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.
Events in the news over the past few weeks have brought my mind back to a post I wrote on July 15, 2017 called Safety, Security, Atrocity. Some of the recent events inflamed long-standing tensions, which I am not going to name specifically because I will not be able to address those properly today. I also just finished reading Crash Override, which is a great book for anyone who cares about online culture (and if you are reading this, that means you.) The big idea that links that post to the stuff I am thinking about now is that the safety and security that we can reasonable and ethically achieve is 100% based on trust. Not consequences, checks and balances, or coercion. Some of these may be useful tools in protecting trust, but at the end of the day there is no prison, no police force, no banhammer, no government that can ever replace trust. It is therefore pointless to double-down on any of those things unless there is a reasonable expectation that trust may be restored in the process.
Any group of people who share beliefs and material interests looks to community leaders for validation and guidance. Some leaders are officially designated as such, others lead with their ideas and actions. But without trust, none of their titles matter. It does not matter how many men call themselves “captain” if none of them have the necessary trust invested in them. Without any leaders at all, movements fizzle out. This is the main reason that Wall Street is no longer Occupied.
So take a look at your leaders. Are they risking something for standing up for what is right or are they sowing mistrust? The “mirror universe” plot device in various Star Trek series is a handy way to examine the importance of trust. In the regular canon we generally have diverse crews of people who implicitly trust one another as they struggle against foes or the environment. But in the opposite-world of the mirror universe there is hardly any trust to be found. The “evil” versions of the leaders from the mirror universe such as Intendant Kira or Smiley O’Brien work on the assumption that nobody trusts anybody, so it never occurs to them that enforcing a draconian labour system that resembles a slave plantation or kidnapping a child and holding them for ransom are the wrong things to do. Every time trust is given and others empowered, their security is threatened. What a person is willing to trade for security tells you a lot about their character, and the character of the leaders that your community follows reflects on the community itself.
Leadership alone cannot build a community. Participation is every bit as important if not more so. For those of us who are comfortable enough to do so, being visible in our participation in rallies and online spaces sends a message to the less committed about what is socially acceptable. Take a look at what members of your community are saying and doing. If you feel more compelled to make excuses for them than to cheer them on, then it is probably a good idea to be careful with your trust and be selective in your participation. A community can never force an individual to participate in it.
So, as I think about how things can change for the better I am thinking not just what’s wrong today or where we can get to by tomorrow. I am thinking about how to keep the wind blowing in the right direction. And right now the thing that my mind continues to return to again and again is that there is no such thing as laws or rules that exist without trust. There is no way to force trust, and it necessarily means giving up on the idea of perfect security. The only way that we can change society for the better is by building trust; societal change can be achieved by brute force but it won’t be for the better.
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.
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.
If you’ve read my author profile on this blog, you’re aware that I’m a fan of games of all sorts. In board games, I’ve noticed an increased popularity of hidden-role games. Games like Love Letter, Two Rooms and a Boom, and Spyfall all involve keeping your identity and intentions secret from the other players in the room or at the table. These games often have very easy-to-learn rules, and most of the games mechanical weight is carried by the players’ abilities to bluff, act, and occasionally straight up lie to their friends.
One hidden role game that goes a long way back is known, at least to me, as Assassins. This game, often played over the course of days or even weeks, sees all the players assigned a hitlist of other players they need to “kill”. In the version I was familiar with, the “kills” were done with plastic spoons; contact with another player’s spoon meant “death”. However, if you were caught, you were penalized in some way, usually being forced into a makeshift “jail”, or being forced to forfeit your spoon.
What if the game was played on a luxury cruise ship in the 1920s? What if the game was organized by a multi-millionaire megalomaniac? What if, instead of “killing” other players with spoons, you actually killed with a bevy of ludicrously dangerous weapons?
If the preceding question pique your interest even slightly, The Ship might be of interest to you.
Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 4 hours and 63 minutes, respectively.
Telltale Games are a game developer which primarily makes adventure, or story, games. They’ve become well-known and respected within the industry for their skillful additions to the genre. Because their talents range from comedic to tragic, they create lots of licensed games, including Back to the Future, The Walking Dead, Batman, and many others. For my part, Telltale games has two titles in my Steam library’s favourites folder: Tales From the Borderlands and Fables: The Wolf Among Us. Indeed, their skill at crafting games and stories has led to some of the funniest moments I’ve encountered in gaming as well as some of the saddest.
Poker Night at the Inventory is very unlike Telltale’s other games. Unlike the story-rich sagas of their other titles, Poker Night at the Inventory and its sequel, Poker Night at the Inventory 2 take characters from various video game and pop culture series and sit them down for a game of Texas Hold ’em Poker, with the player as the fifth at the table.
Poker is, in and of itself, an interesting game. The player must use their own pair of cards, secret to the other players, to create a high value hand in conjunction with a set of five community cards, visible to all. In popular culture, poker is a game of secrets and bluffing. A game where one doesn’t play the cards on table nearly as much as they play the other players. A game of figuring out each other’s “tells”, the physical responses that players have to good hands, bad hands, lies, and the like. It’s a cool game, played by spies, gunslingers, and other men and women of dashing and daring complexions. Played in high-stakes casinos, private rooms at exclusive clubs, and in the smoke-filled suites of luxury zeppelins.
