Theories of a Gamer – Ambiguously Unambiguous Evil

gravekeeperhero_0

I’m not quite ready to give a full review of Graveyard Keeper by Lazy Bear Games; I’m about eight hours in, and I can’t stop playing. Just know that I’m missing a lot of time in Minecraft and Final Fantasy XIV performing autopsies, burying “sinless” corpses in the local graveyard, throwing “sinful” corpses into the river, and giving sermons at the local church in the hopes that someday mods will be developed that make this already very engrossing game perfect.

So yeah, I guess that’s a good early review, at least.

I’ve never played a game that gives you the gameplay options it does without throwing out the following message in nearly any way:

randomfalloutthingsswedeniamdoingthingsagainsweden_8ba6c6_6193365

I say nearly because the main character, the titular graveyard keeper, upon learning what his job entitled (namely, the dismemberment and disembowelment of human corpses in order to dispose of them) complains about it. Just once, though. After that, you, the player, are free to harvest all that meat, blood, bone, and brain matter to your heart’s content (and the corpse’s heart’s content, too, don’t forget those). No need to worry, however. It’s all in the name of… SCIENCE. Besides, they’re dead; they’re not going to need all those entrails and flesh. Why not put them to better use instead?

If you’re at all familiar with Fallout 3, you might remember the story of the little town of Andale and the families that lived there: not only were the only two remaining families incredibly inbred, but their source of food in that dark urban wasteland was none other than the visitors and raiders that happened upon the small collection of still-standing homes and shacks. Don’t agree with the lifestyle the residents of Andale enjoy? Don’t worry, you’ll soon change your mind… once they invite you to dinner.

You get one but two trope/memes out of Andale: “DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT” and “STAY OUT OF MY SHED” (specifically SHED.MOV, NSFW but entertaining). Choosing the “good” ending for Andale ends with defending yourself from these well-dressed and well-mannered knife-wielding maniacs.

The Wanderer: “Bring home the bacon? Those are people, not bacon! What the f-ck?”

Jack Smith: “Hey! I’ll have none of that language in this house!”

The Wanderer: “I can’t believe I’m being called a potty mouth by a cannibal…”

Jack Smith: “Okay, that’s it. I warned you. Now I’m going to sock your jaw, mister.”

maxresdefault

Mmm, strange meat.

Unfortunately for Jack, his wife, and his neighbors, death by the Wanderer’s combat shotgun and his companion Charon ensues. Yes, that’s the “good” ending, the murder (admittedly in slightly self-defense) of all the cannibal adults. The two children go to live with their grandpa Old Man Harris (yes, they are cousins, and they were set to be married once they grew up, meaning their parents were siblings, incest did in fact occur…). From one point of view (the karma-aligned “good” choice), these children will grow up as normal as one can in the Wasteland without the influence of their cannibalistic lineage. But at the same time, while the parent’s crimes were great, these children are left bereft of their parents in a very unforgiving world without a source of food, employment, or protection. Would Old Man Harris and the children abandon Andale? Likely, if only to distance themselves from their destructive heritage. Will they move to Rivet City or Megaton for protection? Likely, as Andale is fairly remote and dangerous for an old man and two kids. Will they all have trouble integrating into normal society? Very likely; the only contact with the outside world the children had was with visitors that disappeared pretty quickly and reappeared as a breakfast menu item.

Of course, the binary karma system of Fallout 3 doesn’t take into account many of these particulars, and time constraints in game design mean the family never moves away from Andale in-game, despite how little sense it makes to remain there. In Black-And-White-Land, cannibals = bad and dead cannibals = good, no matter the other consequences.

Old Man Harris: “Better an orphan than a cannibal I guess?”

Graveyard Keeper, on the other hand… is definitely not Stardew Valley.

Right after learning how to butcher- er, autopsy a corpse, you’ll learn how to cook! And what’s the first thing you’ll learn how to cook? Baked meat! And where does this baked meat come from?

…th-the corpses!?

2018-05-28-14

Just don’t tell ’em you’ve turned into a cannibal. Keep that on the way down low.

