Thursday, February 23, 2017

Stardrive - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

StarDrive sets a new benchmark for the ‘4X Space Strategy’ genre. Starting with a single planet and a small number of space-worthy vessels, you must venture forth into the galaxy, conquer new worlds, build new colonies and defend your very existence against those who would take what is yours. How you play is your decision. Use diplomacy or brute force. Trade, spy and research your way to galactic domination. Make friends, or create mortal enemies…

The heart of StarDrive is its ship design and combat engine.

StarDrive takes a modular approach to ship design, allowing the player to create custom ships where the composition and placement of ship modules really matters to the performance of a ship.. In combat, if your portside armour is taking a beating, then rotate around and show them the starboard side! Hide behind a friendly capital ship’s shields; warp into and out of the fray, launch fighters, lay mines, and so much more.

Previous Playtime

69 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Oh, such a long time ago, but if I recall, Stardrive was getting some very favorable advance buzz, and every time I saw a new screenshot I thought it looked polished and accessible. However, it languished for quite some time on my wishlist until that infamous 2014 Summer Sale, when I was apparently just buying everything that caught my eye.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is a game that I was aware of for some time before I bought it, and which I owned for even longer without getting around to actually playing it, but about a year ago, I was debating over which game to play next after Star Ruler 2 and I was on a bit of a space 4X high, so I decided to start this one up and see if it hooked me.

If I recall, it was a decently-executed space 4X game, with a fun ship-designing minigame inside, but it did nothing particularly special to justify me playing three space 4X games in a row.

Now, we'll see if that assessment was correct. I'm expecting a relatively painless gaming experience, but given the venom of some of the reviews StarDrive is getting, I imagine most of my enjoyment will be due to my uncritical love of the genre.  

Democracy 3 - 20/20 hours

So it's all over. My reign over the Republic of Graphistan. It wasn't always a glorious rule. Many graphs found themselves sinking uncontrollably. And while some of those graphs deserved their fate, others were merely the victims of my inexperienced misrule.

I can't say I enjoyed the game so much, but it's hard to sort out because I spent so much of the last couple of weeks miserable for entirely unrelated reasons. There was some satisfaction that came in successfully manipulating graphs using other, thematically-related graphs, but as an examination of ideology and politics, Democracy 3 fell flat.

A big part of my disappointment came from the abstraction of the game's mechanics. All too often, I'd face a situation like race riots or global-warming-induced killer cyclones, and all it would be is a new, red-colored graph. I'm not sure how it should have worked, but I would have liked a more immediate visual representation of my citizens becoming happier, healthier, and more racially tolerant (and, also, presumably, being swept up in giant cyclones).

My biggest regret with Democracy 3 is that I allowed my illness to slow my completion of the game. The flu probably wasn't directly to blame, in that there's a lot about this game that would dampen my enthusiasm anyway, but it certainly didn't help. Maybe if I'd crammed the graph-hacking into just a couple of days, it would have felt more immediate and intense. Maybe I would have experimented more, or taken pains to find exploits in the simulation's logic. Instead, my slow and methodical pace just led to me trying the same basic plan over and over again - carbon tax to get to positive revenue, then use the surplus to gradually increase education, health, and general welfare while the economy grows from high-tech productivity. In real life, I'm not sure that effectively and instantaneously doubling taxes would have all that meritorious an effect, but in the game, it worked everywhere except Canada.

Overall, I'd say that I want more games like this one, but that Democracy 3, in itself, isn't one of them. There's too little of the political nitty-gritty, too little humor and personality, and (forgive me) too many graphs. As refreshing as it is to play a game that centers around peaceful consensus-building (minus a few dozen assassins), it never really felt like anything but the world's most complicated game of solitaire.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Democracy 3 - 15/20 hours

Hey, I'm still alive, though I won't lie, there were times I wished I wasn't. Turns out my cold got worse. I think at one point, I was more virus than man, and not in a cool Prototype-style way, either. But I learned something - if you're running a fever so high you're sweating in a Colorado February and your lungs feel like they are trying to invert your whole body, starting with the mucous, the last thing you want to do is look at a fucking graph.

