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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THEYBITMYFINGERSOFFHOWDUCKS DON’TEVENHAVETEETH!?

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

My 10-Hour Tale – Tropico 4

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*sigh*

I’m going to have to talk about politics, aren’t I?

Nope, not going to do it. I’m going to talk about a really fun strategy game that’s themed around political intrigue, foreign relations, benevolent dictators that can make the rebellious “disappear” at any time, secret police, every citizen living below the poverty line, social security, free healthcare, free college education…

Nope. You can’t make me. I’m not going to do it.

Mmmm. Hmm-mm. Nonononono hmmmmmmMMMMMMM BOTH DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS ARE THE PROBLEM THE US WAS NEVER MEANT TO HAVE A TWO-PARTY SYSTEM CHANGING LAW SHOULD BE NATURALLY DIFFICULT BECAUSE OF MANY VIEWPOINTS NOT JUST TWO THE FREE MARKET SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO REGULATE ITSELF I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY MARIJUANA IS ILLEGAL ESPECIALLY FOR MEDICAL PURPOSES I SYMPATHIZE WITH WOMEN’S RIGHTS ON ABORTION BUT ADOPTION IS A MORALLY ACCEPTABLE AND LIFE-CHANGING OPTION FOR ALL INVOLVED ESPECIALLY FOR COUPLES WHO CAN’T HAVE CHILDREN RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE IS SELF-SABOTAGE AND NATURALLY LEADS TO FEWER JOBS ESPECIALLY FOR THOSE WITH NO EXPERIENCE EDUCATION SHOULD BE MORE ACCESSIBLE TO THOSE BELOW THE POVERTY LINE NO MATTER THEIR RACE OR RELIGION SCHOOL TUITION COSTS ARE RIDICULOUS AND SHOULD BE BETTER REGULATED BY THE STATES I ACCEPT MY WHITE MALE PRIVILEGE BUT UNDERSTAND THAT NOT ALL WHITE MALES HAVE PRIVILEGE EVERY LGBTQ+ PERSON CAN AND SHOULD BE WHO AND WHAT THEY WANT TO BE AS LONG AS THEY AFFORD ME THE SAME COURTESY BUILDING THE WALL ON MEXICO’S DIME IS A STUPID IDEA BUT THE U.S. SHOULD BE ABLE TO CONTROL ITS BORDERS WITHOUT SEPARATING FAMILIES WHO COME SEEKING ASYLUM THERE SHOULD BE TERM LIMITS FOR EVERY ELECTED MEMBER OF CONGRESS SENATORS AND MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE SHOULD BE FORCED TO LIVE IN THE DISTRICTS THEY SERVE TO KEEP THEM ACCOUNTABLE TO THE PEOPLE PRESIDENTIAL AUTHORITY TO USE EXECUTIVE ACTIONS SHOULD BE RESTRICTED I HONESTLY BELIEVE THE WEALTHY WOULD PRODUCE BETTER GOODS HERE INSTEAD OF IN CHINA AND OFFER BETTER PAYING JOBS DOMESTICALLY IF NOT FORCED TO PAY SUCH HIGH TAXES HEALTHCARE IS NOT A RIGHT BUT MODERN MEDICINE IS WOEFULLY IMPRECISE IF ADMINISTRATION FEES DIDN’T COST SO MUCH AND GOOD DOCTORS HAD BETTER PROTECTION FROM LAWSUITS MEDICAL COSTS WOULD BECOME AFFORDABLE ON THEIR OWN

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ERROR: OPINION OVERLOAD. UNABLE TO UNDO. (I was going to use the Scanners movie head explosion, but thought it a bit graphic.)

*pant* *cough* Sorry. Give me a minute.

There. It’s done. It’s all out there. I’m a strange specimen of libertarian/independent mixed up with a conservative upbringing. I have reasons and personal experiences for thinking all these things, as most people do, and I’m fairly flexible accepting well-reasoned arguments on both sides of any topic. I have a lot of respect for those that consider themselves classical liberals, trying to understand socialists gives me a headache, fascists are just plain wrong, and communists need to go live in 1970’s Cuba or 1960’s East Germany.

