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.

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!

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.

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.

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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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!

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Unga-bunga.

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I want to redo this one. 😀

griffon

Weeeee!!

monster

Ooooohhh! Ghosty-goo!

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I’d love to make it a history lesson.

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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!

Backstage Tales – Goopy Fish

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So… My house is filled with many different art and ceramics projects, most of them decorative slab containers that my mom wanted to keep because they’re cute reminders of us kiddies when we were in elementary and junior high. Last week, however, I caught sight of this little guy, which was sculpted by my sister in junior high… and I knew exactly what I had to do.

His name is officially Goopy Fish, for I have named him this way. All my sisters think I should start an Instagram for this little ceramic fish, and I’m contemplating adding it to my weekly workload.

So, I started small:

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That’s no moon. It’s a Goopy Fish. The ultimate destructive power in the universe that just wants a lick of your ice cream.

This is my first Star Wars hologram. Not too shabby, right? Shoot, I was going to link to the tutorial, but I’ve lost it. But thank you, Pattern Tool!

So what was next? Well, naturally:

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There’s no boulder chase scene after this. Indy just gets buried in three tons of wet trout.

Okay, I could have done a better job on this one; I went a bit crazy with the Clone Stamp tool in the background, there. I might redo it in the future.

So I’m thinking, okay, movies about fish. Oh! Simple!

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He just wants to lick all over ya. Frightening and suggestive. Not suitable for all audiences.

Too easy? Yeah, I agree. But I was able to find the Jaws font, so that’s pretty cool.

My mind was still settled on movies, so where else could I take Mr. Goopy?

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Hello, Clarice. Have you met my pet fish? I think you’ll find his appetite for your company quite… voracious.

I can’t tell you how much of a nightmare it was trying to remove the moth while smoothing out her skin in the complex shadows. I couldn’t use Goopy Fish to completely cover every mistake, or else it would cover her nose. I think this one turned out pretty well.

Found the font for The Silence of the Lambs, too. Pretty metal.

Then I thought: okay, what if Goopy Fish found his way into the art world?

Seurat

I’m sorry, Mr. Seurat. Though I’ve seen worse intrusions in your style.

How many Goopy Fish can you see? I think it’s hilarious for Goopy Fish to be beached and playing with a small puppy. That puppy is going to get his head gobbled immediately.

And then this one just made me laugh:

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Sacré bleu! C’est du poisson britannique! Fuyons!

Bwahahaha!! I love the horse’s shocked expression. I’d be pretty shocked if fish rained from the sky all singing “God Save the King” in perfect unison, too. You can’t see the singing, obviously, but it is happening.

There will be more Goopy Fish in the future! Photoshopping him is just too much fun!

 

Backstage Tales – Bethesda’s E3

It’s time, boys and girls!! How was that concert by Andrew W. K.?! Awkward enough for you? It also looked like many of the presenters were a little bit flustered. All except for Todd Howard, which really knows how to work a crowd. Oh well. I’d be freaked out to present in front of rabid fan gamers too. So which games am I looking forward to?

RAGE 2: It looks okay. The gameplay looked a little rushed and “presented”, but the open world experience and vehicle combat reminds me a lot of Borderlands and Fallout combined. We’ll see how it turns out. I won’t be pre-ordering it, but I’ll probably pick it up at some point.

Elder Scrolls Online: Wolfhunter and Mirkmire! I also will be playing Summerset later on this month and reviewing the main story once I play through it.

DOOM Eternal: Ooh! Sequel! Can’t wait to see it at QuakeCon! I need to play the 2016 version and review it.

Quake Champions: Eh. Maybe. From what I’ve seen, it does look okay. Unique heroes and their abilities will add something awesome to the mix.

Prey Mooncrash: DLC available now, you say? Ooh. It might make me pick it up.

Wolfenstein Youngblood: Twin daughters! Co-op! Cool! I’ve never been a Wolfenstein guy, but I should give the games a try. I’ve watched them all the cutscenes on Youtube, and it looks like a good time.

We’re all here for Todd Howard! And the moment you’ve all been waiting for:

SKYRIM ON EVERYTHING.

Oh, wait. No, that’s not right.

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Woo! Pip-Boy 2000!

Fallout 76: West Virginia! November 14, 2018!

