Backstage Tales – The Theme

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No! Don’t kill the tunes!

Over the weekend, Bethesda released the theme music for Fallout 76. Have a listen:

It sounds like Fallout 76 is really taking us to the frontier of a newly-born post-apocalyptic wasteland. In fact, I hear echoes of the irradiated swamps of Fallout 3 in the beginning only for the theme to take on the feeling of an active rushing river. I feel like Fallout 76’s theme is about taking on a whole new life, literally and figuratively.

At the same time, take a listen to the theme of Fallout 4:

Where Fallout 4 echoes the story of loss and determination to rebuild the city of Boston hundreds of years after the bombs have dropped, the theme for Fallout 76 tells a very different story that reflects the wilderness of West Virginia and a world that has yet to recover from the worst effects of the Great War. Where the Sole Survivor has lost everything and ventures forth from Vault 111 to recover his/her son, the Vault Dwellers of Vault 76 have nothing to lose and everything to gain from exploring the wasteland. Both of these theme songs from composer Inon Zur are incredible, and both made me (or is currently making me) very excited to play these games. When the players of your game don’t want to press start on the title screen right away because the theme music is so good, you know you’ve hired the right composer.

In my opinion, the right tone of music can take even a mediocre game and make it great, and it can make a great game completely unforgettable. I love epic, sweeping music that has a full orchestral feel: give me dulcimer bells, legions of violins, an off-beat, and piano themes that will stick in my head like pudding and remind me what game I’m playing every few minutes.

(I know my family don’t quite understand my music tastes, but then again, neither do I; I love everything from Linkin Park’s Leave Out All the Rest to They Might Be Giant’s You’re On Fire to Gustav Holst’s Jupiter, the Bringer of JollityHow are those related? No idea. But I love them all the same. “It just works.”)

Here’s one piece by Jeremy Soule that I played over and over and over again when I was in junior high and high school. It’s not a theme song, per se, but it hit me like one. Playing these types of music is super calming for me and helps me focus on my writing. I wrote so many stories to this song:

(In fact, I wonder if my listening to music on repeat gives weight to my ‘overstimulation’ theory; I’ll listen certain songs right into the ground if they help clear my thoughts. Strange as it sounds, I’ve dedicated a lot of playtime in Minecraft to Karl Jenkins’ Symphonic Adiemus and the band Mew’s Eggs Are Funny albums. But anyway.)

If Jeremy Soule sounds familiar, it’s because he’s one of my favorite composers, and (this isn’t weird, but it sounds weird) I wake up to his brillance every morning:

It’s just beautiful music and actually relaxing to wake up to every morning. (Is it a backhanded compliment to say that your music is better to wake up to than a shrill beeping alarm? Still, it’s very true, and I’m grateful for it.) Every time I hear this music play when wandering the streets of Whiterun in Skyrim, it makes me wish the city were larger so I could take more time exploring and listening in peace. It’s the perfect peaceful theme for a Nord city that sits under the crisp chill of twin evening moons.

Here’s a theme that might make you wonder about me even more:

It’s like Tim Burton, a pile of black play-doh, and a thirty-person choir group got together and composed a soundtrack! Composer Kyle Gabler is awesome, and it makes me want to listen to the soundtrack of every Tomorrow Corporation game. Likewise, this one gets me every time:

It’s like Christmas came early, except there’s the very real chance that you’ll freeze to death if you don’t burn everything that’s precious to you right now for warmth! If you don’t know, that’s the premise of the game. It has a very ambiguous but memorable ending, and the theme goes right along with it.

Oh, and this one, the first video game song to win a Grammy:

So solid. It was recently sung by the Angel City Chorale on America’s Got Talent, and they were actually really impressive. It was also performed by Alex Boyé and the BYU Men’s Chorus and Philharmonic, which is just fun for this LDS gamer.

(To see the look on the face of the judges if you told them the song came from a video game would be very entertaining; in fact, one of the comments under the Angel City Chorale video goes like this: “My mum once asked me why I like video games so much, and I said one of the main things for me, is the music in a game. She told me she didn’t think video games had epic music, so I showed her this. I’m not saying she became a nerdy gamer but I changed her mind on that one…. 😛 “).

And lastly, I only need to hear this simple melody to get excited for Disney and Square all over again:

Yes, the extended edition. Of course, the extended edition. A melody of such simpler times. As one of the comments in this video says, the version of Dearly Beloved that will come with Kingdom Hearts 3 is going to break the hearts of all the players out there (as will the plot of the game, I imagine, put we’ll get there in January).

Those are just some of my favorite video game themes that made me an instant fan. What are others that stir your soul and make you wish you could forget the game and experience it new all over again?


EDIT: How could I forget Final Fantasy XIV?! The major themes of Stormblood are absolutely magnificent, topping off with this fight (spoilers, I suppose):

But man, I love FF XIV’s music. Just so much. I could go on.

Mental Chains – Way Too Much At Once

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Take typical me; with the right medications under my belt, I can totally handle life.

Now give me a headache, a really dull sinus headache between the eyes; okay, not liking this.

Now make me wear a shirt that’s a bit too snug and itchy around the collar, and pants that constrict places that shouldn’t be constricted; I’m grumbling now.

Give me my stupid-looking beard and mustache that I don’t know how to trim that tickles in all the wrong ways; irritating.

Now raise the temperature to 92 F or above; nope, no way.

Add in a canker sore or some other form of recurring pain just for fun; now you’re destroying me.

Now put me in a crowded environment where the slightest noise will generate unwanted attention; absolutely not, get me out of here immediately.

Am I completely mental? Have I gone insane for wanting to get away from these circumstances as fast as humanly possible?

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I would rather combat one huge problem than a thousand small problems. But what happens when the thousand small problems become huge?

Let me put it this way: I do not take being uncomfortable very well. So much so that I doubt I could have lived in any other period in history and been a successful and productive member of society. I come from pioneer ancestors, many of whom spent months travelling on foot in burning hot and freezing cold temperatures across the plains to live in Utah and Idaho. Could I have endured through all of that like they did? I’m fairly certain the answer is plain as the plains they journeyed over.

If there was one thing that I wish I could change more than anything, it would be my tolerance for uncomfortability. I wish I could pick myself up by my bootstraps (which is physically impossible; does that make the phrase inherently sarcastic?) and do everything that needed to be done despite all of my internal and external disturbances.

Am I the only one who can’t manage life when so many things go wrong at once? Am I really the only person in existence who has had a panic attack at work or in a public place because there was simply too much emotional and physical stimuli occurring at once? Am I unique in running away from and avoiding these types of situations?

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It’s a bit like that on the inside, yeah.

More importantly, am I a wuss for being this way? I call myself a wuss and my family has called me a wuss for years. By the way I react when these situations occur, I feel like this borders upon obsession-compulsion. Or, perhaps the opposite of it. For example, I don’t like exercise because when I sweat, I sweat directly from my face and forehead, which creates waves of unwanted stimulation and interference having to repeatedly wipe it away. All ability to focus vanishes, and I quickly work myself into tears or rage. In fact, if you enjoy my company at all, there better be climate control somewhere nearby, or you may learn to resent me.

Oh my gosh, I just found this. Whether it’s clinically accurate or not, this is exactly the way I’m feeling almost every day. It’s 100% this. It’s complete over-stimulation. The first article goes on to say that hyper-sensitivity can lead to positive emotions, and I do agree that can happen (such as when I got this blog going again with help from my friend Effexor). But more often than not, it’s over-stimulation that’s getting in my damn way.

I’ve often wondered if I’m really male because real men don’t have these kinds of intense emotions about anything. Right? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Is this that “toxic masculinity” business they’re always talking about? But then I know of so many women in my life that fight through much worse than I do. Despite petty (or not-so-petty) sicknesses and uncomfortable social situations, they thrive where I cannot.

It’s this, way more than my bipolar depression, that I feel shame for having. It’s this undiagnosable problem that I can’t overcome. It’s almost never anyone else’s fault that I fail something. I always choose not to show up. I’ve failed to show up to school because of the long, uncomfortable walk to the classroom, not to mention the crowds of unfamiliar faces and fear of raising my hand. I haven’t gone to church in a very long time for similar reasons. I don’t exercise because the constant pain and sweat drive me insane faster than Chinese water torture. And I miss work because sinus infections and driving in a car without AC do not make for a pleasant combination. All of these factors combined drive me up the wall. If you met me IRL and I’ve ever seemed awkward and uncomfortable, just know that there are probably a myriad of things going on that have overloaded my brain and short-circuited my social synapses.

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Every. Single. Day. Every. Little. Thing.

In the end, it’s just excuse after excuse from me. But I don’t mean to make excuses. I just don’t know how to handle what I’m experiencing, much less try to communicate what the problem is to someone else (I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with this blog). Could my medicine be making this worse? Possibly. Probably not, though, since this has been an issue for many years prior to me taking them.