Don't get me wrong. I am the last person in any position to complain about graphs in a video game. Indeed, I can think of at least two separate occasions where I've explicitly and in writing wished for more. I've name-checked William Playfair. If there's another video-game blogger our there who is friendlier to graphs in games than me, I'd like to know about it . . . because they sound delightful and I would probably want to read their blog from beginning to end.

That being said, charts and graphs, for all their utility in making sense of a video game world, tread precariously close to the nebulous boundary that separates "play" from "work." I mean, not to be too reductive, but a lot of what we do when we play video games is press buttons with various degrees of precision. It can be fun, but it's not really a life-skill. And, indeed video game skill tend to translate poorly into literal things we can do with our actual flesh-and-blood bodies. If anything, your skill at Mortal Kombat is going to impede your success in the underground kung-fu deathmatch circuit.

However, sometimes a game demands of you scaled-down versions of real-world skills. Often, it is time-management, like in The Sims (though you might argue the difficulty there is scaled-up - very few adults have trouble balancing work, home-life, romance, and not pissing yourself in public to quite the same degree that Sims do). Even more often, though so abstractly it barely even counts, a video game will test your executive functions. And that is often the most pleasurable part of playing a game because in so many cases, your real-life job won't.

And then you have graphs. Graphs are interesting because they serve exactly the same function in the game as they do in real life. There is no metaphor or translation involved at all. You look at a video-game graph for exactly the same reason you look at a real one - to visualize complex data and try and discern trends and relationships that will help you make better decisions. And it is to Democracy 3's credit that I imagine I am getting a simplified look at the President's most important job skill - looking at a ton of bland, interchangeable graphs day in and day out, trying to translate minute and possibly coincidental changes into actionable public policy.

It's not a job for someone who is impatient, intellectually incurious, careless with details, or who is suffering from the worst flu of his adult life. Nonetheless, now that I'm finally coming out of it (fingers crossed), my biggest wish for this game is that it become even more "Graph Tycoon 2011." Allow me to fiddle with the x-axis, make it something other than time. Or better yet, give me an executive report each quarter filled with spurious correlations, fluctuations that could be meaningless or could be the start of a dangerous new trend. And then force me to make my decisions based on those. Just throw me straight into the deep end of epistemic uncertainty and all the subjective, "create your own reality" bullshit and let me try and craft a plan based on my own flailing attempts to salvage meaning from the chaos.

No, on second thought, that sounds terrible. Maybe just a few more graphs with a few more ambiguities. That would probably be enough.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Democracy 3 - 9/20 hours

I've had a pretty serious cold for the last few days, so playing Democracy 3 has been problematic. The combination of sleep deprivation and cough-syrup high has made me incredibly loopy. As you might imagine, that's not the best state to be in when you're sorting through menus and trying to find the correct combination of policies to transform America into a socialist utopia.

Or maybe it is, because I've discovered over the last few hours that this game is, indeed, loopy as fuck. I got an achievement for eliminating religion . . . in America . . . in less than eight years. It wasn't even something I was trying to do. I just started teaching evolution in schools and expanded the public education budget. I guess that means that in the world of Democracy 3, the right-wing conspiracy theories are correct - evolution really is a liberal plot to destroy Christianity.

That's probably not the explanation, though. Later, while playing Germany, I was able to eliminate all pollution and all crime. It was a pair of accomplishments that won me 90% of the vote. So, yeah.

I'm trying to imagine what that world would have looked like from a ground-level perspective. Some random guy gets elected with no party and no platform, but immediately sets about implementing broad social and economic reforms, moving from success to success, and totally transforming the nation. I'm inclined to think that no one would believe it. They would see what they expected to see, what they grew up knowing they'd see. Because their narratives would have inertia.

Or maybe I'm getting this backwards. Narratives have inertia, but so does reality. It's not just rational decisions based on cost/benefit analysis that drive policy. There are institutional barriers, path dependence, and cultural factors to deal with. You can't just look at numbers on a spreadsheet and say "this policy is better." In order to succeed in a democracy, you must in some sense be a mythographer. You must package your policies in a story of "how we get from here to there." Otherwise, your 3% gasoline tax increase will provoke riots in the street and completely torpedo every other point on your agenda.

