Skip to content

Category: Video Games

An Unlikely Romance

Imagine a video game that practically begs me to write about it on this blog. What does it look like? Probably some kind of fantasy or science fiction lore that makes clever game mechanics seem like they belong in play. It is probably ripe for social commentary, has an interesting economic system, and allows a vast array of different play styles for any kind of player. It would most likely involve many players and include choices about what kind of character a player wants to be. Good or evil? Violent or pacifist? Nice or jerk? Any/all combinations would be possible.

Now imagine the absolute opposite of that game. You are probably imagining something closer to Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator than to the games I usually write about. But today, I am going to be writing about playing Dream Daddy precisely because it’s so different than anything I would normally pick up. I received it as a gift in late 2017, and now figure that it’s a good time (around Valentine’s Day) to do something related to romance.

First, I am going to admit to some not entirely justified assumptions I had going in. Dating simulator, I thought, am I some kind of angry basement troll looking to dull his loneliness by playing a game where I can pretend to practice basic decency and be duly rewarded with my very own anime waifu? There are probably many counter-examples, but that’s what I assumed about the genre. When I saw the gift in my Steam inventory I had to look at the store page, and it immediately struck me: this looks way too gay to appeal to that stereotype. I wasn’t going to be embarrassed to have my wife catching me playing this in the same way that I might if I was playing Sakura Spirit or something with an aesthetic like that. So I decided to give it a shot.

The first thing I noticed is that while “gay” and “dating sim” aren’t usually keywords that tag me as the target demographic, there is still an awful lot of fan service for me in there. Corny puns, clever meta-jokes, and pop culture references relevant to the late 1990s had me laughing several times in my first play session. It plays out like an interactive novel but unlike Dear Esther or Gone Home there isn’t much opportunity to linger on some things and skip others even as I progress through a linear plot. Most of my first session was spent clicking through endless dialogue and exposition. It was charming, but kind of odd that not a day after moving into my new neighbourhood it starts raining men.

Hallelujah!

The first encounter I chose after the long introduction made it seem like I could not possibly mess this up, that I was just being offered the chance to say three different nice things. However, upon exploring more of the different options from the main “dadbook” screen, I found that there are some things the player-dad can do that will upset one of his new friends. I didn’t do too badly at that, though I was miserable at most of the minigames and the trivia contest. Things got a bit heavy when pursuing the Joeseph storyline and I had to quit for the day. I appreciated the effective use of the fade-to-black to avoid being too explicit on the intimacy, but the game did not pull any punches when it came to getting real about depression and societal expectations of men. It’s not all cheery colour palettes and cheesy jokes.

From what I can conclude so far, not having played through every possible ending, I would say that it was one of the strangest games I have played but it was rather entertaining. I had many laughs. But no matter how much xennial bait and silly puns that a person could cram into an interactive narrative, I don’t think I will be returning to this genre any time soon. I can, however, say that I should be better about making assumptions because this was far more fun than I would have assumed it could be.

Full Steam Ahead: The Ship

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 11 minutes

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.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII’m sailiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay…

Full Steam Ahead: Poker Night at the Inventory

Poker Night at the Inventory and Poker Night at the Inventory 2

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.

Your host at the Inventory, who just emerged from a secret passage hidden behind that bookcase.

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.

Good rule for poker in real life: Don’t play if one of the players has his picture on the cards and another has his picture on the gosh-danged table.

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.

Glados is speaking, calling Claptrap a moron. Clearly she didn’t learn anything from Portal 2.

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?

Next Episode: The Ship

The Real World of Online Harassment

When I saw that the first speaker in the Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking Speaker Series was going to be Anita Sarkeesian talking about The Real World of Online Harassment I made sure to set a reminder so that I could buy tickets as soon as humanly possible. I don’t know how long it took to sell out; it may not have been necessary to jump on that six minutes after they went on sale. But I know I did not want to worry about it because a talk like this could not be more relevant to my interests. I am not going to rehash what was done to her in this space. You probably already know, and if you don’t, you don’t have to take my word for it. But she began the talk by saying that she would much rather be known for what she does, rather than what was done to her. And what she does is very important: she is not talking about misogyny within the confines of academia using language that most people don’t understand. Just as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are bigger as communicators than they are as scientists, I think one of the most important things about her work is that it speaks to ordinary people and talks about things that are important to us like our video games. Being effective at engaging such a broad audience is something that is very difficult to do. I think she did a fine job of this on Wednesday evening, but it was inevitable that not everyone can be engaged in the same way at the same time. I have found the same thing about reading Crash Override: I find many parts of it very interesting. But then they have to take a step back to explain things to the parts of the audience that have not been closely following this subject matter for many years. It’s not exactly news to me that Twitter exists and has woefully inadequate mechanisms to protect people from harassment, or that there are men who feel way too threatened by the existence of “other” people in the gaming world, or that people say terrible things on the internet. And while my greatest fear did not come to pass (nobody tried to be disruptive), I did find that some parts of the talk were going over things that I already considered part of the historical record. I don’t have a good solution for this; whether presentations of this nature should be split into introductory and advanced versions as if they were academic courses I don’t know. But if I was pressed to find something about Wednesday’s talk that I didn’t like then I would say that it would have been more interesting if there was even more about the more recent work she is doing and a little less of the history that we can learn from watching that TED Talk I linked to and various other online sources (excluding the smear pieces, of course). I also would have been interested in hearing more about what we can do in the post Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games era to pick up the torch and continue forward.