*sigh*

I’m so tired. Tired of being like this. Call me a hypochondriac (“You’re a hypochondriac,” thank you) but I have felt for a long time that there is something intrinsically wrong with me. Several things, apparently, since this is entirely separate from the depression. I have always been terrible in social situations (or, in the least, I have been hypercritical of myself during social situations). When my mind detects a disturbance, be it an itch, an unpleasant smell, pain (either sharp or dull), temperature too high or too low, sweat, or even a particle of dust resting on the corner of my flippin’ glasses, I have to correct the problem immediately. Put multiple issues in front of me at the same time, and my processor is likely to fry, leaving few resources available for things like meaningful conversation or accurate work.

I once had a supervisor who never seemed to clean her glasses, and it drove me up the wall every time I talked with her — it was never her I talked to, it was always the particles of dust on her glasses that my eyes would focus on. I would think, “How could she possibly live with her glasses in that condition!” And she would have to repeat her directions multiple times because I wouldn’t be able to focus on what she was saying. In the end, I don’t think she liked me very much.

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A bit like that, yeah. In fact, a whole lot like that.

So what do I do about this?

I have no clue. It’s not like practicing “being uncomfortable” is going to get me anywhere. I’m stuck in a rut, summertime makes things worse, and I have a feeling that even writing this down is going to get me in trouble with someone someday. But I have to get it out there or else I’m never going to get help with this. Writing is the only way I know how to communicate anymore.

And I can’t just “handle it”. I can’t just “do it”. There has to be some mental exercise I can do, some way to change my thought process to help me accept stimuli in a more productive way. There has to be a better answer than just “get over it”, because I’ve been in this rut for many years now, and I think it’s a little bit bigger than a speed bump at this point.

How do I overcome hypersensitivity and overstimulation?

Backstage Tales – My Current Games

I didn’t mean to, but I think I used all of my powers of literation on Thursday’s blog; my writing powers were spent. I generally avoid two things: politics and philosophy. If I use my brainythinks too much on weightyhuge fingertypes, my uplander braincase gets clogged up with thick gooeythoughts. Then I no can write good next time.

So, instead of hefty theoretical musings about game design, how about I share with you what I’ve been playing recently?

Firstly, which should be obvious by my goblinspeak (which is incredibly fun to write, by the way):

Final Fantasy XIV

Here is my character Jerik Noa:

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I feel so strong, even though I’m not!

If you saw my earlier blog and thought to yourself: “Weren’t you playing a Mi’qote a minute ago?” Well, you’d be right. I decided to use my Fantasia to turn into an Xaela Au Ra, and I officially look like a blue-eyed Daedra out of the Elder Scrolls. I’m suddenly two heads taller than everyone else, and my chocobo’s size doubled, taking fewer and much longer strides. When I change classes to weaver or goldsmith, I become the world’s most terrifying butler. It’s awesome. I’m in no way a maximized level 50 bard, either, as my jewelry needs to be updated, and my crafting classes have a lot of leveling to go to create that kind of gear.

I finally got my bard up to level 50 and got the full Birdliege set of PvP armor, and… It certainly doesn’t help my win percentage. My long-distance-ness is never long-distance enough. But I’m having fun regardless! I’m actually impressed at how active PvP matches and instances are in FF XIV; they’re all but dead in The Old Republic. And with expert deliveries to the Grand Companies, you never have to worry about getting “junk” equipment from lower-level instances. Sure, they may be of lesser value, but the developers of FF XIV seemed really determined to make everything useful at least in some way to higher level characters.

Also, this is hilarious:

Such a fun game, and a really positive community. As time goes on, I’m continually impressed by the quality of players, both in skill and desire to help new players. While you’ll always get the occasional negative guy who quits the group when the instance isn’t run to his liking, I’ve found that more often than not, players of FF XIV are very accommodating and cool when compared to other MMOs. We’ll see if that holds true with late-game content.

Minecraft

This is me:

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Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.

…and getting nothing in return. A whole lotta iron, and no diamonds. That, and the mob farm that I just built got hit by a creeper and broke a lot of the redstone machinery, so I get to sit down and rewatch the tutorial I followed just to see that everything is put back together again.

Minecraft is one of the only games I know that requires you to make three or four backups of essential gear and equipment if you’re going to want to keep playing. I finally managed to create the perfect pickaxe with Fortune III, and swam underwater to go searching for diamonds in a ravine close by. All was going well (I HAD 40 DIAMONDS AT ONE POINT) until I got too close to an underwater cave that wasn’t filled with water (because screw Minecraft’s water physics). Whereupon a creeper proceeds to blow me up, despite being fully-armored and fully-healed, and my diamonds are gently floated into lava where they burn up and disappear.

Yes, the server I’m on is on Hard difficulty. Not my regular cup of tea. But you’d think a bit of challenge would be fun once you’ve gotten yourself established.

No. It’s just pain. So, instead of exploring and adventuring, I’m planning on going back into my mines and trudging through miles of stone so I might find those precious diamonds and possibly have a chance at survival the next time a creeper decides to hug me.

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This is not cute. This is the plush equivalent of a guillotine.

No Man’s Sky

I’m not spending nearly as much time with No Man’s Sky as I originally wanted to. It’s not that the game isn’t fun, it’s just that I’ve forgotten how grindy the game was and still is. Sure, the game is a gorgeous screenshot simulator (with some screenshots I’ve seen looking like they’ve been digitally created for a paperback sci-fi novel), but I’m finding actually going through the main story missions a bit repetitive and mind-numbing. Exploration is entertaining to a point, but if I have to endure sitting in a cave waiting for a radioactive storm to pass over me again, I might go a bit crazy.

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NYEHHH!!

I’ve tried to get into Creative mode, but it just physically hurts me to have everything available for base building. If I don’t build it legitimately in survival or normal mode, have I built it at all?

Ha! I should ask Minecraft the same question.


So that’s what I’ve been getting into lately. I’m still very excited for further news and gameplay of Fallout 76 at QuakeCon in three days, so that should be fun to see. Still, having plunged a bit deeper into the multiplayer swimming pool, I’m more hesitant than ever to see how multiplayer will change Fallout as a whole.

Whether we’ll see anything about it by this Thursday, I’m not sure. But I will want to discuss it in a future blog, so stay tuned!

Response and Rejoinder – The Irreversible Choice

This blog is in response to Irreversible Events on Gamasutra by Bart Stewart.


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Accepting as fact that fate does not exist (which is a huge assumption to make, but bear with me), I would wager that the entirety of the human condition rests upon the power of agency given to every human being. This may seem overly philosophical to video games, but stick with me.

One thing that strikes me as a harsh and terrible truth about the world is that while it seems that our ability to choose appears to be nearly infinite, there are aspects of life that limit what we can and cannot do. Money, social status, relationships with certain people, and education level can determine where we end up in life. Skin color, gender, and mental or physical health are all hurdles to personal choice. Government and corporate power structures, the rule of law, and even the very laws of the universe dictate to us the decisions we can make for ourselves and others.

At the same time, this terrible truth is a blessing when applied correctly. Even with the “right” connections and resources, turns out it’s still pretty difficult to get away with murder, theft, and infidelity unless you’ve had some practice (in fact, it’s a pretty big blessing that society as a whole acknowledges at least in some way that those three things are pretty rotten). People overcome their apparent restrictions in surprising ways: not a day goes by without seeing a post on Facebook of a first-generation college graduate getting their diploma or a soldier whose limb was torn off in combat finding a greater standard of living through the latest generation of prosthetics. The same laws that govern the destructive power of the atomic bomb have provided power to hundreds of thousands of people for decades. It lies only for us to choose to use our power, time, and resources towards a particular end. The consequences can be beneficial for many or for few, disastrous for many or for few, or be completely unexpected: even nothing happening can be a legitimate result of choice. Consequence follows choice, whether the effects are immediate or not. What may seem a sudden event often isn’t felt for years, even centuries, to come.

So, with the philosophy out of the way, why is choice so important in video games, whether you realize it or not?

Well, simply put, when the crumbling bridge falls or the unlockable door slams shut, people get pissed when they realize they can’t ever make those choices again!

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So much anger. Thankfully, most RPGs are single-player so the rage is contained. Until they complain on Steam forums and Reddit.