Okay, the online-always aspect of the game is really concerning. This means a rocky first few weeks of gameplay when the servers won’t be able to handle the load. This also naturally means no mods beyond Bethesda’s own (it may also mean people with money for Fallout 76’s Creation Club can power themselves up over other players with exotic gear, but I’m 75% sure Bethesda is aware of how bad this would look and function in game). They showed footage of someone wielding a machine gun going against someone with a rocket launcher. What if I start up a new game and find I’m in a “server” with half a dozen “level 50” players looking to grief the newbie vault dwellers? The reason I don’t play Call of Duty is that I’m not talented in the gunplay department. Does this mean they’re going to dumb down the weapons and increase the effect of armor and the HP bar to create the illusion of fairness, removing player skill and turning everyone into a bullet sponge? Do they plan on balancing servers based on player level? If that’s the case, I don’t think I’d like to play on “level 50” servers where everyone is in X-01 power armor and nothing but a team of four equally power-leveled players with Fat Men will get rid of them… Or everyone has found the Chinese Stealth Suit and you get backstabbed every ten minutes.

Todd Howard said the game can be played solo but will be “easier” with a group. Well, yeah, sure. I’ll be shocked if anyone besides supremely talented solo players will be able to infiltrate the heavily infested nuclear launch sites dotted across the map and actually launch nukes. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s what the beta is for: to determine the balance between teams and solo players. Okay, game progression goes with you in death, so no douchebag is going to be stealing my weapons. But there’s going to have to be a robust respawn system that will enable me to respawn close to avoid having to travel halfway across West Virginia when a team of four jerks show up, all wielding Shishkebabs.

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Took his arm off with a revolution-era pistol and then demolished his head execution-style. Against a missile launcher?

It’s Bethesda. There’s a story. That’s what I’m playing for. If I have to struggle over ten other players — or worse, multiple groups of four players — to complete story mode quest objectives, then I’m going to cry. Bounties are intriguing, sure. But I want to option to turn off PVP. I’m not a raider, and I never play as one. Will other players be alerted of my presence and receive a bounty notice to come after me if I get too close? Or just if I attack? Can players be set to neutral? If I get a mile into a dungeon just to get gangbanged by a team of twelve-year-olds with pipe rifles and frag grenades, I reserve the right to be pissed.

Will I be building my base (all in real time) or upgrading a bunch of neat guns I just found only to get blown away by a sniper? Does the settlement system serve a purpose like it does in Fallout 4, i.e. rebuilding a faction and settling down? Or is it all temporary and I’ll have to rebuild or resettle parts of it in a new location if I want to get my bearings and rest? The apparent temporary nature of settlements with the C.A.M.P. device doesn’t appeal to me if that’s the case.

Is there a fast travel system? With a map four times the size of Fallout 4, surely this is the case. But always being online doesn’t make this seem very fair. If I can build literally anywhere (that’s not irradiated, obviously), you just know some team of “level 50” douchenozzles plan on setting up their bases in front of story-critical dungeons and covering them with auto-turrets, daring any low-level player or team to fast travel in. That’s what griefers would do for fun, right? Impede others from enjoying a game? Do I have the right to identify these “raiders” from afar with my sniper rifle and put up a high bounty with my own caps to entice others to band with me to break the blockade? Is that what I’ll be expected to be doing for fun in the endgame? Breaking up other players’ camps? Can this be accomplished at all as a solo player beyond X-01 and Fat Man-ing it up? Either by a Fat Man or an ICBM, getting destroyed in nuclear fire while I’m trying to enjoy myself doesn’t seem particularly rewarding.

Beast of Grafton

The wildlife does intrigue me, however. In fact, almost everything but the multiplayer aspect of Fallout 76 intrigues me.

In MMOs, I know the rules. PVP is often optional. Playing with friends is never an issue. But this is a totally different beast. I’m more worried than optimistic at this point that I’ll have to concern myself more with my friend’s online availability than my own skill and time to enjoy this upcoming Fallout game. Don’t even get me started on how immersion-breaking it will be to come up against xxxSephiroth6969xxx in a one-on-one gauss rifle staring contest. But I’ve worried about this kind of thing coming to pass ever since I entered the Fallout franchise. Do I trust Bethesda to overcome some of these problems? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is the fact that this beta will certainly iron things out, and I recognize why they’re calling for one.