This still hasn’t happened, despite Tropes vs. Women in Video Games having been around for five years.

This is not to say that I left empty-handed. Well, I guess I did in the literal sense because it was ideas that I took from the presentation. I didn’t leave empty-headed? Anyway, I did receive the message loud and clear that I need to read/watch lots of things that Alan G. Johnson wrote/said. I especially liked the clip that Anita played on Wednesday of Alan talking about monopoly. My only other encounter with his work is when he is referenced in Wall-E as Sociological Storytelling which no doubt inspired what I wrote about Monopoly in June in reference to what is happening in Canada. I don’t know how I managed to write that post without at least a nod to one of those sources. Though my style of blogging deliberately favours conversational tone over citation-rich academic style writing, I should still be giving credit where it is due. Anyway, what Alan says about the game certainly did resonate with my thoughts on games in general and I need to spend more time with his work and engage with systems theory as it related to gaming.

The other thing that I am taking away from this is the importance of not staying silent. It was a little bit upsetting when Anita revealed that she almost didn’t come as I really did enjoy the speech and not just because she made fun of Toronto at one point (the only way she could have played to the Edmonton audience harder would have been if she did the same thing but wore an Oilers jersey while doing it). I would have been really disappointed if I didn’t get to hear this talk. But the fact is that Anita didn’t owe us this. I am glad she did it, but if the ideas of rising against hatred instead of remaining silent about it in our gaming spaces are to stay alive and continue to grow stronger then this issue can’t be about Anita Sarkeesian, or Zoë Quinn or any other individual person. It can’t be left to a few individuals who are already carrying a wildly disproportionate amount of responsibility and expectation for counteraction of hate in the gaming world. The ideas will be stronger when they cease to be about humans who can sometimes be fallible. I don’t mindlessly agree with everything these women are saying and writing about harassment in the gaming world even when they are at their best. But the ideas, those don’t get frazzled or misspeak or have bad days that can be exploited by malicious critics. I have before and affirm again today that I will not resign to the acceptance that the internet is a dumpster fire that cannot be put out or cleaned up. My spotlight may be very small compared to others, but I still intend to use what I’ve got to detoxify my tiny area of the gaming world. If I am to be known for what I did rather than what I was, I hope that it be that my writing has contributed to a much larger force of public opinion that eventually made this sort of harassment a thing of the past. The presentation from Wednesday has renewed my enthusiasm for this. If that is not time and money well spent then I don’t know what is.

 

Full Steam Ahead – From Dust

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 8

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.

Ironically, From Dust is not a sandbox game.

…for dust you are and to dust you will return… (Genesis 3:19)

There Is A Good Chance I May Have Committed Some Light Cheating

Cheating sounds like a bad word. In video games is a good way to get yourself instantly banned from popular online services. But what is cheating when it comes to recreational video games? When there is potentially money on the line it could be an issue of basic fairness, but in a private instance of a game where no money or fame is on the line it is merely a self-imposed standard not to spoil the game. Those who remember the video games of the 90’s and early 00’s can probably still name their favourite cheat codes. In the hands of a person who is simply playing (rather than testing, demonstrating, or reviewing) the game these are basically spoilers: you can get on with the plot, see the “victory” screen and all that without being subjected to the challenges inherent in the game. This, in itself, is not immoral. Only when one brags about having beat the game does it become so, and in that case, it’s not the dodging of the rules itself but attempting to lie to people about how you got to the end. For oneself, the only reason not to cheat is to be able to enjoy the game as it was intended and to preserve your own belief that you are progressing fair and square.