So why do I reveal these many political sins I call opinions in a video game review? Well, two reasons. First, because I must be a glutton for punishment, as I have the overwhelming desire to be part of a discussion I’m very unqualified to participate in (although you should never assume unqualified means uneducated). Second, because it’s games like Tropico 4 that make me wonder what it would be like if I threw out all of my beliefs about good government and became a dictator of my own resource-rich island out in the Caribbean.

Turns out, I’m pretty good at being a dictator.

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My very refined Presidente avatar. Yes, a pipe instead of a cigar. I was going for “the most interesting Presidente in the world” look.

Tropico 4 is, yes, the fourth game in the strategic Tropico series by Haemimont Games and published by Kalypso Digital where you take the reins of your own Caribbean island as a Fidel Castro-esque figure with an awesome voice actor. You can choose to be a fascist dictator that offers nothing but swift and terrible military action to your rebellious subjects or a benevolent presidente-for-life who offers free education, free healthcare, free housing, and free margaritas to all your loyal citizens. Okay, maybe not the margaritas, but you can certainly set up your own cabaret and celebrate the good life.

Having played the previous Tropico games, I chose this one to write about because it’s been my favorite. It’s also the best in the series right now, if reviews would have you believe. I haven’t played Tropico 5, but friends and many reviews on Steam say Tropico 4 did everything better. Tropico 4, like its predecessors, comes with a plethora of DLC (too much DLC, in my opinion, although I got them all in a bundle) that breaks down into the very-positively upvoted Modern Times and…everything else. You get additional islands and challenges along with a smattering of questionably useful buildings like nuclear bomb shelters and propaganda towers in case life in the Caribbean gets a little… fallout-y.

As dictator (or El Presidente!), it’s your job to balance the many goods and services your citizens need as well as manage the many different factions of people that arrive on your sun-kissed shores. These tasks can range from painfully easy to painfully difficult depending on the difficulty settings (yes, there are easy-to-use difficulty settings, huzzah) imposed by the level or by yourself in free play mode.

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Yes, that is farmland and a dump in the middle of my community. It can’t smell good, but it just works.

First, Tropicans need to eat (a variety of foods always helps the mood). They need proper housing (good housing is expensive) that is free of crime and gang violence. They need to worship God in churches and cathedrals. They need good medical care from clinics and hospitals. They want liberty of information through radio, newspapers, or television. Tropicans want good and meaningful jobs and education opportunities.

On top of all these things, Tropicans have opinions about how Tropico should be governed. Each belongs to a faction, like the religious faction who value faith and church availability above all else, the militaristic faction that values national defense, the loyalists which value independence from superpowers, the environmentalists that will complain against you for over-exploiting Mother Nature, the Capitalists and the Communists (duh), and the intellectuals who value education and wisdom.

Tropico 4 is all about maintaining a balance of all of these factors and somehow still make a tidy profit for your national treasury… as well as improve the financial health of your hidden Swiss Bank account. You’ll get foreign financial aid from the US and Russia as long as you remain in their good graces, but it’s never wise to go into the negative for very long lest your foreign relations deteriorate and almost everyone starts to protest (sounds familiar to modern-day politics, to be honest).

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Typhoon!! Everyone hide in your baseme- oh. Island. Right. Um, duck and cover?

So how do you make money? You can jump-start agriculture with cash crops like tobacco or sugar, mine iron or gold, raise cattle or llamas, or strike into the tourism business and establishing a few hotels and entertainment venues. Then, build factories to take advantage of your island’s natural resources, like cigar or weapon factories. In Modern Times, you can even establish chemical plants, concrete factories, and business offices to supplement your income. Most factories come with extra upgrades you can unlock by providing them with power from power plants or wind turbines, letting you improve the job quality for your factory’s workers or help you produce goods faster.

In fact, you’ll need power for lots of things, like movie theaters and hospitals. And giant rotating statues made of solid gold. You know, the essentials.

