Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stardew Valley - 5/20 hours

I may be jinxing things by saying this before getting to the late game content, but Stardew Valley is so close to being a perfect game. The only thing holding it back is the monsters that populate the mines (well, that and the fishing, but I downloaded a mod that took care of that problem).

The monster-fighting aspect of the game isn't bad, but, when so much of the rest of the game is a conscious rejection of the "video game" aesthetic, it feels like an unnecessary concession to a more traditional way of engaging with games. On one level, this is about violence. Most games rely on violence as their central gameplay mechanic. Their tension and sense of challenge comes directly from the possibility of bodily injury and death and you clear away obstacles by dealing harm to your enemies. Stardew Valley largely eschews this, except for the mines.

But that's not the entirety of the issue. There are a lot of non-violent video games. Things like SimCity and Rollercoaster Tycoon. But generally speaking, pacifist games about building are not character-driven. SimCity is not "Mayor: The RPG." You usually play as some disembodied world-shaping force or, in the case of something like Ship Simulator Extremes, an empty presence that is only capable of piloting a boat. That's because character-driven games also tend to be story-driven games. Even the ones that allow for a pacifist option still operate under the assumption that your character is living in "interesting times."

Which is where Stardew Valley feels so different from almost any other game you could name (with one obvious exception that I'm not going to mention because I promised I wouldn't). It is not based around "interesting times." In fact, it attempts to create a calm, pastoral atmosphere that is decidedly not "interesting."

Stardew Valley divides itself into a series of days, each one very much like any other. You have certain chores you have to do every day (water crops, feed animals, etc) and your goal, ultimately, is to discover a sustainable form of repetition. Things will change as time goes on, your relationship with the townspeople will improve, you'll acquire new animals and better tools that will allow you to water, sow, and harvest more effectively, but that progression always takes place in the context of your daily pattern. One day is very much like any other, and that is the point.

In the past, when I've tried to explain the appeal of a similar game, I've been met with skepticism. Yet Stardew Valley's way of doing things is appealing. In its own way, Stardew Valley is just as much of a power fantasy as your typical blood-drenched shooter or orgy-of-mayhem open-world game. It's just that its particular power fantasy is much more relatable.

In this game's world, your work has meaning. You know with certainty that tomorrow will be as good or better than yesterday. And, granted, I'm still very early in the game's content, but I would be shocked if there were anything like a cancer scare or a foreclosure crisis. Stardew Valley promises something that is rare in the modern world, security.

One way that Stardew Valley differs from that other game I'm going out of my way not to mention is that it has an antagonist. In the game's prologue, you work for the Joja Corporation, a soulless conglomerate. The very premise of the game is that you are trading your depressing cubical job for a life of substance and connection to nature. But Joja Corporation follows you to Pelican Town, starting up a glossy, fluorescent-lit megamart that threatens to drive the local shops out of business.

But in adding such a sinister presence into the peaceful farming community, Stardew Valley is simply making that other game's subtext into text. I'm not going to speculate about the nuances of Japanese culture that went into the nuances of the original game, but I will talk about some general observations from the perspective of a modern, post-industrial information and service economy.

Games of this type deliberately evoke the myth of a pre-capitalist past, and thus they implicitly act as a critique of capitalism. Notice one thing that is largely missing from (fuck it) Harvest Moon is work for wages. Even among the NPCs it's elided. The mailman and the mayor are probably drawing some sort of salary from the municipal government, but virtually every private business (I'm hedging because I'm sure that in 13+ games there has to be at least one exception) is a single-proprietorship staffed by family members. And the towns in Harvest Moon games just work. Everyone, with the occasional exception of the sexy, brooding loner with the heart of gold, is friendly and well-adjusted. People are healthy and happy and materially well-off, and the town hosts several festivals every year that are both well-run and organized purely out of a healthy spirit of community.

It's a reactionary fantasy, but it is a reaction against the modern neoliberal consensus, and thus one of those weird areas where conservatism overlaps with marxism (there are few, if any workers who do not themselves own the means of production, and the occasional bar waitress or mailman is greatly overshadowed by the prominent main character). Indeed, I won't be the first person to point out that Karl Marx's vision of post-capitalist man as a kind of pastoral generalist is suspiciously Romantic for such a noted urban radical.

