Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Hyperrogue - 15/20 hours

So much death.

 It's not graphic. There's no blood or gore. But it gets to you. You play for awhile and a dread starts to build.

When will the axe fall?  The path branches. Will one way be a dead end? Will the monsters gang up on you, trap you in a corner, and kill you? Every run must end eventually, but is now the time?

The horizon is being pushed back. My lives are getting longer. But it's still the same thing, over and over again. I can delay the inevitable, but I can't put it off forever.

I find myself cultivating a sort of grim determination. Just a cold, implacable fury, not exactly at the game itself, but towards its world. I stab my finger into the reload button and vow to myself that this time I will triumph and collect hundreds of treasure and show all these yetis and water elementals and weird lumberjack things who's boss.

It's almost entirely a performance. I've found the best way to manage these games is to carefully manage your hope. Too little and it becomes a slough of despair, where you resignedly march into death time and time again, becoming a mechanical button-clicker who doesn't care what happens on screen. Too much hope, and your play anger becomes real, as you come to think that success was snatched away from you by an unfair and uncaring world.

I've reached a workable equilibrium for the most part. I care enough about discovering and "solving" new areas that I'm motivated to keep exploring, but I'm numb enough emotionally that my inevitable deaths leave me with only a brief moment of bitterness.

Only five hours to go. I'm confident now that I'll make it, but I can't guarantee that I'll be in any kind of coherent mental state when I do.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Hyperrogue - 10/20 hours

Roguelike games always make me really existentialist. What's the point of it all, chasing treasure until I inevitably get backed into a corner and die? Why do I bother going on? When it's all over, I'll have nothing to show for it but the memory of my deeds, and even that will fade in time.

It gets awkward trying to keep those thoughts from leaking over into my real life. Luckily, Hyperrogue's geometrical gimmick helps me maintain an effective mental quarantine.

I mean, really, what's the deal with that crazy hyperbolic geometry? I did some supplemental studying to brush up on the subject. the memory drain since college has been pretty bad - I remembered "the angles in a hyperbolic triangle are less than 180 degrees" and "the hyperbolic plane is like the side of a saddle," but pretty much all the rest of it had faded away. The interesting thing about Hyperrogue (for a certain math-nerdy value of "interesting) is that it is not quite set on a hyperbolic plane. Rather, it is set on a projection of the hyperbolic plane.

The distinction is a bit subtle, but basically the hyperbolic plane is most easily visualized by being curved in three dimensions. However, it you want to make a 2-D representation of that plane, you must come up with a geometric function that takes inputs from the curve and maps them to a flat surface. The thing is, this process is never perfect and different functions have different tradeoffs when it comes to accuracy and usability.

A more familiar example might be the translation of a globe into a map. Like the notoriously tricky Mercator Projection, which had the virtue of preserving angles and directions while greatly distorting the size of objects far from the equator. I bring it up because Hyperrogue's Poincare projection map ostensibly has the same problem. However, because your character is always at the center of the map, and given the way distance works in the hyperbolic plane (basically, the circumference of a circle increases exponentially with its radius), the parallax (the change in apparent location of a distant object as you move relative to it) is extreme. If you see an object on the left side of the screen and take a few steps in any direction that is not directly towards the object, you will find that it moves to the bottom of the screen. A couple more steps, and it will be on your right.

I think a different projection might have mitigated the disorientation caused by this wild parallax, but it would have probably had to sacrifice the consistency of shapes in the far field, and I'm not sure that a map where landmarks consistently look different when viewed from a distance would be much of an improvement when it comes to navigation (the Poincare projection has a similar problem, in that tiny objects on the horizon turn out to be huge when they are close up, but they still tend to look more or less the same).

The only conclusion I can reach is that Hyperrogue intends for me to be permanently lost. I hate being lost, but I've been try to accept this with equanimity. It's not like you really need to go back to previous areas once you've cleared out their treasure and while you might be tempted, in a euclidean geometry-based game, to backtrack in order to explore side tracks, it's just as easy to go forwards as backwards in Hypperogue's open map. So, maybe instead of being lost, I'm really just always where I need to be. And if I tend to advance by striking out in a random direction and hoping to get lucky, well maybe that's just the thrill of exploration . . .

This game is a nightmare.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Hyperrogue - 5/20 hours

Click. Click. Click. That's what I'm going to remember about this game, the relentless clicking. I did a quick calculation and I'm averaging about 5600 turns per hour. Since each turn is a single click, I've got roughly 84,000 clicks to go before I'm done. Maybe that's not so much, compared to the controller inputs and button presses I'd do with other games, but it seems like a lot.

It's probably an unfairly superficial way to look at the game. No doubt, high level play rewards having a sophisticated strategy. However, I've not yet gained the ability to play the game consciously. It's still all "move towards shiny, move away from pointy" for me. I've probably gained skill in both those things, seeing as how my average score per run is intermittently trending upwards.  Nonetheless, I'm still a long way from having an actual strategy.

Hyperrogue isn't turning out as bad as I feared, though. The compulsive clicking leaves my mind free to wander to other things. It's easy to listen to a podcast or brainstorm a tabletop game while charging through these simple geometrical worlds. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it can be nice to have a casual game that doesn't require too much concentration (although, now that I write it out, maybe that's why I haven't advanced that much - perhaps my next podcast will be about non-euclidean geometry).

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hyperrogue - 2/20 hours

I can already tell that this is going to be a tough one. My first impression of Hyperrogue is that it is visually arresting with simple yet challenging board-game style gameplay. Which seems easy enough to cope with, once you get used to its level of abstraction. Unfortunately, Hyperrogue also appears to be one of those games that goes out of its way to antagonize its players.

The hyperbolic map appears to serve no other purpose but to confound the player's spatial intuition. I have a degree in pure mathematics, so I have an idea about what's going on with it (though non-euclidean geometry wasn't any kind of specialty of mine), but even with that starting advantage, it's hard to get my abstract mathematical knowledge to override decades of experience navigating a more-or-less euclidean frame of reference (I mean, technically, we live on the surface of a sphere, which is its own form of non-euclidean geometry, but unless you're piloting an intercontinental jet plane, the scale of the sphere is so large that any non-euclidean effects would be smaller than the rounding error). The practical upshot is that it's really easy to get lost.

I already hate getting lost. Combine that with a roguelike's ethos of easy death and lack of cumulative progress and you get a game seemingly calculated to wear down my spirit.