Establishing a fully-operating and well-oiled economy in Tropico can be tricksy. To help you navigate the dangerous political waters of life as El Presidente, you can pass certain laws or edicts to increase the people’s opinion of you… or remove any dissidents that would raise their voice against you. Edicts include social security for the elderly (the price of which increases as your island’s population grows older), declaring a national holiday (which changes some Tropicans into Loyalists or Nationalists), issuing tax breaks straight to each citizen (which is obviously great PR but pricier the more people live in Tropico), make housing free (which is great for public opinion but the capitalists hate it and cuts into your bottom line), establishing a literacy program (increase the rate at which workers gain experience in their jobs), and even printing money (which grants a ton of money but makes everything you build permanently more expensive).

Some of the more interesting edicts that I rarely played with until recently include legalizing same-sex marriages (which increases intellectual respect but lowers religious respect), call for an anti-litter campaign (which decreases pollution but also decreases liberty), and declaring martial law (in case crime gets out of control, liberty and all production is decreased). Modern Times brings a few entertaining edicts to the table, including banning social networks (increases production, but it also shuts off Tropico 4‘s social integration at the same time, lol), passing healthcare reform (increases the amount of people that can be treated at clinics and hospitals), and calling for a Festival of Love (makes a baby-boom population increase and boosts tourist spending for a few years).

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And you thought I was joking about the giant rotating golden statue.

So how do I play Tropico? Probably in the most ham-fisted way possible: the guy with the money makes the rules. Farming farming farming cash crops right away, leaving only a few farms to make food for everybody. Open the doors of Tropico early enough with an immigration office, and you’ll have all the labor you’ll need to see huge profits (or, as Trump would say, YUGE). Unless I start with a church, I tend to ignore them until I have a big enough checkbook to afford a high school first (as churches can only be run by educated priests). Buy a clinic; there is no choice here (people dying is the last thing you’ll want). If you’ve got lots of white sandy beaches, go for tourism immediately: even with few amenities, tourists will practically shower you with money in between the timed exports.

The intellectuals, the religious, and the loyalists usually hate me for a while, and a rebellion starts to form when you get to about 45% approval rating or lower. But by the time it gets down to about 43% or 42%, I usually have enough money to afford churches, entertainment, and a ministry to help me pass edicts like social security and my first tax break. From there, build even more farms and plantations, a college, an armory, and a few guard posts, and the paltry few rebels who’ve chosen to live alone in the miserable jungle will have no choice to accept the amnesty I offer when approval gets back above 50%.

I think Tropico 4 and the series in general is so funny (and fun) because while you can choose to be a communist “presidente” who does nothing positive for the people, you still have to rely on foreign markets, exports, and trade in order to progress. Why do you think embargos and sanctions work so well in real life? The money has to come from somewhere, and sorry Venezuela, but printing money only gets you so far when inflation rages. Education and healthcare might be free in Tropico, but all the farms, mines, office buildings, churches, restaurants, hotels, and tenements are all state owned and regulated as cheaply as possible. What’s an education in North Korea worth these days? Would you trust Cuban doctors to treat a heart defect or operable cancer?

Workers aren’t paid according to their skills; workers are paid on a scale of what the government thinks they should be paid, usually dependent on which jobs are needed most at that time. Which can be $1 a day, if you wish (although job quality will go straight down the crapper). Don’t want to be a teamster? Well, the teamster office is paying $25 an hour at the moment, even though it’s on the other side of the island. How many of us would drop our current jobs, abandon our homes, and remain nomadic depending on where the money goes?

Does that appeal to anyone?

If it does, imagine if your “presidente for life” was some politician you really couldn’t stand. *ahem* In real life, you may be able to vote in your country, but very few get to choose their dictator.

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Tropicaaaaaaans iiiiiiin SPAAAAAACE!

Tropico 4 is a fantastic game from El Presidente’s perspective. It asks the grand question, “What would the dictators of the world do with unlimited resources and man power?” Tropico‘s seemingly fantastic answer is: “What they’re already doing and then some.” I like to think I’d be a pretty benevolent dictator, if thrust into that position. But you didn’t see many people fleeing to communist Cuba during the 80’s and 90’s for its economic opportunities, religious freedom, and safety from political persecution. No, I’m pretty sure those rafts were floating towards Florida, not away from it.

