Some games I’ve recently enjoyed

Lichdom: Battlemage

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When I first saw this game on the web over a year ago, I laughed. I laughed my butt off because “Lichdom” is right up there with “Revengeance” in the dumb-sounding-names category. (Get it? Dumb? DOM?? HA!) I also assumed it would kind of suck. I don’t even know why. Judged a book by its cover, I guess.

Turns out that the game is great, in a wacky kind of way. The spell and loot system– which allows you to craft your own spells out of spell effects that drop from enemies– is fantastic. I created a spell which allows me to throw exploding ice grenades. Then I created a GRAVITY BEAM that drops black holes on dudes. Nice! 

On the other hand, the writing sucks. Troy Baker and Femshep patter on emptily at one another, and my male main character kept shouting “Bitch!!!” for practically no reason whatsoever. He used the word the way people use “shit!”. At one point I think he literally died and came back to life shouting “BITCH!!!!” There was no woman present.

I also appreciate that I had the option to play as a lady, which I am sad to report that I did not accept. I am stupid. If I’d picked the busty female character I could have had Jennifer Hale’s voice!

Eidolon

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Some people have criticized this game for being too easy or boring. They are wrong. This game is CHILL. It is beautiful, well-written, and EXTREMELY CHILL. You will wander around a not-particularly-dangerous environment reading fascinating little scraps of paper and munching on blackberries. I like that a lot.

The story behind the game is an apocalyptic sci-fi tale examining the implications of eternal life. What happens when rich dudes are able to make themselves live forever? Will society collapse? (YES.) If it does collapse (YES IT’S COLLAPSING) what will happen? Specifically, what will happen to Seattle and Victoria? Play this game to find out!

I visited Seattle and Victoria precisely two weeks before playing the game for the first time, so that was a fun little coincidence for me. The Pacific Northwest is IRL a very pretty place, but I’m not sure it’s as consistently pretty as this game. I have screenshotted the shit out of it and uploaded precisely thirty of those screenshots to Steam. I am also responsible for the only Steam Guide on how to play this game. Wow! What fame!

The Nightmare Cooperative

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I keep telling people that this game is called “Nightmare Collective.” It’s not. It’s a Cooperative. It’s basically “868-Hack but if you controlled up to four dudes at once and they all had a special power.” Like 868-Hack, I am both obsessed with and terrible at it. I haven’t even yet reached the fourth zone.

When I was in college my friends and I were obsessed with Nethack. We had long conversations about the role that hubris and temptation play in permadeath games and I still think that temptation and hubris are the most important parts of any roguelike/roguelikelike/whatever shitty name people are commanding we use this week. Roguelikes. Nightmare Cooperative is a roguelike and it tempts me to awful acts of hubris. This is why I keep coming back to it.

It’s on iOS now, which is cool.

Crypt of the Necrodancer

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I have been playing about an hour of Necrodancer every night since it came out on Steam. Do not be misled by the dead-in-zone-two screenshot above: I am a very cool person who has accessed up to zone three of the game. However, I am not yet cool enough to access zone four. I am very sad about this. I am stuck on Zone Three of both this game and Nightmare Cooperative, so I’m probably cursed.

Crypt of the Necrodancer is full-release levels of great but it’s in Early Access. It does that hubris/temptation thing beautifully. It is the only rhythm game I have ever unreservedly loved. I don’t love it enough to marry it, but I’m coldhearted and wouldn’t marry anything anyway.

The first and last thing I’ll ever have to say about Minecraft

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I’ve never written about Minecraft. This is odd, as I’ve owned it since the second or third month it was available for sale. Some of my most involved Minecraft-playing took place during the time I was abortively trying to be a “games journalist”, and I still didn’t write a single word about it. It’s difficult for me to describe my relationship with Minecraft. Even when I play it with other people, it feels like an intensely introverted activity. Playing Minecraft feels like hiding inside my own mind. And, to some extent, this is exactly what it is.

More than almost any other open-world game, Minecraft offers you a real reflection of yourself. In GTA you can ask a man to upgrade your car, and in Assassin’s Creed games you can assemble little armies of followers and choose what clothes they’re going to wear, but these games have never made me feel like I am the true organizing force behind their realities. Minecraft, Terraria, and even Skyrim to some extent explicitly make you feel as if you are remaking a world in your own image. That is the promise they peddle: not just an open world, but a responsive world. A more interesting mirror.