Though it does have some strong points. Outmaneuvering enemies board-game style to clear out a long train of harassers is very satisfying. And the different biomes each have their own characteristic challenges that make give your longer runs some much needed variety in what could easily have been a compulsive click-fest.

It's still to early to reach a final verdict about this game. It's possible that increased experience with the game will make it inot a light and breezy casual game. It's almost equally probable that I will get sick to death of it after hour 5 and will just take up bashing the keyboard senselessly in an attempt to kill time as efficiently as possible.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Hyperrogue - Initial Thoughts

About The Game (From the Steam Store Page)

You are a lone adventurer in a strange, non-Euclidean world. Gather as much treasure as you can before the nasty monsters get you. Explore several different worlds, each with its own unique treasures, enemies, and terrain obstacles. Your quest is to find the legendary treasure, the Orbs of Yendor. Collect one of them to win! Or just ignore your quest and collect smaller treasures.

The twist is the unique, unusual geometry of the world: it is one of just few games which takes place on the hyperbolic plane. Witness a grid composed of hexagons and heptagons, straight lines which seem to be parallel, but then they diverge and never cross, triangles whose angles add up to less than 180 degrees, how extremely unlikely is it to reach the same place twice, and how the world seems to be rotated when you do return. All this matters for the gameplay. The game is inspired by the roguelike genre (although in a very minimalist way), works of M. C. Escher, and by puzzle games such as Deadly Rooms of Death.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

Expectations and Prior Experience

First of all, thanks to PAS for this game, it looks like a real head-trip. Seriously, the screenshots are all these intense abstract geometrical patterns that kind of look like dungeons and kind of look like the sort of nightmares you'd get after you spent all day looking through a kaleidoscope. The unique art direction alone makes me eager to give this game a try.

In fact, it's almost enough to make me forget that it's a roguelike, a genre I've had issues with in the past. I'm anticipating a lot of frustration with Hyperrogue's basic gameplay. A lot of dying and then going back to square one and sweating over reaching absolute perfection in a randomly-generated map so that I can be allowed to advance and see the next iteration of the game's freaky geometry.

Unless the game is unexpectedly easy, it's all going to come down to my ability to maintain a detached attitude. Luckily, I'm feeling pretty chill right now, so I've got high hopes.

Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming - 20/20 hours

I had to play the game for an extra 20 minutes or so to finish the main story, but I managed to make it. My overall opinion of the game is that it is very uneven. Some parts were hilarious and then in others it seemed to drag on with a by-the-numbers rpg plot. I caught several cute references to some classic jrpgs (at one point you have to rescue a chained-up general who was questioning the wisdom of the antagonist empire - just like in Final Fantasy VI, at another, your goofy technician friend rebuilds a scavenged robot in a clear callback to Chrono Trigger), but none of these rose to the level of parody. They tended to tread the uncomfortable line between homage and the shameless recycling of some of the genre's most memorable scenes.

I think the best summary of my feelings for this game is that I really liked the characters, but couldn't care less about the plot. My favorite missions were in the early parts of the various chapters, where they're still establishing the characters' quirks and relationships and which feature minor, eccentric villains to give them something to do without advancing the plot too much. Once the story got enough confidence to shorthand the characters' personalities, it tended to get lost up its own ass with earth-shaking events that are actually kind of blandly predictable.

 I think, by virtue of being the second game in the series, Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming simply could not be as audacious or inventive as its predecessor. Which is entirely to be expected, but unfortunately, it failed to do what the best video game sequels usually manage to do - it did not refine or expand the central idea that made the first game promising enough to develop a sequel. In the original Half-Minute Hero, the time-rewinding and fast-leveling mechanics were the vehicle for an outrageous hypothetical - what if you could cram an entire jrpg into 30 seconds? In the sequel, they're just how things are done. It's fun, because the quests still retain that time-management puzzle quality that makes them a blast to try and solve, but it's completely lost its capacity to surprise and delight.

I enjoyed myself immensely playing this game. I didn't just resolve to get to the end of the story missions and quit. I did a lot of grinding, exploring the optional sidequests and hidden dungeons (though the so-called "global dungeons" were not a timer and thus lacked the game's single biggest source of fun). I must have spent an hour at the casino, pulling the slot machine lever hundreds of times to get enough tokens for the ultimate sword. If I wasn't especially impressed with the game, neither was I disappointed with it. It was a scaled-down, simplified jrpg with a familiar plot and appealing cast of characters. It didn't need to be much more than that to earn a permanent place in my affections, even if I never do play it again.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming - 10/20 hours

The third act of this game is a much welcome return to form. After the main character, Yusha, finishes his revenge quest and then scampers off into the sunset. Some time later, possibly after several centuries have passed, we take control of his descendant, Princess Yushia. The new main character's reckless thirst for adventure and limited understanding of the world outside the castle walls makes for some effective comedy.

Though the real comedy MVPs of any Half-Minute Hero game are the villains. And while the overall plot of chapter 3 is still a little too serious for my tastes and the main villain has a typical rpg agenda, the sub-bosses are generally sillier (like, one of them is a robotic sunfish who you arrange to strand on land and then casually dispatch). It's finally starting to feel like the game I wanted since the very beginning.

Let's hope they can keep it up.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming - 6/20 hours

There's been a little bit of a delay in me playing this game, but it has (almost) nothing to do with the game itself. I had some trouble sleeping yesterday and as a result, all night last night I wound up nodding off. It was nothing serious, just your typical 10-second micronaps, the kind where you close your eyes to blink and then become startled when they don't open up right away. I like this game enough even to play it when I'm not feeling 100%, but it's still Half-Minute Hero, so, you know, it can be quite a disadvantage to lose a third of your available time.

I'm also a little fuzzy about the ongoing plot. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's ever played an rpg that the eight elements you defeat in the first act are actually holy guardians who seal away an ancient evil and that the suspicious newcomer who relayed the Queen's uncharacteristic orders was actually a dark sorcerer who had kidnapped her and replaced her with a compliant doppelganger. I mean, that's rpg 101 stuff there. It's like, there's going to be an ally that winds up on the wrong side of the conflict and then later you have to face him in battle, because of course there is.

