Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition - 10/20 hours

Dark Souls has inspired in me a complex stew of emotions. The highs are pretty good - arriving in Undead Parish after hours of slogging through Undead Burg felt incredibly satisfying. But the price for this is that the lows are pretty low - dying a dozen times in the opening area of Undead Burg and having to walk back from the Undead Burg bonfire is . . . less than satisfying.

My overall opinion of the game is generally positive. Exploring, when done with care, is fairly rewarding, and now that I've got a couple more hours practice, I'm starting to move forward more than I'm sliding back. However, I also find it incredibly frustrating. Both for the obvious reasons, and because of little things - like the lack of a pause function.

I understand that Dark Souls has a strong online component, and as a result, pausing is not really part of its core gameplay, but it's so damned inconvenient for my particular circumstances. Most of my game playing is done at work (I know, I know, I've got the world's easiest job), where I have several hours a night to fill, but those hours have around a dozen sudden interruptions. Since, of course, I must drop everything to deal with customers, this has led to a lot of unnecessary deaths. Maybe that's not something I should blame on the game, but pausing is such a basic quality of life feature that I can't help thinking it a major design misstep to leave it out.

I don't think I'm going to make it to the end of the game by 20 hours (and, honestly, I can't even imagine what the end will be like because it has been so long since I've advanced the plot), and I'm not yet sure if I want to take it all the way. Dark Souls definitely has a way of getting under my skin, but it also has a way of filling me with despair. Only time will tell which tendency will win out.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition - 6/20 hours

The word of the day is "failure." What does it mean, in the context of a video game? Do I "fail" at Dark Souls when I die a dozen times in a row? Probably not, because dying is a central part of the game's marketing. I'm supposed to die. If I didn't, I wouldn't be playing the same game as everyone else. Dying is normal, and not something I should allow myself to get upset about.

Maybe that is the game's failure mode. Maybe there's an intangible barrier between zany, self-deprecating mayhem ("holy shit, that dragon came out of nowhere and one-shotted me before I even had a chance to react - this game is crazy"), and grim, self-loathing despair ("I keep getting killed by random, faceless, undead - I really suck"). Failure then, would be crossing that line in your heart. You fail Dark Souls when it stops being fun.

But that's pretty abstract. I think it's more likely that you "fail" the game only when you give up. Dark Souls has a story, and that story gives you a goal to work towards, and so long as you keep playing, that goal is never notionally out of reach. It only becomes impossible once you stop.

Sounds good. Except that there is a lot of room in the words "notionally possible." It's an idea big enough to contain "functionally impossible." You could, for example, repeat the same level over and over again forever, always dying to the minion squads before you get anywhere, and fail 90% of the time to recover your lost xp, and thus never get any more powerful, and always be confined to a narrow radius around your bonefire.

And while that has not happened to me yet, my experience of Undead Burg has certainly convinced me that it's a possibility. I've noticed a pattern where I will uncover a new area, immediately get killed by whatever is lurking therein, and then have to spend 3 or 4 lives to get back to the place I was before (checkpoints are few and far between, so every time you die, you have to start back at the same, eventually quite isolated, location), where I then get killed slightly less quickly and thus have to repeat the process again and again until I get it right. And then I push a little bit farther, find a new area, and get killed.

I've yet to get ahold of the rising feeling of mastery that is a characteristic of these sorts of high-end action games. Usually, when I play a level of, say, Viewtiful Joe and it proves to be beyond my abilities, I can repeat that level a dozen times and gradually, the rhythms of the the level imprint themselves in my subconscious, and things that were once difficult become trivial. Eventually, the level itself becomes rote.

That has not happened to me with Dark Souls. I'm still finding the low-level monsters to be a serious threat. I think it's because the checkpoint system is much less generous than in other games. So, I'm not just repeating the "difficult" parts. I'm also repeating the parts I could get through relatively easily, and by the time I get back to where I'm having trouble, the muscle memory has faded. And when I'm "successful" it means that there is a longer delay between the times I get to practice the early fights, and while sheer repetition means I'm able to get through them, I am not at all consistent in the resources I use in the process. So, beating a boss in Dark Souls is not just about taking on the boss, but also about learning the whole damned level well enough that you're not crippled by attrition by the time you get there.

And then, when you beat it, a dragon comes out of nowhere and flames you to death before you have a chance to react.

I worry that eventually, the chain will get too long for me, that the really tough nut will be at the end of a series of fights that I'm just barely good enough to get through, and thus I won't be able to accumulate experience (due to losing it all in a place not amenable to consistent recovery) or arrive with enough resources to win, and that as a result, I'll be stuck in an endless cycle of loss. That, in essence, I will "fail" at Dark Souls.

(As a meaningless aside, let me vent a little about Games for Windows Live - WTF is up with games making you sign up for various proprietary services when you try and play them - it should have included an option to opt out, but when I tried, it told me my game wouldn't save, and thus I swallowed my pride and went with it, but this now makes the fourth PC online service I've had to make an account for alongside Steam, Origin, and uPlay. I'll never be able to remember all these passwords).

Friday, August 29, 2014

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition - 2/20 hours

I'm afraid I'm not a very good PC gamer. And by that, I do not mean that I lack skill (though I'm not, by any means, great), but that there are things you need to do when playing PC games - various maintenance tasks and general good practices - in order to keep your machine in good condition and your games running smoothly, that I simply am not aware of and thus have long neglected. For example, I learned, while trying to play Dark Souls, that it is necessary to periodically update your video card's drivers.

This may seem like a no-brainer to all the experienced PC gamers out there, but it's not something I've ever had to deal with before. In the past, I'd just put the disc in my console and go. And while, with the most recent console generation, I'd occasionally get something like "your console needs to install an update before you can play this game," it was still nonetheless automatic. I didn't need to remember to do it.

I'm not used to relating to technology in this way. DIY was never really my thing. I like it when things just work the way they're supposed to.

So, Dark Souls and I got off on the wrong foot, because my drivers were out of date, my system specs are pretty close to the minimum, and this particular game is somewhat notorious for being finicky. When I first began the game, it was abysmally slow. It was a little like the action was going on under water. It's probably a testament to my innate stubbornness that I managed to play it for an hour and a half like this before I got too frustrated to continue and started searching the internet for a solution.

And here's where I make an embarrassing confession - even at half speed, Dark Souls still managed to kick my ass. You might think that perhaps that was because the slow execution of my character's moves was throwing me off, but, well, when I finally got the issue fixed and started playing the game at normal speed, enemies that were killing me before suddenly started brutally tearing me apart. And I was still near the very beginning (I'd estimate that I was in an area people normally reach after about a half hour).

I decided to start over and try a new character class, in the hopes that playing the tutorial dungeon at normal speed would help ease me into the skills necessary for the larger game. The first time, I chose a warrior and the second time I chose a sorcerer. Once I found all the equipment, I did a little better with a sorcerer build, but I suspect in the long run it's an advanced option (spellcasting is pretty slow, and thus kind of risky when enemies are not moving as if they're suspended in molasses).