Democracy 3 completely fails to capture that experience, the feeling that half the country is going to sabotage themselves to spite you. The out-of-control narratives that chain you to unworkable policy. The moderates clucking their tongues whenever you try to do "too much, too soon." You never have to mislead the electorate about your true intentions, choose between the public good and pleasing a donor, or grandstand over some meaningless, symbolic vote in order to demonstrate tribal unity with your constituency.

In short, it doesn't model democracy well at all. Real democracy is an absurd paradox of a system - something born of reason, but ruled by passion, a system that ostensibly serves the people, but in which the people often serve the system. And Democracy 3 doesn't really let you navigate those contradictions. It's more like a Philosopher-King simulator than anything resembling real politics.

I can't say for sure whether that's good or bad. I imagine, from a gameplay perspective, that having the game just arbitrarily shut you down would feel massively unfair, but on the other hand, politics is always personal, and Democracy 3 never seems to get that across.

It's something to think about. For now, I'll just say that it's fitting that I'm playing this game with a fever, because it often feels like a political fever-dream.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Democracy 3 - 5/20 hours

I think I have to admit that I don't know what I'm doing. The first time I survived to face reelection in the UK, I got something like 20 percent of the vote, despite improving every aspect of the country's governance. I guess people are just ungrateful. Or maybe I just took the heat for a global economy that sank into the shitter and stayed there. It's hard to say.

I have a theory that if I may be able to survive if I just do popular things and don't worry about the fate of the country, but I'm not sure I have the nerve to try it. I'm sure, in the long run, a failing country would sink my political ambitions, but it would be nice to survive at least one election. I'm finding the UK to be a lot less forgiving than the US, given that it doesn't have a nice, juicy overly-bloated military budget to cut and its taxes are already pretty high.

Seriously, balancing the Democracy 3 version of the US budget took me something like five minutes, and if it weren't for the constant assassinations, I could have completely transformed the country for the better, simply because the amounts being dealt with were so large that I only needed to make small changes to come out ahead. The UK's finances are much tighter, and the game absolutely punishes you for not balancing your budget.

This might be a bit of neoliberal, pro-austerity creditor bias sneaking into the game, but I suspect it's just a gamism. Like the fact that you always start your term with a 10-15% approval rating. As a simulation factor, it doesn't make a damned bit of sense. The whole premise of the game is that I just won a national election. Shouldn't my popularity start at 51 percent?

I think I may have to start engaging with the game as a game and not as a political laboratory. It doesn't seem robust enough to do that. There is almost no sense of coming into the game with a political past. Party politics is virtually nonexistent. Indeed, I thought that playing a parliamentary system would make the united executive and legislative functions seem more natural, but there's nothing in there about forming a governing coalition or shadow cabinets, or any of the nitty-gritty details of actually getting a government to run. The closest thing is your cabinet, and that seems assembled more or less at random.

While I can appreciate the thought that went into coding each country's particular situation into the model, the model itself is merely the statistical approximation of a country, and the game is more about manipulating statistics than it is about anything resembling politics.

Which is fine, manipulating statistics is something I really like to do. But treating Democracy 3 as a game has its downsides - namely, searching online for strategy tips is a freaking mine-field. Imagine all the intensity gamers bring to harmless discussions about art-design and system specifications, and then make the conversation about politics. It's not all bad. In fact, it's mostly good. But every once in awhile, someone drops in to ruin everyone's day.

I think I may be on my own here.

The simulated people of the simulated United Kingdom are in for a rough ride.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Democracy 3 - 2/20 hours

For a game ostensibly about the peaceful transfer of power, Democracy 3 is quite the bloodbath. I've played three separate games so far, and so far I've been assassinated three times. That's not a normal part of the process. In fact, it's actually quite rare. I mean, what is even the point of having a Secret Service if any random capitalist, black power activist, or liberal extremist can barge in and overturn the will of the majority.

