There are several games I’ve covered (and many more to come) in this series that are difficult to write about. Some are simply too short for me to get much of a read on them. Others are outside my area of expertise. Others are big enough games that I would have to dedicate inordinate amounts of time in order to do them justice.
Others are just kind of weird. The weird games are often the most difficult to write about for a variety of reasons. First of all, weird is an awfully subjective term. For all I know, the weirdest game I’ve ever played could be completely mundane to someone else. What’s more, I always feel like there must be something I’ve missed, some key to help me understand the game, and that I’m not giving it a fair shake.
Cosmic DJ is a short game. It is a game about dance music, a subject where I’m competely clueless. And while it’s not terribly complex or difficult, it is certainly weird.
Agency is the character’s capacity to act, rather than simply have events unfold around them. The thing that makes the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) so neat is spreading out the agency among several players rather than having one person, an author, decide what every single character does or does not do. It is not evenly distributed in most TTRPGs; the DM/GM/Storyteller being responsible for most of the characters that exist in the fiction. It’s not appropriately called a “game” if the person running the show narrates the entire thing. Players, in order to be players, must be offered the opportunity to act. The kind of options for action that are available, and the consequences of those actions, remain the purview of the person running the game.
One way to offer players a chance to act is to present choices or dilemmas. Whether between two good options, two bad options, or one clearly good and clearly bad there is a direct choice: kill the werewolves and in doing so break your oath to the moon goddess, or let them sack the nearby village and deal with the displaced families afterwards. The DM who writes/runs these kinds of adventures probably reads up on ethical dilemmas and imagines how to weave it into a tabletop adventure for fun. Having dice and characters make things more fun than imaginary trolleys, after all. This is generally the style I like to play: I don’t get everything I want, but my choices and the choices of those around me matter in an important way.
Another way to do this is to offer deliberately blind choices. For horror games this usually means a choice between bad or worse, with no indications and/or possibly false indications to the players which is which. There really is no “winning” here, no solution to the problem or way to overcome the insurmountable. The choices the characters make are more about showing who the character is rather than what they can do to affect their situation. Although the game is interactive, the characters have a low degree of agency in the plot. If it sounds like I’m writing about this in a negative tone, it’s because this is a type of game that I find it hard to get into. It’s fine to run this game if the players know what they’re getting into, but possibly campaign-ruining if you have been running lots of heroes faced with ethical dilemmas type stuff and then want to show everyone that your new villain is really badass. It’s a fine way to run a game; I know what I am getting into when I play a game with “Cthulhu” in the name. I just don’t know a lot of people who can really get into that sort of thing and I’m a “maybe” at best.
The third is like a puzzle, sometimes literally and sometimes just functioning that way. There is one way to progress. The players need to solve for x. The only way to really lose is to give up, and the way to win is to find the answer (which could be a combination that opens a door or something less concrete like the identity of the person who committed a crime). This is something I can get into when it’s a video game, less so when it is a tabletop RPG, even less when I have created a character and a backstory. It just doesn’t mix well for me. If my agency is to be limited to things that solve the puzzle and things that don’t then I would much prefer to come in with a pre-determined character well-suited for the game to be played. I loved Portal and other such games, but I need my D&D or my WoD to be different than this.
The fourth way is where choices are basically made for you, which is where the word “railroading” has been a popular but possibly misleading way to describe what is happening. I’ve come to the belief that preventing a campaign from derailing is actually a good thing for a GM to do if the general consensus is that the game is intended to be consistent rather than absurd. That doesn’t necessarily mean forcing the players into a single course of action and making them feel more like their characters are being dragged along for the ride. This isn’t how any tabletop campaigns I have played in have been intended to run; it is what happens when a DM wants things to go a certain way so badly that they get a bit ham-fisted about it. I’ve done it as DM. It’s not a good way to go; the complete and total lack of agency almost never makes for a good game. If your group is doing something where the person running the event is more of an author than a game runner and encourages what amounts to audience participation, I guess this can be okay, but it’s generally the thing you want to avoid. And to be clear, prodding the players to leave the bus depot and explore the town after three sessions might qualify as “railroading” in the eyes of some, but that’s not at all what I am talking about here.
