The Age of Empires series of games is special to me. These are the games that introduced me to the real-time-strategy genre. Age of Empires got me interested in the classical empires of Persia, Egypt, and Greece. Age of Empires II brought the stories of medieval leaders to life: Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, and Saladin. Age of Mythology took the well-balanced, carefully crafted gameplay I had come to love, and transported it to the world of Norse, Egyptian, and Greek legend.
So, let’s make no mistake: Age of Empires III is fun game. It is a well-balanced real time strategy game, and part of one of that genre’s most consistently excellent series.
Now watch as I spend most of the rest of this article barely talking about the game.
(My apologies to any email subscribers who received a draft version of this post earlier this week when I forgot to finish it before it automatically posted.)
Sometimes, when playing what I call large and expansive recreational games, I wonder how much potential they actually have to live up to my expectations. A few days ago, I was out ratting (that’s EVE-speak for using an imaginary spaceship to shoot hordes of NPC pirates, equivalent to “farming mobs” in other games). An enemy player appeared in local (a chat window with a list of all pilots in system). I warped my ship to my team’s space station, which is a common move when you see an intruder in your space. Ratting and hunting ratters is a game of cat and mouse: they win by catching me, I win by scurrying away too quickly. I make it back to the station and tether, which essentially means I am invulnerable. He starts talking in local. “Fight me,” he says. I tell him that I will not fight him in my ratting vessel (which are almost always ill-suited for combat with other players) or my salvage vessel (unarmed) so I go fetch something more suitable from the next system over. Now flying a nimble assault frigate, I warped to the same station. I tethered up, approached the enemy cruiser, and then broke tether by opening fire. We fight for a while, then a friend in my alliance stumbles across the fight and opens fire as well. I would have told him to back off if not for the fact that I saw in local that there was another alliance mate of the guy I was fighting somewhere close to us. There was to be no pretence of space-bushido here. So I won, not because I am am especially talented pilot, but through (ab)use of the tethering mechanic and unfair odds that I didn’t bother to make fair out of paranoia that doing so is taking bait for a larger trap. That, my friends, is EVE at its most basic essentials. We both write “gf” in local, which stands for good fight. Some people might find this strange, but not people who play this game.
The next day I attended the weekly session of World of Darkness I play with my friends. We went totally off script, but ended up bringing a split party together onto the same narrative thread, no rails in sight. This is the tabletop gaming that I like to think is so good and interesting, rather than it being a tangle of out-of-character debates about arcane rules that makes me wonder why I think so highly of the game. There have been times, in many different campaigns including some that I have run, that I feel like the esteem I hold for the tabletop RPG is misplaced. Not last week.
So what’s the point? Some games can suck up a lot of time and not produce measurable returns. I don’t think, though, that this means we should eliminate recreational games from a healthy life balance that includes other activities just because there is no instant gratification. While it may be true that Yahtzee (or, as my wife’s off-brand set calls it, 5-dice Game) always produces a winner, it’s never going to be satisfying in the same way as having a great night at the WoD table or a fantastic example of the “gudfight” that capsuleers spend so much time seeking. Not even when I have the disgusting luck of multiple Yathzee rolls (five of a kind) in a single game. It’s there… and then it’s gone. It’s a game, but not a story. I happen to think that making new stories is just as good a way to spend a midsummer night as sitting on the patio enjoying some cold ones, or cycling, or whatever. That’s what I need to remind myself the next time I feel like I spend too much time listening to other people discuss their dice pools or spinning my ships in citadels and not enough time working or writing or designing or…. any of those other things I can maybe stand to do a little more of, but should not pretend like I could be doing it all non-stop.
Site update: in case the unscheduled break wasn’t a clear enough sign, I’m having a bit of a hard time keeping up right now. I have a few more posts in progress, then I am going on a semi-vacation from active blogging for a month. A generous donor has decided to supercharge Alastair’s Steam-Powered Hope initiative which means Almost Infinite will be running 100% Full Steam Ahead, every week in August. I will still be monitoring things behind the scenes and moderating comments, and then be back in September with what I hope will be more of the content I want to be creating rather than falling into the habit of steam-of-consciousness posts about whatever I happen to be playing, just to get something published for the week. There will be more applied game theory and philosophy posts after the break. Thanks for reading.
