Sunday, July 31, 2016

Vertiginous Golf - 5/20 hours

If I am to be 100% honest, the title of this post should probably be "Starbound - 30 hours." I haven't been able to stop thinking about it over the past few days, and have been "popping in to do just one more thing" so often that I've played it about twice as much as I have Vertiginous Golf.

It's not really Vertiginous Golf's fault, though. Three out of my four previous games have been ones I'd normally play for at least a hundred hours and I think something snapped. The urge to build overwhelmed me and I had to get it out of my system, lest I were to completely lose all hope.

However, I think things are back on track now. I've completed all of the standard and challenge courses and have only the story courses left to do. I've been waiting on doing the story missions because they're voiced and there hasn't really been a convenient time for me to listen to them (well, technically, there hasn't been a convenient time that I haven't been playing Starbound).

I have a creeping suspicion that I'm going to wind up spending most of my time making my own minigolf holes. I haven't actually tried that mode yet, but it's pretty much the only open-ended part of the game. Once I've finished the story mode, the only other thing I'll have left to do is replay the existing courses over and over again in the hopes of improving my score.

And the basic problem is that I'm simply not interested in golf. I mean, I don't hate this game or anything. It's just that I play it and I have no emotional reaction whatsoever. I make a difficult shot and it's like, "oh, that's nice." I miss an easy shot and I'm all, "Well, I'll just have to try better next time." One stroke over par, one stroke under par, what's the difference?

I need to figure out a way to get emotionally invested in Vertiginous Golf. Something that will get me thinking about it between sessions, instead of Starbound. A long-term creative project may well do the trick. I'm not sure what I'll do with my custom golf course once it's done, and I don't know if I have what it takes to design a clever puzzle, but the fact is that any activity that is capable of showing cumulative progress is going to beat out replaying the same few holes over and over again in the pursuit of a birdie for no reason other than to assuage my gaming pride.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Vertiginous Golf - 2/20 hours

So far, Vertiginous Golf is mostly unobjectionable. There were a couple of times when the camera angle put me right in the middle of an object and obscured my view of the hole, but other than that, it's pretty solid. I managed to catch on right away to what I was supposed to do and I never felt like the game was cheating me. Because it's a miniature golf game, some of the holes, in themselves, are bullshit, but they felt to me like fair bullshit, so I'm not going to count them as a mark against the game.

Actually, the only real complaint I have about Vertiginous Golf is that it's incredibly bland, which seems like a pretty hard thing to pull off in a game about whimsical steampunk contraptions. You hit a ball towards a hole. Sometimes there are obstacles in the way and you have to figure out how to go over, around, or through them, but in any event, if you've got the patience to keep hacking away, you're going to get past them eventually. There are no stakes and your only opponent is your own previous scores.

Now, that's enough to keep millions of people interested in real-world golf almost indefinitely, so I'm not really in a position to make an issue about it. I'm just not sure how to get myself to care.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Vertiginous Golf - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Vertiginous Golf is a dystopian steam punk mini golf adventure game set in the skies above an alternate world where life on the ground is enveloped in permanent smog, constant darkness and never-ending rain.

After suffering on the ground under a haze smog and pollution, the people of Scudburough have been split in half by a lottery, with the winners heading up into the clouds to live in a floating city called New Lun-Donne. For those left below, they can get a temporary escape from the gloom through the Verti-Sphere, a device that allows them to rise virtually into the cloudy paradise to play mini golf on challenging obstacle courses floating in the sky. But something is amiss in this nation of two cities. Another voice is trying to break through the propaganda messages of peace and prosperity… the voice of an insurrection.

Chip and putt your way through beautiful golf courses floating far above the smog-covered streets below. Play through the unique story mode courses to uncover the mystery of the Verti-sphere. Enjoy 54 classic holes ranging from simple miniputt to mind-bending courses that will test even the most skilled golfers, as well a driving range and race challenges.

Take on these insane obstacle courses filled with hazards and contraptions. Look through the eyes of your mechanical hummingbird companion to explore and unlock the secrets of the green. Use the jewel encrusted beetle to control your ball once it’s in motion and make good use of your limited rewind power to redeem yourself from a bad shot.

What's better than a leisurely round of golf in the sky? A leisurely round of golf in the sky with up to three friends, of course! All the courses can be enjoyed in multiplayer either locally or online. There are also two more unusual multiplayer modes to enjoy: race each other to the finish on the race tracks or fight over control of the holes in the unique battle golf arenas whilst using a variety of offensive weapons to disrupt your opponents.

A fully featured map editor means you can design your own fiendish courses and share them with the community. Who knows what the mad inventors of you will come up with? For the more aesthetically inclined you can tinker for hours with the look of your clubs, your mechanical hummingbird companion and your avatar in Frolich's Emporium.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

I don't really know all that much about this game. It looks like some kind of wacky sci-fi golf, which is . . . okay, I guess. I don't much care for golf, in either real life or video game form, but then, this probably doesn't resemble real golf much at all. I did once play a game called Kirby's Dream Course that I enjoyed quite a bit, but its connection to the sport was tenuous at best.

My biggest fear going into this is that it will be (from a viewpoint of sufficient abstraction) another poorly put-together physics puzzle, like Bad Rats, but because it's ostensibly a "sport" my inability to hit par will be attributed to my lack of skill. And usually this is where I come up with some cheery reason why my pessimism is unwarranted, but the Steam reviews are pretty mixed, so this may actually be a valid concern for once.

Still, it's possible that its fantastic conceit will prove charming enough that I forget about my complete unfamiliarity with the genre and general lack of interest in sports games. Stranger things have happened.

Starbound - 20/20 hours

Once more, I found myself blowing past my deadline and playing a survival game for around an hour after I should ostensibly have finished. I couldn't help it, I was getting into a real groove. I'd finally gotten a full set of Durasteel armor and I looked absolutely adorable, like a little pixel-art space marine, and combined with my new shotgun and powerful elemental broadsword, I was able to beat the second of the game's bosses (a military penguin piloting a UFO, for some reason). I got fuel for my FTL drive and an entire galaxy of planets to explore (including toxic junkyard planets and weird mutant planets where the trees have eyes).