So far, I'm not really "into" Dark Souls. I can see the appeal, and if I ever get skilled enough that my advancement stops being so dependent on chance, I may well get addicted, but unlike certain other action games, it doesn't seem to have an early game "wow" moment. The giant bird that carried me to Undead Burg (a name I admire for its functionality, but doubt would be something people in the setting itself would use with a straight face) was pretty neat, but the plot, in so far as I've been able to follow it thus far, sounds like the sort of impenetrable "epic" fantasy that tends to put me to sleep. I think that in the beginning of time, dragons fought the undead and were wiped out, and in the course of the conflict, both sides used magic that broke the world, and your character is some kind of special undead that will do something or other to halt the world's slide into eternal night, but there was a lot of arbitrary capitalization and proper names to keep track of, so I'm sure I'm losing the nuance.

I will say that other games have taken longer than two hours to win me over, so I'm not dismissing Dark Souls just yet, but I am really hoping that I will soon see something that will make all the dying worth it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store)

Dark Souls is the new action role-playing game from the developers who brought you Demon’s Souls, FromSoftware. Dark Souls will have many familiar features: A dark fantasy universe, tense dungeon crawling, fearsome enemy encounters and unique online interactions. Dark Souls is a spiritual successor to Demon’s, not a sequel. Prepare for a new, despair-inducing world, with a vast, fully-explorable horizon and vertically-oriented landforms. Prepare for a new, mysterious story, centered around the the world of Lodran, but most of all, prepare to die. You will face countless murderous traps, countless darkly grotesque mobs and several gargantuan, supremely powerful demons and dragons bosses. You must learn from death to persist through this unforgiving world. And you aren’t alone. Dark Souls allows the spirits of other players to show up in your world, so you can learn from their deaths and they can learn from yours. You can also summon players into your world to co-op adventure, or invade other's worlds to PVP battle. New to Dark Souls are Bonfires, which serve as check points as you fight your way through this epic adventure. While rested at Bonfires, your health and magic replenish but at a cost, all mobs respawn. Beware: There is no place in Dark Souls that is truly safe. With days of game play and an even more punishing difficulty level, Dark Souls will be the most deeply challenging game you play this year. Can you live through a million deaths and earn your legacy?

Previous Play Time

0 hours

Prior Experience

I'm having trouble remembering at the moment, but I believe I rented this game before, but was unexpectedly busy that week and thus did not play it for more than an hour or so. I may be thinking of another game, though. It didn't make much of an impression on me, whatever it was.

I have heard about Dark Souls by reputation, though. Its legendary difficulty has piqued my curiosity, but I doubt I would ever have gotten around to it, if it weren't for the generosity of Madcat.


I've played the occasional difficult action game before. I beat Bayonetta and Viewtiful Joe (on average difficulty). So, I feel like I have a reasonable idea about the trajectory of this sort of game - frustration, incremental improvement, a brief period of mastery before the difficulty increases again. I'd like to say that means I'll be able to handle it with equanimity. However, I've yet to play a hardcore action game that did not make me swear profusely.

I think that's how you can tell if it's a good one.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ship Simulator Extremes - 20/20 hours

Normally, I write a post at around 15 hours, but this time I skipped it, because it would have been exactly the same as the post I wrote at 10 hours, and as the one I'm going to write for 20. And while dullness is not a problem for me, per se, it does make it a little difficult to compose an interesting blog post.

I finished the Greenpeace campaign, and started the tourist one. Ironically, piloting a cruise ship proved to be more exciting than renegade direct-action political protests in the world's most dangerous waters. But it still wasn't exciting exciting. Because the game was still Ship Simulator Extremes. So, you have to rescue your cruise ship with tugboats when it becomes adrift . . . after having spent 20 minutes sailing into and out of ports. Or rescue a passenger that fell overboard . . . by maneuvering around a shallow harbor. I think it sums up the game (and possibly the genre) perfectly to say that the reason it was more interesting to pilot the massive Orient Star is because it is much more lumbering and unwieldy than the Esperanza or the Rainbow Warrior.

I'm not really complaining, though. Part of the romance of the simulation genre is that it can break us free of the crippling overspecialization of a modern, capitalist economy. I will never be a tugboat captain (and after the half-assed way I dislodged the Orient Star, I shouldn't be), but I can, indirectly and imperfectly, experience some of the challenges a tugboat captain might face. Through the simulator, I can get a chance to peak outside my ordinary life and learn something about the world around me.

Which is where (aside from its general bugginess) Ship Simulator Extremes fails. It never bothered trying to educate me. It never explained the ship controls - I'd flip one lever which seemed to make the ship go, and another which seemed to make it turn, but then there were others which did not appear to do anything, and I never found out what they were or why they did what they did. It never explained the theory behind proper boat operations (I'm certain there are complicated physics reasons for why my tugboats could not turn while attached to the Orient Star, but what they were, and how real tugboat captains get around them is never explained). The best part of the game was the Greenpeace videos, and I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble by just watching a documentary on Greenpeace.

I suspect that I could come to love the hardcore simulation genre. Even with all my complaints, there was still something satisfying about making a tricky turn in a lumbering cruise ship or keeping to my course in storm-wracked Antarctic waters. However, Ship Simulator Extremes is definitely not a good entry point, and my general intellectual curiosity was not enough to help me bridge the gap.

Ship Simulator Extremes - 10/20 hours

Wow. I'm spending a lot of time in harbors.

I get it. Of all the maneuvers a ship has to do in its day-to-day operations, entering and leaving the port is the most fraught with potential mishap, requiring the most careful and precise use of the ship's controls. It's the place where you're going to encounter the most obstacles, and have the most scenery to see in the background.

On the other hand, it kind of makes the campaign mission descriptions seem a bit like false advertising - SAVE THE WHALES! (by spending 5 minutes maneuvering on the open sea and 10 minutes each entering and leaving Sydney harbor). It's a little disappointing.

But, maybe I just don't get the genre. Maybe the missions are just an excuse. Maybe the real point of the game is watching the different ships pass by famous landmarks. It was pretty cool seeing the Sydney Opera House, and I enjoy the camera mode where you can wander around the decks as if you were a passenger.  Yet, I suspect that even if digital tourism is the entire point of the game, Ship Simulator Extremes is not a great example of the form.

I'm not usually a huge stickler for graphics, but it seems to me that if looking at stuff is the whole point of the game, there could stand to be more detail to the ships and environments. As it is, a quick walkthrough is enough to see the whole ship, and the harbors look more or less the same. So, piloting mostly involves a lot of waiting.

I guess it's a pretty causal way to pass the time, though. Maybe not every game requires high levels of engagement and attention. Maybe there's a place for a game you can occasionally monitor while watching the Simpsons marathon.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ship Simulator Extremes - 6/20 hours

It's hard to know what to say about this game. . .

It, um, lets me catch up with my reading.

Okay, that sounds pretty snarky, but I didn't mean it as insult, exactly. It's just that when it comes to steering a ship, especially a modern ship that doesn't rely on the wind, there's not a lot you actually have to do. The main challenge is making sure you're going in a straight line, and once you got that down you only have to make the occasional course correction.