However, I think my sleep-addled brain might have missed something, because Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming seems to be playing this plot completely straight. One of my favorite parts of the original game was the way each individual level would distill the essence of an entire sprawling rpg epic into one single bit of clumsy and fatuous exposition. "Grr, I am Evil McEvilface and my toast was slightly burned this morning and for that the world must PAY!" It was weird and clever and gently punctured the self-seriousness that can sometimes plague the genre.

The sequel still has its funny moments. The Time Goddess is still the lovably amoral ditz she was in the first game. The Knight is still the same kind-hearted idiot. But they find themselves in a story that takes itself much more seriously (and, indeed, with possibly one exception, all of the comic-relief type characters are holdovers from the first game). There's a hierarchy to the bosses you fight and they all consciously serve the same sinister agenda. Their motives may be stupid and evil, but they're not off-the-wall bonkers like some of the first batch of evil lords.

I'm hoping that there's going to be some big payoff for all of this. Like maybe the extended seriousness is a setup for a much funnier slow-burn joke. Or at least that the silliness quotient will be ramped up in the coming chapters once this revenge plot is dealt with.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming - 3/20 hours

This is a sprightly and fast-paced game, shallow in its mechanics, but one which wastes no time getting you to the fun parts and letting you stay there indefinitely. I really enjoy playing it.

But it is a completely inessential sequel. There weren't really any unanswered questions at the end of the first game, and any jokes inherent in the Half-Minute Hero presence were already long mined-out.

Which isn't to say that Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming has a boring story. It's just its best parts are retreads from the first game, and even those were done better the first time round (though to be fair, the first few hours of the original Half-Minute Hero were some of the funniest video game writing I've ever seen). It's possible that the sequel isn't as front-loaded as the original and it will have a better ending, but for now the story just feels like filler between your various quests.

It's possible they're going somewhere with it, though. I mean, you're a mysterious orphan who was adopted by a kindly queen and eventually grew up to be one of her elite commandos. And now, the queen is acting strange and uncharacteristically secretive and her spunky daughter, with whom you've got a tentative flirtation going on, is repeatedly breaking out of the castle to follow you on your secret missions. I don't think they would use such a thoroughly conventional plot unless they were planning some kind of payoff in the end.

It's not that important, though. Even if it's not as laugh-out-loud funny as the original game, it's still inoffensively entertaining with the occasional quip that makes me smile. And the gameplay is as good as it ever was (though I don't understand what the "global mode," where you wander around without a time-limit and with more standard experience and inventory systems, is suposed to add to the game as a whole). The way the counting clock serves to make even simple fights into is complex puzzles is very engaging, and seeing your little guys cut through a whole horde of enemies with barely the push of a button is never not satisfying.

My hope is that the story will become more interesting as time goes on, but as long as it stays the course, I expect this to be a generally easy game to finish.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Half-Minute Hero: The Second Coming

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The world's speediest homage/roast to JRPGs! Can you save the world in 30 seconds?

Get a quest, find those in need, fight through dungeons, earn cash, get cool loot and level up until YOU>EVIL. Don't have enough time? Pay the Goddess to reset the clock and try again! Over 100 mini-JRPGs for you to test your might with! Available outside Japan for the first time ever exclusively on Steam.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I didn't even know there was a Half-Minute Hero sequel until after I had bought and played the first game. Had I known, I would have gotten the two in a bundle and saved some money. As it was, I bought it about a year after I got the original game. I remember kicking myself when I first discovered it and added it to my wishlist and vowing to buy it as soon as it went on significant discount.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I've played and beaten the first game. I didn't feel like it particularly left anything unsaid, so I'm not sure what a sequel will bring. It looks like it might be parodying the late-16 bit, early PS1 era rpgs in much the same way that the original skewered games like the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, but that's just an impression based on its upgraded graphics.

If the screenshots are anything to go by, there's a new party system, which could potentially add an interesting wrinkle, but could just as easily wind up diluting the series strong core concept.

Best case scenario here is that it adds complexity and depth to the original game while retaining the series' trademark humor. If the second game is a true evolution of the first, it could really be something special.

The worst case scenario (at least for me) is that it's too much like the first game and starts to fizzle around hour ten or so (which is even more of a problem coming after a whole other game's worth of similar material.)

What I'm honestly expecting is something somewhere in between the extremes - an at times funny and engaging game that nonetheless retreads a lot of its predecessor. The original Half-Minute Hero was indeed running out of ideas towards the end, and I am curious as to where its creators found the inspiration for a sequel.

No Man's Sky - 52 hours

It's been three and a half days and I've finally come up for air. In the last week, I've spent more time playing No Man's Sky than I have at my job (although, to be fair, a significant portion of that time was at my job). I honestly think I could keep playing this game for weeks, at least.

Nonetheless, it's time to move on. The main impetus for this decision is the fact that I have a year-long goal I'm eager to complete - if I finish 13 more games in the next four months, I'll have gotten back to my starting point with the blog. Dallying with a single game, no matter how compelling, puts that goal in jeopardy.

But the other big reason I'm quitting now is that No Man's Sky still has some serious bugs. Every couple of hours, it starts to slow to a crawl for no discernible reason. It doesn't always load at startup. I get some annoying screen tearing when I play the game in windowed mode. As much as I like the game, I'd like it even more if these issues were cleared up (I may also need a more powerful computer - I've had this one for about a year and a half and it was mid-range when it was new).

So how do I sum up my feelings about this game? After fifty-plus hours, it feels more like an art installation than a game. Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy the gamey aspects of No Man's Sky - the grinding for materials, the inventory management, the sometimes tricky navigation over uneven terrain. It's just that I feel like it's main feature is its sheer bigness. And that bigness, except to the extent that it makes getting to the galactic core a more daunting task, isn't really a gameplay mechanic.

Instead, I think the mechanics are meant to convey and establish the game's feeling of bigness. They are supposed to make you feel small and alone in this science-fiction world. Even more so than the sentinels or the occasional predatory creature, it's the game's scale, and the accompanying loneliness that are No Man's Sky's true antagonists, and you can never really triumph over them, like you would in a pure game. Instead, the goal is to find the beauty and the grandeur in them and make peace with the fact that they're never going away.

That's why I think the planets are so obviously designed for loveliness rather than being functioning gameplay entities. You really don't need a planet-sized planet for anything. No one is ever going to explore that much territory (let alone do it 18 quintillion times). In fact, the mind boggles just trying to comprehend it. But if your goal is instead to hit players with the cold and undeniable knowledge that for every square foot of ground they cover, they are deliberately ignoring another million, then the scale works very well.