And now I have to stop.

Oh, I suppose I don't have to (and strictly speaking, I probably won't, at least not until I decide what I'm playing next), but this is another one of those games whose bigness makes it difficult to play half way. How long, exactly, until I feel satisfied? Until I can say, with absolute certainty, that I'm done? I couldn't even begin to speculate.

When I started Starbound, I was worried it wouldn't stack up to Terraria. The latter game had a lot more charm and creativity than I remembered, but it turns out that so did the former. If I were to try and characterize the main difference between the games it would be that Starbound feels like you're on a journey outwards and Terraria feels like you're on a journey inwards.

In Terraria, you've got this big, complex world and you need to explore its every nook and cranny. There are mysteries to uncover and bosses to beat and a whole heap of exotic treasures to accumulate, but though the world is procedurally generated, these discoveries are always going to be the same discoveries. There's one underground jungle and one dungeon and one Eye of Cthulu, and so on. This doesn't necessarily mean that Terraria is boring, though. Instead, this single world has a lot of character. Each time you start a new map, it's like you're trying to solve a puzzle.

Starbound, by contrast, has dozens or hundreds of different worlds and while they're not all super-distinct, they do each have individual differences. I went down to the desert planet in my starting star system and I found a prison filled with humans and behind that an expansive plain of skulls and bones. Another desert planet isn't likely to have either. That means that each map you unlock is a chance for new discoveries. And if there's not quite as much to do on a typical Starbound planets as there is in a Terraria world, then it doesn't really matter because all you have to do is fire up your spaceship and move on to another.

I think it was misguided of me to try and pit these games against each other. Each has its own brand of survival-crafting-platforming awesomeness and the world is richer for having them both.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Starbound - 14/20 hours

I wound up downloading the "no item drop on survival mode" mod, and it's made the game a lot easier . . . maybe even too easy. Dying still takes a significant chunk of my currency, but that can be mitigated by spending it all between adventures. Since I've not yet found anything worth saving up a ton of money for (though the vehicles are looking pretty cool) it doesn't feel like all that much of a penalty.

On the other hand, I recently fell into the molten core of a planet while loaded with valuable minerals after an hour-long spelunking trip, so maybe there's something to be said for taking it easy. If only there were some way to make dying feel like a more convenient alternative to returning to the surface to teleport. I guess I'll just have to roleplay it out.

Speaking of which, I'm really getting drawn into Starbound's world. My colony is still very small, but I love having a place that I built and I love seeing it being used by NPCs. I probably won't expand my starting colony any, as it is a small rustic village centered around a farm and it would not be keeping with the aesthetic to upgrade it into a massive sci-fi settlement. Instead, I'm going to poke around for a bit until I find enough high-tier blocks to build some futuristic walls and then I'm going to start a new colony on some exotic alien world.

Or, at least, I would if I weren't coming up hard against my 20 hour deadline. I sort of feel like I should hedge my bets and not get too invested in this system with long-term payoffs (it took me about 5 hours to break even from my first colonist's rent). Instead, I should focus on short-term goals like exploring the tier-3 planets and upgrading my tech. There's also a couple of story missions I could go after and my spaceship could stand to be customized.

I really like it when a game gives me a lot to do, especially if that to-do list is a genuine set of options and not just grinding the same activity over and over again (though grinding is not anywhere near the bottom of my list of video game turn-offs), and Starbound is the most generous game I've played in awhile. I think I'm going to miss it when it's gone.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Starbound - 8/20 hours

One thing that frustrates me about doing this blog is that there are certain games. Starbound among them, where you don't actually get to start the real game until a dozen hours in. The last time I quit the game, I had just recently gotten my ship repaired, allowing me to visit alien worlds for the first time. And you may recognize "visit alien worlds" as "one of the main selling points of the game."

I'm not really complaining, exactly. I've had plenty to do in the last eight hours, and if I were playing Starbound the way it's meant to be played - as an alternative lifestyle over the course of months - these first eight hours would quickly vanish into the mists of memory. It's just that the slow burn doesn't really work for me any more. I have to wonder whether it ever will again.

Fussing over the fleetingness of life aside, I'm really enjoying Starbound. It's less focused on personal power than Terraria. You have to gather minerals to improve your basic equipment, but at least as far as the first tier is concerned, those minerals are abundant and the cost of your armor and weapons is relatively small. It was incredibly easy to kit my character out entirely in iron, and I suspect the future materials will not be much harder.

I haven't quite gotten to that point in the game yet, but I suspect that this abundance of materials is due to the fact that you can build entire settlements that will pay you tax money, and the fancier the houses you build, the more money you earn. Presumably, decorations made of more valuable materials yield more valuable colonists.

As you might guess, if you've been following the blog for any length of time, this is intriguing to me. I can't help but imagine the gleaming, futuristic cities I might build from rare components and the massive amounts of wealth this will yield for me. I love the idea of leaving my mark on the game world and of having to manage the production and infrastructure necessary to bring this about. It is the colony system which makes me most regret that I won't be able to play Starbound for hundreds of hours to come.

For all that I'm still basically at the start of the game (seriously, I can't even build a watering can yet), I've noticed quite a few improvements between version 1.0 and the last time I played. Things look better. the recipes have been rebalanced, the story missions are better paced, there's just generally more humor and personality. If it weren't for the glaring omission of a pause button (I understand that pausing doesn't work in multiplayer, but if I'm by myself I should have the damned option), I would have no real complaints (my other big issue, the separability of item-drop on death and hunger, is resolved by mods, though I've more or less made my peace with item-drop for now and haven't actually downloaded them yet).

And really, a minimum of minor annoyances combined with one intriguing hook is all I need out of a game. Maybe Starbound won't go down as one of my favorites (although maybe it will), but I will definitely be entertained for my remaining 12 hours.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Starbound - 3/20 hours

Starbound and I got off on the wrong foot. It's my fault, really. I misunderstood the directions for a quest and wound up falling down a hole. Then, when I tried to dig my way out, I accidentally dug into a sand bank and because, like every other survival game since Minecraft, sand is the only block in Starbound affected by gravity, I got buried by a massive mine collapse and suffocated to death.