I think its an inherent limitation of the subject matter. There aren't many obstacles in the ocean, and even when you're playing as a bold and reckless band of Greenpeace direct-action protesters, most of your time is going to be spent in the middle of nowhere. Thus, two-thirds of the campaign is spent going into and out of port.

The most interesting part of the game is the reward videos you get after completing missions. Those Greenpeace people are super nuts. It kind of makes me wonder what it would be like to play an exciting game based around their adventures. I think it would be pretty hard to do, seeing as how they're pacifists and all, but maybe a more arcade-y sailing sim (something like the Assassin's Creed sailing missions) with more punishing difficulty, and third-person stealth and and platforming elements.

Then again, maybe I'm being overly whimsical. While it feels like I have this game figured out, I have yet to encounter a ship which did not have at least one lever or switch whose function I don't understand. Perhaps if I learned to use these controls, my missions would be more efficient and I'd spend more time chasing whalers and less time parking my boat.

I doubt it, though. I suspect these types of games are aimed at people who are intensely interested in the minute details, and for whom things like weather conditions are a bigger draw than the ideological conflict. After all, the Greenpeace campaign is only the first of five, so they're probably saving the real "wow" stuff for the cruise ship or or core campaign.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Ship Simulator Extremes - 2/20 hours

This game may be tough. Even leaving aside any reservations I may have about its basic concept, it is simply not a very well made game.

When I first started playing, I didn't really notice. Chalk it up to my unfamiliarity with ships. My thought, when I noticed the Rainbow Warrior's snail-like movement speed was, "oh, of course, sea travel takes a long time - boy, they're hammering this 'realism' thing pretty hard." It was only when I tabbed out of the program and saw that Steam had my total play time at almost double my mission counter that I realized what was going on - the game was running at an abnormally slow rate.

I timed it with my watch. For every 30 seconds that passed in real time, 16-18 seconds passed in the game. It may have something to do with my computer (it was a top-of-the-line laptop . . . in 2011), but honestly, I don't think so. I just got done playing Skyrim, and while my machine was not quite powerful enough to handle it, I never experienced anything like this. Of course, it's possible that Ship Simulator Extremes is a greater graphical challenge than Skyrim, and I'm simply not tech-savvy enough to realize it (sure, Skyrim had complex terrain and foliage and hundreds of characters moving around a virtual world filled with various moveable items, and Ship Simulator Extremes, with its large expanses of open ocean looks a lot simpler, but I can't know how much physics simulation is going on under the hood - it could be that water far in the distance is being modeled just like the stuff under my boat, which I can imagine is a huge resource hog).

Anyway, I was able to mitigate that problem by turning down the graphics settings, though there is still a noticeable stutter to my ship's movement. And that's not the only technical flaw I noticed. During the first mission, thanks to my poor steering ability, I managed to ram the Rainbow Warrior's deployable speedboat into a massive, toxic-waste chucking cargo ship, and the bigger boat rose out of the water and proceeded to bounce up and down for the rest of the mission, as if it had become a massive, nautical lowrider.

Which is kind of a shame, because there are parts of this game that look really interesting. The campaign modes require you to captain a cruise ship, a customs patrol, or Greenpeace's much storied Rainbow Warrior.

And now I confess an unexamined and unwarranted prejudice. I'd always considered simulator-type games to be a stodgy and old-fashioned genre, like someone decided to make an electronic version of a model train. Thus, to the extent that I considered their potential political leanings at all, I always thought of them as politically conservative. So, it came as a great surprise to me that this game portrayed Greenpeace so favorably.

Of course, if I'd put more than two seconds of thought into it, I'd have realized that I'm, politically speaking, somewhere to the left of Lenin, and I think model trains are pretty cool, and thus something as badass as Greenpeace's nautical eco-vigilantism would have a much lower bar to clear for proving its worth as a video game subject (seriously, your reward for clearing the first campaign mission is a documentary film clip about the Rainbow Warrior where the Greenpeace activists pilot inflatable rafts next to a huge ship and catch barrels of toxic waste as they are being dumped into the ocean). I may also be overestimating how controversial Greenpeace really is - after all, it's not like there's anyone who's pro using the ocean as a dumping ground for radioactive materials.

There's also two more campaigns whose purpose I don't really understand - the Core campaign and the Pilot campaign. The descriptions lead me to believe that these are specific jobs on a ship, rather than particular types of ship, but I am also absolutely certain that there are nuances of ship-geek jargon that I am failing to pick up on.

So, after two hours, my initial impression is that if I can overlook its technical flaws Ship Simulator Extremes has the potential to be a pretty interesting experience, but that its slow pace and lack of moment-to-moment action (brief periods of intense flailing as I inadvertently do donuts in a speedboat and try ineffectually to straighten myself out notwithstanding) mean that it will seem like a much longer game than it really is.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ship Simulator Extremes - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

VSTEP and Paradox are proud to announce the next installment of the acclaimed Ship Simulator series. With over 550K copies sold, the series returns to take you into the most extreme conditions on earth… 

Ever wonder how it feels to sail a half-million-ton supertanker through the perfect storm? To take on illegal whale hunters in the Antarctic? Or to feel the rush of being part of the Coast Guard as you evacuate a cruise liner in distress? Ship Simulator Extremes has players take on exciting missions all over the world as they pilot an impressive array of vessels and live the stories of real ship captains. With missions based on actual events in realistic environments at locations all over the world, the new Ship Simulator game is sure to take you to extremes!

Previous Play Time

0 hours

Prior Experience

Like most of these challenges, I've not previously played it. However, I'm not coming into this experience a total innocent either. I've never really gotten into these sorts of hardcore simulation games, but I've always kind of wanted to. Ship Simulator would not have been my first choice as an intro to the genre, but I'm still nonetheless interested.


This is a tough one. At first, I thought for sure this was a backfire, because of my aforementioned desire to play more simulation games. Specifically, I was always kind of interested in Farming Simulator (but I never acted on it because I'm certain I'd be disappointed in how little it resembles Harvest Moon), so I was initially pretty positive. However, doing some poking around I discovered that this game and Farming Simulator are done by different companies, despite having very similar branding - what with the basic, utilitarian names written in blocky font. And while this, rationally speaking, should have no bearing on my feelings one way or the other (ships and farms are so different that there's no reason to believe there's any overlap in simulating either one), I'd kind of imagined that Ship Simulator, and Farm Simulator, and Train Simulator, etc had all been made by one super-dedicated group of nerds that did nothing but simulate the sort of things that are ordinarily too boring to be made into video games.

So, having my flights of whimsy unwittingly punctured wound up damping my enthusiasm. It's still my hope that this will be unexpectedly great and that I'll learn a lot about ships in the process of playing it, but if I'm forced to be realistic, I suspect there's a reason it's not tearing up the charts.

Also, the superfluous extra "s" at the end of the title strikes me as deeply suspicious.

Antichamber - 20/20 hours

So, going for 100% completion was a bust. I had two secret chambers left to discover, but I'd already been to each at least a half dozen times, so I managed to hold off using a guide for like a minute and a half. Turns out, the puzzle on the first secret was trivial, but it's location on the map was misleading, and the second puzzle, I had actually figured out, but it relied heavily on random chance, and thus I thought that my solution was wrong, when in fact it was just a poorly designed puzzle. It took me less than a half hour.