And the thing is, I'm not even sure why it happened. I can sort of get the capitalist killing me, because I raised the income tax rate from 31 to 34 percent, but as for the others, I don't have the slightest idea. Perhaps I was to gradual and indirect. One of my primary goals was to end vigilante killing, but there's no button for that, so I had to rely on increases to education and poverty reduction, and thus maybe it wasn't clear what I was going for. I don't know, though, it definitely seemed like an unrealistic way to end an otherwise typical presidency.

I had an idea going into this that the simulation would have its flaws, but I never expected it to fail in this particular way. Maybe it's just specific to the simulated United States and the other simulated countries will be less lethal, but if so, I think my patriotic pride is wounded. We may have our problems here in the US, but we're not nearly so lawless as the game would make us out to be.

Then again, Democracy 3 doesn't really do that great a job in general of simulating US politics. There are no mid-term elections, divided governments, Senate fillibusters, or court challenges. The thing I did where I eliminated the tax credit for private school tuition and added the budget penny-for-penny to the public school budget would have been more or less impossible in the real world. Maybe that's what the assassination mechanic is supposed to represent - a stand-in for Sean Hannity screaming at me every night.

Probably not, though. I think it's more likely that it's just a misguided mechanic that's incidental to the fact that the game was developed in Britain and has some baked-in assumptions about the relationship between legislative and executive power that doesn't map well to the American political landscape.

I think this means I have to stop being President of the Unites States. I don't have quite the same emotional and cultural connection to the UK, but at least it won't violate my suspension of disbelief quite so much . . . at least, not until the second or third time I'm assassinated.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Democracy 3 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)
Have you ever wanted to be president? or prime-minister? Convinced you could do a better job of running the country? Let's face it, you could hardly do a worse job than our current political leaders.

Crime, Unemployment, National Debt, Terrorism, Climate Change...Have you got the answers to the problems that face western industrialized nations? Here is your chance to find out...

An entire virtual country
Democracy 3 simulates the motivations, loyalties and desires of everyone in the country. A custom-designed neural network is used to model individual voters, each which varying memberships of voting groups, political parties and pressure groups. Each voters income is modeled, along with their levels of complacency and cynicism. This is the most sophisticated political strategy game ever created.

Unique user interface
Despite being vastly detailed under-the-hood, Democracy 3 has a unique user interface that makes visualizing the connections between laws, policies, voters and situations easy. A simple iconic-based view of your countries issues allows you to 'drill-down' through all the relationships between policies and voters to quickly analyze the impacts of your decisions. Your trade policy may affect GDP, which will affect unemployment, which will effect poverty, and thus crime, leading to a change in tourism, which affects GDP...

Complex simulated voters
Each individual voter is a mixture of a subset of the 21 different voter groups represented within the game. They might be a young, wealthy, liberal socialist commuter, or a retired conservative religious capitalist, for example. Not only this, but the extent to which they identify each of those groups is both variable, and can be affected by your policies in the long term. Convert your country to religion, or atheism, to capitalism, or socialism by careful and nuanced adjustment of your policies and laws over time. A 'focus group' feature lets you look at individual voters and see exactly how they came to a decision to vote for you (or not!).

Previous Playtime
39 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This
It was a menu-driven strategy game with an unusual hook and I was in the middle of a buying spree. I liked the concept of managing a whole country and tackling real-world problems, and, of course, when anything comes bundled with DLC, it gets my attention.

Expectations and Prior Experience
 I futzed around for about a half-hour, messing with policies and trying to change the US into a socialist utopia, but I screwed things up something fierce. I think it was probably just a matter of me trying to do too much too fast, but I'm wary of the game's underlying political assumptions. Not necessarily in a sinister way, just that even if it's trying to be neutral, if you try to model something, you have to make choices about how to describe its constituent parts. And in the real world, when it comes to something as complex as politics, describing its parts is ideologically fraught.

I guess I'll just have to wait and see. My goal will be to try and suss out the game's algorithm and see if its complex enough to offer multiple valid paths.