I think No Man's Sky is a pretty easy game to figure out. If you're paying attention, you get what it's trying to do early. And though I haven't got to the end of the Atlas quest line and I'm still more than a hundred and seventy thousand light years from the galactic core, I'm not sure that it's holding anything back for the endgame. Yet though the broad strokes are easy to suss out, the individual details are constantly changing? No two places are ever exactly the same, and many of those differences are spectacular to behold, but it's rare to be categorically astonished. The game does some pretty cool things, but they are the sort of cool things you've come to expect after your first dozen planets or so.

Ultimately, its longevity as a game is going to be extremely reliant on how the player, as an individual, values novelty. If you're the sort of person that requires the endgame to be a dramatic evolution of the early game's premise, you're not going to like No Man's Sky in the long run. If, however, you're like me and you don't mind playing basically the same game at hour 50 as you were playing at hour 2, then there's no reason not to stick around for hour 100 or beyond.

Or at least, there won't be once the game is patched into functionality. Hopefully, I'll have some more free time by then.

Monday, August 15, 2016

No Man's Sky - 20/20 hours

Today No Man's Sky joins an elite club of games where I've logged more than twenty hours in less than three days. It's the paradox of the blog. A game that I really enjoy, I tend to breeze through. Games that give me trouble, I tend to string out over time. It's probably all down to the little procrastination voice that tells me, "hey, a youtube video will only take 5-10 minutes to watch . . ." When I like a game, it's easy to tell that voice to go to hell. Also, I tend not to eat as well when I'm playing a really captivating game ("I could stop playing to make myself a nice home-cooked meal or I could swing by Taco Bell, snarf in the parking lot, and be ready to go in minutes . . .")

But enough about my sybaritic dissolution, let's talk about the game. No Man's Sky has frequently been compared to Spore, usually in a disparaging way. I think that misses the point, though. There are points of similarity between the two games, but those points of similarity are Spore's (hitherto) unique strengths, the features you would push forward if you were trying to get someone to overlook its flaws.

In fact, the two biggest complaints about Spore's space stage were - 1)you couldn't get out of your spaceship and wander around these hundreds of procedurally generated worlds and 2)whenever you tried to focus purely on exploration, some random eco-disaster or pirate attack would force you to divert back to your home systems. These are both issues that No Man's Sky simply doesn't have (though in the process it loses global terraforming, the economic simulation, and the sheer pleasure of terrifying primitive species by buzzing them in a UFO).

I think the idea this criticism is trying to get across is that both games promised limitless diversity, but never quite managed to occlude their methods enough that a jaded eye couldn't see the seams. Spore's community became expert in using the different creature parts in surprising and unconventional ways to make some truly unique animals . . . but you could still identify which tail was repurposed to make that weird monster's ears. Similarly, I've yet to see two No Man's Sky animals which look exactly alike, but after a time, you can see patterns in the body plans (and simple creatures, like the squat little hoppers have such a basic design that their cosmetic similarities are hard to overlook) and certain peripheral appendages become very familiar.

And the question is - how much does it matter that you can see the seams? If you wanted to be perversely reductive, you could do the same thing with real animals - a fennec fox is just a fox with big ears, a panda is just a reskinned bear, a cat is basically just a smaller, more agile dog, a squid is just an octopus with two extra legs and all those Galapagos finches are same damned bird with slightly different beaks. What is interesting about animals? And what is interesting about virtual animals?

I think real biology gets a pass on reusing the same assets because the similarity between animals is compelling evidence for evolution. The reason I have the same basic skeleton as the common shrew is because we shared an ancestor about sixty-five million years ago.

The other thing is that morphology is often tied to fascinating differences in behavior. A salmon is superficially your typical generic fish, but it has a weird and complex life-cycle. A polar bear is just a white bear, but it thrives in one of Earth's most extreme environments.

None of that is really true for the creatures of No Man's Sky. I don't know what goes into the algorithm that creates the different animals, but purely on the fiction level, similar-looking creatures do not share an evolutionary history with each other. And while there are a variety of animal behaviors, they're not that complex and not related to the creature's morphology (although every crab creature I've seen has tried to kill me).

But assuming one could create all that in video game form, how would you even be able to tell? It's not as if people are going to sit down and watch the fluorescent space lemur for months at a time, taking meticulous notes about what it eats, where it makes its nest, and how it cares for its young. As big as it is, No Man's Sky is still scaled down and simplified when compared to the real world. People are going to range less far and spend less time searching than they would if they were real-life explorers setting foot on an alien world for the first time. Ultimately, the things you find need only be complex enough to fill that window. Anything beyond that is likely a waste (though who knows, maybe someone is working on a procedurally generated "Sim Field Biologist" game as we speak - and if they are, I'd like to know about it).

Enjoying No Man's Sky, then, involves buying into its premise and accepting its illusions. It's frankly absurd that there would only be ten or eleven novel species on even a small alien world, but that's alright, because they're only there as a collectible mini-game (and so you can take screenshots of the occasional unbelievable freak). It's okay that you can work out the stock types that go into constructing any random creature, because even discounting near-reskins, No Man's Sky has more diversity than nearly any game you'd care to name (strangely enough, only Spore springs to mind as serious competition).

So what does this all have to do with me? Well, to be frank, I don't give a damn about the seams. I like seeing what the algorithm will throw out next. I'm delighted by seeing the same rocky planets in increasingly unlikely color-schemes. I love walking around and soaking it all in. For me, twenty hours is not nearly enough time to spend in the No Man's Sky universe.

Which is why I'm going to keep playing the game, at least for another couple of days. I don't anticipate ever getting bored, but I'm guessing I'll eventually reach a point where the weight of my 73 unfinished games will start to get a hold of me. There will be a tipping point where anxiety about failing my goal will overwhelm my desire to just poke my head into just one more beautifully-realized scifi world (and if you're not impressed by the game's combinatoric approach to diversity you should be astonished that procedural generation can produce so much visually engaging material with a minimum of human intervention).

Once I reach that point, I'll probably put this game aside, vowing, with perhaps more plausibility than usual, to one day return. Expect a couple of follow-up posts in the meantime, maybe one every couple of days.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

No Man's Sky - 14/20 hours

Oh, right, I was supposed to write a post about this game.