I then made a very half-hearted stab at finding the pink cubes, but I didn't really enjoy myself, so I went ahead and tried some speed runs.

My first attempt was 144 minutes. I got stuck trying to solve a chamber with the green gun that I had previously visited only after I got they yellow gun (the order in which I visited and and solved the chambers on my first playthrough was pretty random). My second attempt was 91 minutes, a substantial improvement, though I still wasted a lot of time by forgetting the proper route. I think I could probably shave off another half hour at least if I could avoid those little mistakes and actually learned to climb the tower to the red gun in a halfway efficient manner.

That'd still put me nowhere near the first class of Antichamber speedrunners, who can do it in less than three minutes:

Very impressive, though it looks like going so fast involves exploiting glitches and that's not really my scene (on the other hand, with a game like this, it's hard to distinguish between glitches and "emergent gameplay.")

My final verdict is that this game is amazing, I'm glad I played it, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't experienced it before, but I can't sugar-coat the past - there were times when it made me absolutely miserable. Granted, a significant portion of that can be blamed on my own carelessness (plus, speedrunning taught me that the main path is actually pretty straightforward when you don't stop to explore every damned side-path in the game), but I think I can't discount the fact that this game is simply a poor fit for my personal preferences - I like knowing the rules, and while I've been known to enjoy going off the beaten path from time to time, a game, like Antichamber that is pretty much all off the beaten path is just a little too much responsibility for me to handle.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Antichamber - 15/20 hours

You know that feeling you get when you overlook something really obvious, not just once, but many times? And that lack of that particular knowledge causes you a great deal of frustration? And then, later, when you finally notice the thing that was under your nose the whole time, you suddenly become of all the unnecessary trouble you could have spared yourself if you'd only been paying proper attention?


The way to the end of the game was behind a door marked "exit."  And while I could, as a defense, cite the other doors marked "exit" that eventually proved to be full of shit, this one was different. Unlike those others, this door was in the middle of a "real" chamber, and not directly taunting me by overlooking the hub area.

I keep going over it in my mind - how could I have missed it? You pretty much have to walk straight into it. The only thing I can think of is that the first time I saw it, the area right in front of the door dropped me down a pit. The second time I saw it, I skirted the edge to get right up against the barrier in front of it. My gun could do nothing to the (at the time) unusual red blocks (as it turns out, because it was behind a gun-disrupting field, another mechanic I had not previously encountered), and thus I assumed that the only reason this so-called "exit" existed was to lure me into the pit. On subsequent encounters, I ignored it entirely. Hours later, when I had the red gun, and thus everything I needed to get through, I had forgotten all about it.

And thus, I spent about five hours poking into various dead-ends, loops, and bonus areas, all the while thinking that I was advancing towards the end of the game, and then being repeatedly disappointed when my brain-wracking had little to no payoff.

It was only chance that saved me, in the end. I had gotten past the "wtf?!" gap that had previously stumped me, then past the room beyond, and into an easter-egg room that appeared to contain screenshots from previous builds of the game (or were they other games made by the same company - I'm not sure because, with one exception, they never bother to explain any of this stuff with text). I was certain that was the path to the end of the game, and thus I had to jump back to the hub and cool off for a minute or two to recover from my frustration.

All that was left was three chambers I'd already passed through. These chambers, I had dismissed as possible candidates because they all had an obvious puzzle that I had previously solved to unlock a new chamber. Thus, the open paths on the map had to be super-secret passages leading to dead ends. Why, one of them was from the very beginning of the game (I don't remember exactly, but I think it was the second or third puzzle I'd encountered), so there was no way that could be the way out.

Yet the process of elimination demanded that it be at least one of the three, so I went back. All the way to this very early and not especially complicated puzzle I hadn't thought about in hours. I crossed the gap. I went around the corner. I teleported back. I looked into the gap. I could see no cunning mechanism that would allow for my advancement.

Then, I did something that is going to seem very obvious, but which, I assure you, felt at the time like a last ditch desperation effort - I looked behind me. You see, it was a kind of muscle memory. I knew without thinking about it, that there was nothing worthwhile behind me. It was a dead end. There was no reason to look back because there was nothing back there I could get past.

And that was true, the last half-dozen times I'd visited the room, because I had not yet acquired the red gun, and thus could not get past the barrier that separated me from the exit . . .

So, yeah.

 Anyway, my plan for the last five hours is to aim for 100% completion. I've already got all of the available signs, thanks to my misguided attempts to explore the edges of the map. All that's left are two secret passages (possibly with puzzle chambers behind them, though I doubt it, because there are no more signs left to find) and the pink cubes.

I have not yet used a guide, because it seemed kind of pointless to me to speed up my playtime when I was aiming to go for 20 hours anyways, but if I get more than a little stuck with these chores, I'm going to go ahead and use one now. Thus, I'm not expecting it to take more than an hour or two to tie up these loose ends. After that, I'll try for a speed run (can I redeem my own obliviousness - probably not).

Friday, August 22, 2014

Antichamber - 11/20 hours

I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have the red gun. I've collected most of the signs. And by the looks of my map, I have only five chambers left to solve (and I'm pretty sure at least three of those unexplored paths just lead to hidden bonus areas, because the chambers themselves I've already passed through on the way to something else).

Yet it would not surprise me if it took me the whole of the last nine hours to finish the game, because I am completely stumped. I know I said I was stumped before, but back then I could walk away from the puzzles that were frustrating me, try something different, and come back later when something I saw in a different part of the maze shook the cobwebs loose. Now, though, it's the tough path or nothing.

Still, I think my feelings towards this game have softened, now that I'm (presumably) close to the end. The one thing I can't stand in games is not knowing what to do next, but if I do know, I'm usually pretty content, even if the next thing to do looks like it might be impossible.

I'd like to finish this post with a screenshot of one of my currently unsolved rooms, and, I feel, a perfect summation of the game itself:

WTF indeed, Antichamber. WTF, indeed.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Antichamber - 6/20 hours

I think I may have been a bit over-dramatic in my last post. After spending a few more hours with the game, I feel (sort of) like I'm getting the hang of it. My own personal tendencies are proving to be a problem, though.

For example, I spent around a half an hour trying to solve a problem that was literally impossible. And I know it was impossible, because when I came back later, with the green gun, it was trivial. At the time, I didn't know there was a green gun, though, so I did what I usually do when I hit a brick wall in a video game (and for whatever reason can't or won't consult a guide), I banged my head against that wall until my brains came out.

In some ways, this is one of my best qualities. There are times in the past when it has served me well. It's practically a necessity in certain advanced platformers (seriously, fuck you Luigi's Purple Coins). Yet here, it sabotaged me. I was certain that the game would not have allowed me to get to a chamber unless it had also already given me the tools necessary to solve the problem. I was convinced the solution had to exist, and that I had simply not yet figured it out.

I don't know why I thought that. I'm not a total naif. I've played Legend of Zelda before. I am familiar with the concept of equipment unlocking previously blocked areas. I just didn't realize I was playing that type of game. I thought Antichamber was more like Portal - a very controlled exercise in psychological manipulation - but it's not like that at all.