Review: 9/10 for fun, 9/10 for making me research history and current events, 1/10 for making me talk about politics

Backstage Tales – Coloring Book

I have been sick over the past couple of days, and combined with the Fourth of July, I’ve taken some time to rest and get over my head cold/sinus infection. Despite this, I may or may not have burned myself trying to set off four fireworks at once. Happy late Fourth of July, everyone!

Unfortunately, my plans for writing a game review yesterday or today both flew out the door. So instead, I wanted to share a few images of something I’d love to put together someday, even if it would never sell in any meaningful quantity.

Presenting What If Worms Could Whistle: The Coloring Book! Feel free to download, print, and share with your young ‘uns!

caveworm

Unga-bunga.

fallout4

I want to redo this one. 😀

griffon

Weeeee!!

monster

Ooooohhh! Ghosty-goo!

wheat

I’d love to make it a history lesson.

zealot

En taro Tassadar!

I was thinking most of the book would be illustrated in color, but a few pages at the end would be blank for kids to color. I have no idea if anyone would even care to let their kids read and color in a book about big-eyed worms in funny costumes, but it would be fun to try.

Anyway, a regular review is coming up Monday, and it’s one of my favorite PC strategy titles that always calls me back to play again and again. Stay tuned!

Voices of the Shattered Sun – Aeo Karandal

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Aeo, age 13 (source: Pinterest)

The bell above the entrance jingled and though he couldn’t admit it out loud, the 17-year old Assistant Librarian Liam Terelle felt dread in his heart. With every ring of that blasted bell, he expected some impatient and overweight Antielli minister to emerge unblinking from the sunlight outside and demand special treatment. That, and he’d have to put on the ridiculous-looking librarian hat the faculty usually forced the apprentices to wear. Because, oh, your business is so much more important than mine! That would make it… three, three time this week he would have to make up for lost time.

In the midst of accepting his fate, however, he craned his neck around the shelf of leather-bound tomes to see a familiar scrawny figure.

“Oh, Master Aeo. Is that you?”

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Aeo, age 19 (source: Pinterest)

“Y-Yessir,” came the timid reply. The Edian boy stepped up to the counter, quickly producing a small piece of parchment from his pocket upon which was written the titles of several books. Aeo slid the note to Liam without speaking another word. Liam blinked; Aeo was always easy to assist, but a very difficult boy to read. It didn’t help that Aeo’s red eyes never met his own.

“Um, let me see,” Liam said, reading the remarkably legible handwriting. Was it Aeo’s? “Varieties of Ashanti Spores by Wil Remar, Five Vital Preparations for Corpsefly Larvae by Junne… Yes, I think these are all in the same spot. Come on back, Aeo, I’ll take you to them.”

Navigating the rows upon rows of complicated textbooks and guides, the two young men worked their way deep into the northeast corner of the expansive first floor. It was all silent. Liam looked back a few times to see if Aeo was still following him. Sure enough, like a shadow, Aeo was, his eyes glued to the floor in thought.

Liam had thoughts of his own, of course. Most of the library staff did. Everyone at the Academy knew him simply as “the Firebrand”, even if they didn’t know his name. Come to think of it, Liam wasn’t sure the boy had a last name. It was strange enough that Master Sirelu mysteriously departed Ashant for a year and a half only to return with crates filled with unknown alchemical reagents. He also had become guardian to a freed Edian slave who could manipulate elemental fire as easily as the Heidir wield their swords. Liam had never heard of its like before. Aeo had few masters who had the talent and strength of magick to teach him. One who could, Master Naal, even praised him publicly around the Academy (hence the nickname), but Aeo never showed off or boasted about his talents. In fact, it just seemed to make the strange red-haired and crimson-eyed boy more reclusive. The only time Liam ever saw Aeo was during his trips to the library.