But what about a sandbox-ish game where there isn’t an “end” where the credits roll and the game is over? In Your Own Objectives I wrote about what I am doing in Terraria where there is a boss monster progression but the building and crafting game is largely up to the player to decide what their goals are. In pursuit of my goal of ridding the world of the crimson blight legitimately (that is, within the play of the game rather than simply deleting it with a third-party map editor), I hit a wall at 1% as reported by the Dryad NPC. I thoroughly excavated large areas of the world in an effort to eradicate the crimson. But, eventually, the reality that I can’t spend all of my time tracking down that one last block I missed caused me to break down and download a map viewer called TerraMap. I used that to highlight all remaining crimson tiles. It showed me where that one last block was, as seen in the screenshot below.

See the red thing? No, not the arrow. That is the cursor. Right under my character.

I went and removed that one tiny little piece of red ice. But, when I went back to the Dryad, she still reported that my world was 1% crimson. How can that possibly be?!? I went back to TerraMap. The only thing it highlighted were not terrain blocks, but the locations of various chests, and then it finally occurred to me: the reason the chests were being highlighted was that the Dryad was reporting on the crimstone blocks inside the chests. I never would have guessed this if I had dug out every last one of the approximately five million blocks in a small world if TerraMap had not given me the hint. None of the forums and wikis that I usually use as a companion to the game ever mentioned blocks inside of chests. Now, armed with that knowledge, I was able to go through and dispose of the blighted blocks that were safely ensconced in boxes but counted nevertheless. The Dryad now reports complete purity of the world.

Was that cheating more than using the wiki to look up crafting recipes instead of manually presenting materials to the Guide NPC inside the game? More than when I found this forum post that tells a person how to make horizontal tunnels through sand in apparent defiance of how sand is supposed to work in the game? Yes, in the sense that the map editor did not merely relay general knowledge but actually read data from game files and presented it in a way not possible within the game itself. If I was absolutely true to my original goal of making a tamed world without reducing it to pixel art created in a map editor then I sure did cheat. However, as far as my enjoyment of the game goes, it is infinitely greater than if I had insisted on continuing the hunt for the last block even after that angled ice block pictured above was found. And I don’t use that word lightly: if I had stuck to my goal without giving up AND stuck to an absolute standard of purity then my enjoyment of the game would have been zero. So take any number of seconds I will spend enjoying the game from this point forward, then divide by zero.

So, back to building pyramids for now. Will I load up TerraMap again? I can’t promise I won’t. But neither do I think that the ongoing project of a small world that is completely under control will be illegitimate if I need a second hint in the event that my post-hardmode world has one of those tiny angled blocks that escape the cleantaminator sweeps. There are things I am willing to do in pursuit of an in-game goal, and things I would be willing to “cheat” to avoid if it leads to less spoiling of the enjoyment of the game rather than more.

Full Steam Ahead: Street Fighter IV

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.

Let’s go fight some streets!

Your Own Objectives

My wife was recently insisting to me that success should be self-defined rather than looking for external validation. Those aren’t easy words to hear for a man who is several weeks into trying to install a laundry sink, who is still in the middle of a long litany of leaks and return trips to the hardware store. That laundry sink which he could have paid someone to install, but was talked out of the service by the sales staff at the hardware store because it’s so simple and easy for anyone to install. In that light it’s easy to dismiss the notion of setting one’s own victory conditions because leaking fixtures don’t care what your personal goals are, they leak anyway. Yet neither of the two recreational games I have been playing to the exclusion of any others in recent weeks have such clearly defined success and failure conditions. They are both games that one wouldn’t play without the desire to set one’s own objectives. I haven’t been getting into any new-to-me video games (Alastair has that covered for now), but have been continuing to play two of the three most mentioned video games on this blog, Terraria and EVE. If you were hoping for an Undertale post this week, tough spaghetti. And in keeping with my commitment to this being a games blog that sometimes mentions EVE rather than an EVE blog that sometimes mentions other games, that leaves us with Terraria.

Surviving the first night in a hut like this is a good initial step, but don’t award yourself any medals for an accomplishment of this scale.

Some finite games have very clear victory conditions. The “sandbox” type games don’t have a specified end or victory condition and are only limited by the constraints of the medium and the amount of time we can spend with them. When the choice is placed upon us of how to measure progress it can be difficult to get the balance right. Victory conditions should be a challenge; merely surviving one night in Terraria is a good first step, but that’s not winning the game. However, victory conditions should not be impossible for mere mortals either, such as the complete purification of a large Terraria world from the ever-expanding blights (corruption, crimson, and hallow). Perhaps some of the linear content (such as fighting through the series of boss monsters) is the most obvious goal, but I don’t think that’s what sold 20 million copies of the game.