Antichamber is like the dark Portal. It is chaotic and messy and at times downright unfair. I've seen multiple entrances to the same chamber and spatially disconnected loops that run differently forward and backward. I'm fairly sure that there have been a couple of times I've solved puzzles the "wrong" way and gotten myself into chambers out of the "intended" sequence. And I put both those words in quotations because I'm guessing that was an entirely expected outcome.

Portal was amazing because it made you feel like  a rat in a maze while actually being a very linear game. Antichamber makes you feel like a rat in a maze by actually making you a rat in a maze. In it's own way, it's just as amazing, but I can't say I "enjoy" it.

There are rewards. Solving the puzzle to get the yellow gun was a victory that felt earned. In general, success in the game feels like real success, and not like you are merely overcoming simulated obstacles. When you advance in the game, it's like you are outwitting the designers themselves, rather than merely progressing on a predetermined sequence of challenges. That's a novel experience, one that I don't think I've had with any other game.

It comes at a price, though. Antichamber has thrown me off balance. Whenever I get stuck, I always face the same dilemma - is it because I'm just not seeing the solution, or is it because I've got the right solution, but bad execution, or is it because I do not yet have the tools to solve the problem? I  find myself flitting from room to room, trying to find angles and approaches I had not yet considered. It's an approach that helps mitigate my frustration, but makes it difficult to keep track of my progress (the game's map is a bit confusing).

I think I'm almost done, though. The game keeps track of the signs you read, and I've got most of the wall filled:

I suspect there's a red gun I've yet to find, and that doing so will let me fill in that bottom row. There's some troubling gaps scattered around the middle, though, and I worry I may have missed something important (it's also entirely possible the game is fucking with me - the hub room may be mostly like a menu, but it is not free of deception).

I think it's fortunate that I'm playing this game for my blog. If I weren't, I'd probably never finish it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Antichamber - 2/20 hours

Ow! I think I sprained my sense of reality.

Let me get this out of the way first - I respect this game immensely. It is clever, inventive, and utterly unique. It is filled with  delightful, dry humor, and the way it deconstructs the standard conceits of video game exploration and world-building is marvelous to behold. I think you could easily argue that this belongs on the list of all-time classic games.

Yet I can't recall the last time I was so miserable playing a video game (and I am saying this with full awareness of the fact that I just got done playing Secret of the Magic Crystals).

Antichamber will manipulate you. It will tell you one thing and show you another, and sometimes you need to believe your eyes and sometimes you need to believe your head and other times neither will be right, and you'll have to do something completely off the wall. It doesn't feel arbitrary, exactly, but the connection between cause and effect is often whimsical, and there's no real way to suss out before hand what you'll need to do (perhaps this game is my penance for agreeing with David Hume in principle, but failing to take his words into my heart).

What this amounts to is an experience that hits me straight in my gaming Achilles' Heel - I don't like feeling stuck. I don't like not knowing what to do next. I can put up with just about anything if I can just manage to wrap numbers around it. If I can break big tasks down into a series of little ones. If I can make estimates and count down time. Uncertainty, however, kills me.

I kind of worry that this makes me sound like a wimp, like I fall apart whenever I'm pushed out of my comfort zone, but I honestly do feel disconnected from my usual problem solving strategy - inelegant brute force. Well, what mathematicians often call "brute force" - figuring out the parameters of the system and then exhaustively testing every possible solution until you find one that works.

Most of the time, that gets me to where I need to go, but with Antichamber, the parameters of the system are unpredictable, so when I get stuck, I can't be sure that I've tried everything possible. Maybe the reason I'm having trouble is because I entered a room forwards instead of backwards, or because there is a hidden pit or staircase in one of the corners, or because I've been trained to see everything as a trick when in fact the way forward is obvious.

So, I don't know, maybe this game will be good for me. Maybe I've gotten lazy in my thinking, and a novel challenge can help shake the cobwebs loose. It certainly seems possible. But I fear, like many other things that are good for you, Antichamber might be difficult to swallow.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Antichamber - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)
Antichamber is a mind-bending psychological exploration game where nothing can be taken for granted. Discover an Escher-like world where hallways wrap around upon each other, spaces reconfigure themselves, and accomplishing the impossible may just be the only way forward. 

Several years in the making, Antichamber received over 25 awards and honors throughout its development, in major competitions including the Independent Games Festival, the PAX10, IndieCade and Make Something Unreal. Antichamber was also supported by the Indie Fund.

Previous Play Time
96 Minutes  

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This
I received this game as a gift from my friend, Daniel. I'd never even heard about it before the day I got it. I can only assume he got it for me to force me to make a sanity check.

Prior Experience
I guess the word "enjoyment" is fairly applicable. It was weird, and required some corkscrew thinking, but the novelty of the experience was definitely worthwhile. On the other hand, saying I enjoyed it might be a little strong. I quickly came to not trust the game, and the experience of being disoriented and confused was not an especially pleasant one.

I didn't ragequit or anything, but when the inevitable distractions came around an hour and a half into the game, my attachment wasn't strong enough to bring me back. I regret it because the part I saw was so unique that I almost feel like I missed out one of the essential video games.

 I expect to be frustrated and confused and filled with wonder. I expect to learn something about myself, and the assumptions I unwittingly bring in to games with me. I expect that I will wind up looking really, really stupid.

Secret of the Magic Crystals - Wrap Up

I did it. I know the Secret of the Magic Crystals.

And if you want to know it too, you can just play the game for 26 hours yourself.

Nah, just kidding. It turns out that when all five crystals are brought together, they will open a gate to another world. Once there, you reunite with your grandfather (I didn't realize he was missing), and together you "justify" his theory. I must confess, I'm a bit confused by that ending. Surely the existence of all these unicorns and demon steeds and whatnot are sufficient proof of the existence of magic. Or maybe people in this world believe in magic, but not in your grandfather's specific brand of magic.

I suppose it doesn't really matter, because that's the first time it was mentioned since the opening animation, and the game does not apparently change at all after you get the crystals.

In retrospect, I don't really regret the extra six hours I spent grinding out those last horses, but I am a bit embarrassed about them. I've walked away from better games than this, and I can't really explain why this one got under my skin. I guess it must have something to recommend it, if I could play it for so long. Yet I am definitely looking forward to my next game.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Secret of the Magic Crystals - 20/20 hours

I now face a moral test the likes of which I have never before encountered. How I resolve this dilemma will speak to the core of my character and reveal my most fundamental values and priorities. I have a rare opportunity to look into the mirror of fate and learn the answer to the question - what sort of man am I?

Do I stick it out and finish Secret of the Magic Crystals?

I've played this game for twenty hours now, and I would characterize the experience as "mostly pretty painless." That does, necessarily, imply that there was some pain involved in playing this game (though, to be fair, the same could be said of every game I've played so far), and there were stretches where doing the same thing over and over again got to be more than I could stand, but most of the time, it was just this sort of numbing routine, where time was divided into manageable little chunks and by worrying only about the task in front of me, I could turn the bulk of my attention to other matters and just veg out.