It wouldn't have been so bad, but I was playing survival mode and whenever you die in survival mode you lose most of your held items. Theoretically, you can pick them up on subsequent lives, but this was at the bottom of some random and unidentifiable cave and buried under a huge number of sand blocks besides. It was so frustrating that I wound up just deleting the save file and starting over.

The tricky part is that I could have avoided this by playing in casual mode, but then I wouldn't have had to deal with the hunger meter and that's just an absurd suggestion. It's obvious what I have to do - toughen up emotionally and learn to deal with the fact that sometimes I'm going to lose some items. It's a pain in the ass, but there it is. Since the option to disable this part of the game exists, I'm not going to complain about it (though I do wish you could have hunger in casual mode - maybe in a future update).

As to the game, it's fine. It's almost exactly as I remember it, except there is a story behind your early game quests (the Earth was destroyed by a tentacle monster and you only barely escaped on a damaged ship), there was a nice graphical update to the teleportation gate,  and combat is a little tighter than the last time I played. I'm still at the very bottom of the tech tree (restarting the game in a fit of pique will do that), so my character is still a helpless schlub, but that's always the price you pay for starting one of these sorts of games.

I've been having a slight amount of trouble with Terraria muscle memory. I must have opened the system menu instead of the inventory about a dozen times already and I've made some seriously questionable tactical decisions based on the assumption of a double-jump that I no longer possess. However, the presentation of the two games is noticeably different. Terraria puts you in the middle of an open map with just a single NPC who can give you the briefest of hints. Starbound gives you a structured mission, complete with cutscenes and tutorial pop-ups. In Terraria, if you meet certain benchmarks and have the available housing then various useful NPCs will move in and sell you stuff. In Starbound, there's an entire space colony full of people who really exist for no reason except background flavor. For two games that are so broadly similar, they actually feel surprisingly different. I'm curious to see if this holds up once I get my spaceship fixed and the game starts to open up.

In the immediate future, I have to gather up enough minerals to buff up my personal equipment in order to raid a space-mine and get the special materials to finally repair my ship. In the meantime, I can do quests for the various NPCs and possibly get started with the creation of a farm. If I can learn to cope with the on-death item-drop, it should be a pretty fun time.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Starbound - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

You’ve fled your home, only to find yourself lost in space with a damaged ship. Your only option is to beam down to the planet below and gather the resources you need to repair your ship and set off to explore the vast, infinite universe…

In Starbound, you create your own story - there’s no wrong way to play! You may choose to save the universe from the forces that destroyed your home, uncovering greater galactic mysteries in the process, or you may wish to forego a heroic journey entirely in favor of colonizing uncharted planets.

Settle down and farm the land, become an intergalactic landlord, hop from planet to planet collecting rare creatures, or delve into dangerous dungeons and lay claim to extraordinary treasures.

Discover ancient temples and modern metropolises, trees with eyes and mischievous penguins. Make use of hundreds of materials and over two thousand objects to build a sleepy secluded cabin in the woods, a medieval castle, or an underwater arcade.

Previous Playtime

 23 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Looking back at my purchase history, I'm a bit stunned about this game. I'd forgotten when and why I bought it and it turns out that it's one of my earliest purchases . . . and at full price, no less. I am drawing a blank as to why that was, but if I were to venture a guess I'd say that even at 15$ it wasn't expensive and what I perceived to be the pitch ("Terraria in space") was plenty compelling.  This was before my first big Steam sale, so I can only assume that my habit of compulsive bargain hunting had not yet entered the digital realm.

Expectations and Prior Experience

About two and a half hours ago I beat Terraria's "Wall of Flesh," unlocking hard mode and opening up another potential 20+ hours of gameplay. I mention it now only because if you'd asked me a week ago, my impression of both Terraria and Starbound would have been roughly the same - you are a helpless goober who wanders around cute 2D environments digging through dirt for valuable minerals while fending off endless waves of monsters. But the last few days have taught me that I was seriously underestimating Terraria. Sitting down to play the game marathon-style, I learned that it was both more expansive and more distinctive than I ever gave it credit for.

Now it's Starbound's turn. Don't get me wrong, if it is still the game I remember from my previous times playing it - one that relies heavily on player-driven exploration and the strength of its central digging, hoarding, and building mechanics - I'm still going to effortlessly breeze through it, but Terraria raised my expectations. With version 1.0 finally available, I'm hoping for something inspired and unique. I can't say what (the mercenary and colony systems sound interesting), but I'm not simply going to take it for granted that it's a sci-fi reskin of another popular game.

Call it bad timing, if you will, but unlike a week ago, Starbound now has to do something extraordinary in order to impress me. Fingers crossed that it's up to the task.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Terraria - 20/20 hours

I often tell myself that I'm going to just sit down and marathon a game, playing it constantly until my deadline is reached with only moderate breaks for food and the bathroom and whatnot. It's all part of a fantasy I have that if I just powered through my list with maximal efficiency, I'd finish the blog in a mere (let's calculate - at 7 hours a day, that's roughly 2 games a week, which translates into about 38 weeks . . .) 9 and a half months.


It's hopeless, I know, but then a game like Terraria comes along and makes me think it's possible. I started the game up at around 1:00am last night and then just played more or less continuously until 9:30 am (for those following along, that puts me at 21 hours total) and when the time came, I didn't want to stop. The only reason I did was because I had to do laundry today, and I'm not quite so detached from reality that I'll skip washing my work clothes just to squeeze in some more game time (now, if I didn't have a job . . .)

I don't think there's any one big secret to Terraria's appeal. There's a lot to discover and a seemingly endless number of tools to discover things with. In the beginning, you're mobbed by zombies every night and the game seems excessively rough, but once you've got some upgraded armor and weapons and a few npcs show up to scare the mobs off your main base, the difficulty levels off into something a bit more manageable. It's easy to set your own goals (my biggest one so far was to travel to the edges of the map) and there is a real sense of accomplishment to achieving them. The game's old-school presentation is immediately appealing, but despite its simple-seeming graphics, Terraria's environments hold surprising diversity.