There may be more ways that agency in the form of choices for action may be offered in the TTRPG, but these are the four that I came up with in my conversation with the storyteller from my most recent WoD campaign that describe almost all of the TTRPGS we have played so far.
One of the first things I did when my HDD quit after seven years was choose which games to reinstall. I decided that Skyrim was on the list. I have on various occasions tried a second playthrough but for some reason August was a better time than others. I think one of the reasons why I got back into a video game from 2011 is that Tamriel is an extremely rich setting, and the writing is detailed but not overbearing. For example, I chose not to care about the civil war quest line at first because I remembered more about it from my most recent attempt at a playthrough. I thought I was bored with that part. But then I tried to explain to my wife the differences between the Empire and the Stormcloaks and found myself having to take a lot of time to do it properly. Once I got into talking about the facts about both sides I found that there was something to care about even if clearing forts is a little tedious. Despite a little bit of corny dialog, the setting is highly consistent and does not engage in much absurdity. Other games with different kinds of settings, like Great Ork Gods, crank up the absurdity because it’s fun. This is something I and the storyteller from my recent campaign identified as one of the key choices to make.
One of the goals I have as a DM is to run a campaign, not necessarily a super-long one, but something more aptly called a campaign rather than an adventure where people love the setting so much that they want me to run something else in the same setting and/or seek permission to run something in that setting themselves. I don’t expect it will ever compete with Forgotten Realms as a setting, but it would melt my heart if someone could ask for a setting by name rather than “the same world as your last campaign.” One of the things I will be watching closely is the consistency/absurdity balance. As the person running the show I will need to keep the group interested while also considering what I want to build, which will definitely skew towards the consistent. I really don’t appreciate when I or someone else really wants to do build up a world that exists in our imaginations beyond the field of view of the player characters, but others insist on making it into a farce of pop culture references and self-parody. It’s fine to do those things as long as that’s the kind of game the group has agreed to play, but it’s something I find harder to enjoy than when it’s baked into the game from the start. Going from consistent to absurd usually doesn’t work well for me.
However, as much as it is jarring when it gets dark and serious in a setting where I expected something more along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I find it preferable to the reverse (going from consistent to absurd). There is one time that stands out to me where something shed a lot of its absurdity; I actually enjoyed it a lot. I was a player in a Risus campaign which started as a fandom mashup of stuff our group liked, but as we probed into the penal system of a very “enlightened” civilization we came to the horrifying realization that in their desire to eschew traditional prisons they invented a new kind of psychological torture. This wasn’t originally the intention, but if I am going to have intentions about this sort of thing, I hope to be able to strike the balance as well as it was done in that campaign.
As much as I enjoy Skyrim, I can see getting into something more absurd again as long as it’s the kind of game that my group wants to play at the time. Whether by meticulous planning or by skillful improv, it’s something that I think is really important to consider in some way.
Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 12 minutes and 84 hours, respectively.
Welcome back to normal Full Steam Ahead! I’ve come through the month of Adam with only moderate trauma. That means, for the foreseeable future, when the games I play for this series are bad, I’ve no one to blame but myself.
Somehow, that’s less comforting than I wanted it to be..
Welcome to the final post of the month of Adam. Over the past month, I’ve explored a variety of games chosen by Adam Nordquist. These games have been confusing. These games have been terrifying. These games have be difficult to enjoy and difficult to play. These games have, almost without exception, been as weird as hell. What’s more, these games have been a real challenge to write about.
For most of my posts, I can usually get at least a paragraph or two out of my previous experiences of the game. For the month of Adam, I’ve been handed a series of games so far outside my wheelhouse that I often have no idea where to even start writing. I can’t speak with experience about Russian biological science fiction. I don’t have a lot to say about Swedish horror. I am probably the least qualified person in the world to write about queer bondage or demon hunting. I don’t know that anyone can talk about whatever the hell The Norwood Suite is about.However, for the last game of the month, Adam has given me, to use his words, a reward for getting through everything else.
Adam has given me a professional wrestling game. I’ve been a fan of pro-wrestling for some time. I watch wrestling shows when I can. I try to keep abreast of the storylines in a handful of promotions. I just finished Mick Foley’s autobiography Have A Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, and enjoyed it. And yes, I play wrestling video games. However, Adam is still Adam, and he would never pass on an opportunity to make me regret giving him this power. Thus, Adam has chosen the worst wrestling game I’ve ever played.