Worse, you learn that the village for which you gravekeep is in the midst of a meat shortage, and the only way you could sell meat is if you had a royal stamp proving that it was well-sourced and fit for human consumption. After all, there’s been rumors going around of someone forging a stamp and selling suspicious meat… and we wouldn’t want to be caught selling strange meat, would we? No, especially since everyone’s pretty sure the Graveyard Keeper doesn’t own livestock! Haha! No, we wouldn’t want that, would we?

But we can. That’s a thing you can do in Graveyard Keeper. Not only are you encouraged to chop up and eat corpse meat (for a guy from the present day looking to return to his own time, he sure takes to cannibalism like a duck to water), you can “disguise” the meat with a royal stamp and sell it to the tavern owner as “legit” packaged meat for a pretty good profit. And as long as you toss the bodies into the river or cremate them afterwards, the bodies from which you procure the meat won’t spoil your pristine graveyard with all their icky red skull “sins”.

And you get all of this without a single hint of this:

I’m not sure which is worse: Fallout 3 with its ambiguous and overly-simplistic expressions of morality, or Graveyard Keeper with its unambiguous uncomplaining evil that would become obvious to even the most ignorant villager if they tailed behind the graveyard keeper for even half a day. In Fallout, you can choose to be a raider or a slaver, and spend all day slapping slave collars around the necks of children and the elderly. You can murder almost every NPC you meet. These are things you can do. In Graveyard Keeper, you can strip the skin off of the recently deceased and refine it into sheets of paper upon which you can write a church sermon to present to your ignorant congregation. You can turn human flesh into delicious burgers that restore your energy. These are things you can do.

But one game tells you what you’re doing is evil and one doesn’t. Two important questions: should a game alert you when you’re doing “bad” things? And should the game be responsible for telling the player what they’re doing is evil?

#1: I don’t think so.

#2: I believe so, to a point. What that point is depends on the message the game wants to send. And Graveyard Keeper is anything but a solemn soul-searching narrative of inner darkness.

Of course, Fallout 3 and Graveyard Keeper are two entirely different beasts, and not entirely comparable. But I find it fascinating how cannibalism in Fallout is a trait that must be sought out and used, all consequences be damned… And in Graveyard Keeper, it’s pretty much acknowledged from the beginning that harvesting meat from the dead is a good and expected way to make money. Is this lack of a “morality system” a fault on GK’s part? Or is the ambiguity the only thing that separates it from Stardew Valley and other resource management and crafting games?

I’m not sure! But time willing, the game’s review will be my next blog!

My 10-Hour Tale – Endless Sky

20180608173636_1

Release Date: October 2015

System: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (Steam)

As you walk down your loading ramp into the anchorage of the Helheim starport, the musky smell of fusion coolant and greasy off-world cuisine fills your nostrils. Filled with about two dozen similarly-sized if not similarly-designed freighters, you immediately sense anxiety in the air as your eyes scan the port for the delivery office. Dozens of cargo containers line the edge of the dock, makeshift homes for a crowd of miners looking to find their fortunes excavating this toxic volcanic world.

Good thing you aren’t looking for work yourself. Many of these young men have probably been waiting for weeks to get a mining permit or join a crew. It isn’t that the dangerous mining jobs are scarce; it’s no doubt the mountain of legal paperwork, performing physicals, and collecting hastily filled-out medical and insurance waivers that makes the entire hiring process run like molasses.

To your surprise, three young men in port authority uniforms approach, two of them picking up and carrying a large fueling hose towards your ship and one stepping towards you with a digital ship log in his hands. You’ve never seen a starport with such prompt ship service, especially one as busy as this.

“I.S. Faulknor, registration number 281-79-AS675. You’re Captain Elizabeth Oren, correct?”

You nod and reach your hand to shake his. His hands don’t move from the clipboard. In fact, his eyes don’t quite match up with yours.

“You have the twenty tons of medical supplies we requested from the Delta Velorum system, correct? I’ll have my men confirm your delivery logs. Follow me.”

The uniformed man turns without waiting for a response, walking roughly towards what you hope is the dock delivery office. You follow behind him, instinctively reaching to check that the blaster at your hip is still there. It is.

20180515153835_1

Hyperspace! Weeee!