Continuing on my theme of ‘video games represent an ever-perfecting medium of pure escapism’, it only stands to reason that people get tired of being restricted day in and day out. The circumstances of our lives offer us options, and sure, we make a veritable torrent of choices every single day, but most of them decidedly non-life-threatening and unimportant. Many of them are incredibly boring or even repulsive. Let’s be honest: we make many of the same choices again and again. Why? Because of taste, ease, comfort, or even decision fatigue. Take me for instance: I choose to drink the same two drinks over and over with very little variation (Citrus Energy Sobe and Slim Fast) because I’ve grown accustomed to the taste and effects of both (although I don’t advise drinking both at the same time). Some people (like Mark Zuckerberg) wear the same clothes day in and day out so they don’t have to make a decision about fashion. Some people end up forming relationships with the same person or type of personality because they’ve grown accustomed to it (for better or for worse).

Role-playing games, or at least the good ones, allow you to step into the skin of another being and make decisions that you yourself would never have the opportunity to make unless you were, in fact, the leader of a paramilitary mercenary organization, the ex-head of security at Sarif Industries, the last dragonborn, or even a mute child with spiky hair and a time-traveling ship. These individuals, through hardship or happenstance, somehow found themselves in the middle of world-shaking circumstances, and their video games enables you, the player, to make the decisions regarding how these characters would survive or even thrive in life-threatening situations. In most games, you can make the choice to clothe your character in different armors, use different items like potions or food to boost their abilities, read books detailing the lore of the world, and fight fantastical monsters that real life does not offer.

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He never asked for this. But gamers do!

When these characters encounter choices that suddenly and severely restrict their comparatively god-like abilities, it becomes easy for the player to say, “Well, why don’t they do X instead?” And it is upon the shoulders of the game developer to explain to the player why these options are no longer available to them. I’ll give you some examples.

First, something simple:

Why can’t Mario walk backwards in Super Mario Bros.? That really bugged me as a kid. Did it bother anyone else? If you miss a mushroom or it disappears behind you off-screen, you might as well walk off a cliff, because you ain’t never getting that back. Is Mario afraid to look backwards, scared of what he might find in his past? Or was it just an engine limitation? Well, whatever it was, Mario got over it in later games.

I would call this a mechanical limitation of choice, not a technical limitation of the Nintendo system itself but of the game’s design (whether it was or wasn’t). To use Stewart’s example, this is the collapsed bridge that you can never cross again unless you restart the game from the beginning. Telltale Games centrally structures their games around this limitation, as the major choices you make have irreversible consequences (even minor choices can affect whether the story even continues). Many of these choices are even timed, giving the player no time to think about the decision they’re about to make. Thus, you could actually consider Stewart’s first example as split into two parts: the mechanical limitation of choice (the crumbling bridge) and the plot limitation of choice (the story reason for crossing the bridge).

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I’m not sure if this is a spoiler or not. If it is, please let me know.

A prime example of this would be choosing a major faction in the main questline of Fallout 4. If you believe a synth deserves freedom like any human, the Railroad is your faction. If you believe that synths are simply tools that are built to serve humanity, join the Institute. If you believe that synths are weapons that could spell the future doom of mankind, there’s always the Brotherhood of Steel. And if you believe that improving and defending all peace-loving human-looking life in the Commonwealth is more important than all this petty synth business, the Minutemen need a new general. There is a way for only the Institute to be destroyed, and for a while, it seemed like this pathway wasn’t intended by Bethesda – either the Institute destroys the Railroad and the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood destroys the Institute and the Railroad, or the Railroad destroys the Institute and the Brotherhood. Somehow, when the Minutemen lead the charge against the Institute, the Railroad and the Brotherhood no longer have a reason to clash. If you want to experience the whole of Fallout 4, prepare to play 4 different characters and then some with the Nuka-World DLC (choosing to become a raider boss or not).

Also, ever run into an invisible wall or boundary that brings you unwillingly back to a certain point? The edge of the Great Ocean in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask comes to mind. Whether they’re necessary (such as a world border) or not (like certain dumb ones in Fallout: New Vegas), these barriers limit where you can go and how fast you can get there.

The next example Stewart mentions seems to be the limitation of choice using in-game items. To use Final Fantasy as an example, you never quite know how many megalixirs you’re going to be granted, causing the player anxiety over using them now or for a tougher challenge later on. Did you know that, technically speaking, there are non-renewable resources in the nearly infinite world of Minecraft? Anyway, this isn’t quite what Stewart is solely referring to; it’s a limitation of overall resources available to the player, not just of items, but of abilities and stats that makes your player unique.

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“But I’ll run out eventually!” you cry, with tears streaming down your face. Siiimple and Cleeeean is the waaay that you’re maaaaking me feeeel toniiiiight…

Ever play the Bioshock series? Then you’re probably familiar with the Little Sisters, the genetically-modified little girls that accompany the iron-suited Big Daddies in the city of Rapture. Choosing to sacrifice them for their ADAM or saving them and receiving a lesser reward for a better game ending is a perfect example of a game designed around resource limitations. The game actually becomes more challenging if you choose to be heroic, and you get the bad ending if you choose to sacrifice even one Little Sister in a moment of desperation.

A good example of a limitation of ability would be the conversation cutscenes that occur in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. A lot of the simplest pathways are restricted to those that have the sharpest tongue. If you don’t have the social enhancer and upgrades related to charisma, you’ll find yourself blundering through conversations and end up with much fewer options. Worse, you can fail even if you have these upgrades like I often did, restricting yourself even more when stealth or direct combat remain the only avenues of progress. Further, if you do prefer the stealth approach over direct violence or persuasion, you’ll often miss many items and upgrades that would be available to you otherwise. In my first sneak-only playthrough of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I played the entire game passively without ever knowing how to use a P.E.P.S. gun, as the ammo was very rare and heavily guarded. And that’s all besides the fact that bosses were violence-only affairs before Eidos patched them with non-violent solutions.

A special example of resource restriction that comes to mind is when a temporary character comes into your party in an RPG that has surprisingly buffed stats and abilities compared to your regular team members. These characters often leave your party just as quickly as they arrive unless progress is stalled in some way or the player outright cheats to keep them available. Examples include Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, Edea and Seifer in Final Fantasy VIII, Beatrix in Final Fantasy IX, Seymour in Final Fantasy X, Larsa and Reddas in Final Fantasy XII… Do you sense a trend? While these team members are in your party, you can pretty much wipe the floor with enemies, and can often demonstrate the kind of potential your characters will achieve by the end game. You’ll suddenly feel very naked when they have to say goodbye.

One notable inversion to this that I can think of is Cidolfus Orlandeau from Final Fantasy Tactics. He’s incredibly powerful, and once devoted to your cause, will never leave your side. Unless you force him away. But why would you? His nickname (and his theme music) is ‘Thunder God Cid’!

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SUCK ON EXCALIBUR, MALBORO! Art by Morbidmic.

The third example of the limitation of choice Stewart mentions is less about gameplay and more about the mistakes a player can make while playing. I’ll call this the limitation of accident forgiveness. This can happen after important events when the autosave will kick in and force the player to accept the change or revert back to a previous manual save…

And when do we perform a manual save, children? “All the gosh-darn time,” that’s right, you’re so smart!

Even in games with autosave systems, every gamer is going to make mistakes and regret not saving when they had the chance. These times come more often when the game is a new experience. The worst of these is when it’s time to choose a dialogue option in the game, and the game itself doesn’t describe the choice very well. Hilarity can sometimes ensue, but most of the time it will piss off the NPC and the player. Fallout 4 was known for this until the introduction of mods that expanded the dialogue options.

One of the best games I’ve seen avoid this limitation of accident forgiveness is actually Into the Breach; its time-travel mechanic made it possible to reverse already-made movements and attacks once per battle. This handy tool saved my bacon many times. Even then, however, I was in the midst of my next turn and regretted not being able to turn the clock backwards just a little further. In a similar game like Final Fantasy Tactics? No such accident forgiveness. If you move or act, it’s set in stone, whether you’ve made a mistake or not.

Another game that avoids this limitation is Fallout: New Vegas, which warns you with a text box stating that if you continue working with a certain faction, you’ll soon be unable to work with an opposing faction. Unimmersive, sure, but helpful.

Also, have you ever made a mistake while playing a permadeath character? This isn’t fun.

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Three out of the three XCOM soldiers in this picture will die by the end of the match. When you consistently miss 85% accuracy shots, you begin to wonder if you’re the one at fault.

So, in the end, we have:

  • Limitation by mechanics (programmed barriers to backtracking)
  • Limitation by plot choice (plot choices that restrict options)
  • Limitation of resources (items, abilities, stats, and team configurations)
  • Limitation of accident forgiveness (ability to backtrack after making a mistake)

Which ones are allowable, which ones should be better designed, and which ones should never see the light of day again in today’s role-playing games? I think they all have their place, although I am seeing a shift from finite resource limitations in RPGs past to games with unlimited but difficult-to-acquire items that only require time and skill. It’s a good trend to follow. But in the end, it’s up to the designers and developers of each game to establish and explain the extent of each of these limitations.