When I first started playing Minecraft in 2009, I was an undergrad at Dartmouth and I was pretty much totally stressed out every minute of the day. I’d just joined a co-ed undergrad fraternity. I was writing around 600 words a week for the small website my friend Kent and I had just launched about videogames. In order to keep up-to-date on games news I was also reading three hundred news headlines a day in Google Reader. When I wasn’t doing all that, I was editing a humor magazine and working as an informal librarian for Dartmouth’s collection of antique scientific instruments. And in between all of these responsibilities and obligations, I managed to flog pretty damn high grades out of all my classes. When I found Minecraft, I began playing it as a mindless way to de-stress.

Minecraft takes a complex world and reduces it to a hundred thousand tiny easily-solved problems. If you want to build a castle, you must first collect a pile of stone blocks. You mine each block one at a time. You feel efficient and mechanical. Each press of the mousebutton is a single small but meaningful step toward your ultimate goal.

There was a period of several months where I was the only person I knew who played Minecraft. I was a minor officer in the fraternity, and at fraternity meetings I’d sit in a corner with my laptop out, busily clearing out entire caverns, and deliver my officer reports without taking my eyes off the screen. The metaphor is now painfully obvious: In a world where I felt profoundly out of control of the flow of my life, the world of Minecraft was something I could control very precisely.

I began spending almost all my free time in Minecraft. For over six months, it was the only game I regularly played. When Survival Multiplayer launched, many of my close friends joined me. I remember that we sat in the fraternity’s living room until three or four in the morning, digging out enormous underground farms, rigging up spider pits, erecting long winding walls, and demarcating our shared world into regions of power and authority. There were seven or eight of us sharing a server, and we all lived in the same house, too. We spent as much time interacting in our handmade world as we did in real life.

I still remember many of the things I built. Their little architectural flourishes were more for my own amusement than for showing off to others. I was very preoccupied with defense against monsters, and almost every house I built had a moat. I would dress the inside of my houses up as if I actually lived there- bedroom, kitchen, workroom, sitting room– and wander around inside, watching monsters mass outside my windows before the currents of the moats carried them away.

I also liked to go into our shared mines and “smooth them out.” I had a fascination with the half-height blocks. When my friends dug little warrens of narrow tunnels, I would transform them into irregular vaulted caverns with squared corners and floors that flowed down in smooth steps. I was obsessed with the idea of making our tunnels easily navigable, of increasing lines of sight, labelling passageways with signs and arrows. If a series of tunnels was too complex to smooth out, I’d just mine it all out into a single enormous cavern. I wanted the chaos of worldgen to submit to my overlord organizer-brain in exactly the way that real-world chaos would not. And the great thing about Minecraft is that if you try hard enough, everything will submit.

In Minecraft, you can organize anything. The chaos you see at worldgen is an invitation to organize as much as you possibly can. And just as a child’s imagination with Lego can tell you a lot about how they think about the world, whatever kind of house you build in Minecraft becomes the most permanent reflection of your attitude and organizational strategy, your values. We’d tell each other: I’m building a mansion floating in a lake– because I value safety and beauty, because the biggest chaos I fear in this world is the chaos of grunting zombies. I’m building a mineshaft that goes to the bottom of the world because I love building perfectly square mineshafts with perfectly spiralled staircases. I’m building a farm that farms itself because I love the needless efficiency of mechanization. One of my friends only built utilitarian cubes– a door, no windows, a torch on each wall, all his crafting stations heaped on top of one another in the corner next to a bed. He told us: this is all I need. And when we called him a philistine, he cracked up.

I mostly quit playing Minecraft when I got a job in California. I felt like I had taken life by the throat and for a long time I only played games relevant to the projects i was working on in the office. But these days, I am admittedly not super happy with the direction that my life is taking and, lo and behold, I’ve started playing Minecraft again.