The uniformed man leads you through the crowd of desperate and bored miners. You notice that many of these would-be miners look a lot younger than legal working age, and give you, the sharp-looking and (some would say) good-looking starship captain, a look of curiosity and interest. At the very least, you’ve taken a shower in the last 48 hours – many of the miners looking at you look and smell like they never have. The stares get more pointed and even indignant as you follow the uniformed man past the city entrance gate and the long job lines.

You ask your new companion why delivery confirmation would be done outside of the starport. He doesn’t respond immediately.

“My… My supervisor is off-duty but said wanted to speak with you the moment you landed. Please follow me. You will be paid after you speak with him.”

You struggle to maintain a straight, unassuming face, despite the fact that the young uniformed man isn’t watching you. He picks up his step, looking over his shoulder every couple of moments, not at you, but for someone or something else.

The entrance of Helheim looks nothing like the bustling starport. Instead of sprawling lines and crowds, you see only a few tired people and rusting bots stalking the streets. Large refuse trucks collect trash, dirty government offices line the streets, and smokestacks of the refineries smolder down the road ahead of you. You pass alleyway after alleyway, each one dustier and more filled with heaps of slag and garbage than the last. Unsurprisingly, your young friend turns into one of these alleyways ahead of you, not stopping to check if you are still following. Before you can call out to him, you feel something sharp press against the small of your back.

“Captain Oren, I presume,” says a deep somewhat mechanical voice behind you. “I wouldn’t move if I were you. I have two snipers hidden up above on rooftops watching your every move, and we wouldn’t want any accidents to happen, would we? If you would kindly remove your blaster belt… with your blaster on safety, mind… and give it to me, I would be much obliged.”

You sigh, unclipping your belt. You ask the figure if he disarms all the pretty ladies this way as your eyes scan the street ahead of you. No one notices the exchange, least of all any police drones.

“Just twice,” replies the voice. “Once, when some ornery lass tried to swindle me out of some credits while gambling on Shorebreak. And once before that, when some smartmouth little lady tried to smooth-talk her way into a passing grade from her flight instructor… Shame those street smarts didn’t translate to the real world very well, eh?”

The moment you hear the words “little lady”, your eyes widen.

“Kaden…?” you whisper, straining to get a look behind you. “William Kaden?”

The sharp pain vanishes.

“That’s Instructor Kaden to you, little lady,” says the synthesized voice, the volume of his voice suddenly much lower. “Keep your eyes forward and don’t look around. I wasn’t lying about the snipers. Though, admittedly, they’re less for you and more for anyone else that might be following you.”

20180515171754_1

You’ll see this every time you land on a planet, and planets will offer different services, such as starports for purchasing ships, outfitters for buying upgrades, and more.

Memories of your flight training on your homeworld of New Boston years ago fill your mind, memories filled mostly with pain and disappointment from your time under the tutelage of Instructor William Kaden, ex-Republic pilot and all-around hard-ass. Although you had graduated by the skin of your teeth, he had been the one teacher you had never been able to please or impress. The pain of him asking for your training pistol and your flight badge at the end of Kaden’s advanced flight class still stung.

Now someone – possibly William Kaden – is standing behind you threatening you with a combat knife and possibly your own firearm. Whether the man was bluffing about the snipers was irrelevant; attempting to disarm him and return to your ship is out of the question. Although, if this man really is Instructor Kaden with a voice-changer, you know you don’t have anything to worry about; William Kaden is – and was – one-hundred percent Republic lawman. But what would a retired Republic pilot and flight instructor be doing on a mining world at the edge of Republic space?

You ask him bluntly if he’s looking to purchase twenty tons of medical supplies.

“Afraid not, little lady. As I’m sure you’ve deduced by now, you’ve been shipping something a little more important than morphine and band-aids. Don’t know the grade of your ship’s sensors, but the crates were hermetically sealed and lead-lined. All the better you didn’t know. Let’s take a little walk, shall we? Don’t acknowledge me, now, eyes forward. Just down this first alley, that’s it. I’ve got a proposition for you that you might not want to pass up…”

*             *             *             *             *

The original Escape Velocity was one of my favorite Mac games growing up (yes, I still have my dad’s old Power Macintosh G3 right above me on a shelf now, it even has a Zip drive… remember Zip drives?) Later on, I fell in love with Escape Velocity: Nova. Absolute love. This game made you captain of your very own ship and gave you a galaxy full of opportunity and danger to explore. You start out in an admittedly tiny cargo shuttle, but you could eventually become admiral of your own fleet. Or, you could join one of the many factions in the game and accept their storyline missions to eventually unlock amazing ship types and ship upgrades.