Will video game choice ever become like real-life choice? I hope not. Games should be games, not real life. The idea of a game with full and realistic agency is like this 365 gigapixel portrait. While technically impressive, you realize that one day this technology will be used to create a high-resolution portrait of an overweight politician. And no one wants to see the pits and pores and ingrown hairs of obese public servants in perfect crystal LED clarity. Limitations never hurt anybody no way no how.

Backstage Tales – Multiplayer and Me

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Guess which one I am.

So our group on the Meraki Minecraft server were all geared up on Friday evening and ready to take on the mighty dragon in The End. I had spent more than a few hours trying to find the diamonds and the levels to prepare my gear with enchantments and protections to help me make a difference in the fight. I had even created a bunch of level two healing potions for our entire group. When the time came, we all donned our carved pumpkin heads to avoid pestering the endermen, prepared our weapons and supplies, and jumped into the End portal.

We ended up suspended on a platform a good thirty or forty blocks away from the dragon’s island, hanging over eternity and watching the dragon swoop, unsure if he’d spotted us yet. Not the best situation. As quickly as we could, we bent down low and built a bridge to the island, fortunately connecting to a cliff where we could hide or regroup if the battle went poorly. I followed my friends into the cliff side as they dug upwards, readied my bow, and charged forwards, ready to fight…!

The dragon sneezed at us just as my friends broke through the wall. I promptly fell off the bridge from the force of the blast, hitting a lower cliff on the way down. It broke my fall a little too well.

Yes, I died, not thirty seconds into the fight, and without even seeing the dragon. And I would have lost all my gear if not for the fact that the cliff caught some of it, and one of my friends had been kind enough to break away from the dragon fight to help me reclaim what was left. Of course, none of my awesome enchanted armor had survived the fall, or my awesome enchanted bow, so I was all arrows and pickaxe against the toughest creature in Minecraft. Yes, I died a few more times trying to help. My sister ended up beating the dragon, seemingly single-handedly (at the very least, she didn’t die once).

*sigh*

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“One of us… One of us…”

Then yesterday, a much less exciting but equally self-deprecating thing happened. I had spent a few more hours trying to reestablish my equipment and levels. Finding myself on a footing almost equal to my pre-dragon-fight condition, I decided that it was time to actually build something on my little plot of land. I gathered up all the materials, even making many colors of stained glass to see if I could make something with that (it was new to me, so you can see how long it’s been since I’ve sat down and enjoyed Minecraft), put some of my materials in a chest near the build site… and my dad calls me to go help him do something. So I put the game on pause and leave my computer.

Yes, pause. On a multiplayer server.

So, naturally, I come back to see the words ‘Game Over’ pasted on my screen and a very smug-looking and now sunlight-immune zombie peering down at my death camera wearing a shiny new diamond helmet. He had no doubt spawned during the nighttime, attacked defenseless little old me, and had nothing better to do than sit there for me to return so he could gloat. In punishment, I punched him to death. It took me about ten minutes.

*sigh*

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Jerk.

Turning to something outside of Minecraft, earlier last month, I tried my hand at playing Darwin Project, a third-person arena-style survival shooter where it’s survival of the fittest in a wintery wasteland of frozen death. Me, my brother-in-law, and a few friends were taking turns sniping each other with arrows and axing each other senseless.

Well, since absolutely everything is new to me, from the map layout to the arena decorations, I have no idea what I’m doing. Very first round, I spawn on an island-ish checkpoint surrounded by lava.

I walk straight off the cliff into the lava and die.

Okay, shake it off, shake it off…

Next round, my brother-in-law and I discover each other in the same area of the map and attack each other. Now, when two player in Darwin Project attack each other at the same time, their ax attacks clang against each other, negating damage to either player and sending them flying. This happens to us, I just so happen to have my back against a cliff.

I go flying into lava and die.

Okay, twice isn’t a pattern.

The next round, my brother-in-law and I are teammates. I see these strange mechanical mushroom things springing out of the ground in groups every so often. They look smackable, so I smack one with my ax and I go flying; of course, they’re supposed to be trampoline pads you can use to get speed and direction.

I go flying into lava and die.

That’s three times. Now it’s a pattern.

*sigh*

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Oh, cozy. Warm. WARMER. TOO HOT. BURNING MY FLESSSSHH.

Sure, when I play games like Fallout 4 and Fat Man myself into oblivion by accident, I can laugh and continue from my last save. I can mess around in The Sims or Cities: Skylines without fear of judgementI can dedicate myself to ridiculous min-maxing in Final Fantasy Tactics, Path of Exile, or Diablo 3. When I make a mistake in a game like Civilization or Endless Space, it can cost me a lot of time and in-game resources, but it doesn’t ever affect anyone but me.

But get me into a multiplayer game, even one in which I have a lot of experience and play time, and something is going to go wrong. Murphy’s Law might as well be a fiery blood-stained mantle that descends from the high celestial heavens and onto my weak and feeble shoulders whenever I join others for a digital jaunt. And I’m not talking about the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with playing multiplayer. Oh no. That’s an entirely separate issue. An entirely plumb-shaped separate issue from hell. I’ll talk about that another time.

I’m talking about the struggle of even appearing competent in multiplayer situations. I’ve been taught by society at large that multiplayer is the best way to play. When you know your teammates or are related to them, I agree. But when you don’t know who you’re playing with, feelings are ambiguous at best and antagonistic at worst.

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It’s not about having fun. It’s about crushing your enemies. Seeing them driven before you. And hearing the lamentations of their women.

In certain MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XIV, the main story missions ask you to queue up for a four-man trials or instances. If you happen to be a tank class character on your first foray into these dungeons, be prepared to get yelled at by impatient teammates (despite the fact that there’s always a tank shortage in the game roster, hmm, I wonder why). If you’re not a tank, you better play to your role and know how each sideboss and main boss functions. If you screw up, prepared to get berated. Heck, even if you do know the dungeon and can get through it with few problems, prepare to get lectured at by a player who insist they know better regardless. And guess what? There’s no continuing the story if you can’t get past these dungeons. (It’s why I played The Old Republic for so long and am only now getting back into Final Fantasy XIV – through the entirety of the main story, dungeons are multiplayer optional and are even now able to be enjoyed single player.)

Know why I quit playing Team Fortress 2 after reaching almost 300 hours with it? Same reason I stopped playing League of Legends: because of my inability to deal with toxic people. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not crazy-skilled at first-person shooters or hero arena games. But needless to say, the second, third, fourth, and fifth etc. to admit it would be anyone I played with.

Winning is the point of most multiplayer games, at least in the short term. If you don’t know anyone in the game, in the guild, or on Discord, it feels like you’d better have the skills to pay your hypothetical bills, or else you’re like to become a pariah (or in the very least feel like one). For a few weeks after my first Darwin Project experience, I felt like you could pretty reliably label me as ‘Falling-Into-Lava-Man’, and I wouldn’t have held it against them if they never invited me to play again.

 

And now, in front of the same group of people (some I know well and some I don’t), I fall immediately to my death in Minecraft at the moment I could have been most heroic, and the story of Falling-to-Death-Man continues.

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All that preparation and balance for a quick drop and a short stop.

Do you know how much it hurts me to hear talk of AAA single-player games “dying off”? (Believe me, I want to rant and rave at the writer of this Forbes article, EA, and the entire line of thinking, but I won’t.) Do you know why I connected so deeply with No Man’s Sky when it was first released? It was an entire universe all to myself. There was no emphasis on multiplayer. In fact, their whole design philosophy was on the experience of loneliness amid the stars. The head of Hello Games, Sean Murray, said that the chances of meeting another human being in the game were slim to none, the universe was so huge (this was proven incorrect, of course). Sure, other people could name things in it. But I wouldn’t be stumbling onto Xxx_ManBooty69 or his PvP attitude anytime soon.

But yes, it appears that No Man’s Sky caved to public pressure for multiplayer. Or maybe it was always meant to be this way, but the game wasn’t given the development time to see it through until NEXT. I’ll hesitantly agree that the game is better with the multiplayer component than without it (since its inclusion was never PvP, and NEXT wouldn’t have been half as successful without its inclusion). Yes, I know the option to turn off network play is there. But really: in this day and age, when mankind has never been more connected through the medium of technology, when screenshots of the fantastic sights of the procedurally-generated cosmos fill the subreddits and Twitter, did we really need multiplayer to enjoy No Man’s Sky together?

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating that every single game cater to a single-player preference. But as a gamer who is coming to the realization that my passion for gaming is far outweighing my talent, to see a traditionally single-player game like the upcoming Fallout 76 reveal itself to be multiplayer makes me more than a little nervous (and I’m not the only one). I can’t even claim to be the crotchety old man who prefers single-player games, as video games have been since their very inception been multiplayer experiences. I’m just a gamer that prefers to escape the pressure of the world through the medium of games instead of more closely connecting with it.