I've been playing it basically every free, waking hour I've got. Fourteen hours in two days, and I could have easily done fourteen more if it had come out on my nights off instead of on the hotel's busiest nights of the week.

Which seems odd for a game that's been so widely and thoroughly panned. What is it about No Man's Sky that I find so compelling?

I think it comes down to my biggest pet peeve in games - not knowing what I'm supposed to do next. I hate it when a game is clearly waiting for you to do something - talk to a certain npc, go to a certain location, combine a certain item with a certain other item, etc - and then refuses to tell you what to do or how to do it. That's why, for all it's sterling qualities, Morrowind is my third favorite Elder Scrolls game.

Yet, ironically, as much as I hate unclear objectives, I love games with no objectives whatsoever. I love it when I'm just plopped down into a world and told, essentially, to go amuse myself. Because then, whatever I choose, it's the right choice.

Obviously, I can still make mistakes. Like when I landed on that barren planet and found a derelict spaceship and decided to scrap my old one to repair the new. Then discovered that a key element to fixing the new ship's engines could only be found in a certain plant . . . which was not present on that world.

And yet, it was all right. I may have seriously screwed up, but it was my screw up. And I knew exactly what I had to do  - find some way to fix my ship given the tools available to me. So I opened a bunch of chests, searched far and wide for another derelict ship I could salvage for parts, and eventually wound up finding a randomly generated trading post that sold the material I needed.

It was extremely frustrating, but because I knew this wasn't a scripted event, I didn't waste time hunting for the "real" answer. If it had gone on for more than a couple of hours, I might have given up and deleted my save file, but the time I spent marooned on a barren planet was essentially the game in miniature - strike out in a random direction, keep your eyes open for interesting things, go and look at the interesting things you find.

That is basically the one and only quest in No Man's Sky and I love the game for that. No matter where I am, I know my current objectives and I can knock them out as slow or as fast as I desire. It's the same modular breakdown of time that characterizes a lot of my favorite other games. It's so easy to do "just one more thing," that I never reach the point of wanting to put it down.

Likely as not, by this time tomorrow, I'll have reached 20 hours or beyond.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

No Man's Sky - 4/20 hours

I didn't actually get started with this game until about an hour before my bedtime. The usual high-end PC game ritual of fiddling with settings to maximize performance was needlessly complicated by the inexplicable decision to require holding down the button in order to change menu options. When it didn't respond to my mouse clicks, I thought the game was bugged. The first time I played, I wound up quitting through the task manager, completely bypassing the autosave. Which is a real shame because my first planet was a paradise world, but the second time I started up, I spawned on some kind of hellish volcano world. Sigh.

So the game unlocked at 11am. I didn't get to start playing it until 12pm. I usually go to bet at around 1pm. And my head didn't actually hit the pillow until 4pm.

I've heard that this game is divisive, and I can understand the haters' point of view. Strictly speaking, the game is "boring" and its best quality is that it generates some impressive screenshots. But damn, those screenshots. If you want to be totally cynical about the game, it's all about grinding for expendable resources so you can have the privilege of looking at things. But even so, it's worth it. You can't go five minutes in this game without feeling like you've stumbled into a vintage sci-fi book cover and it's awesome.

Although personally, I don't even mind the grinding. At any given moment, you have to worry about a half-dozen dwindling resources - plutonium for your ship's launch thrusters, warp cells for your hyperdrive, carbon for your life support system, energy for you mining laser and blaster, aluminum for your shields, etc. And if these resources run out then you are cu off from some vital equipment. It's a never-ending escalator of fail. But on some level, that's life.

I love games that let you inhabit a world. That root your character in the setting and force you to work around their immediate concerns. I mean, I installed a mod that let you die of frostbite in Skyrim and in No Man's Sky death by frostbite is enabled by default.

No the closest thing to a problem I have with this game is that it's almost too much of a good thing. You land on a planet and everywhere you look there's something interesting to see and if you just picked a direction and kept walking, you'd find all sorts of incredible flora and fauna and rock formations and abandoned bases and alien monoliths and who knows what else besides. But even if you wandered around for hours, all you would see is a tiny sliver of the planet. And that planet is a tiny speck, lost in an incomprehensibly vast universe. And there is a loneliness to that, being a tiny sliver of a tiny speck.

It would be easy to resent No Man's Sky the same way I resent my own mortality. There's just so much that I'm never going to be able to see or experience. The sheer scale of the universe before me makes it an iron-clad certainty. Even if I  had a million years, it wouldn't be enough.

But, you know, it's just a game. While there is, mathematically speaking, a million years of content, I'll probably be satisfied with a couple hundred hours or so. I probably won't get them, because of the blog, but I have a strong feeling that No Man's Sky is going to be a game I fudge the deadline on. It may not be perfect, but I can't get enough.

Friday, August 12, 2016

No Man's Sky - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Inspired by the adventure and imagination that we love from classic science-fiction, No Man's Sky presents you with a galaxy to explore, filled with unique planets and lifeforms, and constant danger and action.

In No Man's Sky, every star is the light of a distant sun, each orbited by planets filled with life, and you can go to any of them you choose. Fly smoothly from deep space to planetary surfaces, with no loading screens, and no limits. In this infinite procedurally generated universe, you'll discover places and creatures that no other players have seen before - and perhaps never will again.

Embark on an epic voyage
At the centre of the galaxy lies a irresistible pulse which draws you on a journey towards it to learn the true nature of the cosmos. But, facing hostile creatures and fierce pirates, you'll know that death comes at a cost, and survival will be down to the choices you make over how you upgrade your ship, your weapon and suit.

Find your own destiny
Your voyage through No Man's Sky is up to you. Will you be a fighter, preying on the weak and taking their riches, or taking out pirates for their bounties? Power is yours if you upgrade your ship for speed and weaponry.

Or a trader? Find rich resources on forgotten worlds and exploit them for the highest prices. Invest in more cargo space and you'll reap huge rewards.

Or perhaps an explorer? Go beyond the known frontier and discover places and things that no one has ever seen before. Upgrade your engines to jump ever farther, and strengthen your suit for survival in toxic environments that would kill the unwary.

Share your journey
The galaxy is a living, breathing place. Trade convoys travel between stars, factions vie for territory, pirates hunt the unwary, and the police are ever watching. Every other player lives in the same galaxy, and you can choose to share your discoveries with them on a map that spans known space. Perhaps you will see the results of their actions as well as your own...