At last, they arrived at a particularly dusty section of shelves in the back corner, all lined with tomes of particularly varying colors and parchments. Liam lifted himself on his toes, spying the reference numbers inscribed into metal plaques on each shelf.

“Let’s see, 576… 576.8… 576.9… Ah, here’s Documents on Falas Fungi, Part One. And Lichen of the South Shores.”

Liam handed each hefty volume as he found them into Aeo’s waiting arms. Although a wiry adolescent, he didn’t make a single sound of complaint.

“And… Algae Blooms of the Everspring. There you go. Is that everything you need?”

“Hmm,” Aeo nodded in the affirmative, his lips pursed as he strained beneath the five weighty books.

“Here, let me take a few of those, you can take one of our carts back to Master Sirelu’s quarters,” Liam said. Well aware that Aeo might refuse the help, he quickly snatched the two top books from Aeo’s arms before a pause could form.

“Thanks,” Aeo whispered.

The two returned to the front counter in silence. Unsure of what to say, Liam instinctively looked down every other aisle in case his fellow librarian assistants were down one. But the day had been a quiet one, with many of the regular students of the Academy away for the weekend. He tossed a glance behind him. Aeo was still there, following along quietly.

“H-Hey Aeo,” Liam said, surprised that the words emerged from him the moment he spoke them.

“Huh?” Aeo looked up, as if a trance had been broken.

“Um…” Liam looked down and frowned. How could he ask this politely? “Do… Do you eat lunch… somewhere?”

Aeo didn’t reply immediately.

“Er, wh-what I mean is…” Liam shifted the books under his arm to the other. “Are you busy… at around noon, sometimes, or maybe after lunch? I could actually use your help…”

Liam looked back and saw a frown form on Aeo’s normally placid face.

“My help?” he asked.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Liam said. “I’m failing Master Lyris’s Emanation class, and I heard you’ve got a real talent for energy channeling… You wouldn’t want to teach me the trick to it, would you? I really don’t want to fail this class so close to graduation.”

Liam and Aeo reached the front counter and sat all five books down.

“Teach you? But… I’m not a teacher.” Aeo looked up at Liam. For some reason, it startled him a bit. “I… haven’t ever taught anybody anything.”

“Well, that’s probably the best thing for me right now,” Liam said with a grin. “Because my teachers aren’t teaching me at all. Think of yourself as an anti-teacher. Things will go smoother that way.”

Aeo looked away, lost in thought.

“Look, Aeo,” Liam said. “I’m not asking for a favor. I don’t have this crummy librarian job for nothing. I can pay you to be my tutor.”

Aeo’s face distorted as if he’d sucked on something sour.

“P-Pay me? Really?”

“Yeah, sure!” Liam paused, unable to read Aeo’s expression. “Er, that is, if it matters to you. I don’t know if Master Sirelu gives you an allowance or anything. I’m not exactly rolling in gold, but I’m, um… negotiable.”

Aeo blinked a few times, sliding his hand over one of the books he carried. For a moment, he was silent.

“Do…” he started, and then grew quiet. “Do you know anything about wolves?”

It was Liam’s turn to pause.

“Anything… in particular?”

“Do you know…anything about wolves that can talk? Inside your head?”

Liam’s head instinctively tilted.

“I… can’t say that I do.”

“What if…” Aeo said quietly. “What if you helped me research wolves and I helped you learn about channeling? Would… that be fair?”

“Um, well…” Liam scratched his head. “Sure, I guess. I’ve never heard of wolves that can talk. I don’t want to rip you off if we can’t find anything… But, then again, this library is huge, and it’s not like I’ve read every book that’s come through here. If these wolves are important to you, I’d be glad…”

“They are,” Aeo said quickly.

“All right,” Liam said, surprise flickering on his face. “I guess we have a deal.”

He held out his hand to Aeo, and Aeo shook it.

“Thank you, sir,” Aeo said timidly.

“No, thank you, Aeo. Really. And it’s okay, just call me Liam.”

“Okay… Liam, sir.”

Liam didn’t have the heart to correct him.