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You’ll take my T-51 helmet when you pry it from my cold, dead… Oh, fine. Just take it.

Of course, I undermine my entire point by saying that my experiences on the Meraki server have been very fun thus far, and the adventures of Falling-to-Death-Man will continue for a good long while. I will probably continue to collide with my friend’s ships in No Man’s Sky multiplayer, too.

*sigh*

And don’t even get me started on battle royales like Fortnite or PUBG. I hear a hellish choir rise from deep within the earth: “Git gud, scrub,” they chant. You might as well ask me to go stand out in a field with antler-shaped earmuffs and a fluffy tail during November.

My (Preliminary) 10-Hour Tale – No Man’s Sky

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“Oh, Mr. Conductor,” I say with exuberance, waving down a man dressed in a bright pink space suit and a tiny blue conductor’s hat. “Does the hype train get off at the next exit, my dear sir?”

“NO,” says the bright pink conductor of the Hype Train in a booming voice that reminds me of the unwavering density and blackness of the vast universe.

“THE HYPE TRAIN NEVER STOPS.”

Chugga-chugga, choo-choo, my friends. Man, very few video games get into the hype levels No Man’s Sky has generated. I didn’t even feel Fallout 4 or Fallout 76 got this much attention, especially considering this is the third such wave of excitement for the 70’s-sci-fi-book-cover space exploration simulator. Even the lead programmer and head of Hello Games had this to say:

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Nothing says despair and dread like a lower-case “oh no”.

His reaction is appropriate. At the game’s release in 2016, I bought into the hype train like crazy and spent the full $60 game for something that was very unpolished and most decidedly not multiplayer. This derailed the Hype Train quite badly for a lot of people, leading Steam reviews to put No Man’s Sky at Mostly Negative.

Fortunately, I don’t think Sean Murray and the team at Hello Games has much to worry about anymore with No Man’s Sky’s latest update called NEXT. How big and important was this update? When I downloaded, it came to about 6.7 Gb. Impressive, I thought, for a game that was about that large before the update. But what’s more impressive is what it meant for the originally single-player-only experience: No Man’s Sky is actually multiplayer.

And what’s more? The game looks even more incredible than it did before from both a gameplay and a graphics standpoint.

I mean, look at what the last three days did for No Man’s Sky:

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Wow!

It’s gone from Mostly Negative to Mixed. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a game do that. And that’s 2000 positive reviews more than there were yesterday. I mean, just take a look at the patch notes for NEXT. Hello Games took their sci-fi adventure and flipped it on its head. Base building is nearly infinite, freighter armadas can be purchased and travel the stars with you, and even the basic building materials and recipes have been overhauled to the point where crafting and exploration is now an exciting venture instead of a mindless grind.

Admittedly, I struggled and panicked at the very start of the game; I was dropped onto a very radioactive planet with no ship and three-fourths of my radiation shielding gone, and had no idea what materials I needed to recharge it. I didn’t even have a scanner to search! But panic turns into resolve when you finally get your bearings, and following the mysterious storyline of the Atlas is proving to be very interesting.

There’s finally a reason to upgrade your blaster: biological horrors and sentinels show up in the worst places, and even caves are no longer safe places to hide. You’ll need to refine the raw materials you harvest from the worlds you explore, and refined materials are often more valuable than their components. Oceans are deep enough to fly under (this may be a bug, I’m unsure) and mountains are now continental in height. Artifacts can be found in hidden underground ruins and can sell for millions of credits, incentivizing exploration and discovery in a way the game hadn’t before.

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I made a dad joke! Do you get it? 1.3k people did!

With all that said, I did encounter two game-breaking day-one bugs that interrupted my play.

The first was a bug with the main quest; the quest wouldn’t allow me to warp to another system until I fueled my ship with antimatter. I would craft the warp fuel and fuel my hyperdrive only to have the quest reset and send me back for more antimatter. Good news: unlimited fuel. Bad news: no way to use it. I managed to un-bug the quest by purchasing another ship. I imagine it was something to do with the fact that I got a ship with a hyperdrive earlier than the quest assumed I would get one. Interestingly, I had a similar problem with earlier updates of No Man’s Sky.

The second occurred when only partially repairing some systems on my ship. The game didn’t like ‘partial repair’ so much that the next time I loaded my save game, the game initialized on a brand new world as if I’d started a brand new game, with no inventory, no ship, no upgrades, nothing. I fixed this with help from the No Man’s Sky Reddit and editing some junk code from my save file.

As of an hour ago, I’ve learned that both of these issues have been patched out, however. So as far as bugs are concerned, the only ones I’ve stumbled across are gone.

I thought I’d start out on normal mode, but to be honest, creative mode is looking really appealing. Check out this awesome cliffside base by ParagonHex:

I’ve played NEXT for about five hours now, and I have no desire to stop. I’ll have more to share in the coming days, but until then, consider this a tentative but glowing review of No Man’s Sky. I can’t wait to helm the bridge of my own freighter fleet and establish a sprawling base on a tropical planet. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to discover my first ruin and not get eaten by horrors.

Early Review: 9/10

Backstage Tales – Harvest Time

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This was me over the weekend!

Sure, Pac-Man has his pellets, Mario has his Stars, and Sonic has his rings. But my strange obsession with the modern definition of “farming” for digital items in video games started a bit differently.

Imagine ten-year old me playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time after school (no, I had not done my homework, stop asking). The fishing minigame at Lake Hylia could only be described as pure relaxation, coupled with extreme frustration when the largest fish in the pond would continually ignore my lure. I have great memories at age twelve of finally understanding the Junction system in Final Fantasy 8 and scouring the Islands between Heaven and Hell for the most powerful magics in the game. And, of course, I’ll never forget fishing and treasure hunting in Dark Cloud 2.

And then came the creative survival games with their in-depth crafting systems, and made farming for some items a matter of life or death. After all, a man’s gotta eat, and not just for a stat boost. Minecraft makes this pretty clear; you’ll be munching on steaks, porkchops, and loaves of bread if you want to stay alive for very long underground or in the Nether. And diamonds aren’t just a girl’s best friend. No, they’re everybody’s best friend, and diamond armor is your best friend in hard mode.

No Man’s Sky (a game I’m very interested to write about comparing how it started at release verses where it is now) is big on this list of survival games, since in order to thrive you must harvest almost everything you come across in its vast universe. The game’s next big update (which, incidentally, is called NEXT and is said to include multiplayer) releases on Tuesday. It might take me a while to digest it all, so stay tuned for that 100-Hour Review, because I already know it’s going to be that big.

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Me and my buddy Crafter on the Meraki server!

MMOs changed the way we farm for items, and I’m not strictly talking about farming dungeons and killing bosses for the best gear. I’m talking about hunting for items that the denizens of these worlds would consider “everyday items”. Or, perhaps, not so everyday, depending on your skill level. Fishing, mining, chopping trees, weaving fabric, tanning leather, fashioning weapons of war… You know, the essentials in times of war and political turmoil.

Every MMO handles crafting a bit differently, with each having its own set of strengths and weaknesses. The Elder Scrolls Online: One Tamriel, for instance, has resources scattered all across the map, which you can always gather if you find the nodes; the resources scale with your crafting skill, meaning you could find elite rank materials while your level one friend would find common materials in the same area. I think this makes for fantastic MMO design for inviting brand new players, but it does leave immersion behind (why can I find cotton plants in Hammerfell and Morrowind at the same time but then level up and find them nowhere) and leave you at the mercy of guild stores if you ever want to craft a lower level piece of armor or weapon.

Final Fantasy XIV and Star Wars: The Old Republic, on the other hand, have leveled areas (or planets) where you can find level-specific materials for every crafting class, and if you ever need to level up your crafting or gathering skill, you can always visit these areas again for additional materials. In reality, this makes a lot of sense. On the downside, you’ll be looking up online chart after online chart trying to search for that one resource you’ve been looking for, and it will never seem to be in the spot you’d think it would be. (For example, the honest-to-goodness description of faerie apples in Final Fantasy XIV is: “A tart variety of apple commonly found growing in the cool mountain passes of Coerthas.” I thought: “Cool. I’ll wait until I level up to the mid-30s and get to Coerthas to gather them.” But no. It is found nowhere in the cool mountain passes of Coerthas. Instead, it’s found in the temperate forests of the Shroud, much earlier in level than the description describes. Thanks, game. Maybe now I’ll be able to make and sell my apple tarts in peace.)