The interesting thing about Stardew Valley is that it straight-up acknowledges this. I mean, you're not going to have characters running around ranting about dialectical materialism or class consciousness, but you can talk to the employees of the Jojamart and they are miserable. Morris, the Jojamart's manager is a profit-driven schemer who doesn't care about the fabric of the community (hell, I was inadvertently spoiled on one of the choices later in the game and if you buy a Jojamart membership, he straight up destroys the nature-spirit-inhabited community center, which is, as a metaphor, perhaps too on the nose).

There is even an unemployed character. And it is important to note that this is very different from a loveable hobo who lives off the land (though there's one of those too). Pam doesn't have a job because she was laid-off. The bus she drove broke down and the bus company decided it was more economical to shut down the route than to repair the the bus.

And while it would probably be too grandiose to call it the game's theme, Stardew Valley does repeatedly highlight the idea that the alienation of labor brings about unhappiness. The world of Pelican Town is ultimately sweet, but there is that hint of bitterness there. I'm not sure whether this a deliberate political message or just the incidental result of a developer who was trying to ground their Harvest Moon homage in a slightly more realistic world, but I'll be interested to see whether the game ends up with a victory against or a rapprochement with modern capitalism.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Stardew Valley - 2/20 hours

I can tell already that it's going to be difficult to avoid comparing this game to Harvest Moon. I'm about a week into the first season and so far it is familiar in almost every detail. There are a couple of exceptions - crops are not necessarily planted in a 3x3 square (though I initially did so out of habit) and when I went down into the mines to find minerals, there were monsters all over the place.

I'm not yet sure how I feel about this second development. Rune Factory did something similar and I like that game quite a bit, but its controls were a bit smoother than Stardew Valley's and you could use your brush to tame the Rune Factory dungeon monsters and put hem in your barn, which I always thought was pretty cool. My verdict is going to depend on whether the monster loot system is well integrated into the game's general crafting system. If the items you can craft via the various body parts you hack off of monsters can help you in farming, fishing, and ranching then I'll probably like it just fine. If the only thing monster parts can do for you is get you extra weapons and armor, then I'll probably view it as a superfluous embellishment of an already winning formula.

Mostly, Stardew Valley feels like I'm playing a hypothetical sequel to the original SNES Harvest Moon, one which made modest improvements to the graphical style, but eschewed 3D in favor of a larger world and more customization (the ability to move your furniture is a huge improvement over the base Harvest Moon formula).

It's kind of a weird place for me to be mentally. I keep forgetting that Stardew Valley is technically an imitator. And I can't really say why it's important to remember. I mean, this is how genres get started, right? A small game takes some risk to innovate in a direction that hasn't been tried before and is so well-executed that it becomes popular out of proportion with its pedigree. This popularity inspires others to try and improve upon it, with varying degrees of success. Eventually, the imitation games become so numerous that they start to influence each other, and then it no longer becomes possible to cleanly say "this game is a knock-off of X" and you're reduced to saying "games of this type show a clear descent from X" and then BAM, you have a genre. It happened with Donkey Kong and Grand Theft Auto 3. It's in the middle of happening with Minecraft. And it might just be possible that Stardew Valley is the first step in making it happen with Harvest Moon.

Or maybe it's just a one-off homage. I would think that if there were going to be a boom in "character-driven, rpg-style farming sims" that it would have already happened by now. The original Harvest Moon was released in 1996, and while it's had a ton of sequels, I should think that if other companies were going to try and change it into a genre, they would have done so by now.

I think my goal in the next few hours is going to be to try and find Stardew Valley's unique voice. To discover what makes it a worthwhile game on its own terms. It really isn't fair of me to keep comparing it to Harvest Moon, even if the parallels are obvious.