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

It's all about the hype. This is a video game that got its developer an interview with Stephen Colbert. It's had think-pieces written about it. It utilizes some novel math to fit an unprecedentedly huge universe into a 6GB file. It's supposed to do startling new things with procedural generation.

Okay, so I'm a sucker. But it is my hope to be one of the first suckers to experience something amazing (even if it's not quite as amazing as it was initially hyped as).

Expectations and Prior Experience

The bulk of my "experience" with this game has been watching the various breathless interviews and admittedly stunning preview footage that has been floating around for years. I've also seen a few minutes of it in person thanks to a friend who bought it for the PS4.

It looked more or less like what I was expecting. I've been hearing some criticisms of the game from people who started playing a few days ago, but none of it has had that much of an impact on my excitement.

Honestly, No Man's Sky will probably have to seriously shit the bed for me to not enjoy it. Because the basic pitch is one of my fondest video game wishes - an entire virtual universe to explore with no great agenda but to live inside it. Success at the game lies in discovering the diversity of its world. Failure is getting bored. And since I'm the guy who didn't even get bored with Starforge, I like my chances.

Honestly, it's been awhile since I went into a new game so completely confident that I would enjoy it.

AI War: Fleet Command - 20/20 hours

Much as predicted, I never got anywhere close to a victory. I tried a difficulty 9 campaign and died after a couple of hours. The same for difficulty 8. I skipped difficulty 7 and went back to my difficulty 6 "kitchen sink game."  And I died within an hour. Some mysterious 3rd party decided they were going to raid my home planet while my main forces were engaged with the AI in a distant star system.

I think the tricky thing about AI War is that its logic works backwards. The better you do, the stronger the AI gets. I had a hard time adjusting to that. It's my usual strategy to consolidate my power, building up my forces and then snowballing as I gathered more resources and territory. Scrambling to mount a defense after a series of decisive victories is just completely foreign to my way of thinking.

I think it's something I could have learned to cope with in time, but time was not on my side. The process of getting good at the game is surely one of "unlearning what I have learned," and that never goes as quickly as one might hope.

I wonder what goes through a developer's mind when they try to make a massive time-sink of a game. On the one hand, "hours played" has to correlate at least somewhat with "enjoyment," and if your goal is to maximize the enjoyment of your game, having your players still pursuing mastery, even after 20 hours, would seem like a species of success.

But then maybe the length of the game is meant to be provocative, a gauntlet thrown down before the player, a test to see if they can decipher the riddle set before them. It may seem needlessly paranoid, but if you understand the game in the context of a genre, it makes sense. If a player thought they'd completely mastered the RTS, if they'd thought they had solved the genre in general, then AI War forces them to approach their strategy in a radically different way. For a relative genre novice like myself, it sometimes feels like a joke where I walked in halfway through the punchline.

Still, I have to give AI War credit for daring to do something different. It is a game that weds story to mechanics and rewards players who really get invested in the world. It is an RTS game for RTS super-fans, those who have become jaded by the "defacto quick win and then tediously mop up for the technical victory" pattern that can sometimes plague other RTS games. By upending that formula, it becomes a game of rising action, where victory is an uphill climb. Which I can appreciate, even if I'm the sort of hopeless scrub who enjoyed the tedious mopping up phase which this game (probably) dispensed with.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

AI War: Fleet Command - 10/20 hours

I was wrong about an impossible difficulty taking the pressure off. I survived on difficulty 10 for a little over two hours, and towards the end I started thinking to myself "hey, what if I make it."

Like, seriously, I entertained the notion that I, as a complete novice could somehow (presumably through a combination of dumb luck and natural strategic acumen) defy the odds and survive indefinitely in the most difficult part of an already notoriously difficult game. I mean, I'm not delusional. I knew that it wasn't likely. But I successfully conquered a star system. I survived several waves of reprisals. I thought I'd be dead within minutes and miraculously I wasn't.

So I decided to play slowly and methodically. To not take any risks and carefully consider each attack. To only move when I was at my unit cap. And it seemed to be working. Until I made a newb mistake and was almost instantly overwhelmed.

It turns out that even losing the game takes more time than I'd thought. So my plan to move down the difficulty levels is probably untenable. I can only assume that as I go down the list the time to die will take progressively longer. Every time I start a new game, there's the possibility that it will be my last.

This is complicated by the fact that, thanks to a tip from Bremen, I learned that there are a bunch of scenarios and optional units that I could enable. So I started an easy game with all the options enabled. I've had a couple of interesting encounters, but it hasn't been the overloaded conga-line of complications that I was expecting.

I think I'll start a Difficulty 9 game and see how long it takes to kill me and then if it takes too long, I will go back to my kitchen-sink game. My agenda now is to learn as much about the game as possible before No Man's Sky comes out.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

AI War: Fleet Command - 5/20 hours

I think this game might be a long one. I finished the tutorial at the 5.7 hour mark and that was only a ten star galaxy and the suggested size for even an easy game is 30-40.

My big question now is "does game length scale linearly with galaxy size?" And the only answer I can think of is "not if you lose." Which is to say that I'm pretty sure the tutorial mini-campaign is the only game of AI War I'm ever going to win. Either I will be on the path to victory in a campaign that will take more than 16.3 hours or I will lose repeatedly.

In a normal situation, where I was approaching AI War as something I might explore over the course of weeks or months, I'd just start a game on a low difficulty level, play through for a couple dozen hours, and then ramp up on my next attempt if the victory proved to be unsatisfying. Since I want to finish this game in a couple of days, that's not really a viable plan.

Instead, I'm going to try and play to lose. Not intentionally. I'm not going to throw the game or anything, but I am going to defy the game's advice and start on the highest difficulty. If I'm knocked out in a few minutes, I can scale down to the next highest level, and so on and so forth until I reach a difficulty where I can survive until the end of my remaining time.

It's a ridiculous way to play the game - I don't have anything even approaching the skillset necessary to survive on level 10 - but I figure that facing impossible odds against a superior foe is the game's core theme. If I am to really understand AI War, I need to confront this outcome head-on.

I'm not sure how I'll deal with it, emotionally. Normally, I hate it when a game wrecks my stuff before sending me into an inglorious defeat, but this time I'm deliberately courting that fate. Against a level 10 AI, the death of the human race is all but assured, but how can I be upset about this. No one has even suggested I try level 10. I imagine there's not an elitist hardcore gamer on the planet that would scoff at me for avoiding max difficulty after only a single tutorial mini-campaign.