Farming in MMOs (and the mind-blowing amount of items corresponding to each gathering and crafting skill tree) is a time sink. But it is a time sink that strangely benefits the player. Want a really powerful item? Spend time developing this crafting skill, and you can have it without having to kill a really powerful monster or have to accomplish an impossible quest for it. Not only that, but farming gives the player control over the items they want to create and sell on the player market. You can spend as little or as much time farming as you want. There is an optimal way to level up, sure, but I’ve never really been into min-maxing my time like that. After all, I spent about the first sixty hours of Final Fantasy XIV not crafting a thing, and it didn’t really affect me in the slightest. Go kill those monsters and beat those quests. But if you want the best gear in the game, though, really high-quality gear that you can use or sell to other players and make a profit, then crafting is how you’re going to do it.

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The ever-stalwart miner, searching diligently for silver ore. You know, for making earrings that will boost my mining abilities. Because style is EVERYTHING.

Why do I tolerate farming? Why is the grind something that doesn’t set my normally-anxiety-driven brain into overload, constantly worrying about the time I’m wasting performing such menial tasks?

Well, truth is, even to this really laid-back guy, it does. Whenever my pickaxe comes across a particularly difficult resource node and clunks (meaning I don’t receive experience or materials), my heart drops. But boy, when I encounter that resource node that boosts my gathering rate and gives me high-quality materials one after another, it really makes you think, “Okay, that node made up for the last failure, maybe I can keep chugging along.” And unless you follow a guide to know exactly how much of any particular material is necessary for other crafting skill lines, you won’t really know when to stop. After all, the worse thing in the world to someone who already thinks farming is a waste of time is discovering you’ve run out of the resource too early and have to go back to farming it.

Or, *gasp*… Knuckle down and buy it on the market.

But then, pretty soon your gathering skills level up! Your ability to gain the resources you need are greater than before. You find what you need, the resource you’re collecting doesn’t help you level quite like it did before, and it’s time to find a new place with new materials.

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Come, Dread Pig! Your sweet bacon (and its EXP bonus) will be mine!

Farming in The Elder Scrolls was something you did as you played the game. To be honest, farming in ESO sucks. If you managed to concentrate hard on your environment, farming in The Old Republic is tolerable and helped with companion missions. But in Final Fantasy XIV, it’s almost its own multi-appendage arm of the game, something you have to go out of your way to develop, and it’s kind of endearing in a realistic and sometimes frustrating way. You have to choose to develop your gathering skills as well as the crafting skills that utilize all the materials you gather.

Can I tell you how difficult it is to sit down and pick a profession to improve when the professions themselves depend on so many different kinds of items? Sure, I can just buy all the things I need to level up from the player’s market. But screw that, I need to save my money, not spend it! In order to level as a weaver, I needed help from a carpenter and a goldsmith, and to level them, I needed help from a miner, a botanist, a leatherworker, and an armorer. Pretty soon, all of these jobs were requiring different resources from each other!

I may be wrong, but if you only remain one thing in your life and never discover and develop other talents, you’ll probably find life to be much more bland and difficult. For example, as a writer, I am expected to be an expert voice about every subject I write about, whether I actually know my stuff or not. In my previous work experiences, I wrote about everything from water purification and automotive repair to long-distance medical services and the benefits of essential oils. Was I 100% accurate about these topics? I hope so, but I doubt it. Those skill trees had not been fully developed. But on this blog, talking about video games, art, and mental therapy, I’m in my happy place, and my well-practiced skill lines of video game design, Photoshop, cosplay, and entertaining prose intertwine to present something I can be proud of. Farming and crafting work in the very same way.

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We’ve struck gold! Er… silver!

Does farming in an MMORPG like Final Fantasy XIV or a survival game like Minecraft make me a better person?

I think that’s the wrong question to ask of video games in general. “Is it a waste of time?” is a better question.

My answer? Same answer for this question: “Is my blog a waste of time to me?”

Absolutely not. Why? It’s a distraction from the harsh realities of this life, a comfortable space to retreat to when my mind is on the fritz, and a way to have fun on my own or with others. Sometimes the weight of the world is too much. When it gets that way, it’s time to pick up the digital pickaxe and go mining for digital ore. Turn on some inspirational music and let the time fly by.

Voices of the Shattered Sun – Mephandras

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“Tell us that story again, Roki! The one about the giant bear!”

“Yes please, tell it again!”

“Can you? Please?”

“All right, all right, settle down,” said Roki, folding the quilt and placing it in the oak truck at the foot of the bed. She pushed back a few strands of errant hair from her eyes and took a seat besides the three children. “But you’ve only heard me tell it a few hundred times. Wouldn’t you rather hear about Falstaad the Brave, or Glendi the Pale Bole, or…”

“No no!” cried little Mara. “The bear story again!”

“Yeah!” agree both Yris and Kraston.

“Okay, let’s see…” Roki rubbed her hands together. “How does it start again?”

“When you were a little girl, just as old as me,” Mara said. “You went out into the forest alone, just like Gramma said you don’t!”

“Yeah,” said Kraston, raising his arms in the form of a monster. “And you ran into a pack of vicious, man-eating wolves! They chased you and chased you until they cornered you against a big cliff, and almost ate you!”

Roki nodded.

“That’s right. I was only seven years old, and your gramma had let me go pick avaberries behind her old cabin. But I went too far into the woods and soon heard the howling of the wolves around me. I panicked and started to run, and that’s when they started chasing me towards the cliffs of Falas. Pretty soon there was nowhere else to run, and I kneeled down and shut my eyes just like this.”

Roki covered her eyes with her hands, and the children copied her perfectly.

“And that’s when the giant talking bear showed up!” yelled Yris, the youngest of the three.

“Now remember what I told you before,” Roki said as everyone’s eyes opened again. “The giant bear didn’t speak, exactly. Instead, it tried to show me a picture in my head, as if it were doing the thinking for me. Can you imagine that?”

“It showed you pictures in your head, like a picture book?” Mara asked.

“A bit like that, I suppose. The bear- well, it wasn’t a bear. No bear can grow that size. It was a mephandras, a terrible creature, fifteen foot tall on its hind legs with thick matted hair, scales on its hindlegs and shoulders the size of dinner plates, and teeth and claws like daggers. As the wolves closed in, I heard a loud, mighty roar. For a reason I’ll never know, the mephandras charged in front of me. It was trying to keep me safe.”

“And then it attacked the wolves! Raawwr!” Kraston swiped at the air, bobbing up and down.

“Not exactly,” Roki said. “The wolves attacked first. They leaped onto its back and tried to bite down, but nothing could penetrate its thick hide. It bit their tails and tossed the wolves away like they were dolls made of straw. It wasn’t long before the wolves ran away with their tails between their legs.”

“And the me… memandra didn’t eat you up,” Mara said, very matter-of-factly. “It was a nice bear.”

“It was a very nice bear, that’s right,” Roki said. “When the wolves were gone, it turned around and put its snout right up close to me and sniffed at me. That was when the mephandras put a thought in my head. It was a beautiful image of a quiet spring filled with colorful fish, surrounded by flowering fruit trees and long soft grass. I was scared at first, but the thought put me right at ease. I looked up into its deep red eyes and reached out my hand. Just before I could touch it, to my surprise, another creature appeared from the underbrush…”

“A baby bear!” said Yris.

“That’s right,” Roki said. “The mephandras that saved me was a mama bear. The baby was much smaller than the mama, but still much bigger than me. It came right up to me and started sniffing me… That’s when it found the avaberries in my apron. It licked them right up, and then it licked my face!”

“Eww!” said Mara and Yris, sticking their tongues out.

“Yucky bear spit!” said Kraston.

“That’s right!” Roki said with a smile. “The mama mephandras and her cub walked with me all the way to the edge of the forest and made sure that none of those awful wolves followed after me. I never went that far into the forest again, and that was the last time anyone in this village ever saw a mephandras so far down the mountain. The hunters didn’t believe my story about the mama mephandras at first… That is, until they saw the tracks from the scuffle. They tried to convince me that I was just lucky. But that mama bear saved my life, no matter what the hunters say.”

“The hunters didn’t hunt down the mama mephandras and her baby, though, right Mama?” Kraston asked with concern on his face.

“I don’t know, sweetie. It’s been quite a few years since the hunters have even seen mephandras tracks in the woods. I hope she and her cub are still okay.”

“I know they are!” Mara said, patting her knees with her hands. “If any hunter got close to the mama bear, she’d just roar and they’d all run away.”

“But the hunters have bombs and magick,” Kraston said. “The Guild Hall is made of mephandras bones, remember? They used to hunt them all the time in the old stories.”

“No way,” Mara insisted, folding her arms. “The mama and baby bear are still alive. I just know it.”

“Yeah, me too!” Yris said, copying Mara.

“I think so, too,” Roki said, patting Mara’s head. “If there’s anything that could outsmart those hunters, it would be the mama mephandras. The hunters didn’t get them all, surely. It makes me wonder where the mephandras could have gone.”