Stardew Valley - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

You've inherited your grandfather's old farm plot in Stardew Valley. Armed with hand-me-down tools and a few coins, you set out to begin your new life. Can you learn to live off the land and turn these overgrown fields into a thriving home? It won't be easy. Ever since Joja Corporation came to town, the old ways of life have all but disappeared. The community center, once the town's most vibrant hub of activity, now lies in shambles. But the valley seems full of opportunity. With a little dedication, you might just be the one to restore Stardew Valley to greatness!
Previous Playtime

36 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

This one is easy, because I actually bought it just a couple of days ago and I remember my thought process clearly. "This game looks like a total Harvest Moon knock-off. But it's getting overwhelmingly positive reviews. Since I've loved every Harvest Moon game I've ever played (which is 6+), even the ones that aren't very good, a great Harvest Moon knock-off is sure to be right in my wheelhouse. But then again, I've been making really good progress lately in getting through my unplayed games list, do I really want to take a step backwards? Well, it's only one game and if it's half as good as people say it is, I should have no problem getting through it fast. Oh, all right, my birthday is coming up and it is on sale, it shouldn't be too much of a problem."

So, you know, it was the well-considered decision of a mature adult who is responsible with his money. Obviously.

Expectations And Prior Experience

As soon as I purchased this game, I took a brief break from Reus to fire it up and try and get a feel for what I was in for. The intro was the Harvest Moon-iest thing I've experienced since the last time I played Harvest Moon. I only played one day, but that one day was instantly familiar to me and followed the exact same pattern as every other Harvest Moon first day I've ever had.

I consider this a good thing.

I expect that I will gradually (or not so gradually) get sucked into the world of Starview Valley. Running a virtual farm is, in itself, addictive, and then there's dealing with villagers, going to festivals, and who knows what else. There are a lot of ways this formula can go wrong (see: certain recent Harvest Moon games), but I'm heartened by the near-universal positive buzz this game has received. If it is even half as good as people say it is, it will have the potential to become one of my all-time favorite games.

Reus - 20/20 hours

Reus turned out to be something of a mystery. On the one hand, you had this cute little terraforming game where you can create a thriving world with abundant biodiversity. On the other hand, actually unlocking the upper tiers of the tech trees requires relentless numerical optimization to reach your prosperity benchmarks before the timer runs out. I could never quite figure out which of these two tones was the game's true heart. Was I grinding achievements to unlock more stuff to explore or was I exploring new plant, animal, and mineral combinations to make achievement grinding easier?

Overall, I enjoyed Reus, but I was never really comfortable with that tension. I hesitated to destroy superfluous cities, stalled the growth of some of my bigger towns to forestall greed (when it would simply be more efficient to let them become greedy and then punish them for their hubris), and upgraded my natural resources more out of curiosity than out of good strategy. Yet there is something undeniably compelling about having a concrete goal in a building game. My biggest disappointment is that there were still about 20 unlockable species that I had not yet discovered. I was left wishing that there was a "free mode" where I could just play with all the stuff, to see what everything did.

My favorite part of the game was the feeling of being a benevolent force, tending to the balance of nature and nurturing humanity through the various eras of civilization by providing them with the gifts of the earth. My least favorite part of the game was that there was not more of that.

I mean, I like numerical and spatial-based puzzles. A lot of the game's challenge revolves around helping the humans with special projects that both give their villages a major prosperity boost and unlock new powers for your giants. And it is definitely satisfying to discover a clever synergy that will allow you to boost production just enough to reach the project goal before time runs out. It's just that during times like that, I felt less like a god overseeing his followers and more like an overworked event planner trying to work out a seating chart for a wedding where half the guests hated the other half.

Then again "Bridezilla Tycoon" may well be a game worth playing (in fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it's a good idea).

So Reus gets a thumbs up from me. It wasn't quite the game I wanted when I bought it, but it was diverting enough that my 20 hours almost turned into 23 (until I realized it was absurd of me to start a new 120 minute game when I was only 10 minutes away from my deadline).

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Reus - 13/20 hours

Having played through the two-hour mode two and a half more times, I'm left with the feeling that this last tier of unlocks is going to be beyond my powers. At least for the time being, anyway. I once wondered whether the simplicity of the map would mean that I'd quickly reach mastery or if the complexity of the upgrade system meant that I would fumble around for whatever meager achievements seem easiest at the time, without any particular plan, or even a vague understanding of what I'm doing.