While Escape Velocity: Nova remains available for both Macintosh and PC, there’s one thing it isn’t, and that’s FREE and OPEN-SOURCE.

20180515180255_1

There are dozens of ships, from tiny shuttles to gigantic warships. Some can be bought, some have to be earned, and others have to be stolen.

Endless Sky is a single-player “2D space trading and combat” game “inspired” by Escape Velocity. The quotes are mighty hefty, because Endless Sky is basically nostalgia fuel for anyone who played EV or EV: Nova in the 90s and early 2000s. You might even call it a spiritual successor.

Just like its influence, in Endless Sky you can essentially be any kind of pilot you want to be. Set sail (or engine) as a raider who boards ships to plunder their cargo (don’t forget yer peg-leg and eyepatch, yarrr), or follow the law and become a mercenary who chases down pirate bounties. You can be a simple trader who goes from system to system trading ware like metals, luxury goods, and (yes) medical supplies. You can even land on pirate systems and accept smuggling runs that pay very well if you don’t get your delivery scanned and confiscated by policing gunships.

You can certainly play to your heart’s content in this sandbox space simulator. But like Escape Velocity, Endless Sky has a main storyline that the player can follow as well. There are even unique dialogue choices to help you decide what kind of captain you want to be. Unlike Escape Velocity: Nova, unfortunately, it seems like this storyline isn’t quite as complex when it comes to branching pathways and joinable factions.

Yet.

The game is still in an early state; while I’m hesitant to call it ‘Early Access’ since so much of the game is complete and ready to play, there are many items that lack graphics and tooltips, and many of the alien factions (of which there are many, owning systems that are accessible only by jump drive that enables travel between unconnected systems) are lacking any story connections or starting points. This makes many ships and items unavailable unless you attack and disable the alien ships yourself and steal their equipment. This, obviously, makes them hate you, which is never good if you ever wish to travel in their territory.

20180515163040_1

If you’ve played EV: Nova, you’ll find the minimalistic UI very comforting and familiar.

If you can’t tell by my attempt at writing a storyline hook above, I’ve wanted to build a storyline in EV: Nova ever since I started playing the game. Now I’m feeling the same way about Endless Sky. There are quite a few mods available for the game at the moment, and modding seems very easy compared to modding Escape Velocity. (As you can tell, I have so many things I want to do that I obviously can’t do them all. I can’t say it’s the next thing on my list but making a storyline mod for Endless Sky is on there.)

The major strength of Endless Sky is also its weakness: it is a free, open-source game, being developed as a hobby by a single very busy developer. This means that, unfortunately, updates seem few and far between. As of now, it’s been more than six months since the last update. According to the Steam discussion board, the developer hoped that the end of May would mean an update to v0.9.9, but so far this hasn’t been the case. Communication is relatively regular, however, so I haven’t lost hope in the game’s development.

I would do better to explain how the game plays, but you know what? It’s FREE. I urge you to go play it for yourself. Relax. Go on some trading missions. Once you have a bigger ship, go blow up some pirates. Or be a pirate, either one. It’s worth your time, and updates are only going to make the game even more entertaining. Should it ever go on sale, this is one game I will be paying for.

Review: 9/10

 

My 10-Hour Tale – Reus

Before writing this review, I shot and edited a short gameplay video with no voiceover to put on YouTube as an experiment. Immediately after uploading, it was flagged for content ID on the game’s soundtrack, despite Abbey Games insisting that the game could be streamed, recorded, and even monetized for Let’s Plays. So that kinda sucks. Maybe I’ll attempt an update once I do more research and practice my editing skills. I’d love to do video reviews along with the written blogs.

#######

Stunning-God-Game-Reus-Celebrates-1-Million-Units-Sold-Milestone-for-5th-Anniversary-780x483

Release Date: May 2013

System: Windows (Steam, GOG.com)

Okay, okay, after my Backstage Tale about god games, you probably think I have a purposely narrow view of what a god game should be. I really only have my personal definition of a god game (you know, ‘miracles’, a dividing line between minion behavior and player direct control, and perhaps a bit of terraforming) because I wish to see other games of this genre succeed.