 

Basic Information

Anatomy & Morphology

The mephandras (or ursas mephandras) is a omnivorous species of megafauna that looks much like a feral bear covered in thick fur and scales. These quadruped creatures are known for their immense muscular strength and mass, often walking on all fours unless threatened or reaching upwards for a bite of fruit or leaves. Because of their size, the mephandras moves slowly and deliberately, spending up to 20 hours a day eating.

However, when particularly hungry, mephandras have been known to hunt the bighorns and elk that inhabit the rocky crags and deep woods surrounding Falas. When threatened or chasing prey, their speed and ferocity can be terrifying, exceeding 40 mph (64 kph) in a four-legged sprint. Their claws and teeth are long and razor sharp, and the spiked scales on the mephandras’ shoulders, back, and feet ensure few natural weapons can successfully pierce or stab. Their eyes are remarkably crimson red and reflect moonlight in the dark.

Genetics and Reproduction

The mephandras typically mates for life and every mephandras pair will breed every eight to nine years. The exact gestation period is unknown, but it is much longer than other ursas pregnancies. Because of the hard scales and spikes common in both male and female physiology, the act of reproduction is often a loud and violent affair, with entire trees at the site being torn apart and uprooted.

Ecology and Habitats

Native to the high mountain forests of Falas, the mephandras are used to bitter cold winds and climbing frozen crags. Unlike other arboreal bear species of lower altitudes, the mephandras is fiercely territorial. A pair of mated mephandras can “claim” hundreds of square miles, although interactions with other lone or paired mephandras isn’t uncommon. Tearing down trees and clawing at boulders are markers of territory, and the worse the damage, the closer you are to the mephandras den.

As Falas is filled with caves and crevices, you’ll typically find mephandras making their homes inside higher altitude “habitats”; not many mephandras live in the lower-altitude forests for very long. From their caves, they’ll descend into the forests to search and hunt for food, and are known to retreat back to their caves when in danger from hunters.

Dietary Needs and Habits

One of the greatest mysteries of Falas is how it supports (or used to support) its mephandras population. The mephandras is an omnivore, and seems to eat almost anything, from berries and fish to bighorners and roots. They have been known to eat the bark, cones, and needles of pine trees, though not in large enough quantities to completely strip the mountain of pine.

As the mephandras moves slowly to conserve its energy except in times of danger, hunting, or arousal, they are careful eaters, not wasting or giving up anything nutritious. Despite this, no mephandras has ever been seen eating a humil or ashanti corpse. Whether this is due to their understanding of running a risk of retribution if they did so or just a simple aversion to eating humil or ashanti meat is unclear.

Biological Cycle

As the mephandras live in a cold and mountainous environment that experiences little seasonal change, the only biological cycles that occur year-to-year are short periods of hibernation in the coldest months when food is scarce.

Every five to six years, mephandras shed their scales and spikes, allowing new thicker chitin to grow in its place. Discovery of large piles of scale and horn residue is a sure indicator of mephandras territory.

Growth Rate & Stages

Newborn mephandras are hairless and scaleless, emerging from the mother about the size of a large dog. Mephandras litters are typically limited to two or three at a time, and are very dependent on the mother for the first two years of life for milk and protection (mothers can spend up to the first four months of this important period of time without food protecting their young). Mephandras cubs grow very rapidly, their thick fur and scales appearing within six to eight months. At a year old, a mephandras cub is six foot tall and prepared to accompany its mother to the forest to eat roots and berries. At three years of age, a mephandras will leave its mother’s care and search for a mate. The mephandras will usually find a mate at three to seven years of age, and remain with them throughout their entire lifetimes. Lone mephandras are rare but not unheard of.

Oddly, very few mephandras corpses have ever been discovered out in the open, and none have ever been tracked through their entire lives. It is unknown if mephandras can die of old age, leading some superstitious hunters to speculate that the mephandras might be hiding the secret to eternal life somewhere on or inside the Falas Mountains. What is known, however, is that mephandras never stop growing as they age. The oldest and largest mephandras to ever be hunted and killed weighed 22400 lbs (10160 kg) and stood 25 foot 7 inches (or 7.8 meters) tall.

 

Additional Information

Geographic Origin and Distribution

The mephandras was originally located in the forests and mountain ranges of the Falas Mountains in Antiell. This colossal land mammal served as the primary obstacle to the exploration of the Falas Mountain range since humils migrated to the Antielli continent 600 years ago. In recent years, however, no trace of them can be found, leading some hunters to believe that the species has slowly become extinct.

Average Intelligence

A fully-grown mephandras can be expected to have the intelligence of an adolescent humil or ashanti. Many stories have been told, however, of the unpredictable moods of the mephandras, ranging between mad and violent monsters with no sense of morality to peaceful and inquisitive creatures. Few patterns for these behaviors have been linked to sex or age, although one thing has been proven: hunters and poachers looking to separate a nursing mephandras from its young will have quite the fight on their hands.

Perception and Sensory Capabilities

The mephandras has sub-par vision but excellent hearing and sense of smell. What sets it apart from other mammals, however, are its mental abilities. Capable of broadcasting images and subtle feelings into the minds of other lifeforms, the mephandras use a minor form of telepathy to communicate. The images they broadcast vary wildly from mephandras to mephandras, leading some Ashanti researchers to believe it isn’t a rote “language” but an imperfect sharing of memories and thoughts.

For example, if one mephandras implanted the image of a waterfall in someone’s mind, it could hold many meanings: the waterfall could be a place of rest and refreshment, a meaningful landmark, or a place of danger. Context clues are usually the best way to discern the meaning, although some refined mentalists and psykin have been able to feel other currents of emotion beneath the images.

In conflict, the mephandras uses its abilities to flash multiple images in the minds of its enemy to confuse it. To prey such as bighorners and elk, this usually results in hesitation, allowing the mephandras the opportunity to attack. To unwary humil and ashanti hunters, it may cause a stupor of thought for a brief moment. No matter the target, this is a sure sign that an attack is imminent.


 

This was a fun one to write. I honestly did not have the Arzuros from Monster Hunter in mind when I imagined the mephandras, but it works just so well. I have plans to make them meaningful to the second act of Alyssum, so we’ll see how that goes. I don’t know if worldbuilding or just writing is more important to me at this point, because I want to get it all out of me.

Either way, if you want to read more about Voices of the Shattered Sun or Alyssum, check out my World Anvil page! I include more information in spoiler tags if you want to get a hint about what’s developing behind the scenes. I know, spoilers for most people are bad. But I’m a writer and want to know how things are built more than I care to read the story from beginning to end.

Backstage Tales – Connecting the Past to the Present

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I am a packrat.

Not as bad as I used to be, mind you – when you’re in college, you tend to want to travel as lightly as possible (although that didn’t stop me from loading a few plastic bins full of books and knick-knacks until the boxes fell apart from the sheer weight). I have a really hard time parting with things that may have a low material value but a high emotional value, something into which I’ve placed a memory of a specific time and place. Among these things include a piece of obsidian in the shape of an egg that my dad got me from a rock store when I was little, the beaten-up instruction manuals for Warcraft 2 and Diablo 2 I used to read again and again, and my tiny, no-longer-functioning Playstation One Mini with a broken CD tray lid that I got bought from a pawn shop when I was ten or eleven along with a beaten-up but functional 4-disk copy of Final Fantasy VIII (yes, that was my first FF title, and I LOVE it).

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It looked a little like this. Classic.

Despite this, you might think I’ve grown pretty callous to some of these precious memory-objects. The very first piece of cosplay I’d ever put together was a Master Chief helmet from Halo 2, made pepakura-style with paper and slathered with plaster and spray paint. It hurts to put on, it fogs up immediately, and quite honestly, I’m not that big into Halo; if I’m not mistaken, that’s just the kind of project an early 2000’s teenage boy does. Ashamed of the attempt, I tried to throw it away, but my dad fished it out of the garbage and demanded I keep it. My skills have developed since this first helmet, but I see now how it’s a good idea to hang on to your early work if only to help remind yourself of how far you’ve come.

When I look at a particular piece of pottery I made in junior high that has been sitting on top of my refrigerator at home for many years, I try to remember what was going through my head when I assembled it. It has strange carvings and symbols that make it feel like it should have a lot more meaning than it actually does. I haven’t sculpted with water-based clay for many years, and wish I could spend a few hours making clay boxes and pots in a non-graded environment again. I remember my ceramics teacher (whose name I no longer recall) had an impressive collection of glazes to choose from, and they honestly made my work stand out.

Something I think I’ll regret until my dying day is losing my earliest writings and stories.  On my dad’s Power Macintosh, I would write fantastic stories about airship mechanics and giants and magic and what I thought was deftly written political intrigue. I would write dialogue that in hindsight sounded terribly hammy and over-the-top. I would have idea after idea, and start story after story, and it would always involve the same characters with different names, over and over, just a little different than before. I would let the Macintosh’s text-to-speech tell me my stories so I could hear them out loud, but I would turn it off the moment mom or dad came into the room. I don’t think I’d even shown them any of my writing until I was at college level simply because I was too afraid of what they would think of the things that came spewing forth from my head.