The answer to that dilemma seems, for the moment, to be leaning towards the latter. I mean, it's not super difficult or anything, but there's a tension between buffing up your villages with extra resources and having them grow so rapidly that they go mad with greed. If you don't get the balance right, you can wind up having to fend off attacks from the villagers, either against your giants or against a village you were grooming for a specific achievement. I've yet to fail to get at least one by the end of a game, but I can't say for sure how long my streak will last.

I'm enjoying this game quite a bit, but I suspect that its barely restrained violence will keep it from being one of my all-time favorites. Basically, the problem I have with it is that I am the one who creates the evil in this world. So I never really approve of the targets of these various crusades. Yet punishing the aggressors with earthquakes and muck bombs feels unpleasant to me as well. As awful as these humans are, I'm the one who made them what they are, and it feels like a failure whenever I have to put them down.

Then again, you do get used to it. Having resolved to never again allow my giants to suffer under the arrows of an ungrateful humanity, I've preemptively wiped out several armies and turned my divine wrath against multiple towns, and it's starting to feel just like a thing I occasionally have to do. I don't think I'll ever enjoy it, but those are the rules of the game.

Anyway, I look forward to going after the next few, moderately difficult achievements, and I kind of dread going after the last few, presumably very difficult ones. In any case, Reus is proving to be a very entertaining game that has no trouble holding on to my attention, and that's really the only thing I ever wanted.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Reus - 7/20 hours

Damned ungrateful humans! After all I've done for them, they turn around and attack my giants. Seriously, what the hell? Of all the petty, self-destructive, wickedly unjust things you could have done, this has got to be the worst.

It broke my heart to see the tiny human armies swarm around my giants and riddle them with arrows. And I'm not at all exaggerating for comic effect. I was literally moved to tears seeing those gentle creatures cringing in pain. For all of Reus' colorful, cartoony appearance, it doesn't shy away from showing cute characters being tortured. That's not a line that is often crossed.

It's weird the way video games can blindside you with an emotional reaction. You think you're doing one thing and then BAM! out of nowhere there's a whole new element introduced that changes the context and meaning of the whole experience. Usually, the emotion provoked is anger. You think you're succeeding, but then a sudden difficulty spike stops you cold. Sometimes, the opposite happens, and you think you're in a hopeless situation and then you discover some new piece of information that helps you win. That feeling is often the best part of playing games. And then you have times like this, where your investment in the story, the world, and the characters is turned against you.

I guess, from now on, I'm going to have to be extremely careful about managing my villagers' greed levels. I don't think I could stand to actually lose one of my giants. This new and unexpected danger certainly gives the whole "seed the Earth with natural resources so human civilization can thrive" premise a bittersweet feel to it, though.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reus - 2/20 hours

Playing this game makes me happy. It's not particularly thrilling or difficult, but something about its central premise - you control four cute elemental giants and you use their powers to be generous to the tiny humans that scurry around on the surface of your planet - just fills me with an understated joy. I mean, in order to get an achievement, I ordered my stone giant to destroy three human villages with an earthquake, but that brief spat of violence aside, I love that I'm playing a game where you win through the expression of kindness.

The big weakness of Reus that I'm noticing so far is that it is literally a one-dimensional strategy game. As in, your location on the map can be defined by a single natural-number coordinate (although, to be fair, in a super-technical way, so can any strategy map that takes place on a grid). You can move your giants left and you can move them right, and you can place a single improvement on each tile (though these improvements can be upgraded in various ways). The goal is to maximize your villages' prosperity through stacking adjacency bonuses. Since there are a lot of different potential upgrades and interaction bonuses, there is the potential for this to become a very complex strategy game, but I expect that in the long run, I'll eventually discover an optimal path.

Each game of Reus is either 30 or 60 minutes long (though you can eventually unlock a 120 minute mode) and in that time your goal is to hit one or more of the game's benchmarks, like getting a village to 200 prosperity using only animals and minerals. If you succeed, you unlock more upgrades for your various fertilities and special projects for your villages. Presumably, these new things then allow you to chase after even more difficult challenges.