There's no one element that I would call out as uniquely inspired or uncontestedly excellent, but all of the game's individual elements work together so well that the game as a whole is extraordinarily fun.

This experience has left me really curious to try Starbound when it comes out with its 1.0 patch tomorrow. I'd never gotten quite so far in Terraria before (having defeated 3 more bosses and 2 special events since the last time I posted), having previously been stuck at the gold-equipment, pre-Eye of Cthulu tier, and so my assessment of the game was woefully incomplete. I tended to think of it as overly difficult and unforgiving in its fiddliness, but that was because I was playing a character without a double-jump or laser pistol or a magic mirror that teleports me back to the spawn. And from that impression, I came to the conclusion that Starbound was like Terraria with spaceships (i.e. "superior"). Now that I've gotten past the growing pains and seen a little of the late game, I wonder if that conclusion will hold up.

Unfortunately, I'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out. In the meantime, I can use the rest of my day off to try and beat the last of normal mode's bosses, hopefully kicking my game into hard mode and unlocking a whole mess of new equipment to play with. Hopefully, all of that doesn't prove too hard. I would hate to advance so far in the game only to have it kick my ass just when I thought I was getting good.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Terraria - 13/20 hours

If I counted all the time I spent browsing the Terraria wiki as part of playing the game, I would probably be almost done by now. I'm not at all sure how this game could possibly exist without the internet. There's just so much stuff, and it's not obvious how it's connected.

Perhaps, in this hypothetical world of complex 2D games, but no internet, people would just explore Terraria naively, and stumble upon its various secrets in the normal progression of time. Perhaps they would have notebooks full of reminders and theories, and they would flip through them whenever they found a new mineral or encountered a new monster. Progress in this world would be half inspiration and half chance. You would be surprised by the Eye of Cthulu fight and then start new characters just to see if you could work out the triggering conditions. Terraria would be a deep and mysterious thing, and your hard-won knowledge would be the result of obsessive observation and repetition (or maybe you'd just give up really easily).

Because I have access to the wiki, I was not surprised by my first boss battle. In fact, I deliberately took steps to move it along. I'd gathered my various equipment, delving deep into the ice caverns in search of platinum and finding an improved version of my magic boomerang along the way, and I was starting to get a little antsy for something to use my superior equipment on. I remembered that there were bosses, but didn't see any obvious way to find one, so I looked it up and discovered that the Eye of Cthulu spawns randomly at night once you find five life crystals, so I searched for another life crystal, waited until nightfall and got lucky.

Would I have even bothered to try if it weren't for the wiki? I can't say for sure. I like collecting things and upgrading my equipment. I would have enjoyed exploration, even if there was nothing particularly special at the end. I don't think I'd have bothered trying to trigger a boss, though. I like solving problems, not mysteries. Give me a chasm to cross or a tower to build and I am on that like no one's business. But if I don't even know for sure that there is an endpoint to the challenge, if it's possible that I'll just spin my wheels forever chasing a dead-end lead, that it kills my enthusiasm quick.

Or maybe not. I do like being systematic and poking my nose into every available corner, so it's possible that the solutions to these mysteries would come inevitably with time. I don't think I'd like to be surprised by the Eye of Cthulu, but I think I'd probably get over it so long as it didn't wreck my stuff.

I guess I'll never know now. Is this a loss on my part? Is Terraria meant to be played blind? Am I missing out on a unique experience by not simply taking things as they come? I don't think so. The tutorial is pretty weak, and I'm not at all sure how you're supposed to figure out the crafting system without outside help (seriously, it's not just combining materials, you have to have those materials while in the proximity of the right crafting station, which is fine if you get it, but easy to screw up if you don't).

In the end, I don't know if I'd call Terraria's (really the whole survival-crafting genre's) reliance on the wiki to be a strength or a weakness. On the one hand, it allows the game to be much more complex than it otherwise might be. A lot of the cognitive load for all these recipes and varieties of equipment are offloaded onto a more reference-friendly platform. On the other hand, it means the game is not self-contained. Which raises the question - in assessing the quality of a game, how much should supplementary material count? This is a serious issue in criticism, what with the "death of the author" and all.

I don't really have the expertise to come down on one side or another. I will, however, say that I enjoy playing Terraria and I don't mind consulting the wiki. It's not a decisive argument, but it doesn't have to be. I can't really play the hypothetical version of the game, so what does it matter whether it's better or worse?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Terraria - 6/20 hours

Terraria is one of those games that's easy for me to play, but hard for me to write about. Nothing much of note happened in the last four hours. I cleared away a hill to make room for my new house. I added a second story to that house to allow NPCs the room to move in and not get attacked by monsters. I explored past an entire snow biome to discover some weird and sinister red grass area that the wiki tells me is end-game content. I fell down a deep hole and died.

I guess the primary issue is that Terraria doesn't have a lot of what you'd call "plot." You set your own goals and define your own parameters for success, but how meaningful are such decisions to someone who is not also playing the game? Like, right now, what I want more than anything is to upgrade my pickax to a high-level form, so I can potentially mine anything on the map. That involves looking up a lot of stuff on the wiki and then poking my nose into every corner of the map I can find. And that involves upgrading my equipment to fight off monsters, building torches and platforms (and grinding for the materials for the same), and building up a base to have a safe spot to return to between expeditions.

Of course, once I get my super pickax, its primary utility will be that I will be better able to upgrade my infrastructure to allow for more distant exploration. It's a feedback loop that must, eventually, end with me having more power than the world can bear. That's always the stage I like best, though I expect with Terraria, I have basically zero chance of getting there prior to 20 hours.

Oh well, it's the journey that matters, right?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Terraria - 2/20 hours

The start of any new survival-crafting game always presents two great challenges - the first is always to figure out the basic shape of the tech tree. In any game of this type, you will be constantly picking up various doodads and blocks of construction materials and it is useful to know what those materials do. It also helps to know what to search for in order to bootstrap yourself up to a new tier of tools and weapons. Terraria is deceptive because its colorful and inviting 2D graphics completely belie the dizzying depth of its tech tree.