EDIT EDIT: Dead video, so I linked to reputable ones. More info! Mods and private servers, just not at launch. Okay. Okay. I’m liking this. Oxhorn is the man, by the way. Check him out if you have any questions about the lore of Fallout.

Elder Scrolls: Blades: Sure, why not? Okay, actually, I now think I’m more interested now that I’m aware of a PC version.

Starfield: IT’S A THING!!

Elder Scrolls VI: IT’S A THING!!

So yeah, all in all, quite the E3 presentation. More questions and concerns than answers from me at this point. And Poor Andrew W. K. Probably not the best audience he’s ever had.

Backstage Tales – The Illusion of An Endless World

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For game designers, I understand the desire to fill your game world with as much content as you can possibly cram on the disk (or the digital download). After all, you never want your players to feel like you’ve sold them half a game. This can lead to a lot of development time planning quests, writing dialogue, writing scripts for enemies to appear at the right times and places, and possibly even preparing branching paths and establishing consequences for player choice. Even if you have a triple-A video game company’s worth of manpower, I also understand the desire to invest in R&R for systems that can automate this lengthy process.

Bethesda’s solution for ensuring their games last even longer than their expansive quest list would suggest is their Radiant quest system. Whenever you play with certain factions in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Fallout 4, you may notice that some NPCs grant you repeatable missions that you can enjoy over and over to your heart’s content. These quests will involve you traveling to a location and killing everything hostile there, finding some item and returning it, escorting an NPC to a location and returning, killing a random friendly NPC in a town without being caught by guards, etc. etc.

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Hi, Mommy! I wuv you!

For completing these quests, you’ll get a moderate amount of gold or caps as well as (in Fallout 4’s case) a small amount of experience. Some notable Radiant quests include the Jarl’s bounties on dragons and bandits, the Night Mother’s assassination missions for the Dark Brotherhood, gathering Shalidor’s writings for the College of Winterhold, escorting Brotherhood squires to locations around the Commonwealth, and the ever-present “another settlement needs your help” Minutemen quests.

Normally, asking for a game to have less content doesn’t sound sensible. Never having to set down Skyrim or Fallout 4 sounds great on paper.

But man, I hate the Radiant quest system.

As this Redditor points out, Bethesda doesn’t ever want to let you off the roller-coaster. I realize that for any game developer, wanting your players to play as often as possible can only be good for sales numbers. Although I’d like to see a solid study between total player playtime and total Skyrim: Special Edition sales, it’s apparent that replayability is vital. I get it. Bethesda wants us to play their games for as long as humanly possible. We’ve already discussed my extensive hours in Bethesda games; I think their focus on replayability is the only reason Bethesda’s execs allowed the modding scene to become as large as it has with attempting to completely control and monetize it.

As clunky as the Creation Club is, imagine if it were the only modding option we had. But I digress.

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Horse power armor. Ugh. The only reason I have it was because they made it free a while ago.

My first complaint about the Radiant system: it’s not readily apparent which quests have significance to progression and unique rewards and which don’t. I was shocked to discover that the Randolph Safehouse Radiant missions for the Railroad in Fallout 4 actually do have an “ending” of sorts, as well as a rarer armor mod reward for finishing them all. The quests, however, even take place in Far Harbor; why would a secretive Boston-based synth-rescuing cell of operatives even need to be in Maine in the first place? And don’t tell me it’s because they know about Acadia, because isn’t the sole survivor (if siding with the Railroad) the first agent to discover the sanctuary and report on it? I’m digressing again.

But only partially, because my second complaint about the Radiant system is the fact that these quests can send you to almost any location in Skyrim and the Commonwealth. The first time I met with Scribe Haylen in a new playthrough after installing the Far Harbor DLC, she sent me to retrieve technology from the Vim! Pop factory. I was level five, I believe; I hadn’t even met Nick Valentine, the detective upon which the whole intro to the DLC is based, and I wasn’t going to visit Far Harbor for quite a while. According to the Fallout wiki, this is a bug. I have a hard time believing they didn’t do it on purpose. Even if it was an oversight, the fact that Radiant quests can send you to far-flung parts of the map long before you’ll have the equipment and weapons to explore the area much less complete the mission can make these missions sit in your journal or pip-boy unfinished for a long time.