This time, the first thing I built was a cute little cabin with a farm and an animal pen. My goal is to collect enough sheep to have exactly two of every possible dye color, because I’m a server operator this time, and the one thing I can’t magically give myself with the operator commands I know is a rainbow of thirty-two furiously baa-ing sheep. I’m also going to collect a horse of every color, and a pack of dogs, and probably a billion cats. I’m going to build barns for each of them and probably label all of them. I’ve already built two extremely long roads linking NPC towns– long, convenient, and therapeutically boring to construct. I haven’t started smoothing out all the caverns in my mine, but I probably will. I can feel the impulse coming.

Multiplayer Minecraft feels to me like introversion because even though I play with other people, I’m directly addressing a compulsion-slash-fear so close to the core of my brain that it can’t otherwise be scratched. There are some fears and sadnesses that I can write out of my system– the fear of being alone, for example, or of not understanding other people. But the fear that I’m an impotent disorganized overwhelmed loser can only be easily countered by a world where I’m an all-powerful highly-organized world-dominating sheep-farmer.

Thanks, Minecraft. I accept this gift of sheep-farmery with embarassed gratitude. And, if I keep playing for the next six-and-a-half years, you’ll probably all get another six-and-a-half years of silence on the matter.

Assorted Assertions

TOE SHOES
Those toe shoes are just as weird and ugly as crocs. Roughly same things are often said in their defense, too. The only reason we tolerate these shoes is because fit, active people wear them.

THE HUMANITIES
The humanities are even more important than the sciences, because they teach you the art of bullshit. Confident bullshitting is a critical life skill. It is tied closely to the arts of writing and public speaking, and all three are united by the art of persuasion. Teach your children these things early in life, before you encourage them to study a science.

FAN ART
People who obsessively create extremely high-quality fan works, in any medium, are robbing themselves of the ability to benefit from their own creative output. They should stop and invent their own things instead.

TRANSHUMANISM IN SCIENCE FICTION
Sci-fi plots focusing on transhumanist ideas or stories are not exciting when they are straight robot stuff. They don’t hinge on any issues that normal people have. Normal people do not worry about whether to become an android or beam of disembodied space energy. Mass Effect 3 should have dumped the transhumanist/robot life subplot and focused on Space Politics or Space Racism instead, because politics and racism are issues that real people think about. The only way to make transhumanism interesting is to turn it into a bodily-autonomy issue, since that is a real world issue that real people deal with. (This is what DX:HR did.)

SILICON VALLEY
Almost everyone in Silicon Valley is paid too much.

HUMOR
Humor is most definitely a learned skill, not an innate quality that people are born with. People usually learn to be humorous as children, often as a coping mechanism, but if you have enough confidence and the right kind of feedback, you can learn to be funny at any time in your life.

DEAD GAME GENRES
There are no dead game genres. All game genres assumed dead will eventually return in some form, when given the proper platform and cultural moment.

The long haul: Pax East and GDC

This year I am attending both Pax East AND GDC, back-to-back. I am leaving Pax East on Sunday and attending GDC probably first thing on Monday morning.

I’ve heard of people doing this before, and they always say it is exhausting and draining and that two conventions in a row is too much. But I’ve been to Pax East every year since its inception, so I’m not stopping now. It’s practically the only time all year that I get to hang out with my friends from college, too.

On the other hand, I’m also very excited to attend GDC for the first time ever. I hope to see some great talks about narrative design, and I’ll be handing out flyers and/or answering questions at my company’s booth on Thursday. This is not the first convention I’ll be attending as a “real games industry member,” but GDC is a step above most other conventions in terms of relevancy and depth when it comes to my continuing education in games writing and industry stuff, so I keep thinking of it as my “first real convention.”

Kent Sutherland, my writing partner from Second Person Shooter, will also be at GDC. In the almost-two-years since we’ve graduated college, Kent and I both went from unemployment to for-reals games industry employment to “associate producer” positions, in two different Chinese games companies on two different sides of the Pacific ocean. It’s pretty bizarre how we were both able to get the kinds of jobs we wanted, despite the economy’s weakness, and that we’ve had such eerily parallel careers so far. I know he’s also very proud with what he’s accomplished, and it will be great for us to meet up at GDC again.

If you’re going to be at either of these two conventions, I hope you enjoy yourself. And if you’re not, I hope you enjoy the bizarre glut of news that these conventions will spew all over the internet. Here’s a bingo card I made for the event:

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I of course will be playing this bingo game myself and will keep you updated with results.