“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of my sanity, that some of Steam’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be left alone; lest Adam’s bizarre taste in games wake to resurgent life, and truly weird games splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.” Alastair Starke, with apologies to H.P. Lovecraft (but not many).
We return to the month of Adam, in which Adam donated a significant amount to the Calgary Distress Centre, and has chosen to use his power to choose the games for Full Steam Ahead to make me suffer.
This week’s game is a little-known indie game called The Norwood Suite. Released in October 2017, is the most recently released game yet encountered on Full Steam Ahead.
Awareness of either of these games before the month of Adam: none
Welcome back to the month of Adam. Adam donated money to the Calgary Distress Centre, and has chosen some really weird games for me to play, because he is simultaneously charitable and sadistic.
As odd as it may sound, I take pride in my writing. I won’t pretend that every piece I write for Almost Infinite is particularly novel, or filled with brilliant observations, or even terribly coherent. All the same, games are important to me, and the writing I do about them is important, and as with many things I’m proud of, I share my writing with the people in my life who matter to me.
Having said that, I have some reservations about sharing this particular post with my Grandma.
Welcome back to the month of Adam! For those unaware, Adam donated enough to the Calgary Distress Centre to select games for the entire month of August, and I’m now playing through them. Now, he made an effort to select games of which I had no prior knowledge. He was initially successful, but eventually he had to release the list of games to me. At that point, I was free to do some research.
We will talk about Year Walk the second game in the month of Adam in just a bit, but I would like to talk, for a few brief seconds, about some of the parameters I gave Adam. Adam is, after all, a friend, and he wanted to know if I had any specific requests. I’ll confess, I have no interest in playing any propaganda games, and I don’t particularly enjoy horror games. I said as much. Adam smiled, nodded, and then promised that he wouldn’t make every game a horror game. If you know Adam, you know that’s actually a fairly merciful guarantee.
So, let’s talk about the research I put into Year Walk. According to Wikipedia, “Year Walk is an adventure game developed and published by Swedish mobile game developer Simogo.” That doesn’t tell me a whole lot, but the words “adventure game” and “Swedish” lead me to believe that this is going to be a horror game. Now that I have completed Year Walk (including the secret second ending) I can tell you that initial hunch was right on the money.
So that’s the game Year Walk, but what actually is a year walk?
Dear readers, When I introduced the Steam-Powered Hope initiative during the holiday season last year, I expected to see a game moved here, or a replay there, gaining a few extra dollars for the Calgary Distress Centre along the way. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine someone would donate $100, and pay for five new games for me to play.
In recognition of this donor’s generosity, I humbly ask that you grab a pen, pencil, or sharpie, go to the nearest physical calendar you own, scratch out August, and write Adam in its place. Because my good friend Adam Nordquist has just bought this month, every post in August will see me playing through a list of games carefully chosen by him.
To give you an idea of Adam’s rationale our decision process, he presented a shortlist of a dozen or so games to me back in June. Then, he eliminated any game I had any familiarity or knowledge of. I’m diving into this blind, and I’m bringing all y’all with me. So, without any further ado, let’s get the month of Adam started with Vangers!
Just so that we’re clear beforehand, I love comics, and heroes, and good storytelling. The character of Batman is one the earliest memories I have, and the fact that Batman has always sort of been at the front of many aspects of geek culture has been particularly good to me and my interests. So make no mistake, there will be many other opportunities to talk about what that means to me, and what Batman means to me, and how I feel about the Batman games in my steam library, as well as introductions and more in-depth explanations of various aspects of the Batman mythos. But that’s not what I want to use this post to talk about.
You see, I’ve already played Batman – Arkham Asylum many times. I love this game. I’ve played the story, I’ve played the challenge maps, I’ve completed all the Riddler’s challenges. So I want to try something different with this game. In my mind, without a doubt, the Batman – Arkham series of games by Rocksteady Studios do a better job of capturing the feeling of being Batman. So, if that’s the case, how good a Batman can I be?