In fact, the locations sometimes make absolutely no sense, as if certain Radiant quests were designed to appear confusing. What will likely be your first Minuteman settlement mission asks you to travel to Tenpines Bluff and help them. They complain that the raiders at the Corvega factory are stealing food from them on a regular basis. You mean to tell me that the raiders at the much closer Outpost Zimonja (whose boss has a Fat Man and power armor) aren’t a more immediate threat, considering the raiders at Corvega would have to walk through or clear around the very-ghoul-infested Lexington just to get to you? And you haven’t been troubled by the raiders at USAF Satellite Station Olivia at all? I somehow doubt Corvega is your most immediate problem.

Tenpines_Bluff

It’s a terrible settlement location, too. So there.

Third, Radiant quests have no effect on the game as a whole. They don’t. In fact, they make the game stagnate. There is little narrative developed by escorting Brotherhood squires for Kells, collecting technical documents for Quinlan, or “acquiring” food for Teagan. No increase in Brotherhood rank, no settlement or resource opportunities, no perks, nothing of note beyond caps (which are plentiful by the end of the game), possible companion affinity (when working with Paladin Danse), and a measly amount of experience.

You know what would be a really neat idea for those Brotherhood squire escort missions? If, when I had taken enough of the little tykes out to slay their first deathclaws, Sergeant Kells took me aside and asked the Sole Survivor to become the permanent mentor to a squire companion of my choosing (an invincible Atreus who could learn a valuable lesson about synths from becoming friends with a certain diminutive synth in the post-story). How about if, when I had procured enough technical documents for Proctor Quinlan, he allowed me a glimpse at the research he was performing and gave me schematics for constructing advanced plasma or tesla turrets for the Sole Survivor’s settlements? What if, when the Sole Survivor had “borrowed” food from enough settlements on behalf of Proctor Teagan, a small farmer-led riot would happen on the doorsteps of the Boston Airport, and the Sole Survivor would be ordered to “take care” of the crowd – through force or reasoning?

Most important of all, what if my standing in the Brotherhood could develop through the completion of these quests? Fallout: New Vegas’s reputation system would serve well here. I’m not expecting the game to let the Sole Survivor take Elder Maxon’s place; I rather prefer Bethesda’s decision that you can’t become the ruler of the Brotherhood through a coup. But I think it would be an experience-enhancing feature of the game if the Sole Survivor, after going through all of these Radiant quests for reputation, got the chance to make some game-affecting choices.

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These kids get the cool flak jackets. I want a cool flak jacket.

Extrapolating further, what if Radiant quest reputation could stack? There’s something New Vegas and even the 2D Fallouts didn’t really do. What if, because of his or her reputation as a leader in the Brotherhood and the Minutemen, the two factions formed an official alliance, and the Sole Survivor’s first task would be making one of the many settlements he’s founded become the manufacturing arm for Brotherhood power armor or weapons? Granted, this would require a spotless reputation record from the Brotherhood to trust you with those level of schematics and probably a required number of established Minuteman settlements to be able to “produce” the facilities. But from then on, the Sole Survivor would have the ability to create power armor and laser weapons (maybe even plasma) at unique crafting stations. Heck, you could “minimize the Brotherhood’s potential casualties” (as Quinlan would say) and give the Minutemen access to the same heavy arms and armor for the infiltration of the Institute at the end of the main story. Not only would this combination of faction strengths fill in the unanswered question of how the Brotherhood replaced all the T-45s with T-60s in between Fallout 3 and 4, it would put the player in a fun and unique position based on their time spent with each faction.

You could easily come up with similar combinations of the Railroad/Minutemen (becoming a heavily-fortified synth refuge) or Institute/Minutemen (a settlement staging point for coursers and synth expeditions). Obviously, Brotherhood/Railroad wouldn’t work, and Brotherhood/Institute is right out. But a Minutemen/Diamond City alliance could produce a lot of caps in trade (might have to happen after the main story when Mayor McDonough is deposed) and a Vault 81/anyone could provide a steady supply of stimpacks, antibiotics, and radiation-free food, just to set a few examples.

I use Fallout 4 as a better example of how the Radiant quest system failed because, in Skyrim, it felt like the system was in its infancy. Radiant quests could have had such a larger impact on Fallout 4.  I truly hope Bethesda finds a better system for creating “endless” content. If they must continue to use the Radiant quest system in the upcoming Fallout 76 and other future titles, I hope they develop it to the point where these types of quests serve a greater purpose and no longer feel repetitive.