Combined with the game's regular schedule of (admittedly very, very, very minor) rewards, the whole experience had a potential to be quite addictive - as evinced by the fact that I played more than an hour more than I needed to, because I was so close to getting my level 5 horse, that it seemed a shame to quit right on the cusp.

And now, I'm brought to the Abyss. I have only two more level 5 horses to go before I discover the secret of the magic crystals, and join the elusive 0.7% who have finished the game. I've done the math. That is only 120 more times playing the stupid arrow-matching minigame. There is literally nothing else to do. I own all the buildings, I've unlocked the best equipment (that I no longer need because I've won all the races).

A hundred and twenty times is bearable. It's three to four hours, tops. I could put on a tv show and coast through that while barely noticing the passage of time. And the game would be complete. I'll probably never get that close again, so if I walk away now, it will always sit there, almost, but not quite finished.

To do something perfectly, even something otherwise unremarkable, there is a nobility to that. It speaks of diligence and care, and taking life, and other people (because, do not the makers of Secret of the Magic Crystal deserve to have their work experienced in its entirety) seriously.

On the other hand, it is a colossal waste of time. I don't exactly pride myself on my arrow-matching ability, nor do I expect to learn anything worthwhile or experience any particular emotional high or low. Is life not short enough as it is? If there is nobility in perfection, is there not also nobility in rational efficiency? In the spareness of indulging only what is necessary?

So, what kind of man am I? What is really, truly important to me? Secret of the Magic Crystals has exposed my core today, but even I do not yet know what I'll find.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Secret of the Magic Crystals - 16/20 hours

As of hour 16, I have finally upgraded all the buildings and unlocked all the recipes, so I can at last let my poor, overworked horses rest. I have to say, I do not care for the way illness works in this game. Sending a sick horse out on missions is slightly more efficient than sending a healthy one, because their performance is exactly the same, but since you can't sell a sick horse, there are fewer missions to scroll through to get to the most profitable ones, and there's no risk of selling it accidentally (which is something that actually happened to me - luckily it was one who had already bred, and was thus useless).

It kind of makes me sad that the game rewards you for not healing your horses (or more accurately, it punishes you for curing them, because the potion costs money, but it is impossible to predict when a horse will get sick, and the only way to be absolutely certain it won't is to not work it at all), because those horses look pretty pathetic marching off to the gates with their heads hanging down. If I had more of a connection to these animals, I might be willing to sacrifice efficiency for kindness, but they are basically just interchangeable money-makers, so fuck 'em.

I also have one of the magic crystals, but as far as I can tell, it does jack shit. Maybe something will happen if I get all five. Unfortunately, breeding a level 5 horse is so time-intensive that it will almost certainly never happen. I'm on the cusp of getting a second one, but by my estimates, I don't think I'll have time to get the third.

I suppose I could continue until I get all five horses, and thus discover the secret of the magic crystals, and a (small) part of me is conflicted about leaving the project half done, but I'm positive that whatever it turns out to be won't be worth it, and the sheer amount of repetition and waiting necessary to get there will far outweigh any meager satisfaction I would get from the journey.

Secret of the Magic Crystals - 12/20 hours

I did it!

After twelve hours of playing this game, I finally bred a level 5 unicorn. I now have a chance to find some of these titular magic crystals.

The only fly in the ointment is that the random name generator chose to call my epic unicorn, who could attract the attention of the gods themselves, Fanny.


Oy. None of the names are particularly great, but if it had been "Grace" or "Nantres" or "Arleigh," at least it would have had some gravitas. No offense to anyone reading who might happen to be named Fanny, but it's not especially magical.

Then again, the unicorn itself is not very magical. It looks exactly every other unicorn I've ever had, and though the missions it unlocks include pulling the chariot of the sun (on a scale whose low end is "pull a plow for a neighboring farmer"), doing so involves disappearing from the screen for a couple of minutes and coming back with gold - just like literally every other mission. So, I kind of hate this game.

Yet I can't help being at least a little proud. It gives me cause to ponder the meaning of video game accomplishments. According to Steam's global achievement statistics, only 1.6% of people unlock the level 5 horse. Technically, that makes me part of an elite group of players. In all the world, I am amongst the top two percent of everyone who's ever played Secret of the Magic Crystals.

But if I put that on a resume. . .

Why do I do it, then (abstract motives like "gathering material for my blog" notwithstanding)? If I were going to get all sociopolitical I might posit that a modern, post-industrial economy is structured in such a way to deny autonomy to the lower economic classes . . .

. . .And thus I spend half a day breeding virtual magic ponies to claim a feeling of power and control I can't get in my daily life.

There's got to be a less depressing way to put that.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Secret of the Magic Crystals - 8/20 hours

I regret that I called this game "half-assed" in my previous post. I made a number of specific criticisms, and I feel those criticisms are valid, but that was unnecessarily personal. I don't know the circumstances behind the making of this game. Maybe it was underfunded or understaffed. Maybe it was rushed to market before it was ready. Maybe the programmers tried their best, and they simply didn't have the skill to bring their vision to life.

Or maybe I just don't understand the point of this game. That is a possibility that seems more and more plausible to me as time goes on. When I first encountered the game, I assumed it was a pet simulator, that the point was to bond with these virtual animals and take care of them while you explored a fantasy world. I'm beginning to think that the real point of the game is to be mindlessly diverting while showing animations of cute animals prancing around (though, I have to say, the animation for the sledge-pulling course looks more than a little cruel), and that me expecting it to be a hardcore simulation might have been unfair.

It certainly succeeds at those more modest goals. I've played for eight hours already, and those hours have been relatively painless, primarily because this is the kind of game that is easy to play while watching television. You barely have to pay attention to it. I don't know if I'd call that a recommendation, but sometimes you don't want to concentrate so hard, you know? I've played nearly 2000 games of windows solitaire, and that game is the definition of pointless.

Secret of the Magic Crystals at least gives you some long-term goals to give the repetitive, mindless tasks a greater context. I was pretty thrilled when I got my level 4 unicorn, though due to the game's inexplicable "only one breeding per lifetime," I now have to leave it in the stable while I go through the whole rigamarole again to get a second level four horse. And maybe that will take another 8 hours. And then I'll be practically done!

Secret of the Magic Crystals - 2/20 hours

I am inordinately disappointed in this game. I can't say what I was expecting, exactly, but I do know that I was hoping it was an unheralded gem of a game, and that I would be transported to a delightful world of pony-centered fantasy, where all my problems might be solved by kindness to animals.

I no longer think that is likely to happen.

The game makes a fairly good first impression. It opens with a brief slideshow that summarizes the backstory - A comet passes near the earth and breaks into crystal shards. Later, a crackpot academic (your character's grandfather) posits the theory that those crystals can give special abilities to horses, and is subsequently laughed out of the university.

You can then choose to play either a boy or a girl, and presumably your motivation is to vindicate your grandfather by raising magical horses and harnessing the power of the crystals.

I kind of like that. It doesn't make a damned bit of sense, but I like it. (Seriously, questions abound: why do the crystals only affect horses; how did your grandfather come to that conclusion in the first place; you start the game with a unicorn, was it affected by the crystals, or is this an alternate world where unicorns are perfectly normal, and thus your grandfather's colleagues are perfectly justified in scoffing at his "magic crystal" theory?)