Honestly, I don't expect to be challenged by this game. I think it will mostly be an exercise in number-shuffling that just happens to be visually represented with a charming cartoony pastoral aesthetic. But that's not a problem for me. It will be relaxing to sit back and optimize numbers without any great pressure to conquer or dominate. I've yet to dislike any game that lets me plant strawberries.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reus - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In Reus, you control powerful giants that help you shape the planet to your will. You can create mountains and oceans, forests and more. Enrich your planet with plants, minerals and animal life. There is only one thing on the planet that you do not control: mankind, with all their virtues and and all their vices. You can shape their world, but not their will. Provide for them and they may thrive. Give them too much, and their greed may gain the upper hand.

Previous Playtime

2 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I can't really say for sure, aside from the usual "it's super-cheap, so obviously I have to get it" BS. It was a couple of months after I started the blog, so I'm sure hubris at the thought of the inevitability of me finishing all my games was a factor as well.  Although those quotidian explanations only tell half the story.

Though my memory is foggy, I do recall that there was something about Reus' presentation and pitch that really got to me. God games appeal to me generally, and strategy games more generally still, but seeing those adorable giants on that colorful curved 2D world sparked something in me.

Expectations and Prior Experience

A couple of months ago, I was feeling a little drained by my "one game at a time marathon-style" routine and I got a little curious about some of the games that were lower on my priority list. Almost at random, I decided to give Reus a try. I found it a charming little casual strategy game with appealing characters and art design and a pattern-of-play that was soothing in its regularity.

My big hope going forward is that this is a game I can fit into my spare moments, something I can play in the odd half-hour or so between packing boxes and calling my creditors. Reus is notable among strategy games in that it has a built-in time limit per match, which means that you can't really play it any way but casually.

My big fear is that the simple, relaxing gameplay I experienced in my previous two hours is the limit of Reus' complexity, and that attempting to play it for 20 hours will just lead me to repeating the same easily-conquered mini-game over and over again. However, this fear is pretty faint. Reus has 123 achievements, which means that even if the bulk of the game is mindless grinding, I won't be too put out because at least I'll have something to grind for (he said, shortly after getting frustrated with Long Live the Queen's achievement grinding).

Long Live the Queen - 20/20 hours

I have no good reason for why this game took me two weeks to complete, aside from the fact that I've been dealing with real-life distractions, but, even so, I think I could have finished it faster.  I've been finding any excuse to let my mind wander, even above and beyond the various unexpected chores that come along with moving.

I think the issue might be with Long Live the Queen, specifically. The game is short. It's not something you realize when you're first starting out. Then, all the unexpected deaths seem like they're cutting you off from this deep well of possibility. You die fifteen minutes in and it feels like a failure. You wonder how much more there could be, if only you could survive to see it.

But once you've beaten the game a few times, and unlocked the major critical paths, it becomes clear where the crisis points are. With enough foreknowledge, you can easily dodge all danger and get to the end with nothing but a bit of wounded pride. That's when you discover that the game is really only about 25 minutes long and your first potentially lethal encounter doesn't come until about halfway through.

Which isn't to say that I had Long Live the Queen completely figured out. Even after almost 29 hours, I still only had 27 out of 45 achievements. Towards the end, I was using an online guide to figure out new ways to die. For all that the main story became trivial, there are still quite a few unexplored corners I have yet to see.

And I think that was at the core of my feet-dragging. There was no real mental segregation between the part of my brain that grasped Long Live the Queen as a solved problem and the part that understood there was a lot left to explore. It felt like I had to break something that worked in order to get it to work in a slightly different way, and I've always had a hard time doing that (even in situations where the new way was an unambiguous upgrade).

Finding the alternate endings is not like searching an already completed map for arbitrary collectibles (an activity I've always enjoyed). You don't have the security of a hub area or base to retreat to. Everything in Long Live the Queen is so path-dependent that even save scumming is of limited utility. You always have to start from scratch. And if you mistime a crucial training session, you are punished with seeing the exact same story you sat through a dozen times before.