All I’m saying is that the Radiant system could have had so much more meat on its bones. I admit, I know nothing of Fallout 4 modding, but I’m surprised very few mods have messed around with the effects of Radiant system quests… Well, except for mods that mark them as such or disable them entirely. Interesting that such a “vital” system to replayability makes Fallout 4 really… Oh, what are the right words?

Oh yeah. Unimmersive. Boring. And worst of all, a waste of time.

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When your “feature” gets modded out, something screwed up.

Backstage Tales – God Games: Imposters in the Pantheon

How does one program a God?

Yikes, religion on the internet!

Ha, funny. I’m talking about god games, simulators that give you power over a worldspace or the creatures and elements within it, typically on a massive scale. It could include such features as mass terraforming, devastating ‘miracles’ that can be seen as good or bad depending on the target, development of said powers from simple to overwhelming, and maybe even helping supplicants and acolytes grow to the top of the pack.

“A Mighty God Was He (or She)…”

I have very fond memories of Populous: The Beginning, one of the first god games I ever enjoyed. You start off with a shaman, the head honcho of the tribe through which miracles and spells are cast, and you wander the solar system gathering followers to increase your power and influence. If people won’t join you (as they follow other gods and their shaman can unleash the same powers as you can), it’s up to you to convert or destroy them. No peaceful coexistence in this universe. Your powers in this game ranged from summoning hordes of stinging insects to directing tornadoes to incinerating entire villages in fiery volcanoes. I’ll never forget that at the end of the game, you finally have enough power as a god to do the spell casting yourself without a range limit, and the resulting destruction of your enemies is incredibly satisfying.

You know, I never understood how the ‘swamp’ spell meant instant death to anyone who walked through it. Invisible crocodiles? Fast-acting trench-foot? Psh, I dunno, but man, it made for an effective deterrent.

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What a quaint village. Would be a shame if something… happened to it while the shaman is away.

I then played a game later in my childhood called Black and White, a game made by one of my favorite now-defunct studios, Lionhead Studios. Admittedly, I really couldn’t get into this game. At all. Why in the world would an all-powerful god put so much time and effort into training a giant creature who, for all intents and purposes, does nothing but annoy your villagers, cause property damage, and poop everywhere? I’m sure they can be trained to not do that, as I have seen insisted on many a website touting the game as a masterpiece. I never got very far in the game because I couldn’t figure out what to do with the leashes and my creature would inevitably go off and cause trouble, getting itself killed in the process (despite me nailing its super-extendo-leash to a tree near my village).

Interesting that this game is yet to make a debut on GOG.com or anywhere digitally. Sad day. (Not that I would buy it again. I distinctly remember having terrible troubles with it on my first PC… A trend that future Lionhead Studios games would follow.)

So What Changed?

So, getting both good and bad as a kid, why do I believe that god games like Populous still haven’t tapped an incredibly deep well of potential?

It’s because of how broad of a subject ‘god games’ have become these days.

If you search on Steam under the tag ‘god games’, you’re going to see a lot of different types of games, from RTS (like War for the Overworld) to sandbox games (Like Universe Sandbox) and even casual pixel games (like The Sandbox). Spore and its expansions are on this list, and while I could make a joke about a ‘god game’ featuring evolution, I’ll skip it. They even have the gall to put in the glorified screensaver that is Mountain, and the philosophical Everything. Games that I would consider to truly be ‘god games’ (complete with the spiritual and mystical aspect, the miracles, and the followers) are often not well received, with the good ones showing up few and far between (good examples are Reus, which I plan on reviewing soon, and From Dust, which is an excellent game despite belonging to Ubisoft and their terrible Uplay system). I don’t like this broad idea that if the game gives you complete control over your own little population or worldspace, it’s automatically a ‘god game’. If so, that makes Civilization or Endless Space 2 ‘god games’. It makes Planetary Annihilation a ‘god game’. It makes The Sims a ‘god game’.

These aren’t ‘god games’. Strategy, yes, but not ‘god games’.

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In From Dust, you play as a god. Ergo, this is a ‘god game’.