Hopefully they still exist in that old machine.

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Yup, just like this one. Classic.

It was from one of those stories that Aeo and Leon became characters, although in their original forms, Aeo had an older brother who cared for him, and Leon was a much younger gentleman than he is in Alyssum.

Do you hang on to anything from your early days that reminds you of better times? Maybe some things remind you of a time you’d sooner forget, but you can’t seem to throw it in the trash because of the psychological attachment you’ve created with it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with memory-objects. Not everything deserves the honorary title of “keepsake” or “family treasure”, but everything from old articles of clothing to files on an old Power Macintosh computer can stand as early mile markers on your journey. Some of these objects can trigger good memories, some can dredge up some really bad ones, and some took a lot of time to create or purchase.

Even names can hold special meaning for us. Supreme Leader Snoke may have insisted that they weren’t Sith in the latest Star Wars movie, but Kylo Ren had at one time been Ben Solo just like Darth Vader had once been Anakin Skywalker. Fortunately, I doubt most people change their names to go to the Dark Side. In real life, many transgender people change their names to reflect their new personal identities, and I can understand the desire to leave behind who they once were. Although I can’t find it now, I did recently read an AskReddit thread about the reasons people change their full names, and many people mentioned the Jewish tradition of taking on a new name after overcoming a serious illness or personal tragedy. Some who attempt to commit suicide set down their old names and pick up a new one as a way to dedicate themselves to a more hopeful and meaningful future.

To change gears here just a bit, I’ve been thinking about the connection to the past we all have and how we make choices based on our past experiences. The choices we make in our daily lives have to come from somewhere. Whether our choices are defined by the decisions our parents or our siblings made, or from the circumstances from which we were raised (good or bad, rich or poor, religious or not), the choices we make in the present and the destinations we’ll reach in the future are at least in some small way dictated by the past. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” after all, socially, consequentially, or chronologically. My past is made up of both voluntary and involuntary consequences. For example, on one hand, my very involuntary bipolar depression condition is hereditary, and has greatly affected the choices I’ve made. On the other, I am not fully defined by my limitations; my voluntary decisions to develop my writing abilities despite the difficulties in doing so has led me to employment opportunities where I can use my skills to serve others.

I am ruled by my upbringing as well. The choices I make reflect both the voluntary and the involuntary nature of my past. Anyone can attempt to ignore parentage and upbringing, but they have an effect regardless in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Even if I wanted to, could I separate myself from my past so thoroughly that I could act independently of any parental or generational interference? Without my memories or upbringing, for all intents and purposes, would I be a different person? Would that person be a better one than the one I am now because of the complete separation from a biased past? More or less capable of compassion? More or less detached from taking personal responsibility? More confident or arrogant? More self-conscious or mentally stable? Or just as capable?

What happens to that person when every connection they have to the past is suddenly cut? And what happens when an entire society of people suddenly forget something very important from their past in a single instance?

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Yes, two quotes in one article. Fancy.

For Voices of the Shattered Sun, I’m trying to work out two things that I don’t quite know how to deal with: what happens when a frightened slave boy is suddenly given nearly unlimited power over his captors, and what happens to a nation that collectively forgets everything it used to know about the war it fought with its fatherland.

The first one I can develop with time: Aeo is determined to not let his past define his future. Needless to say, Aeo had a name before he became a slave. Will he take on his birth name and forget his slave name, choosing to become someone entirely different? Or will he forge his own reality and refuse both his birth and his circumstances? I haven’t determined the complete circumstances surrounding it yet, but something is going to happen to Aeo (whether in Alyssum or one of the future connecting novelettes) that will cause his memories to be severed (think Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and what happened to Sora). Let’s just say that the Wound in Tiathys is more than just a hole in the ground, and Aeo is going to fall into it. The Wound is more like a hole in reality and time itself. No one ever comes back from the Wound because technically… no one’s ever fallen in. And if they had, they never were. Got it? *wink wink*

The second is a little tricky: what kind of event would be terrible and soul-crushing enough to make a royal power-hungry despot go from “fire every weapon of mass destruction we have at those bastards” to “we need to stop, bury this deep, and forget it even happened”? How would a nation even collectively forget such an event without waving a magic wand and suddenly it just happened (because that feels like a cop out). Answer: I don’t think it can happen without a very specific magic wand. What if the memory of that event were so destructive and so pervasive, the mental and psychological pain of the event would be passed down genetically through the generations of the men and women that witnessed it, waiting only for the right physical trigger to release or even spread devastating pain? Would that trigger be a word, a phrase, a sight, a sound, a scent, or…

…a flower?

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Ooooh.

*ahem* Pardon me. I just had an “ah-ha” moment. Seems I have some writing to do. What if psychometry weren’t a blessing, but a well-designed and very lethal poison? Who designed it, and for what purpose? Or, worse yet, is it just a natural phenomenon that happens to kill people with particularly painful past experiences? For those interested in the subject, check out the superpower wiki on psychometry as well as the TV Tropes page on the same subject.

Ooh, hee-hee, plans are brewing.

Names are symbols. Objects can trigger memories. There’s a reason a lot of story protagonists have meaningful names and carry or hunt for McGuffins. Some things I’ve been writing and some things that happened over the weekend got me thinking about the kinds of memories we place in objects, the choices we make, and how the past defines our present and our future, both good and bad.

But what did we really learn? That I can philosophize and type frantically on a keyboard. YAAAAY!!

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Mental Chains – Wherein I Apologize For Everything

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Man, this is the first time in a two and a half months that I’ve missed writing something for my blog. I always knew consistency would be my greatest foe in accomplishing anything, no matter how good the reasons for missing. The reasons are pretty good this time, granted: I had my first real panic attack since starting Effexor, and this time the panic attack was brought on by pain from a digestive condition my poor body has been developing over a few years. The pain has come and gone in the past, but this time it’s arrived in full force. It was bad enough on Tuesday that I came home early from work sobbing. If you’ve never seen a bearded man uncontrollably cry from pain and panic, wait around a while for me. I can’t imagine it’s very fun to watch, though.

I’ve probably written about this already, but have you ever heard of the phrase “getting pecked to death by ducks”? Sure, it looks kinda funny when it’s happening to someone else. But when it’s happening to you, you want nothing more than to boot-kick the damn ducks (metaphorically speaking, of course) and find some peace and quiet.

That’s what the last five years of my life have been. If it’s not numbing depression, it’s the thought of depression returning. If it’s not depression, it’s sinus issues and headaches. If it’s not headaches, it’s aches, pains, and sweating from a sedentary lifestyle (in the desert without AC in my car). If it’s not all that (which is rare), it’s this latest digestive problem (which is now becoming utterly unmanageable). The real problem isn’t that there are so many ducks, exactly. I’m a big guy; I can tackle an individual duck (metaphorically speaking, of course). Missing a day of work every now and again isn’t the problem. It’s that all of my ducks are becoming monsters that are learning new and exciting ways of ganging up on me all at once and I don’t know how to deal with them en masse.

So I have to apologize. To everyone I know. Over and over.

To my readers: I’m sorry I failed to write something entertaining today. The word “therapy” is in the title of the blog, though. The hard part is I’m not sure I can pledge to do better in the short-term. Next week I have a consultation with a general surgeon to see what my options are to take care of my latest issue, and it might take me some time (hopefully no more than a few days after the procedure) to recover if surgery is the best option.

Have you ever felt like you have to apologize to someone else for existing? This is what stigma sounds like. Whether it’s true or not, I feel like I’m so much a barrier to the success of my group that I prefer to erase myself from the equation before I can cause more problems. I’ve quit jobs out of the blue because it’s too embarrassing to admit my problems and work through them because I’d rather not trust my burden to anyone else’s care. It’s sad, I know. I don’t believe I’ve ever been the “victim” of anyone else’s stigma but my own, to be honest. It’s my own shame that separates me from personal happiness.

And that’s my great conundrum: I like to speak pretty clearly about the personal problems I face (within reason, naturally), but that’s just the first step. Am I willing to stop regarding myself as nothing more than an inconvenience to others? Am I willing to trust others to help me find solutions to them?

No worries, though; I’m not about to quit my job, curl up in a ball in my room, and want to die. No, I’ve done enough of that. I have more ducks incoming, and they’re shaped like college classes and (hopefully) graduation, full-time work, and medical bills.

Good ducky. Nice ducky. Want some bread? No? Than what do you wanOUCHMYEARS!

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So yeah, sorry for the lame post today. Monday’s will be a great one.