And that's very liberating. When you go into something knowing you're destined to fail, it takes the pressure off of you to try and succeed. Of course, I know myself. If I manage to make even trivial headway against the level 10 AI, I'm going to at least partially convince myself that it's possible to go all the way. And then the pressure is going to all come rushing back.

So here's to a series of quick and decisive losses! It really is the best thing for me right now.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

AI War: Fleet Command - 2/20 hours

I'm starting to worry about this game. I'm two and a half hours in and I'm still in the middle of the tutorial. But it's not really the complexity that bothers me. When I started the tutorial, it warned me that it was possible to lose . . . in the tutorial. Now I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This shouldn't really come as a surprise to me. The very premise of the game is that you're outclassed by an overwhelming enemy. It's just that it didn't really feel real to me until I saw that tutorial intro.

Ominous foreshadowing of doom aside, I've been enjoying AI War so far. It doesn't have the most interesting tech tree or the most compelling unit design, but it's enough to keep me engaged. My hope is that once I play a full game, with the expansion packs unlocked, I will be able to unlock deeper, more complex units and strategies. Whether or not I'll be able to use such things effectively remains to be seen.

Other than these vague first impressions, I can't really say anything about the game as a whole yet, though. One thing I've gathered from the tutorial and from reading the "which difficulty should I select" article on the wiki, is that in the real, non-tutorial game, a lot of the strategy revolves around trying to manipulate the AI - what in other games might be called exploits, where you try to find the blind spot in the program's decision-making process and fool it into making bad decisions.

The interesting thing about this is that in addition to a straightforward difficulty slider, you can choose a personality for your AI opponents, which determines its overall strategy (such as focusing on a strong defense and not making attacks on the lower end or always destroying their planets rather than allowing them to fall into enemy hands on the higher end) and gives it certain bonus units or technologies. This means, presumably, that the "find the inevitable weakness of the underlying algorithm" game can be played dozens of times and still be different every time. It's a neat approach to setting difficulty, though I doubt I'll play long enough to learn much about it.

My next move is to try and finish the tutorial and then jump into the recommended "Beginner" setup to see a slice of the whole game. At some point during these 20 hours, I'm going to have to lose a game, because from everything I've heard, that's what AI War is all about. I have my fingers crossed, however, that my first defeat will not be in the freaking tutorial. Proudly difficult game or not, that would be humiliating.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

AI War: Fleet Command - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

"You are outgunned. You are massively outnumbered. You must win." These are your orders.

Humanity has already fought its war against the machines -- and lost. AI death squads stand watch over every planet and every wormhole, the few remaining human settlements are held captive in orbiting bubbles, and the AIs have turned their attention outward, away from the galaxy, to alien threats or opportunities unknown.

This inattention is our only hope: a small resistance, too insignificant even to be noticed by the AI central command, has survived. These are the forces you will command. The AI subcommanders will fight you to the death when they see you -- but your glimmer of opportunity comes from quietly subduing those subcommanders without alerting central processing to the danger until it's too late.

You do have a few things going in your favor. Your ships are much faster. You have safe AI routines to automate defenses and mining outposts. You have production techniques that can churn out fully-outfitted unmanned fighters in seconds. There will never be more than a few thousand of your ships versus tens of thousands of theirs, but through careful strategy you must somehow reach and destroy the heavily-guarded AI cores.

Go forth into the galaxy, steal AI technology, recapture those planets you must in order to achieve your ends, and save what remains of humanity. But draw too much attention to yourself, and the full might of the AI overlords will come crashing down.

Previous Playtime

0 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Like most of my purchases, it was on deep discount and I impulsively snatched it up. I didn't really know anything about it except that it had an intriguing premise, it was made by the same developer as The Last Federation, and the bundle included all of the DLC.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I'm a little nervous about this game. It looks like a pretty intense RTS, which is a genre that's given me a trouble in the past. According to the store page, it's a twist on the regular formula, where you have to balance production against stealth. Not being especially experienced with the genre, I'm not sure how much I'll appreciate the nuance of this reversal, but the novelty has piqued my interest.

The failure state here is if the game proves to be too hard, if it requires me to react to quickly or focus on too many things at a time. But that's just my typical RTS anxiety. My only real concern that's specific to this game is that maybe managing the AI's aggression will prove to be a frustrating chore, where I'm punished every time I start to feel like I'm doing well.

On the other hand, maybe this game will prove to be an arresting strategic challenge. Maybe I'll get that rush of good feelings that comes with solving a problem and the overwhelming power of the AI will only make it more satisfying to defeat.

Vertiginous Golf - 20/20 hours

I don't know how I got so jaded about this game so quickly. I mean, it's a game of clever geometrical and mechanical challenges, where baroque steampunk contraptions float in the sky and success revolves around unraveling complex chains of cause-and-effect. Which normally sounds like the sort of thing I at least pretend to enjoy (and bear in mind, Vertiginous Golf actually is a pretty enjoyable golf game).

I had a theory that Vertiginous Golf lacked that certain critical element of all-American kitsch that characterizes all the best real-world mini-golf courses. I'm not sure what windmills, miniature skyscrapers, and dinosaur mouths would have brought to the holes that the game's pneumatic tubes, moving platforms, and conveyor belts would have lacked, but I do think I'd have enjoyed seeing steampunk interpretations of these mini-golf staples.

However, I don't think that's really that much of a factor. If the putting environment was a bit more sterile than I might have liked, it was compensated by the fact that the courses were more abstract and (theoretically) easier to read.

Overall, Vertiginous Golf was a perfectly adequate game, about which I have no major complaints. I think I was just cranky when I played it. I felt like I had it all figured out in the first couple of hours . . . and after twenty, I can say that feeling was mostly correct, but there was really no reason for me to be such a dick about it.

By way of apology, I will make an embarrassing confession. At one point, my total score for the game's most difficult course was +51 over par. It was almost entirely down to a combination of the radically unpredictable obstacles and me not knowing how to putt. I eventually got my score down to +4 over par (112th best in the world!), but there are several courses I never got to revisit, so my total ranking is still terrible. Even if I am wise to Vertiginous Golf's tricks, I still have a lot to learn.