That said, I'm about a million times happier than I was the last time I finished a visual novel. Granted, that visual novel was Sakura Spirit, but even leaving aside the weakness of the "competition," Long Live the Queen is a fun game with a lot to recommend to it. The juxtaposition of cute, anime-inspired graphics with unrelenting brutality and political cynicism is a charming formula and if you're not a stubborn idiot who insists on playing 20 hours in a row, the time-management, life-sim gameplay is an engaging strategic challenge.

It's also a great technical accomplishment, at least as far as the writing was concerned. The basic spine of the story is always the same, but it takes a lot of repetition to realize this, and even within that repeating framework, there are quite a few branches and side-stories that can give the story a significantly different feel. In fact, as late as my eighteenth hour (so, close to 26 total), I accidentally discovered a subplot that only triggered when you made two particular bad decisions in the early game. Yet for all of its hidden curve-balls, the story always felt very natural, with kind-hearted debutante Elodie and brutal witch-queen Elodie both fitting into the events as if they were the intended main character all along.

So, in the end Long Live the Queen is, for me, in the awkward position of being a game I love and admire, but which I regret trying to play in one big chunk. I feel like if I had spread the same 20 hours out over a dozen 1-2 hour session played over the course of a year, I never would have become quite so jaded about it. I don't know if I'll ever return to this game, but I do know that if I do, I'm not going to try and do everything at once.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Long Live the Queen - 13/20 hours

Long Live the Queen was probably the wrong game to play while trying to navigate through a complex move (good news, though - I actually have an apartment to move into!). The main advantage to this choice is that you only have to commit about 20 minutes per playthrough. The main disadvantage is that when you only have 30-40 minutes at a time, it can be difficult to remember which skill checks you need make and which order you need to train in order to succeed at them. I feel like I've been chasing at shadows. Whenever I get close to something new, it melts away into the oblivion of a failed skill check or poorly chosen dialogue option.

As a result, I've started using an online guide. It's not quite as helpful as I thought it would be. It tells me which skill benchmarks I have to reach by what day, but the plan for getting there must be of my own creation. That might be for the best, though. It turns Long Live the Queen into a puzzle game. Can I orient the blocks of time into the right shape to achieve my goal? Often so, but sometimes not, which does lend the game a satisfying bit of challenge.

I still have 22 achievements to go, and some of them seem quite obscure. I'll probably have to play through at least 40 times or more to get them all.

I'll admit, it's starting to get to me. It's not really the repetition, in itself, that's the problem. I'm not bored. It's just, seeing the same story, over and over again, with a variance of details that ranges from the subtle to the dramatic, I'm starting to feel a little out of touch with reality (granted, my unrelated life stress might have something to do with it as well). Long Live the Queen is turning into a hallucinatory maze. What is real? What is imagined? Does any of this matter?

Elodie has died so many times, I'm not sure her life means anything to me anymore. It's just words on a screen. A few provident mouse-clicks and she'll transform, from powerful sorcerer-queen, to a master of cunning and manipulation, to a feckless ingenue. Do I control her character or am I simply glimpsing a cross-section of many worlds?

I hope to learn something from this experience. To grasp a greater theme that unites all the myriad variations and makes the twisting paths into a coherent whole. Although, maybe the disunity of the different stories is the game's unifying theme. You may wish you had a different life. You may think that all your problems would go away if you made different choices, if you had the knowledge necessary to deal with this crisis, but such a thought is a fantasy. No matter who you are or what you do, your life is defined in part by your mistakes, by the paths not taken, and whatever safety you carve out for yourself, it can never be a perfect safety, so long as you yourself are a limited being.

Or maybe just Elodie, specifically, is screwed no matter what she does. It's hard to be a Queen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Long Live the Queen - 9/20 hours

Playing games has been a bit sporadic of late. I'm in the middle of looking for a new apartment. The chaos of having to move has been pretty stressful, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that a game where you can be unexpectedly murdered at any moment may not be the most welcome influence at this time. Regular posting will resume in a couple of weeks when things get settled down a bit more (fingers crossed). 

Of course, it's possible to overstate the case. A lot of the humor of Long Live the Queen comes from the disconnect between its glossy, cute presentation and the absolute grimness of its storyline. Your viewpoint character, Elodie, is in constant peril from a variety of forces both natural and supernatural, and only a ruthless optimization of the character-advancement mechanics can save her. However, it's not exactly a gripping tale of suspense.