Expanding on the subject, there’s something intriguing between having world-changing powers but no control over your subjects. You could see it as giving mortals ‘free will’. A natural conflict between the player and pre-defined NPC behavior arises immediately. This lack of player control can become immediately frustrating, as I illustrated in my previous article about the game Black and White and its giant creatures. Even with proper AI programming, minions are nearly guaranteed to annoy the player if given too much independence. Perhaps the most difficult comment any god game designer could hear a player make is: “I could get this done a lot faster if I could just control them.”

Of course, games can be fun with a lack of control. Just ask anyone who’s played on a slot machine. There’s that issue of balance again: on one side, you win or lose by complete chance (or RNG), and on the other, it’s simply a strategy game where the player controls everything. So, what’s the middle ground?

Meet Reus.

friends

Just a bunch of giants on a barren world, full of potential. Nothing big.

Just Me and My Fellow Giants

Developed by Abbey Games, Reus is a two-dimensional god sim/strategy/puzzle game where the player isn’t a god exactly. Instead, the player controls four giants with god-like powers: a forest ent-like giant, a rock giant, an ocean crab giant, and a fungal ‘spore’ giant. These giants all have abilities to create different biomes across a circular worldspace: oceans with the crab giant, deserts and mountains with the rock giant, forests with the forest giant, and swamps with the fungal giant. Once the biomes are in place, the giants can lay down resources like plants, minerals, and animals that vary between biomes. With enough resources planted down, humans will settle into villages and towns, claiming the resources you lay down. You have no control over the behavior of these humans, including how they’ll react to neighbors and even towards the giants themselves. Initially, the goal of the game is to complete the different eras, helping the humans grow their settlements. Besides the eras, there are 30, 60, and 120-minute games where you can complete challenges ranging from simple to remarkably difficult.

There are three basic types of resources: food, wealth, and tech. Food can come from elderberries (which your father smelt of), mackerel, and pears. Wealth can come from beaver (their hides, I assume), agate, and quartz. Tech can come from peppermint, ginger, and dandelions. This is just a few of the many types of resources your giants can lay down: there are over 100 different types, all with their own bonuses or ‘symbioses’ (for example, chickens produce more food if placed next to a blueberry plant). In order to ‘transmute’ a resource into a more advanced one (such as changing tech-based agate into more versatile salt), your giants can use ‘aspects’ which also act as a resource boost (to change agate into salt, you need to have your rock giant use ‘seismic aspect’.

On top of this, every resource can be granted multiple aspects, and even more so if those aspects are ‘potent’, ‘greater’, or ‘sublime’. The forest giant can use an ability called ‘fertility boost’ to increase the chance of higher quality aspects. This also happens in locations that have a higher ‘natura’ rating. Most plants grant ‘natura’ naturally.

swampy

A tiny bayou town living under the shadow of a giant rock and the living embodiment of hay fever.

This is all to help your villages complete special projects that, when completed, will grant your giants human ambassadors which will upgrade your giant’s powers based on which biome the ambassador comes from. These unique projects grant big resource boosts, like granaries providing food, toolshops providing wealth and tech, etc. These projects themselves can be upgraded multiple times, each with more complex resource and situation requirements than the last.

But wait, there’s more! Your giants can provide a lot of resources very quickly, but if you give a village too much too quickly and not include resources that also provide a resource called ‘awe’, your villagers will soon grow discontent in their prosperity and attack nearby settlements and even your giants. That’s right, your giants are vulnerable creatures. Each has a life bar and can ‘die’ at the hands of tiny Kratos-like warriors. If you lose a giant, they return to sleep in the earth to recover and you will no longer have access to their powers for the remainder of the era. With multiple villages established, you’ll be herding cats to make sure villages don’t kill each other or your giants before you can help them all complete their projects for the essential ambassador upgrades.

Bummer. Good thing the rock titan can cause an earthquake that will topple the largest villages and towns into oblivion if they get too uppity. You can use the crab giant to sink a village into the ocean. If desperate, the fungal giant can lob giant balls of swamp goo at attacking armies.

