This blog is, as the header says, about games. However, even those who are not familiar with the world of games are aware, at least in passing, of the phenomenon of the game Minecraft. I’ve often heard Minecraft compared to Lego bricks, in that their simplicity of design and ease of access allow imagination and creativity to blossom. As a kid, I spent hours with my family’s of tub of assorted lego bricks; no plans, just play. As an adult, I’ve spent hours hours in Minecraft building castles, palaces, complex transport systems, and often just exploring the winding depths of tunnels and far away biomes.
By the way, this post isn’t about Minecraft, at least not directly. However, I find it hard to think of Terraria outside of the context of Minecraft.
This year-in-review post’s neologistic title is derived from praxis, which is a word that comes to English from Greek via Latin, meaning the practical application of learning. This time it is chosen not just as a reflection on the year past, but to set an intention for the year ahead.
In 2018 I have struggled a bit with the praxis of Almost Infinite as a whole. I spent a lot of this year coming up with bits and pieces of ideas for what I want to write about and not as much time turning those bits and pieces into coherent prose. Looking back on the list of posts for this year, I can see that Full Steam Ahead has done a lot to keep the updates coming and for that I am very grateful to m friend Alastair. This series really deserves its own description page, which is on my agenda for early 2019.
Looking back at what I have posted, I am happy with the fact that I have had the opportunity to talk about a variety of different kinds of games and have recently completed a series that is heavier on ideas than “this is the cool thing I am playing this week.” That’s what I wanted to do when I started this, and I can say that this year has been a success as far as staying focused on the original intention rather than devolving into a banal list of nerd stuff that Graham likes.
My intention for 2019 is to do more of the things I have been thinking about doing and talking about doing. That starts in six days, when I am scheduled to stop talking about how much I like the idea of running more TTRPG adventures and getting to the business of running some D&D. As the year unfolds, these are some of the things I intend to be doing with this little soapbox I have:
More about political games, especially what one might call the ‘meta’ rather than the nuts and bolts of how contests play out. To be as brief as possible about this: it’s going to be an interesting year in Alberta, Canada, and the world but the internet is already saturated with outlets for hot takes. I want to do something different, for the same reasons I play and write about odd and/or old video games and try to talk more about meaning and philosophy than about media and mechanics. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have positions or personal biases but I really don’t think it’s worth any of our time for me to put on a partisan jersey and try to grab your attention away from more established opinion leaders. Not only am I unlikely to be successful in changing minds and votes, but I would honestly rather talk about ideas than specific outcomes of the contests we are likely to see in 2019. It is also the case that this blog has a geographically diverse readership, and I want to be able to speak to people who don’t live in or have a personal stake in (m)any of the places that are directly relevant to my situation.
I would like to continue what I started in the four aspects of a TTRPG series. That is, go deeper into the experience and ideas rather than just sharing war stories from the D&D table. That’s a fine thing to do, but as above, my intention is to look at a different angle rather than compete with the gobs of good content that’s already out there. My goal is to self-publish some sort of TTRPG resource on this site in 2019, though I haven’t nailed down what that is going to look like yet. What I do know is that it will relate to the praxis of putting the ideas I like to talk about into motion at the game table. I’ve always wanted to use the blog as a springboard to other projects, so this could be the first thing I do with Almost Infinite that isn’t strictly a blog post of some kind.
Try some new things with the site. Prose with pictures will remain the primary medium, but I’ve been wondering to myself and musing to my friends about looking at interactive fiction as a sort of crossover between game and literature. So in addition to writing about experiences with existing work, I might look at doing some of that kind of content on my own site as well.
So, as I prepare to take another cup o’ kindness yet for auld lang syne, I would like to thank everyone for another great year and express my appreciation for your taking the time to read the stuff we post here. It means a lot to know that people find value in our work.
Hello again everyone! I’m now writing Full Steam Ahead from my wife’s computer! Sarah was gracious enough to let me transfer my files and games to her desktop (named Numenor). Hopefully, this means I will be able to get Full Steam Ahead back on track, and continue playing games without further delay. Seeing as this is something of a fresh start for me, it’s somewhat appropriate that the first game I play is a game about going back in time. It’s time to return to the middle-eastern fairytale setting of Prince of Persia.
There is a meme out there about unnecessary interactivity. Press F to pay respects. Having heard people talking about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, I assumed that I would find it interesting as a story and uninteresting as a game, just like developer Chinese Room’s previous work, Dear Esther. I would say yes, both, moreso that I expected. I loved the story and the sense of place developed in the valley. I liked having the narrative broken apart and then discovered nonsequentially. However, I think that as a game, this could have been named Unnecessary Interactivity. It’s a lovely setting, but moving through it is very, very slow and the parts where you have to “tune” a memory are not adequately explained at first. Did I mention that movement is slow? The title of this post was inspired by my experience of the game side of it: I was asked to press a button but it didn’t make the experience any more meaningfully interactive.
By far the most frustrating part of playing this game was trying to get the image above. I was playing the game via Steam, in which I had remapped the “take screenshot” key to something other than the default. But that was before my hard drive failed and I had to reinstall everything, so I figured I could just alt-tab, reset the key binding, then go take the picture. Did you know that changing Steam settings while a game is running will force-restart a game? I found out in that moment, and then started to scream and pound on my desk. I was psychologically committed to finishing this game and writing a post about it. But I would have to do it all again, from step one, not even able to skip the long artsy intro. It turned out well enough, on the second try I had a much better time with figuring out how to “tune” some of the major plot point anomalies, but the fact that having to redo any part of it caused me such grief says at least as much about my experience as the picture that I intended to take.
As a plot, it was wonderful and interesting. As I described it to my wife, she had mentioned that it has been compared to the film Annihilation. So we watched that film the next day. These are very different stories, though I can see how they can be compared and contrasted, but because I had just finished Rapture and was watching the film because I wanted to know how similar or different it was, the strongest conclusion I could draw was this: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture should have been a film. It would of course require a few subtle changes, but the best thing about Annihilation was that it was able to keep a good pace. It felt neither rushed nor frustratingly slow as Rapture. And no need to mash any keys on my keyboard in the vain hope of picking up a little bit of velocity.
Earlier, while playing The Sims 4, Sarah brought up an interesting point for me to consider: how do I know when I’ve played a game enough to write about it? For some, the plot or story is easily completed in my spare time. For others, the story is loosely defined or not a central part of the game and I need to figure out how much of the game I need to play to get a good feel for it. Two hours? Ten? Twenty? Full Steam Ahead is a fun project, but I am not without my limits; I’ve come to terms with the fact that there are some games I will not be able to fully explore before writing my post.
Well, today’s game is called Endless Space, so I think we can all guess whether I discovered everything or not.
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.