In real life, poker is mostly math. Unlike its casino game cousin blackjack, poker forces players to work out probability with very little information. The best poker players in the world can do this without obvious tells; they can do it just by observing a player’s actions, like raising or folding. Far from a secretive game, the best poker players in the world play in televised leagues, playing games where the value of the pot is generally measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a truly well-written and humourous look at the world of professional poker, I highly recommend checking out Why Do I Do This For A Living, a video from the youtube series Pretty Good by Jon Bois.
Speaking for myself, poker is not an especially fun game. I’m bad at math, I don’t like stress or pressure, and I don’t think any of us really enjoy losing money. The only real fun to be had at poker is the company one can share while playing it. In that sense, poker is, in my experience, less a game and more of a social event, played in a comfortable place, with good friends, good food, and good conversation.
If you really adore the game of poker, either as it’s portrayed or as it is in fact, chances are you’ll enjoy Poker Night at the Inventory. However, if like me, you find poker to be a pretty unenjoyable experience, your enjoyment will depend on whether or not you enjoy the company of the players at the table. Telltale Games gambles that you’re going to really enjoy sharing a table with the players they’ve assembled. You play a high stakes, no-limits game of Texas Hold ’em Poker at The Inventory, a fictional speakeasy.
In the first game, Poker Night at the Inventory, you join a table with the Heavy Weapons Guy (from Team Fortress 2), Strong Bad (from Homestar Runner), Max the rabbity-thing (of Sam & Max), and Tycho (the in-comic persona of Penny Arcade creator Jerry Holkins). Each has their own personality and quirks: Heavy Weapons Guy is stoic and aggressive, Max is unpredictable and unstable, Tycho is composed and laid-back, and Strong Bad is a diminutive wrestler with a Napoleon complex. Over the course of the game, you get to see how their attitudes and personalities interact with one another.
In the second, you meet Brock Samson from the show Venture Brothers, Claptrap from Borderlands, Sam from Sam & Max, Ash from the Evil Dead films, and Glados from Portal as a special guest dealer. Again, the character’s personalities and quirks affect how they play with you. In both games, the characters will occasionally find themselves betting with something other than money. Usually, a weapon or item which represents an unlockable item in another game. While it can be thrilling to unlock a special item in this way, it often depends entirely on how well you play poker, which is largely up to random chance anyhow.
For Full Steam Ahead, I decided to try and play as legitimate a game of poker as I possibly could. The buy-in, the money used to purchase entry into the game and as a reward for the winner, for the first game is $10,000. If I win, I walk home with $50,000 dollars, and that money would be great for me and my family. Similarly, a loss of ten grand would be utterly devastating.
In the game, I play carefully. I get into betting wars with Strong Bad and the Heavy Weapons Guy early on, knocking them out. After that, I spend a lot of turns fold garbage hands that won’t win me any money. Over the course of this, Tycho is knocked out after going all in with a flush against Max’s full house. After that point, it’s several turns of Max and I trading chips back and forth. I get two pair and go up $35,000. Max hits me with a straight three hands later to take a dominant lead. I’m able to bluff my way back to parity with Max. Finally, I’m able to get Max to go against me. I’m able to beat him with a flush while his attempt at a straight doesn’t turn out. The game is over. I’ve managed to win the tournament, and walk away with an extra $40,000. While the game was fun, and the characters suitable chatty, eliminated players leave, meaning I spend the majority of the game with a psychotic lagomorph. Not exactly a comforting experience.
The second game goes much as the first. This time, the buy-in is $20,000. Sam bets his trusty banjo instead of cash, which the house accepts as payment. Ash goes all in on the first hand with queen-high, a terrible hand. He loses, and is eliminated. The next round, Sam and Brock Samson each go all in against Claptrap, who manages to best them with two-pair. They’re each eliminated. That leaves me and Claptrap, a cocky robot from a planet where he is frequently used as target practice. After many hands of making terrible, terrible bets, Claptrap finally loses the last of his money to me. I leave the Inventory with $80,000 and a banjo (which unlocks a Max mask in Borderlands 2).
What did I learn from my poker nights at the Inventory? First and foremost, I do not enjoy poker as a game. I didn’t when I bought the games in the first place, but I had hoped the writing would be fun enough to keep me occupied a little longer. Secondly, that I do not want to ever be in a situation where that much money is on the line. In game between me and Max, I frequently was betting tens of thousands of fake dollars, just to stay in the game. It made me super uncomfortable, and it wasn’t even real money. I guess I prefer my social gatherings with friends to not involve the potential loss of significant amounts of money.
Welp, I could certainly use a less stressful game. What have you got for me, random Steam list?
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.
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.
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.
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.
I swear I’m going to talk about Bioshock in a bit. It is a game that deserves to be talked about. But if you’d all be so kind to allow me a minor digression and retrospective, I’ll make it pay off. Cool? Cool.
November 2007. I’m hanging out with my best friend who has just bought Bioshock. The game was critically acclaimed for its setting and its stellar writing. Created by developer Ken Levine, it was considered a spiritual successor of his previous game series System Shock. The game won game of the years awards from BAFTA, IGN, and X-Play, all respected sources of video game journalism at the time.
These praises and accolades meant very little to me. I knew nothing of its setting or the System Shock series. The writing was good window-dressing, but I thought little more of it than that. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less about games criticism or analysis, because at the time, games did not mean much of anything to me.