I’m going to oversimplify things a little here, so please bear with me. No matter what mechanics, genre, themes, or budget a game has, their interaction with the player can be broken down to a cycle of three steps: choice, action, result.
Lots of games pride themselves on the freedom of choice they give to the players,. Similarly, in many games, the mechanics are multi-faceted, intricate machines which are prepared to account for a dizzying array of player actions. Not every game succeeds in showing how player choices matter, but some do an excellent job of showing how a player’s choices and actions affect the world of the game.
This is a drastic oversimplification of things, and I’m sure many of my friends with enthusiasm for game design and theory would say as much, but for today’s episode, oversimplification is appropriate; I’d argue oversimplification is what Divekick is all about.
Social time. Escapism. Fun. When I play recreational games it’s usually in the hope that those aspects of the activity will lead to reduced stress. But this weekend, I had a hard time focusing on the game on our regular tabletop night and had to say no to a bonus game run by this blog’s favourite guest author.
I wasn’t out at work or sleeping in bed or something so obviously excusable like that. I ended up going out on a fleet to help my online space guild stake a claim on more imaginary solar systems. I know I shouldn’t feel bad about it, but it’s hard not to think that there must be something wrong with my priorities when I have time for them and not for my friends.
The reason I say I shouldn’t feel bad about it is because I know better. The Five Geek Social Fallacies were posted in 2003 and remain an important reference for when I might be falling for one or more. I know it’s not necessarily sound scientific psychology, but I have adopted those five fallacies as guidelines for what kind of negative thinking to avoid. Today it’s three and five that I have to read and reread. It’s OK to do something that requires less mental energy than more tabletop RPG adventures with friends. It’s OK not to grab every available tabletop night to the exclusion of space friends. I know these things at an intellectual level, but it’s still a challenge to feel it sometimes.
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.
Sometimes I like games with big possibilities and boundaries that are sometimes hard to see. That’s why I have spent more time in EVE Online than I ever thought I could (more on that next week). But there are other times where I am in the right mindset for some interactive escapism but those big games just aren’t as appealing as I would expect. For example, last week while out on a roam in EVE online somebody forgot to refuel the clone bay where I would normally respawn after getting blown up. Faced with 45 minutes (or more) of taking the long way home, I just could not bring myself to spend that much time on just getting back to where I need to be. That’s when I decided to swap the big game for something a lot simpler, at least until things could get straightened out.
The Swapper is a simple game in a wonderfully dark science fiction setting. It is, fundamentally, a 2D puzzle game built around one neat mechanic: the player can deploy clones and “swap” to any of them provided their beam is not blocked. The player can only control one body at a time, but all of them move in unison. Once I got the display and control settings to a usable point (needed to be running in compatibility mode in order for the mouse to move) I found myself quickly immersed in both the story and the puzzles along the way.
It is a strictly single player game, and apart from the clone/swap mechanic it revolves around, nothing in the gameplay itself really screams write a big thinkpiece blog post about this. But maybe that’s exactly why it really hit the spot when I picked it up: I did not have to depend on other players to do things. I did not have to spend more than five minutes learning how to play the game. It was an easy alternative path to the escape from reality that normally comes from pretending to be in space. I highly recommend it to the Portal crowd: challenging yet not impossible puzzles, good narrative, and no shooting to kill (assuming that we don’t count the clone bodies consumed to break falls). I do look forward to getting back to some of the “bigger” games, but am certainly glad I gave this one a try.
Alastair is taking a break for a few weeks, but rest assured that he will be resuming the Full Steam Ahead series when time allows. Next week I will be providing an update on how things are going for me in New Eden, and the following week I will be playing and DMing some D&D at IntrigueCon’s Spring Mini Con.
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.