I'd say that most crafting games settle on 4-6 tiers of  equipment, which tends to give a nice spread with a few intermediate stages between your initial piece of crap pickax and the ultimate landscape-dissolving pickax of ultimate power. However, with Terraria, there are 27 different varieties. Granted, some of those are variants and novelties (like the candy-cane pickax that shows up around Christmas), but even so, climbing the ladder to ultimate power is a long and arduous process. It's not something I really need to dwell upon right now, but it is worth keeping the first few steps in mind.

The other challenge is deciding upon a grand project to pursue. Something like leveling a mountain, digging to the bottom of the world, or building a totally unintentionally phallic tower of gargantuan height. The actual execution of the project is usually what marks one's transition into the mid-game, as these sorts of things usually require at least slightly upgraded tools and a ton of materials (even simple digging requires things like torches and staircases, for when your pit gets too deep), but it's worth keeping an eye out on your initial exploration, in the hopes that some aspect of the environment inspires you.

Given these two early game challenges, I think my time with Terraria has been going relatively well. I've still been cleaving fairly closely to my initial spawn location, but that is primarily because every time the sun sets, the game spawns a never-ending stream of monsters to attack my humble wooden shack. Frankly, I think it borders on the excessive. If you're anywhere near the surface after nightfall, you pretty much have to devote all of your attention to fighting off monsters. Either that or huddle in a shelter all night. It's like a waste of half your time.

Of course, there are ways to deal with this, and this is exactly the sort of early-game problem that spurs you on to advance your character's power. It can be a bit uncomfortable at times, but I have to concede that it's a stage that makes the game stronger overall. Later, when I'm fighting fire demons in the pits of hell, I'm going to remember the time when I was threatened by zombies and slimes and it's going to bring me comfort, because I'll know that the only reason I have end-game problems is because I succeeded at solving all the problems that came before.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Terraria - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Dig, Fight, Explore, Build: The very world is at your fingertips as you fight for survival, fortune, and glory. Will you delve deep into cavernous expanses in search of treasure and raw materials with which to craft ever-evolving gear, machinery, and aesthetics? Perhaps you will choose instead to seek out ever-greater foes to test your mettle in combat? Maybe you will decide to construct your own city to house the host of mysterious allies you may encounter along your travels?

In the World of Terraria, the choice is yours!

Blending elements of classic action games with the freedom of sandbox-style creativity, Terraria is a unique gaming experience where both the journey and the destination are completely in the player’s control. The Terraria adventure is truly as unique as the players themselves!

Are you up for the monumental task of exploring, creating, and defending a world of your own? 

Previous Playtime

12 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Terraria has the distinction of being the very first game I bought on Steam. This was before I even had a debit card of my own and was purchased with some sort of complex Paypal legerdemain that I couldn't even begin to describe. It would be another six months before I bought anything else on the platform.

So why did I do it? Well, it was the summer of 2012 and literally all of my friends were playing this game. They talked about it constantly and enjoined me to try it. I held out for awhile, not having my own credit card and never having bought a purely digital game before, but after awhile I got tired of being out of the loop so I bit the bullet.

Then, shortly after, they hype died down and everyone stopped playing.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I only have 12 hours with the PC version of this game, but I have more on the Xbox 360 version and then, like an hour's worth on the virtually unplayable (due to terrible touch controls) iPhone version. It's not one of my most-played games by a long-shot, but the bits and pieces I have played over the years, I've mostly enjoyed. Some of the monsters were a little too tough for my taste, and it can be hard to get the really cool, transformative equipment (I desperately want wings, but have never even come close to getting them). However, the dig, build, and craft gameplay is right in my wheelhouse and the old-school platforming and exploration is well executed.

I expect that I will have a pretty easy time with Terraria, but I don't think I'll go for much more than 20 hours. A similar game, Starbound is finally coming out of early access five days from now and as far as I can tell from the bits I've already played, it has everything I like about Terraria, but also spaceships and interstellar exploration. The plan is to segue from one to the other and closely compare their differences.

Terraria might well surprise me, though. It's had a lot of updates since I last played it, and it's entirely possible that new equipment and/or monsters might have altered the balance to a place that's more comfortable for me. Although, even if it hasn't, I still enjoyed the original Terraria enough that my frequent deaths were not much more than a minor annoyance. I expect that, at least, has not changed.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Verdun - 20/20 hours

Once more I stretch the definition of "playing" a game. For three of the past five hours, I've been watching matches on Spectator mode. I'm going to count it, for obvious reasons, but it's not my most legitimate completion. I mean, the game gives you the option, so it must mean for at least some people to do it at least some of the time, so it's not like Sakura Spirit, where I literally broke the game. And I actually was focusing on the screen and paying attention, unlike in Ship Simulator Extremes, where I would be reading a book for long stretches of time (though in that game, here was a lot of "set your course and keep going in a straight line for 20 minutes," which tended not to need much concentration). And I did fiddle with the camera controls almost constantly to keep the action in view. So, I'd say that on a scale of 1-10 of video-game engagedness where 1 is just firing it up and leaving it on the attract screen and 10 is full-on Tetris battle trance, my last few hours with Verdun were about a 3. Not great, but acceptable enough that I don't feel like a total fraud.

And I did find Spectator Mode pretty interesting on its own merits. Hovering unseen over the battlefield with the various players outlined in red and blue (depending on their team) was fascinating. There was a lot of dramatic irony. Visibility in Verdun is often limited, so having a top-down view of a narrow trench, I could see potential ambushes, people guarding empty corners and the occasional incipient disaster where two large squads would happen upon each other unawares. It was kind of cool.

I also learned a couple of things about the way people played the game. It turns out that my extreme death ratio is almost entirely down to the fact that I'm terrible at the game. I know, shock, right? But seriously, I discovered I was terrible in a very specific way. See, I thought previously that I was being slow and careful in my approach to trench warfare. And that's because the most intensely hardcore shooter I ever played was Mass Effect 2, where the "slow and careful" approach involved dashing from cover to cover and staying in the open as little as possible (and which I completely forsook by consistently playing the Vanguard class, which laughs at cover). Spectator mode showed me what a fool I was being.