There's no real sense of building dread. Though a lot of the events seem connected to each other in subtle and surprising ways, each week nevertheless feels like an atomic unit. You face your challenge and you either pass or your fail, but if you survive, the challenge's effect on the future is too opaque to really spare much thought to contemplate.

The repetition probably plays a roll as well. I must have gone through the day 3 snakebite event at least 20 times already and it has subsequently lost its power to move me. Events later in the game may still have the potential, but even then, by the time I manage to get through them, I'll have read the lead-up events a half-dozen times and my mood will lean more towards curiosity about the ending than true engagement with the story.

My opinion of Long Live the Queen is still evolving, but I think it's more of an idle curiosity than a great game qua game or story qua story. The path to get through the plot is too winding, it doubles back on itself too often. And the skill you need to master to advance is a weird combination of memorization and time management. I like its unique combination of sweetness and grimness, but the actual game itself, I could take it or leave it.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Long Live The Queen - 5/20 hours

The last few hours have tested my resolve to avoid using a guide.  It's not that I have any particular moral objections to the practice (though I always feel a little guilty doing it for any game that doesn't frustrate me to the point of rage), but I know that for Long Live the Queen, specifically, doing so would tear the whole thing apart. There is literally an easily definable series of steps I could follow to get exactly the outcome I want. A guide that told me those steps would completely eliminate the "game" portion of the game.

And yet . . .

Getting some of the stranger outcomes is extremely fiddly. You not only have to succeed at the right tasks at the right time, but in order to unlock certain paths, you have to also fail the right combination of events. You can't fight off a foreign invasion unless you so bungle your diplomacy that the foreign nation decides to invade.

The practical upshot of this is that exploration of the various alternate endings and gruesome deaths is a process of meticulous repetition. You have to find a critical path and then follow it as far as you can, and then when you inevitably start over, you remember the thing that cut you short and try to avoid it the next time. Each pass gets you farther and farther (with the occasional setback) until you get all the way through. Then you go back to one of your earlier failures and try a completely different path.

The only real problem is that developing your skills has a serious opportunity cost, so aiming towards succeeding at one particular check might cause you to miss an earlier check and thus put you on an entirely different path. It's a tricky balancing act and a guide would come in really handy . . .

Except that I still have 15 hours to go, and it would be ridiculous of me to burn through Long Live the Queen's alternate storylines so quickly. I'm resolved to do this the hard way, unless, you know, I get to hour 15 or something and still have a bunch of achievements left to get. Then I'm going to start cheating my ass off.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Long Live The Queen - 2/20 hours

In two hours, I've played through this game three times. Once I was stabbed by an enraged nobleman. Once a conspiracy of my vassals organized a rebellion and left me on the throne as a figurehead queen with no real power. The third time, I finally managed to survive until my coronation, but in the process, my father died and my country suffered a humiliating military defeat.  It was a bitter-sweet experience. I was glad that, after ten hours of playing this game, I was able to at last make it to the end, but I got the feeling that I managed to find the worst "good" ending in the game (though I probably also found the best "bad" ending as well).

Oh well, that just gives me incentive to try again, though after three playthroughs of the game, I'm starting to think that I'll never have a systematic way of working my way through the various plots. The way Long Live the Queen works is that every game week, you choose two things for Elodie, the main character, to study. And then at the end of the week, there is an event where you have to make a choice or face some obstacle or danger that is compared to one of your skills. Each choice, and each successful or failed skill check, puts you on a different path of a gigantic "choose-your-own-adventure" story.

It's actually quite difficult to keep the various branches of the story straight. Because you don't have enough time to develop all of your necessary skills, it is inevitable that your are going to fail at least some of the challenges, but since failed challenges bring up entirely new events, even small variations in your training order can have large effects on the story.  It's all strictly determined, but it feels unpredictable.

Usually, dying in a video game, especially one where you have to build up a character and then start from scratch if anything bad happens, really upsets me. Long Live the Queen (so far) is different. I think because it presents itself so much like fiction, so while I'm interested in Elodie's story, I'm not particularly invested in her survival. It is just as entertaining seeing her die in strange and unexpected ways as it is seeing her succeed.