—from Tales of the Everspring Academy, Volume II by Master Edin Naal

Physical Description

General Physical Condition

Aeo is of slender and underweight build as a child, growing up to become a tall and athletic young man. Despite his attendance at the Academy, Aeo often finds himself away from the books and exploring the grounds surrounding the Everspring. His adventures lead him to a dangerous nomadic life on the road, toughening his endurance and agility.

Body Features

His skin color is odd for an Edian: bright white, burning bright red under the sun and never seeming to tan. His hair is an unkempt reddish-brown, eventually growing to shoulder-length just like Leon’s. Young Aeo is skinny, lanky, and clumsy, unsure of his body movements. As he grows, however, the lankiness vanishes, replaced with well-defined muscles and deliberate motion.

Facial Features

Aeo’s features are striking to even the most casual observer, not the least of which is his self-identifying and piercing crimson eyes. His slender facial features, light eyebrows, and sharp nose are very Antiellian, leading many onlookers to sometimes perform a double-take.

Special Abilities

Aeo has a strong affinity for fire magick (both invoking and control) as well as great talents for energy manipulation and personal shielding. In combat, Aeo can ignite both fists in burning magickal energy and expel this energy with great force, enabling close or long-range attacks as well as area-of-effect (the fire spreads and does not extinguish under normal means, except through special wards or Aeo’s command). This energy can also deflect blows, stabbing, slashing, and projectile attacks. Aeo can shielding his entire form in energy, but this takes a great amount of effort and cannot last.

While he is taught simple wards and transmutation by his academy teachers, the finer points of the art confuse him, leading him to rely on a simple but specialized set of adventuring magick skills including temperature control, limited water-breathing, water purification, and food preservation.

Apparel & Accessories

Unlike most of the other apprentices at the Academy, Aeo dislikes the heavy and itchy robes traditionally worn by the Ashanti. Like Leon, he maintains freedom of movement by wearing a simple cotton tunic, linen pants, and flat-soled shoes, adding a light linen-backed ayvasilk jacket on cold days. He almost always wears a thin leather necklace around his neck that holds a single ring of silver, given to him by Master Kane Dolshir when he became a student of Everspring.

Mental characteristics

Personal History

Waking up in an iron slave cage at the tender age of three is the earliest memory the young Edian boy Aeo remembers, the stale air of a dirty stable filling his lungs and burning his eyes. The next earliest memory is being sold to his first Antielli owners, a kindly man named Onris Eli and the small Eli family. It was from them that he received the name “Aeo”.

Naturally, their intention had to have been to raise him as a servant. He wasn’t owned by the family for long, however, perhaps a year at most. After all, slave children don’t offer much labor and require time to grow into usefulness. When times became tight, Eli sold this “costly asset” to the wealthiest woman in the village of Olvaren: Ariste Noll, owner of the Gray Pale Inn.

From here, the rest is history: at age ten, Aeo started an unquenchable magickal fire that burned down the Gray Pale and many neighboring buildings before fleeing up Mount Falas alone. How he survived on his own without freezing is unknown. What is known is that he returned to Olvaren under the care of a very wealthy Ashanti alchemist named Leon Sirelu, who offered complete reparations to the small village in return for Aeo’s freedom. After traveling to the Everspring Academy in Ashant with Leon, he became an apprentice in the Academy, but made few friends with the exception of the Ashanti humil Liam Terelle.

Education

Apprentice at Everspring Academy. He learns to excel at fire magick and energy manipulation, including personal shielding and minor matter transmutation. He consistently fails at alchemy, despite Leon’s encouragement, assistance, and practically limitless access to ingredients.

Accomplishments & Achievements

Aeo is one of the few Edian slaves to brave the Falas Mountains and survive. While he didn’t cross them per se, the fact that he endured the cold earned him a reputation as a survivor at the Academy. Combined with his rare talents in fire destruction and energy manipulation, his teachers praise him as a star pupil.