Too Fine a Balance?

This is where Reus attempts to draw the fine line between chance and control, with ‘attempts’ being the keyword. While you can’t directly control what your villages do to your giants or to each other, you can use ‘awe’ to calm them, remove ‘awe’ to provoke them, or invoke the ‘clean slate’ protocol by quaking or sinking them. (Some high-end project upgrades like the level 3 Historic Point require that village to destroy the closest nearby village, for example, so some war is useful.)

On paper, this seems simple. Unfortunately, since you have no say on what your villages end up building for their projects, and since many of the challenges hinge on the creation of certain projects, and since it’s pretty RNG which other villages your villagers make peace or war with, Reus seems to fall off the balancing wire into a game of chance once you’re on the hunt for challenge completions. Increasing your giants’ ability to control the environment (and, accordingly, the humans) takes a lot of practice and memorization.

I’ve gotten lucky with resource symbiosis once or twice where I created a good enough amount of ‘awe’ to stop a war. But it didn’t happen often, and I couldn’t tell you which resources I used to accomplish it. It seems like resources with useful amounts of awe are few and far between, or are reserved for higher-level transmutations. And those higher-level transmutations are entirely dependant on upgrading your giants with the right projects from the right villages in the right biomes with the right resources that don’t go to war with each other or end up hating your giants.

tiny villagers

It’s kinda hard to tell, but there are tiny soldiers on that mountain, and they’re throwing spears at the swamp village. Look at Rocky’s face. Rocky isn’t mad, just disappointed.

A Puzzle of Many Colors

This is another game I often come back to because it’s so easy to pick up and play. But it’s hard to master. Maybe not hard, but time-consuming. If you don’t know your end goal, you’ll waste a lot of valuable time making, upgrading, smashing, and remaking resources until the right symbioses happen. Worse, even if you do know your end goal, there’s a chance your aspects won’t be potent enough for upgrades, which leads to more resource remaking.

The game falls into a pit I affectionately call Blind Crafting Syndrome: even if you’ve crafted it before, unless you’ve memorized the recipe, the game won’t give you a clue on how to repeat it. While enjoyable with no prior knowledge, Reus is frustrating to return to after time away. Reus doesn’t quite have a crafting system like Minecraft or My Time at Portia, but there are so many different combinations and requirements of resources and aspects and biomes that it requires an immense amount of trial and error to complete the higher-level challenges. If Reus had some type of planning tool you could use before laying down a resource, or even an in-game encyclopedia, it would help immensely.

Your giants are incredibly pondering and slow creatures as well (I guess they should be). Managing an entire world, even a small or medium-sized one, takes a lot of travel time and planning. All the time while playing, I would have a sinking feeling that I was doing something out of order or inefficiently, but I didn’t want to have to look up online someone else’s ‘correct’ answer. Maybe it’s my anxiety of time limits and incredible challenges, but all the time-wasting trial and error (mostly error) dulled the game for me. This game should be casual and relaxing. But it’s not. Yes, there is an endless mode, and I could practice my Reus skills. But you can’t complete challenges in ‘alt’ mode. No, I would probably head to the Reus wiki or the Steam guides for help to figure out a game plan for finishing a particular challenge in the timed game.

I would, that is, if I had an intense desire to continue to play.

village

Give a forest village some chickens, they’ll ask for some blueberries. Give a forest village some blueberries, they’ll want some pear trees… Etc.

Reus is another indie game that looks simple, colorful, and inviting at the beginning but by the endgame becomes a very challenging strategy/puzzle game. A bit too much into the puzzle genre for me. In fact, to me, it feels a lot like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I get why people enjoy putting them together, and I’ll find joy in locking a few pieces together here and there (hence why I’ve played Reus on and off through the years since its release). But I don’t have the patience to put the whole thing together.

While not wholly applicable, this one, in particular, came to mind.

Review Score: 7.7/10

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.

maxresdefault

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’.

20180514193639_1

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?

2017-05-16-20_00_23-the-sims-4-parenthood_-official-trailer-youtube

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.

Cow

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*

godus

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.

My 10-Hour Tale – Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!