I don't think I will, though. Despite its science-fiction trappings, Vertiginous Golf is still a sports game, a member of a genre which, you might have noticed, has absolutely no presence in my Steam library (kind of surprising, too, considering how many games I own). Maybe it's just some lingering nerd-obstinance from a childhood of resolutely avoiding sports or maybe it's because there aren't a lot of sports games that have turn-based resource management, rpg character-progression elements, or freeform voxel crafting, and thus nothing to really hook me into them, but the sports game genre is normally totally invisible to me. Like, I'll go into one of those stores that sells vintage video games and see that they've got a whole shelf of NHL 96 or Madden 98 or whatnot and I'll think to myself, "oh, they don't have any SNES games to sell."

My brain literally processes them as detritus, the stuff that's left over as a console sheds its user-base and becomes a historical curiosity. It's not fair, and it's not wise, but it's a blind spot that has been exposed by my time with Vertiginous Golf. If I want to become a true video game aficionado, I should probably address that, but honestly, I have no idea where to even start.

So, while I found Vertiginous Golf to be mildly enjoyable, but mostly pretty forgettable, that opinion must be understood in the context of my own staggering ignorance.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Vertiginous Golf - 15/20 hours

Having tried out the course creation mode and about a hundred more user-created holes, I can say with confidence that I won't be a great golf course designer any time soon. The trick to making a great mini-golf hole, as far as I can tell, is thinking like a golf ball. You have to break your hole up, shot by shot, with each stroke telling its own story. This is especially true of a complex golf setup like Vertiginous Golf, where there are conveyor belts and air cannons and precipitous drops at every corner.

I'm not entirely sure that every designer of a user-created hole understands this. Sometimes, a hole is so thick with obstacles that getting through it is mostly chance. Other times, a hole has a clever idea, but is laid out in such a way as you can easily bypass it. A few get it right (sometimes spectacularly so), but it's become clear to me that hole design is a delicate art. And I simply don't care enough to try and master it.

I've been hoping for an epiphany. Something that will flip a switch in my brain and make me interested in golf, but it has not come. Every time I play the game, I feel like I'm just going through the motions. I don't think it's the game's fault. I don't even think it's golf's fault. I think I might just be in an awkward place intellectually right now. Between Starbound last week and No Man's Sky next week, I can't stop thinking about space. That's where I want to be. I want to fly between planets and explore exotic environments. Hitting a virtual golf ball hundreds of times in a row just seems to pale by comparison.

(I know, weird, right?)

That's probably why I've been focusing so strongly on the user created courses. Each one is different, and if I don't get the true golf-game experience of learning a course and then mastering it through endless repetition, then at least I can still enjoy the thrill of discovery. And I do like seeing what my fellow sky-golfers have come up with. I've yet to see a fan community that hasn't impressed me with its creativity and dedication, and it surprises me that such a community could coalesce around such an obscure game as Vertiginous Golf.

With five hours left to go, I guess I'd categorize my mental state as "open, yet distracted." The golf itself is mildly pleasant in the way that visiting with a kindly relative or long-lapsed friend is pleasant. You can recognize that they are perfectly nice and skilled in the art of noncommittal small talk, while also acknowledging that you have almost nothing in common and that noncommittal small talk is the deepest your relationship will ever get.

And playing Vertiginous Golf is exactly as unpleasant as making mild small talk with a distant acquaintance while you are in the middle of an exciting book or when you know that there is a parade or concert or once-in-a-lifetime television event set to start in the next half-hour or so. The game is completely blameless, but the knowledge that I could be doing something else has been gnawing at me.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Vertiginous Golf - 10/20 hours

I don't want to say anything too harsh about Vertiginous Golf's story mode. They obviously put a lot of thought and effort into it. The little messages you get by hitting your golf ball into the scattered targets are not only voice-acted, they're voice-acted well. There are distinct characters who are portrayed believably. And the story itself is competently written. It had a beginning, middle, and end and I could easily understand how the different events related to each other. I have absolutely no complaints about the craftsmanship that went into story mode.

Its only flaw was that it was ill-conceived from top to bottom. I mean, there's this golf course in the sky. It floats in mid-air and is filled with a bunch of overly-complicated contraptions that knock your ball around. Is there anything about this premise that needs to be explained? And, assuming you absolutely had to have detailed worldbuilding in your game about implausible miniature golf, why would you make your story a dour, self-serious affair about class warfare, where the world is divided into the privileged sky-dwellers and the unfortunates they left behind to endure terrible pollution and who only get to enjoy the elite sport of sky-golf by strapping themselves into a machine that will psychically project them into the body of proxy golfer. And then you make the player character into one of these ground-dwelling unfortunates and have them activate a huge, dangerous-looking sci-fi reactor to lift the city in order to aid the rebels who want reunite the kingdom and depose the king.

And . . . you know what, never mind. Suffice to say, the story doesn't fit the tone of the game, at all. Put all the sci-fi trappings you want on it, at the end of the day, we're still talking about miniature golf. It's intrinsically frivolous. The highest stakes I want from a mini-golf game are who has to buy the ice-cream afterwards.

It would be funny if this were a world where mini-golf were taken deadly seriously and players approached each hole with the intensity of soldiers entering the battlefield, but that's not really the approach Vertiginous Golf takes either. There's this super-serious plot about a revolution that touches on themes of freedom, equality, humanity's relationship with technology, and the preservation of the environment . . . and you just happen to be playing mini-golf in the middle of all this.

I suppose the game's backstory could be a commentary on the colonialist implications that come with using steampunk imagery (and it's probably not a coincidence that the evil king is named "Leopold"), but the question then is why? Call me old-fashioned if you must, but if I'm playing a sports game, I want it to tell a sports story. That Vertiginous Golf went another way is bizarre.

It doesn't really matter, though. The story is but a small part of the game. The real draw is to play mini-golf through a variety of ridiculous obstacles. To that end, I dabbled in a few of the community courses, created by my fellow players.

Seeing the ingenious cruelty of those who came before me has kind of put me off trying to make my own holes. Some of these user-created holes have had their traps laid out with such intricate precision that I just know that anything I could come up with will seem sloppy by comparison. As always, I'm amazed at the dedication and talent that fans can bring even to the most obscure hobbies.

I'll probably still try to make my own hole, because it's an available game mode and I feel an obligation to test it, for posterity's sake, but I'll certainly be too embarrassed by the results to share them publicly.