Mental Trauma

Due to his rough upbringing where even the slightest mistake meant physical or verbal abuse, Aeo doesn’t think highly of his own abilities and has become his own worst critic. Even at the best of times, his ability to manipulate fire frightens him. Ever since the fire at the Grey Pale, he has developed an acute fear of losing control of his powers. Lacking a clear understanding of the visions he experiences combined with the potency of his magick, he finds himself holding back and even purposely making mistakes to avoid letting loose and losing control.

This fear is soon replaced with intense anger, sparked by bullying, discrimination, slavery, and violence. The visions he experiences intensify this anger and loosen his control of his abilities, making him incredibly dangerous when provoked. After these intense outbursts, no matter the friends around him, he will withdraw inside himself and shut out the world. Abused by others as a child, Aeo becomes his own worst mental enemy.

Intellectual Characteristics

Aeo is a bright boy. Unfortunately, for someone who took an endless amount of direction as a slave, Aeo is stubborn in learning through experience. During his time at the Academy, Aeo spends much of his time learning how to read, discovering freedom in education. Aeo’s capacity to learn quickly is readily apparent. However, when it comes time to practice what he’s been taught, he often fails to accurately follow instruction, choosing to learn through trial and error, much to the vexation of his teachers.

Although a bit naive and not book-learned, Aeo is bright enough to know when someone is taking advantage of his friends or his good nature. As a child, Aeo would simply stop speaking to the offender and walk away. But as a young man, Aeo learns how to hold his ground and resist abuse. In fact, he’s more likely than not to lose his cool than keep it.

Morality & Philosophy

Despite his low self-esteem and shy nature growing up, Aeo is a kind soul at heart. He will do almost anything for the friends that support him, especially for Leon (whom he considers a surrogate father). But if there is a single issue that riles his temper, it’s the sight of someone powerful dominating the will of someone weak and helpless. He witnesses injustice between the Antielli and the Edians everywhere, even at Everspring Academy where both nationalities study and learn together.

As with most abused children, Aeo is fearful of speaking or acting out no matter how cruel others treat him. As a young man, however, while still hesitant to use his powers, at times he strikes terror within himself and everyone around him when he chooses to lash out at his oppressors. The urge to answer violence for violence is sometimes overwhelming, and his only balance are those who keep him company.

Social

Family Ties

Aeo initially has no idea where he comes from or who his family might be, beyond the fact that he knows he was born in the Edian capitol city of Aurion. He does learn his last name from a mysterious source after rescuing his mentor from a terrible fate.

Wealth & Financial State

Aeo himself has few worldly possessions besides his school supplies and clothing, but Leon’s seemingly endless access to finances enables Aeo to enjoy luxuries he never thought existed at the Grey Pale, including temperate weather, Ashanti liliko fruit (and its wonderful juice), ayvasilk clothing, and comfortable shoes.

While traveling or adventuring, Aeo carries a walking staff, wears a short hunting dagger at his hip, and carries a leather rucksack on his back filled with spare clothing and a few days’ worth of rations and water. He also wears an alchemist’s toolbelt filled with six vials of purified Everspring water and an Ashanti signal pellet. If traveling in Antiell in particular, he also carries his Academy apprenticeship badge as proof of his residency (as well as proving that he is a free Edian).

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I’ve been working hard on getting my story ideas out of my head, as well as ‘working’ to play some new games that I think anybody would be excited to try. That being said, sorry for another fiction info dump from World Anvil. I would like to space these out a bit more, especially considering how large some of these subjects can be. Maybe I’ll focus on details that aren’t as enormous as main characters and nations, like artifacts or history. Aw, who am I kidding, it’s all enormous.

This is why I consider it such a challenge to write fiction. I don’t start simple. But, then again, I like the blogging format for portions of short stories, all based in the same universe and story. So I’ll just keep chugging along until someone tells me to stop.

Anyway, an additional note: you’ll likely find more art on my World Anvil pages because I don’t want to get in trouble with artists here at my blog. I still don’t understand how sites like Pinterest and Tumblr don’t get sued by artists when art gets posted without their permission. I’ll say it again; if I ever post someone else’s work, I’ll do my best to source it, even I source it to Pinterest or Deviantart. More than likely, my fiction posts will have fewer images.