I abandoned my first medium-sized world because I knew that I wanted the blight to be under control but would never have the time and motivation to bring a world of that size back under control after letting it go for as long as I did. So I created a small world and got to work on using my advanced gear to immediately contain the crimson. I didn’t get it perfect, but seems to be stable at 1% crimson. My objective is not necessarily to play through all the boss monsters, though that is a perfectly valid goal. Having defeated Golem in my first world, I was able to assemble one of the best defensive armour sets available in the game yet once I summoned Duke Fishron I was quickly dispatched. At that point I decided that I would rather build for a while. Now, knowing that constructing one large base is more optimal than building a village of houses, I have a glorious tower.

The workshop section of the tower that runs from the very top of the map into the underworld.

It’s a great base as far as I am concerned. It houses all of my NPC allies. Every storage area is labelled (a big deal to those whose first workshops grew organically from one workbench and a single chest into a tangled mess of hoarding). In other sections of the tower, using the quirks of the fluid physics in that game, I can generate an endless supply of any of the three liquids (lava, water, and honey). My materials lab can also put out an endless supply of gel, an important crafting ingredient for torches and bombs. I also have a spider nest cordoned off that generates what I need to produce silk. Essentially, if a crafting material can be farmed, I can do it in this tower.

Water, lava, and honey are the three liquids in Terraria which can be combined to make materials such as obsidian. This is my setup for being able to manufacture whatever I need without having to search the world for materials.

All of this to say: the way I play the game is not according to a scoreboard or number of boss monsters defeated. The goal of building a home base to do these things was entirely up to me to conceive, achieve, and evaluate. I can show off my stuff, as I am doing in this post, but it’s not for anyone else to decide whether this is success or failure at playing this game. External validation is possible, but the way I choose to play the game makes it unnecessary to the core experience.

Who needs to explore deep caverns to find the glowing mushroom material for crafting? Not this guy.

Things seem to be going well with setting my own objectives in this particular game. Next on the list is to build some impressive pyramids (to fill the holes I made in excavating the crimson caves) because my world didn’t generate with a natural pyramid. I may even resume fighting the boss monsters as intended one day, but for now I am getting back to improving the tower instead of working on the sink.

Full Steam Ahead – Mount & Blade

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 5 hours

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?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a stupid idiot.

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.

  1. BIGG is the name of yet another absurdly large number (it is actually an acronym for bewilderingly incomprehensibly ginormous googolism).
  2. 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.
It was all a dream! / I used to read word-up magazine!

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.

I was a terror since the public school era.

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.

If the game shakes me or breaks me/I hope it makes me a better man, take a better stand.

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.

 

Next Episode: Street Fighter IV

Part of Something Bigger

Sometimes we play games that are extremely limited in scope. There is one way to finish a game of cribbage, by following the one track you are on to the finish line. Even chess, though there are so many ways of getting there, has only two endings (checkmate or stalemate). This is good if one wants to be finished with the game in a short amount of time. In order to be passionate about something like that, though, there must be another level to the game. Perhaps you are looking to increase your Elo rating to advance competitively, or to enjoy a brief moment of glory among family and friends before it’s time to move on. But it’s not the win itself that drives excitement, it’s the bigger picture whether it’s a score and a formal title or building and maintaining relationships. To be passionate about these games one must look at each instance of the game as part of something bigger.

A fleet taking down a player-owned starbase in EVE Online.

Other games, generally the ones I write about a lot, lend themselves to making the player feel like they are indeed participating in something that is bigger than their own experience. This is one reason that I appreciate games with immersive plots and storylines: it makes me feel like other things are going on in the in-game universe other than what is here and now in front of my face. Another way is to offer a chance to explore a world, as one can in the Elder Scrolls series. But in my experience, the most effective way to keep a game going indefinitely is to weave the social experience into the game itself. The tabletop RPG does this by ensuring that the boundaries of the game are malleable. Not that a dungeon crawl is an invalid play style, but that reminds me more of the single-instance games I mentioned at the start of this post. The campaigns we tell stories about are usually the ones that involve more than violence against the undead and making it to the end of the dungeon. The ones we remember tend to be the ones where the social interaction shaped the experience more than the dice or the rule book. Lastly, the MMO sandbox has clearly defined rules but leaves the objective and the ends up to the player.

Why did I spend an evening participating in the fleet pictured above and below? It wasn’t because of anything in particular to do with getting a structure kill on a scoreboard or what was inside that base. It was because I was a part of a corporation and I want to have good standing in that small team. I want my corporation to advance within our alliance and be a part of building that. I want that alliance to be successful because I believe in the values they profess to uphold. It’s all about being part of something bigger than my own ISK wallet and ship hangar.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

So, if you like to be done with games in the space of minutes or hours, play something limited in scope. If you like persistent games, I think the key is to fully engage with the story and/or social aspects because those are the things that make the player part of something bigger. And, incidentally, if you play EVE and really liked that code of conduct that I linked, recruitment is open.