I guess the thin excuse for a story raised my hopes. It was like the writers were all, "So there's this comet, and a professor dude has a theory about it, and ZOMG!! UNICORN PONIES!!!" I thought it spoke to an enthusiasm for the material, as if a framing device were expected, but the main draw of the game - raising various magical horses - was so compelling to the creators that they just did the bare minimum that would allow them to get to the point.

I was wrong. In retrospect, it is just the first example of this game's general half-assedness.

First things first - the tutorials in this game suck. I didn't understand how the shop was supposed to work, forging horseshoes involves a QTE that was sprung on me without warning. I wasted hundreds of gold pieces trying to cure my sick pony because after you click on it with the stethoscope and it asks you if you want to spend money on medicine, you are then supposed to click on a syringe which has no tooltip or animation (and which doesn't change the mouse cursor until you move it over your horse), and then click on your horse - a process which is nowhere explained in-game, and only vaguely explained online (I think the game was patched after release, and some of the gameplay mechanics changed, because the cost of healing your horse is higher in my version than was stated in the online guides), and breeding your horses is an unintuitive process, who's tutorial only triggers if you click on an icon you otherwise would have no reason to believe is actually an interactive part of the interface.

But, you know what, I'm going to give Secret of the Magic Crystals a pass on its tutorial system. Even great games can have problems getting that right. What is less forgivable is all the blatantly missing features - things you would expect from a pony-raising game that are simply not there.

For example - you cannot name your ponies! How does that get left out? I'm trying to think of something more basic and necessary to the pet-raising genre, but I'm drawing a blank. It is simply unacceptable.

The rest of the game is not much better. You can give your horse both food and water, and you have three different grooming tools - a big brush for their body, a smaller brush for their hooves, and a sponge for their head, but it doesn't matter, because your horses only have two needs. Any sort of grooming will restore their condition, and either food or water will restore their spirit. So, it really doesn't matter what you do, because pretty much everything works the same.

The same thing applies to training your horse. You have four different activities - pulling a sledge, running a dressage or obstacle course, or running through the forest, but the only difference between them is the background and your horse's animation. The actual activities themselves are all the same basic QTE, with no noticeable variation. Each activity raises  a different subset of your horse's stats, but as far as I can tell, the stats don't have much affect on anything (they may influence you success in the races, but . . . I'll get to that later).

You can earn money by sending your horse out on missions, but, you guessed it, these are all the same. You send your horse away, and then for a certain length of time (which varies based on the mission) it is simply gone. When you only have a single horse, this sucks big time, because there is literally nothing else you can do. Once you get a second, you can train it while the first earns you money, but it still isn't very interesting.

You can also race your horse. This works exactly like sending it out on a mission, but has the "advantage" of being accompanied by incomprehensible commentary. Trying to follow your horse's progress is a pointless exercise in trying to decipher a word-salad of horse-racing cliches. You do get trophies for winning races, though. Unfortunately, while they appear in your horse's stall, you can't interact with them in any way (not even to check which trophies you already won).

I think the worst part of the game is that the horses don't have any individual personality. The different breeds look different, but horses of the same breed are pretty much identical, and though you can buy various horseshoes and potions for your horse, I haven't noticed them having any affect on its appearance. You can spruce up its stall, and in theory the different lamps, buckets, and troughs available have different effects on your horse's stats, but at least for the level one races, it doesn't matter, because the default horse is more than strong enough to win on its own.

All of this amounts to it being very difficult to make any sort of connection to your horses. Which is probably for the best, because the only way you can "level up" your horses is by breeding them, and once you do, you have to get rid of your old horses to make room for the new. You can't even hold on to a particularly good horse because each horse can only breed once. So you have a constant turnover of more or less interchangeable horses.

Like I said earlier, my hope was that this game got chosen because "ha, ha, raising ponies is lame," and that I would find a delightful pet simulator underneath all that. Consider those hopes officially dashed. Secrets of the Magic Crystals is simply not a very good game, period.

Nonetheless, I can see how it might be possible to sink 20 hours into this game. The activities are repetitive, but there is something intrinsically addictive about seeing your numbers tick up, about always chasing the next higher level pony, expanding your farm, unlocking new horse shoes and magic potions, collecting meaningless trophies. So, who knows, maybe time will make me a convert.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Secret of the Magic Crystals - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In this game you manage a horse-breeding farm set in a fantasy surrounding. The game enables you to breed legendary horses such as Pegasus, Unicorn, Fire-steed, Ice-steed and Demon-steed. You can buy over 700 objects during the game. Make all kinds of horseshoes as well as lots of magical potions for your horses. If they are exhausted or ill, you are able to cure and look after them. Your horses and colts need lots of care and that’s the way they recover their strengths. You can train your horses on four different fields in five levels of difficulty. You can even breed them in order to have more talented horses. Different horse races help you to gather 25 kinds of cups and you can send your horses to complete 30 exciting missions. 

Previous Play Time

0 hours

Prior Experience

None, this game was bought for me by a friend (thanks Jared), when he heard I was offering to play any game. The description from the Steam Store page is the extent of my knowledge. I decided, after my underwhelming reaction to Ride to Hell (belated "thanks," Travis) that I was going to try going into these challenge games unspoiled, so as to get a more natural reaction to the material. Naturally, one can't avoid a certain amount of pop-culture osmosis, but Secret of the Magic Crystals appears to be low profile enough that I don't have to worry.


Honestly, I'm optimistic. I suspect that this game was chosen due to the apparent absurdity of a grown man playing a game about ponies. Plus, the (presumably) main horse-breeding mechanic sounds less than action packed. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate my appetite for whimsy or my tolerance for tedium. As long as the underlying mechanics are solid and any necessary repetition is rewarded with measurable, if incremental progress, I could see myself falling in love with this game.

Then again, Jared my be a more savvy sadist than I'd imagined, and this could all blow up in my face. My optimism is not unalloyed with suspicion.

Skyrim Wrap Up

I'm done. I finished the main quest, defeated Alduin, and saved Tamriel from certain doom. There's more to do, obviously. I could become Skyrim's greatest bard, or assassinate the emperor, or decide the civil war in favor of the Stormcloaks. I could ignore all that and explore caves, slay dragons, and deliver packages. I could build houses and collect books. I can sink so deep into the world, I'll never want to come out.

But I won't. Sixty-one hours are enough. If I had to choose one game for the rest of my life, Skyrim would be a great candidate, but fortunately (?) I am not in that position. I don't have just one game. I have 77, the majority of which I've never played. As much as I enjoyed Skyrim, I have to leave it behind. Otherwise, I'd never get anything done.

It's funny, when I was young, and playing games like Final Fantasy II (nee IV), and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, it would not have occurred to me to even wish for a game like the Elder Scrolls series. I didn't have a lot of games, and the ones I loved I never wanted to end, but if you could have conveyed the sheer scope of these games, I think I'd have dismissed your specifications as pure pie-in-the-sky-whimsy. In my deepest heart, I'd have wanted these games, but I wouldn't have believed they were possible (or maybe I would have, I could be a credulous kid at times).

