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.
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.
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?
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.
BIGG is the name of yet another absurdly large number (it is actually an acronym for bewilderingly incomprehensibly ginormous googolism).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’ll permit me a quick aside from subjecting myself to weekly adventures in my Steam Library.
We are now entering the holiday season, and I certainly wish nothing but the best for all of you this Christmas season. However, for several people, it is a season of loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. The holidays, so frequently advertised as the most wonderful time of the year, can be especially trying to those already suffering from depression.
That’s why resources like the Calgary Distress Centre are so important. They provide a 24 hour hotline for those in need of assistance in time of mental and emotional crisis. This hotline provides a listening ear and a gentle voice to help someone in their darkest, most despairing moments. I know because I’ve used this service. It’s helped me get through some of the worst days of my life.
Furthermore, the Distress Centre does more than just provide the 24 hour crisis hotline. They also act as an information resource, they provide free professional counselling services, and they run the Connecteen, a confidential support service for teens and youth. The Distress Centre provides all these services free of charge, and their hotline is manned largely by volunteers.
In this season which promotes charity and goodwill towards all, I’d like to ask the readers of Almost Infinite to help support the Distress Centre. I know that there are dozens, if not hundreds of worthy causes asking for support during this time of year, and I don’t for a second pretend mine is any more deserving than others; this is simply the one I am most familiar with, and I’m using what small platform I have to promote it. In support of this organization, I’d like to introduce the Steam-Powered Hope funding drive.
For what it’s worth, I’m prepared to offer incentives for donation.
Below, you will find a list of every game in my library. This is the randomly-generated order of the games I’m playing for Full Steam Ahead. I decided at the start that I would play the games as the random order dictated, no matter how good or bad that order was. Now, I’m giving you all a chance to mess around with it, however you see fit.
For a $5 donation to the Distress Centre, you can move any game from anywhere on the list to anywhere else on the list. This means you could put all the games from the Prince of Persia bundle in order for $25 Or you could make me play through the Strong Bad games in reverse order. Or you could make your favourite game the very next one on the list. Or you could make me replay games I’ve already played.
For a $20 donation to the Distress Centre, I will add a new game of your choice to a location of your choosing on the list. I will cover the cost of purchasing the game, your only cost is the donation.
Donations will close December 31st. I know that it’s a lot to ask, but I’d really appreciate your support in this. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me in the comments. Without any further ado, here is the list. Game I’ve already completed have been italicized:
Total War Shogun 2
Assassin’s Creed 2
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead
Star Wars Battlefront II
Wargame: European Escalation
Half Life Deathmatch: Source
Mount & Blade
Street Fighter IV
Arma 2 : PMC
Poker Night at the Inventory
Poker Night at the Inventory 2
Half Life 2: Episode 1
Mass Effect 2
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
Age of Empires 3
Batman Arkham Asylum
The Ship Tutorial
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Half Life 2: Deathmatch
FTL: Faster Than Light
Age of Empires 2
Just Cause 2
Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 2
Civilization V: Gods and Kings
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 2
Total War Rome 2
RWBY: Grimm Eclipse
Strike Suit Zero
Crusader Kings 2
Cities XL 2012
Half Life 2: Lost Coast
Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 5
Hitman: Blood Money
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 1
For those who have read my past posts, you’ll remember that I bought the Arma 2 bundle during one of the Steam summer sales. For those of you haven’t read or can’t remember the previous post, featuring Operation Arrowhead, I’ll sum up: I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like the over-complicated control scheme, and I really didn’t like the characters in the campaign. I didn’t play very far into the campaign, and I barely spent any time in the individual scenarios. Immediately after finishing the post, I was somewhat disheartened, because I thought I’d said everything that could be said about the Arma series in that one post. I had no idea what I was going to do when the other four games showed up in the random list.
Bad news: less than ten games later in the list, it’s time for another game in this military simulation series: Arma 2 – Private Military Company.