A Simulated Example

But this doesn’t mean ‘god games’ have to always be large-scale fire-and-brimstone destruction-fests. Let’s shrink the concept of the all-powerful ‘god game’. Imagine if The Sims were still all about the home-building and decorating, but you had no control over your sims in the slightest. What if they lived their own lives based on a list of their likes and dislikes, developed relationships with other sims all by themselves, and developed their skills without any input from you? Sounds boring? (As boring as Mountain? I digress.) Well, what if, as some malevolent or benevolent spirit or ‘god’, you could become the sim’s conscience? What if you could ‘train’ your sims to take a unique path through their lives, being the angel (or devil) on their shoulder as they live day-to-day?

What if they could ignore you if you gave them a command that didn’t match their ‘code of ethics’? This could be for good or evil, as simple as influencing a child sim to disobey their parents or as complicated as attempting to persuade a burglar sim to give back his hard-earned loot. What if, through your subtle influence, you earned enough ‘god points’ to start influencing your sims in more supernatural ways, such as through dreams, through strange ‘coincidences’… or perhaps through frightening ‘bumps’ in the night? These could give major bonuses towards future life goals, and grant convictions, changes of habit, or even phobias. What if your sim came into a choice that happened because of your influence that could change their course forever, maybe even other sims’ life courses, and they didn’t have the ‘attributes’ necessary to make the ‘correct’ choice, for good or ill?

What if you could drive your sim to become a shining beacon of humanity? Or drive them into an insane asylum after hearing self-destructive voices?

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Yes, a wholesome modern family, with a spirit from the netherworld influencing their every thought and choice. Doesn’t sound too far from the original game, to be honest.

Okay, maybe only I’m intrigued by this new Sims game. Maybe this sounds too similar to the actual game. Maybe it would give a programmer an aneurysm. But you have to admit, it’s an interesting idea that giving the player less control over their subjects can simultaneously give them more in terms of results variation. This could lead to the possibility of more replayability because of unexpected and entertaining results. This isn’t even talking about actual religious doctrine, although I suppose it could be seen that way. I see it as more of a balance between total player control (which is fun for a moment but doesn’t last long) and a complete uncontrollable game of chance (which is fun until you don’t win). And it’s all about maintaining the fun factor.

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My, aren’t you rotund.

A Line of Separation

In my opinion, ‘god games’ put a fine line of separation between the player and his subjects. In Populous, if you lose your shaman, you couldn’t cast miracles until she respawned. In From Dust, you don’t have a mystical ‘hand of god’ to save your subjects from floods of water and fire; you can issue simple commands, but you have to bend the elements to protect your followers and wait for them to brave the treacherous wilds themselves to reach relics and settlement beacons which strengthen your miracles. I think this is where Black and White went wrong for me: it put one too many lines in between the player and the population in the form of an annoying giant mascot. A good ‘god game’ will balance the influence the player has with the characters onscreen, not too separated that the player feels like they have absolutely no control, but enough that it doesn’t become ‘The Sims’ where the player can control everything. You can ‘simulate’ being a god, but not every strategy game is a ‘god game’.

Does that shrink the genre into obscurity? Maybe it does. But I think people want a ‘god game’ with this philosophy in mind, one with some element of choice and ethical dilemmas, but one with a fine line of separation that makes the game rewarding and challenging. Breaking my own rules, you can see how excited audiences were for the very recent release of Frostpunk, a game where you have to make life-or-death decisions for a population living in a steampunk arctic hell. I’m surprised that isn’t a ‘god game’, according to Steam. (I want to review it as well, it looks ridiculously difficult.) I would love a ‘god game’ that limited your influence over a small isolated community to small ‘miracles’ that grew more powerful as faith in you increased. One where morality could go either way.

And yeah, I’m going to say it: maybe someday we’ll get a god game that isn’t hyped to hell by Peter Molyneux. *cough* Godus. *cough* Spore. *cough* *sneeze violently*

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I’m ashamed of how much game time I have in Godus. Like all ‘Molyneux Specials’, I didn’t know it by its reputation before I bought it.

I want to see another really good god game like Populous appear again. A more complex From Dust with enemy tribes and tough decisions to make, maybe. Different belief systems and powers related to them. A few of the other games under the ‘god games’ tag in Steam look intriguing enough to make me want to take a look, so maybe in the future, you’ll see a god game review where I adjust my perceptions of the genre. Until then, I’ll take any suggestions on how I can change my viewpoint, as I feel disappointed in my love for this very specific niche itch I can’t scratch.