The people who successfully advanced across no-man's-and in Verdun did not do it by using cover consistently. They did it by moving incredibly slow, and by being willing to sit in a hole for minutes at a time, if necessary. I tend to default to "reckless berserker" mode in action games, so what I took as excessive care was still frantic flailing by comparison.

The other thing I learned from Spectator Mode is that some players are really good. This is obvious to the point of triteness, but it never really hit me until I saw one player get ganged-up on by four enemies in a situation I was sure was certain death, only to emerge victorious. I actually played a match against that same person a little later, where I pulled off what I considered to be an impossible shot only to be felled a fraction of a second later from an even farther distance. It was a very different to be killed by someone I knew to be great than by a random stranger. I was almost tempted to say something about it in chat, but then I thought that saying, "hey, I've been watching you in spectator mode for the last hour and a half and that was exactly what I expected you to do" might come off as a little creepy.

My final verdict on Verdun? It's so far out of my comfort zone that I can't say for sure whether it's good or bad, and it would be dishonest of me to say I enjoyed any part of it except the 3 hours I spent in Spectator Mode and the half-match I played immediately after, but it was an illuminating sort of non-enjoyment. I didn't feel cheated by the game. It was exactly what it advertised itself to be. I liked that it had the courage to be ugly and I appreciated the attention to detail that went into its props and uniforms. I would recommend it only if you are the sort of person to enjoy the "one shot-one kill" style of competitive FPS, but if you are that sort of person, I think Verdun has a lot to offer.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Verdun - 15/20 hours

I wanted to go all-out and finish the game in a single session, but I started falling asleep and couldn't keep going. The game is still going terribly, but at least I finally learned how to upgrade my character classes. The superior weapons do make things a little easier, but it becomes just that much more humiliating when I lose.

The real problem, I think, is the presence of experienced FPS-players for who equipment is less relevant. A machine gun in a bunker may be nigh-unassailable in the real world, but that does me little good when I don't know how to deal with a sniper in the game.

I think I'm going to finish off by playing squad survival mode, which is perhaps not as hardcore as front-line mode, but does have the advantage of pitting me against AIs who lack the skill to wipe me out from across the map.

Alternately, I could try spectator mode. It's debatable whether that counts as "playing" the game, but it is an available option and I may be able to learn something about the larger strategy of the matches that may allow me to survive longer than 30 seconds. Just in time to finish my 20 hours and never play again.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Verdun - 10/20 hours

Over the course of my life, I've noticed a certain feedback loop that has appeared again and again - If I'm good at something, I'll tend to enjoy it more. And the more I enjoy something, the better I get at it. It's a pattern that's had a profound effect on the development of my skills and interests, and I suspect that it's behind a large portion of the diversity of human talents and capabilities. A small variation in natural aptitude, magnified by a lifetime of reinforcement, can make two people who started with nearly the same potential seem entirely different.

And just as important as the feedback loop of skill growth is its converse - if I am not good at something, I'll tend to enjoy it less and subsequently be less effective at developing my abilities with that thing. Which sucks, because sometimes you have to do things you don't enjoy and there is not a perfect match between my innate proclivities and the demands of the modern world. If I could somehow crack the code of this paradox and bypass it within myself . . . I would have the key to nearly unlimited power.

And one of the things I could use that power for is getting good at Verdun (I mean, let's forget, for a moment, the possibilities inherent in finance, athletics, or even just writing the perfect resume). As it is, I'm able to force myself to grind, but I simply can't engage with the game in a way that will lead to me becoming anything else but hopeless. And I am hopeless. I've managed to get one or two kills a match, but I can't react quickly enough. I can't aim accurately enough. I'll be in a trench and I'll round a corner and see an enemy and pull the trigger as quickly as I can, only to be a fraction of a second too late. Or I'll sit on a hill or in a bunker, and I'll see an enemy in the distance, and I'll fire a half-dozen shots but succeed only in giving my position away to an enemy sniper. It's like I'm playing the game in slow-motion and everyone else is going full speed.

And it is this lack of connection with the game that is making it so hard for me to enjoy. I have to force myself to play it, and when I'm actually in a match, I'm burdened by a lassitude born of helplessness. I can't help but view it as a grim death-march. Every time I see the reload screen (and I see it a lot - I have something like a 1-8 kill-death ratio) I wind up having to give myself a pep-talk, straining for reasons why continuing is not a waste of time. And then I go out there and crouch behind some bushes or throw myself prone into the mud . . . and get shot by an enemy I never even see.

The skill I need here, even more than a fast reaction time or a steady hand with the ironsights is emotional resilience. I need to be able to absorb these failures and move on. Verdun isn't a bad game. It has admirable attention to detail in its environments and weapons. It looks good. The controls work well. But that just drives home the fact that I am a bad fit for it. At this point something has to give. Either I will have a breakthrough, or I will simply break.

My plan is to try and marathon the last 10 hours in a single night. When I get home from my weekly tabletop game, I will sit down in front of the computer at around midnight and just keep going until 10am. The more I drag this out, the more demoralized I become. If I can just power through, I might be able to enter some kind of gaming trance-state where I brush up against an otherworldly FPS-enlightement. Either that, or I will collapse in despair.

(Alternately, it will be merely a slightly difficult, intermittently-rewarding experience that I will not be eager to repeat, but where's the self-regarding drama in that?)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Verdun - 5/20 hours

I'm going to be blunt - this game is making me miserable. I'm rubbish at it and almost every minute of my time with it is spent reminding me of this fact. Oh, I'll creep up to that hill and scan the horizon for enemies. BAM! I'm shot dead as soon as I put my head up. Wow, I beat the odds and actually made it to the enemy trench. Now's the time to discover that I can miss at point-blank range. I have actually made the occasional kill, but I couldn't tell you what I was doing differently at theses times. I suspect it's mostly luck.

The randomness and suddenness of death in Verdun is probably (my own suckitude notwithstanding) a deliberate design choice, meant to recreate the experience of being on the front lines of WWI. I can respect that. Or, at least, I try to. What Verdun is really teaching me is that I genuinely, emphatically don't want to be on the front lines of WWI. I get the sense that the real war was like a sieve - surviving it was an experience of being sorted, of seeing the people around you swept away for no reason you could comprehend and living with the dread knowledge that each battle you survived made your continued survival all the more improbable.