It never occurred to me to ponder the burden of abundance. I played Skyrim for 61 hours, a respectable total for any game, and yet the thought of leaving now fills me with a vague kind of guilt. There's so much left undone. To turn my back on it feels like a waste. Yet contemplating the enormity of the task of seeing all of Skyrim is enough to make me despair.

How is it possible, in a world where the Elder Scrolls games exist, to be "a video game hobbyist?"  Does not every conceivable accomplishment now come with an asterisk? *But he's only played about 40% of Skyrim. Maybe it would be better to be completely ignorant of the existence of such a thing, so as to enjoy more humble endeavors in innocence?

Nah, that's stupid. I've experienced deprivation and I've experienced prosperity, and I'll take too much over not enough any day. Yet it is important, I think, to remember that I am, indeed, privileged. Even though, thanks to sales and discounts, I've probably spent about 300$ total on all my Steam games, that's still 300$ more than a lot of people have, and the games themselves use technology that wouldn't have been available 20 years ago at any price.

I can't promise that I won't continue to wax melancholy about the ennui of modern life as filtered through the lens of popular video games, however, I will at least try and do so with humility and good humor. I think I owe it to everyone who ever dumped 200+ hours into an unworthy 8-bit game because it was the only one they had.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - 50 hours


This is actually getting kind of ridiculous. Everywhere I go, there is something to see or do. The scenery in Skyrim is so spectacular that I might be inclined to delve through caves and climb mountains even if there were no treasure to be found or monsters to be fought. And it's shocking how invested I'm getting in the various plots and character dramas, considering that most quests in this game are totally on rails (or have, at most, a single branching decision).

When will it end? How deep does this rabbit hole go? I feel like I could spend 100 hours with this game and walk away satisfied. Yet, I kind of miss this blog, and though I do not have a great deal of anticipation for Secret of the Magic Crystal, I do enjoy the challenge of stretching my gaming comfort zone.

I have to at least finish the main quest, though. I can't leave it undone. According to the wiki, I'm just at the end of Act one (of three), which is kind of a sobering thought, but I don't anticipate this taking another 100 hours. A lot of my time, thus far, has been spent chasing various side-quests (I'm almost the arch-mage of the College of Winterhold), so I think, if I buckle down and do it, I should be back to working my way through my Steam Library in no time at all (although, the town of Morthal is the scene of a mysterious fire that could be arson . . .)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

My Post-Skyrim Agenda

I'm taking a brief (1-3 week) break from this blog to finish playing Skyrim. Well, not finish finish, but at least do the main quest and a couple of guild quests, and a few of the more prominent and interesting side quests.  If you want to follow along, here is a link to my thread on the subject.

When I return, I will play Secret of the Magic Crystal, and hopefully, after that, I will avoid long series for awhile so I can get through more games (Fallout, when it comes, is going to be a hoot, though).

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - 20/20 hours

I've now spent 20 hours with Skyrim and 20 hours with Oblivion and 20 hours with Morrowind, and I have to say - 60 hours with the Elder Scrolls series passes really, really fast. I don't know how to describe the sensation of playing it except to say that, after you've been playing awhile, there comes a point when the world just seems to matter. You have a list of places to go and people to talk to, and each of them has a problem and a reward, and you start to feel like you can solve those problems, and that the rewards will genuinely help you. Or, maybe, you just want to see what would happen.

So you go to one more cave, or talk to one more NPC, or grind up one more skill, and suddenly, an hour has passed, and you can't really account for it, but it doesn't matter, because there is still more to see and do and learn.

For example, the Elder Scrolls games have, in addition to the normal gamey-type stuff (monsters, dungeons, magic spells, etc) a whole internal literature. Dozens (or perhaps hundreds) of books you can pick up and read, which range from "non-fiction" that tells about the setting's history or its religions' theology, to less serious fare, like riddles or jokes. There is even, in Bleak Falls Barrow (near the beginning of the game), a fantasy novel. As in, some person in the Elder Scrolls universe decided that they wanted to write a piece of fiction about a beggar who had a series of adventures and became a king, and nothing in the book has anything to do with the game's real history, but it was included purely as an example of what people in the setting consumed as entertainment.

It's like there's no bottom. It's like, no matter how much you play, there's always more. Every time I play Skyrim, I tell myself that this is going to be the time that I finally finish my book collection. I promise myself that I will grab one copy of each of the game's insane number of books, and I will read them all. Yet, if I've actually read even a tenth of the available literature, I will eat my controller. There's just so much of it, and there's never really a lull in your character's schedule, where sitting down and reading a book seems like a better use of their time than fighting monsters of discovering treasure.

So, you know, I like this game a lot.

It's actually quite amazing, in 3 out of 3 Elder Scrolls games, I've managed to reach 20 hours without getting to the end of a Guild quest-chain and without completing more than the barest minimum of the main quest (indeed, in modded Oblivion and Skyrim I completed exactly zero main quest missions; in Morrowind, I finished one.) It's quite exhilarating, but in a way, it's also frustrating, because I feel like in both this blog and my thread, I haven't really finished any of the games. And granted, it was never my goal, per se, but it kind of makes me feel flighty, like, instead of documenting a whole game, I just chose an arbitrary point to quit; like I'm giving up on them half (or more accurately 10-20%) of the way through.

I suppose I am, but then again, they'll always be there. I think the Elder Scrolls games, more than any other single factor, are why I started this blog. I bought a whole bunch of new games during this year's Steam Summer Sale, and while I was deciding which one to play first, it struck me that I hadn't even finished the games I already owned.

And then I thought of the Elder Scrolls games and despaired.

And that is how my 20-hour deadline came to be.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - 12/20 hours

The pacing of the Elder Scrolls games is pretty odd. I've played my new, unglitched save file for about six hours now, and those six hours seemed, at the time, full of incident, but short of giving a minute-by-minute breakdown of minor events (which you can find here if you're interested), there's not a lot to report. Exploring caves. Doing minor favors for people. Gawping at scenery. Dying of exposure.

I love this game.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - 6/20 hours

By and large, I've enjoyed the mods I added to the Elder Scrolls games, but I think, after having to replay the first few hours of the game due to mod incompatibility, I'm starting to see the downside - a period of adjustment where you work out the kinks is pretty much inevitable. The same thing happened in Oblivion, so I'm not really surprised that I faced the problem again.

I'll confess, I'm kind of lazy. I like games where I can just slot it in and play, which is probably why I came to PC gaming relatively late in life. Consoles pretty much fulfilled my all my needs. I only really started with PC games when I got a night job that gave me 4-6 hours of downtime per night that had to filled somehow (and I, apparently, decided that rather than improve my mind by reading the great works of the western literary canon, I would prefer to blast simulated monsters with simulated lightning bolts).

Yet I'm glad I chose this path, because the experience of playing modded Skyrim has so far been incredibly rewarding (even when counting all that time I wasted on a ruined save-slot). I feel connected to the world in a way that I never did with the console version. To be transported to another land, one of wizards and dragons and ancient prophecy - it's something I often dreamed about as a child, and it's kind of wonderful to see that dream brought to life.

Maybe my next blog will be about the western literary canon. I'll get to it just as soon as I run out of incredible games to play.