adventure, or story, games. They’ve become well-known and respected within the industry for their skillful additions to the genre. Because their talents range from comedic to tragic, they create lots of licensed games, including Back to the Future, The Walking Dead, Batman, and many others. For my part, Telltale games has two titles in my Steam library’s favourites folder: Tales From the Borderlands and Fables: The Wolf Among Us. Indeed, their skill at crafting games and stories has led to some of the funniest moments I’ve encountered in gaming as well as some of the saddest.
Poker Night at the Inventory is very unlike Telltale’s other games. Unlike the story-rich sagas of their other titles, Poker Night at the Inventory and its sequel, Poker Night at the Inventory 2 take characters from various video game and pop culture series and sit them down for a game of Texas Hold ’em Poker, with the player as the fifth at the table.
Poker is, in and of itself, an interesting game. The player must use their own pair of cards, secret to the other players, to create a high value hand in conjunction with a set of five community cards, visible to all. In popular culture, poker is a game of secrets and bluffing. A game where one doesn’t play the cards on table nearly as much as they play the other players. A game of figuring out each other’s “tells”, the physical responses that players have to good hands, bad hands, lies, and the like. It’s a cool game, played by spies, gunslingers, and other men and women of dashing and daring complexions. Played in high-stakes casinos, private rooms at exclusive clubs, and in the smoke-filled suites of luxury zeppelins.
In real life, poker is mostly math. Unlike its casino game cousin blackjack, poker forces players to work out probability with very little information. The best poker players in the world can do this without obvious tells; they can do it just by observing a player’s actions, like raising or folding. Far from a secretive game, the best poker players in the world play in televised leagues, playing games where the value of the pot is generally measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a truly well-written and humourous look at the world of professional poker, I highly recommend checking out Why Do I Do This For A Living, a video from the youtube series Pretty Good by Jon Bois.
Speaking for myself, poker is not an especially fun game. I’m bad at math, I don’t like stress or pressure, and I don’t think any of us really enjoy losing money. The only real fun to be had at poker is the company one can share while playing it. In that sense, poker is, in my experience, less a game and more of a social event, played in a comfortable place, with good friends, good food, and good conversation.
If you really adore the game of poker, either as it’s portrayed or as it is in fact, chances are you’ll enjoy Poker Night at the Inventory. However, if like me, you find poker to be a pretty unenjoyable experience, your enjoyment will depend on whether or not you enjoy the company of the players at the table. Telltale Games gambles that you’re going to really enjoy sharing a table with the players they’ve assembled. You play a high stakes, no-limits game of Texas Hold ’em Poker at The Inventory, a fictional speakeasy.
In the first game, Poker Night at the Inventory, you join a table with the Heavy Weapons Guy (from Team Fortress 2), Strong Bad (from Homestar Runner), Max the rabbity-thing (of Sam & Max), and Tycho (the in-comic persona of Penny Arcade creator Jerry Holkins). Each has their own personality and quirks: Heavy Weapons Guy is stoic and aggressive, Max is unpredictable and unstable, Tycho is composed and laid-back, and Strong Bad is a diminutive wrestler with a Napoleon complex. Over the course of the game, you get to see how their attitudes and personalities interact with one another.
In the second, you meet Brock Samson from the show Venture Brothers, Claptrap from Borderlands, Sam from Sam & Max, Ash from the Evil Dead films, and Glados from Portal as a special guest dealer. Again, the character’s personalities and quirks affect how they play with you. In both games, the characters will occasionally find themselves betting with something other than money. Usually, a weapon or item which represents an unlockable item in another game. While it can be thrilling to unlock a special item in this way, it often depends entirely on how well you play poker, which is largely up to random chance anyhow.
For Full Steam Ahead, I decided to try and play as legitimate a game of poker as I possibly could. The buy-in, the money used to purchase entry into the game and as a reward for the winner, for the first game is $10,000. If I win, I walk home with $50,000 dollars, and that money would be great for me and my family. Similarly, a loss of ten grand would be utterly devastating.
In the game, I play carefully. I get into betting wars with Strong Bad and the Heavy Weapons Guy early on, knocking them out. After that, I spend a lot of turns fold garbage hands that won’t win me any money. Over the course of this, Tycho is knocked out after going all in with a flush against Max’s full house. After that point, it’s several turns of Max and I trading chips back and forth. I get two pair and go up $35,000. Max hits me with a straight three hands later to take a dominant lead. I’m able to bluff my way back to parity with Max. Finally, I’m able to get Max to go against me. I’m able to beat him with a flush while his attempt at a straight doesn’t turn out. The game is over. I’ve managed to win the tournament, and walk away with an extra $40,000. While the game was fun, and the characters suitable chatty, eliminated players leave, meaning I spend the majority of the game with a psychotic lagomorph. Not exactly a comforting experience.
The second game goes much as the first. This time, the buy-in is $20,000. Sam bets his trusty banjo instead of cash, which the house accepts as payment. Ash goes all in on the first hand with queen-high, a terrible hand. He loses, and is eliminated. The next round, Sam and Brock Samson each go all in against Claptrap, who manages to best them with two-pair. They’re each eliminated. That leaves me and Claptrap, a cocky robot from a planet where he is frequently used as target practice. After many hands of making terrible, terrible bets, Claptrap finally loses the last of his money to me. I leave the Inventory with $80,000 and a banjo (which unlocks a Max mask in Borderlands 2).
What did I learn from my poker nights at the Inventory? First and foremost, I do not enjoy poker as a game. I didn’t when I bought the games in the first place, but I had hoped the writing would be fun enough to keep me occupied a little longer. Secondly, that I do not want to ever be in a situation where that much money is on the line. In game between me and Max, I frequently was betting tens of thousands of fake dollars, just to stay in the game. It made me super uncomfortable, and it wasn’t even real money. I guess I prefer my social gatherings with friends to not involve the potential loss of significant amounts of money.
Welp, I could certainly use a less stressful game. What have you got for me, random Steam list?
Sandbox games are a blanket term used to describe games which have an open world, an optional narrative, and give the player great freedom to choose how they will pursue and achieve their objectives. Sandbox games were once something of a rarity; personal computers only recently became powerful enough to generate and maintain sandbox worlds. One must also take into account the strain on game developer resources that creating an open world must demand.
However, given that computers are more powerful than ever, game studios have more resources at their disposal than ever, and players are more demanding of immersive experiences than ever, it is unsurprising that many of the most popular games in recent years have been sandboxes.
I swear I’m going to talk about Bioshock in a bit. It is a game that deserves to be talked about. But if you’d all be so kind to allow me a minor digression and retrospective, I’ll make it pay off. Cool? Cool.
November 2007. I’m hanging out with my best friend who has just bought Bioshock. The game was critically acclaimed for its setting and its stellar writing. Created by developer Ken Levine, it was considered a spiritual successor of his previous game series System Shock. The game won game of the years awards from BAFTA, IGN, and X-Play, all respected sources of video game journalism at the time.
These praises and accolades meant very little to me. I knew nothing of its setting or the System Shock series. The writing was good window-dressing, but I thought little more of it than that. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less about games criticism or analysis, because at the time, games did not mean much of anything to me.
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.