Because Verdun allows you to respawn, you don't quite get all of that in the game. You don't have a stable of comrades that you watch die one by one. You get to see all your friends again after only a few seconds. You never experience the horror of quantum immortality, because you are actually, truly immortal. It's still pretty horrifying, because your new lives can start at any moment without warning, but it's not the sort of thing that will break your soul and make you move to Paris for twenty years. It just kind of sucks to be reminded that you're not very good at video games.

But I think the biggest issue for me is the game's chat. I've not been using it myself, but from the bits I've seen, I feel really out of place in this game's community. It's not just the fact that there's almost always one or two players who use the chat to be mean to each other. It's also that many of the other players seem to thrive under Verdun's high-pressure, unforgiving atmosphere. They like the fact that the game can take their lives so suddenly and that slow reactions and imprecise aim are sure-fire ways to hasten your demise. It's like I'm an alien visiting another world, given the gaps between our expectations and preferences.

I also suspect that the game's haphazard matchmaking means I'm playing with and against people who are impossibly skilled by comparison. Which is another thing I don't like about online-multiplayer-only games. You never know when they're going to toss you into Hard Mode, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it when they do.

I still find the WWI-era setting of Verdun to be intriguing, but I have a burning wish for a game with a story mode and an adjustable difficulty. Trying to tell the story of WWI through the emergent properties of throwing unprepared ingenues into a brutal world of unpredictable and inescapable violence is certainly one (admittedly clever) way of doing it, but I may well be too fragile for such treatment. I'd like to experience the war with at least one more remove.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Verdun - 2/20 hours

Sometimes, you can tell right away when you're not going to like something. I knew, from about 10 minutes of playing Verdun that this was going to be an ordeal. I wouldn't say I noticed any particular flaw in the game, but rather it seemed like a well-executed example of something that was calculated to annoy the hell out of me.

I can't be entirely certain that in my first match I even saw the enemy at all. I kept dying so quickly and unexpectedly that I never even had the chance to take aim with my gun. Your character in this game is so fragile that your ultimate survival skill is a fast reaction time, and that has never been my strong suit. I'd say of my first 20 minutes, I must have spent at least 10 in the respawn screen.

But even worse than being an utter failure is the knowledge that I am not just terrible, but terrible as part of a team. Whenever you play on online match of Verdun, it automatically sorts you into squads of four players. The squads have predefined roles, where depending on which of the four slots you choose, you have a different loadout of weapons and special equipment. Which means that whatever I did in the game, I did with a nagging doubt "could someone else be using these weapons more effectively. By putting myself on this random team, I am simply taking the spot of someone more skilled and more deserving?"

I mean, I'm probably overthinking it, and long-time players of the game know to make provision for newbs in the hope that they blossom into useful allies, but then again, some of that chat got pretty heated, so I can only hope that my teammates were a little more chill and not simply stoically tolerating my presence.

Taken altogether, Verdun is a game in a genre I'm not very good at, has an unforgiving difficulty, and gives me no option but to be a massive liability to a team of strangers (also, there are about a dozen different nations represented, each with a dingy uniform of brown or grey, so aside from gaining intimate familiarity with a wide variety of WWI-era uniforms, there's no good way to tell friend from foe at a glance). It's like a perfect storm for making me feel bad about myself.

I suspect that Verdun is going to wind up being a challenge of endurance. How long can I stand to be totally ineffectual? How long can I put up with being at the bottom of the heap? I managed to play Takedown: Red Sabre for 20 hours, but I can't say it didn't but a squeeze on my spirit. If I fail in Verdun even half as much as I did in the other game, then I am not going to be very happy for the next few days.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Verdun - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Verdun is the first multiplayer FPS set in a realistic First World War setting. The merciless trench warfare offers a unique battlefield experience, immersing you and your squad into intense battles of attack and defense.

The game takes place on the western front between 1914 and 1918, in one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history. The developers were inspired by the infamous Battle of Verdun in 1916. The game offers 4 distinct game-modes: Frontlines, Attrition, Rifle Deathmatch, and Squad Defense. There are also many historically accurate features such as realistic WW1 weaponry, authentic uniforms, horrendous gore, and maps based on the real battlefields of France and Belgium.

The Frontlines game mode is unique in its tactical complexity. The realistic trenches are challenging to fight in and require tactical cunning to capture and defend. The Entente and Central Powers strive to gain control of frontline sectors. In one battle you’ll find yourself rushing the enemy trenches during an offensive action in order to gain ground, while in another you might be defending your recently conquered ground against a fierce enemy counter-attack.

Players can choose to be part of one of the many squad types in the game, each of which have their own distinct tactical roles. By working together with your friends, you can earn experience that improves the power and versatility of your squad. As you gain more experience fighting and get promoted in rank, you also earn Career Points which you can use to unlock specializations, weapons and equipment.

In the Attrition game mode, the Entente and the Central Powers are pitted against each other in a single battle. Each side has a number of tickets which represents the amount of manpower they have. When a player is killed and respawns, a ticket is deducted from the side they belonged to. When a side has no more tickets, players of that side cannot respawn - the last side standing wins!

The Rifle Deathmatch is a free-for-all game mode, where all players are pitted against each other in a thrilling contest of skill using only bolt-action rifles.

In the Squad Defense mode, the player along with three squad-mates will have to defend a position as long as they can against endless waves of AI controlled attackers.

Previous Playtime

3 minutes

Expectations and Prior Experience

Let me just get this out of the way first - I have been deliberately avoiding Verdun. With all due apologies to Faolind, whose generous gift made this possible, I was initially interested in Verdun's setting and premise, but got scared off when I learned that it was online multiplayer only.

World War I is a fascinating period when it comes to video games, because as far as I know, it really hasn't been explored all that thoroughly. It's possible that's because the period is so pointlessly grim, but I actually have another theory - WWI is in an awkward place, technologically, where the guns don't fit into the standard shooter mechanics, but you can't credibly be carrying around a sword. I'm interested in seeing how Verdun handles this issue.