Which brings me to the thing that makes me uncomfortable about playing Long Live the Queen. So much of the game is hidden. I can never be entirely sure that I've seen everything there is to see. I tried writing down a list of the skill checks and their particular times, but on two consecutive playthroughs, the overlap was only about 50% (more similarity at the beginning, less at the end). I'm feeling really uncertain about how to approach this game. I want to be systematic, but what does that even mean?

If this seems like I'm overthinking it, it's probably worth bearing in mind that for all of Long Live the Queen's admirable diversity (and it really is impressive how many branches there are in what is essentially a short story), it also has a lot of repetition. And while repetition doesn't bother me per se, it can be extremely frustrating when you know there's more discover, if you but knew where to look.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Long Live The Queen - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Rule the world or die trying!

Being a Princess is not an easy job. Being a Queen is even harder. Especially when you're only fourteen years old, and the reason you've inherited the throne is that your royal mother has just met an untimely end.

Now power is up for grabs. You may be the official heir, but much of the country's nobility would love to steal the throne for themselves. Aggressive neighbors will take advantage of any weakness to enlarge their borders at your expense. And that's not even mentioning the magical dangers which are lying in wait...

Can you survive long enough to reach your coronation?


Previous Playtime

8 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I'd been following a Let's Play of this game for awhile and I thought it looked hilarious, so when it went on sale I decided to give it a shot.

Expectations and Prior Experience

In my quest to ascend to the throne, I've died so many times. I never really felt frustrated, though, because the egregious unfairness of your deaths is central to the humor of the game.

The big challenge of this game, at least going by my memories of it, is that it is strictly deterministic, but also extremely complicated, so on the way to your various deaths, you suffer a lot of repetition and you can never be fully sure that you've seen everything there is to see.

My main concern about playing this game is the question of how long it will take to die in every possible way and how much longer it will take to win in every possible way. I've already got eight hours behind me and 20 percent of the achievements, so I'm guessing that 20 hours will be easily attainable, yet at the same time, what if 20 hours isn't enough? What if I never get to be queen? Will I be able to handle the disappointment?

I guess we'll just have to find out.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Crusader Kings II, Replay 20 hours

By now, I've played more than 50 hours on this save file and I'm still 180 years away from the end-date. There's still a long road ahead.

Looking back at my time with the game. Looking back at it, I can say that it was a complete emotional roller-coaster. There were moments of absolute triumph and of soul-shivering terror. Crusader Kings II is a game that made me sometimes angry and sometimes sad and often had me scheming with Machiavellian cunning for the downfall of my enemies.

Which isn't bad for something you interact with primarily through maps and menus.

I wish I could identify the magic of this game that allows it to draw me in so completely. I think it's because it doesn't really present itself as a game per se. The conquest and realm expansion mechanics are game-like, but Risk this is not. It doesn't drive you towards expansion. In fact, it thwarts it at every opportunity. It puts you in a position where, if you want to pursue its obvious goals as a strategy game, you have to first engage with it on the fiction layer.

It's really quite a remarkable achievement.

I am not, however, certain that I learned anything from this replay experience. This is all stuff I knew from back when I was playing it the first time. I am, however, glad I resumed the game. The incrementing of the centuries is tantalizing to me. I'm at year 1273, which is just a generation away from 1300, which is, itself, not too far from 1400. I'm practically there.

I probably shouldn't be dragging my feet as much as I have been, then. I've just been having trouble adjusting to the imperial betrayal treadmill. Every time one of your rulers dies you have to deal with a whole horde of ambitious upstarts who want to carve out a bit of power for themselves. And perhaps it's ironic that I, myself, was once one of those upstarts, but I can't deny it stresses me out.

Maybe that is why I never got to 1453. I thought it was mere fickleness, but could it be that I'm just constitutionally ill-suited to playing it?

Regardless, I think I'm getting a little tired of writing about it, so while I will definitely continue the game to 1453, this is the point where the blog will part ways with CKII, probably forever (oh, who am I kidding, I will definitely gloat if I ever actually get to the end.)