I just worry that my lack of FPS skills will make me a liability to my team and the lack of an offline tutorial (that's my previous 3 minutes, starting it up to see if I could practice) will mean that the learning curve is too steep for me to ever really improve. I'm also concerned that the hotel's slower internet connection will create enough lag to force me to play exclusively from home, which will make getting through the game a lot slower.

On the other hand, I'm seeing a lot of praise for Verdun's willingness to buck the standard FPS formula and create something a bit more authentic to the real WWI, so if nothing else this will be an interesting historical curiosity. Whether I like it or not will probably depend on the balance between historical immersionism and me being a complete load on the battlefield (though to be fair to Verdun, me being a complete load in trench warfare is probably historically accurate).

Stardew Valley - 20/20 hours

So I did something foolish today. I stayed up four hours past my bedtime playing Stardew Valley. I'm certain that I will be paying for it later, but at the time I thought I could just squeeze a few more days out and reach some personal goals without taking up too much time. It turns out that the addictive quality I talked about in my last post is all too real.

It really pains me that I'm going to have to end my time with Stardew Valley so early. I'm not at all bored with the game yet, and there's still a lot I want to see and do, but if I'm being realistic, it will be dozens of hours before I'm satisfied. As much as I want to just keep playing this game indefinitely, June 2016 was a terribly slow month for the blog and I really just want to get back on track.

My final opinion of Stardew Valley is that it's great, and if I were to ever pare my game collection down to just the essentials, it would definitely make the list, but, for me, it never stopped being Harvest Moon. Which is okay, because I love that series and at no point did Stardew Valley feel like a game that was using other people's ideas because it had none of its own. Instead, it felt like exactly what it was - a fan going rogue and creating an unofficial entry that catered to their own particular preferences. It was obviously a labor of love, and the developer clearly took pains to get all the details right. I'm not sure I would place it above Harvest Moon: Magical Melody, but if someone were to argue the case, I'd be open to persuasion.

I broke my "no new games" pledge to acquire Stardew Valley and I'm glad I did. My time with it was far too short, but I have a feeling this will not be the last I see of this game.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Stardew Valley - 15/20 hours

Last night was the first time I really got to sit down and have an uninterrupted session with Stardew Valley, and while I knew, previously, that it was a compelling game, I forgot how addictive this particular style of farm-based life-simulator can be.

Your time playing is broken up into "days," where you wake with the sun, tend to your farm's necessary chores, and then spend a couple of in-game hours exploring the mine, fishing in the lake, river, or ocean, or befriending the townspeople. Then you go to bed, the game saves, and you do it all over again.

The main thing this does is establish Stardew Valley's setting and mood. You are living in an uncomplicated place and your life is governed by the cycles of nature. Pretty obvious stuff. However, the other thing this does is break your time with the game into easily digestible chunks. You may have grandiose long-term plans, like buying a ton of fruit trees to establish your own high-end winery, but your main focus is always 20-30 minutes away.  Will I be able to swing by my friend's house after watering the crops? Do I have enough stamina to chop down the wood for my house expansion? Is there enough time to go one level deeper into the mines?

And sometimes you're wrong about your available resources, and you miss the window where a shop is open, or use up all your stamina and have to be carried home by the town doctor, but it's the knowledge of those limitations that makes each day into its own time- and resource-management puzzle. And because each day is its own self-contained challenge, there's always the temptation to play just one more.

Which is how I immediately lost 5 hours to this game just as soon as my schedule freed up enough to be able to play it at all. This very nearly wound up being a 16- (or perhaps even 18-) hour post and the only difference would have been that I wrote it after waking up instead of before going to bed.

That's a quality I really love in a video game. Which is weird, because it essentially means that I'm never satisfied by what I've accomplished in Stardew Valley. I'm always driven to push things farther, to bring more land under cultivation, to earn more money, to invest in better tools and larger facilities, all so I can make even more money. I worry that I may go off the deep end and just transform myself into a bitter agricultural hermit, surrounded by the money he worked so hard to earn, but cut off from anything (or anyone) worthwhile to spend it on.

Actually, my big worry is that I am fifteen hours into the game and only halfway through the first year. If past experience is anything to go by, I should still be in autumn by the time hour 20 comes around. I'm kind of dreading that, because I'm absolutely certain that I will have a ton of unfinished business by then. But that's in the future. For now, I just have to take it one day at a time.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Stardew Valley - 10/20 hours

The really interesting thing about Stardew Valley is that it is a game about work. And not just ordinary work, either, but the sort of grueling, back-breaking work that is increasingly rare in our society. The main character gets up with the sun and then immediately starts working on a series of time-consuming, physically demanding chores. If you asked me a week ago, I'd have said it was a romantic vision of a simpler life.

But that was before I had to move into a new apartment. That was three-and-a-half days where I spent every waking hour lifting heavy things and then setting them back down again. It was an ordeal. So much so that I actually looked forward to going to my job, because it was less work (and then wound up cursing my monkey's paw when those two nights proved to be my busiest in years).

I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to get back into Stardew Valley. That I would resent its portrayal of work. "Bah!" I might say. "A fatigue meter is easy. It resets at the beginning of each day. Where are bruises? The lingering stiffness? The almost obscene longing for a hot shower and cool bed? This is a ridiculous fantasy."

Yet, once I got back into it, I didn't have much of a problem at all. It turns out that I like watching work that's been shorn of all its carnal particulars. Even having so recently experienced the reality, the fantasy is still appealing. Without having to worry about aches and pains or the possibility of long-term injury, I'm free to focus on the transformative nature of work. The world changes according to my vision, and I don't have to worry about the ways it will change me.

It's tempting to think of abstraction in games as a necessary evil. A game does not have all the texture and nuance of the real world because a fine simulation requires progressively more computational power.  Yet it's the abstraction that makes it a game. I wouldn't want to play Stardew Valley on a holodeck, any more than I'd want to play a FPS where I could actually die. By removing the rough edges of the real world, the game allows me to explore the broad shape of a different life. If the simulation is too advanced, then the game simply becomes my life.

And while there's a lot to be said for the autonomy and security of your Starview Valley character's life, not to mention the connection to nature and ability to watch things grow and take shape according to your design, I wouldn't really want to live like that. My body couldn't take it.