Just a heads up to any readers: Chains and Tales is now on Patreon!

patreon

If you like the content you’ve seen and you have any interest at all in seeing Chains and Tales continue to grow, please check it out and consider signing up. Not knowing how this is going to work in the slightest, I’ve put a few tentative perks for donations. Ha, I don’t even really have an audience yet and may be jumping the gun. But I’m gearing up for success and want the blog to support itself with good writing and honest reviews! No matter what my Patreon looks like a week, a month, or a year from now, that won’t ever change.

######

20180510232441_1

Release Date: July 2015

System: PC (Steam, GOG.com)

I adore games that try to put a twist the tried-and-true and slightly tired ‘hero adventuring’ formula. One of my favorite Wiiware games were two games from Square-Enix: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord. In these games, you weren’t the hero venturing forth to unknown lands and delving dark and dangerous dungeons. You were either the one in charge of the kingdom sending the heroes forth, or the evil darklord trying to stop these heroes from plundering all your hard-earned treasure. Dungeon Keeper and its ‘spiritual successors’ (there it is again) the Dungeons series did the same thing.

But what if, instead of being the heroes or the overlord or the king, you were a humble merchant just trying to get by in a world full of danger? A fun game called Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (which I may review at a later time) set you in the shoes of a young item shop lady trying to make ends meet.

So, what’s the one profession every hero needs at their back? A blacksmith, of course! Every hero needs a Hephaestus or a Griswold!

And what if that blacksmith… were a potato?

20180510234536_1

Yes, that is a giant golden potato statue in the middle of my smithy. And Kingdom Hearts carpeting. It’s all for the bonuses!

Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! is a simulation/management game where you assume the role of Patata, a young blacksmith who inherits his grandfather’s (or grandtater’s) old blacksmith shop, partnering with the mysterious and possibly threatening Agent 46 (who looks nothing like a potato version of Agent 47 from Hitman, why would you ask that). Cliché, yes. But the story doesn’t take itself too seriously at all. In fact, with spud puns fly left and right, the game’s entertaining sense of humor was what kept me invested for all ten hours.

You start the game with little more than a shack, a few workbenches, and a few fellow apprentice smiths to help. Your objective is to develop your craft and sell the weapons you create to heroes that inhabit the potato-themed world, working your way up to more advanced facilities and hiring additional workers to assist you.

Your actual goal in Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! is to purchase the smithy from Agent 46, who insists that he used to be your grandfather’s business partner… But there’s something fishy (or starchy) about this guy…

20180512153445_1

Sure, Mr. Bald Potato. Sure.

You might notice something funny about your smiths right from the word ‘go’: their designs and names are all based on potato-flavored puns of pop culture references. My two favorites had to be Winnie Stonebell (aka Winry Rockbell from Full Metal Alchemist) and Laura Craft (aka Laura Croft from Tomb Raider). Develop your smithy enough, and you might invite some legendary smiths to work for you!

Your smiths will develop their skills as they work on weapons or train at different locations on the world map. Your smiths can also level up in a few other areas, such as improving their ability to explore the world for materials or learning the art of bartering for improved weapon selling prices. But be careful not to work your smiths too hard for too long without a vacation, because they’ll get penalized on their job performance.

All weapons strengths are based on four different attributes: power, speed, accuracy, and magic. Each weapon can be ‘boosted’ by one of your smiths or a ‘freelance’ smith for a big one-time increase to stats. Each weapon can also be enchanted with a stat-boosting item that will give the weapon a catchy suffix. You can even name your weapons!

20180510234137_1.jpg

Lots of weapons to choose from!

With weapon-crafting experience, your fellow smiths will level up in their respective job classes, unlocking improved class types and enabling them to further improve the attributes of the weapons they work on. Also, you’ll start the game with only a few weapon types, but as you unlock the world area by area by obtaining fame and travel passes, you’ll be able to search more locations for the relics you’ll need to reveal more.

With increased fame comes opportunities to craft weapons for very special spuds. You may very well recognize them! Be warned, however, you’ll only have one chance to craft these one-of-a-kind weapons, so your smiths will have to be prepared. Succeed in famous weapon crafting, and you’ll get a big reward and a bunch of fame. Every so often, you’ll also be given the chance to win big prizes at contests that judge your weapons based on their attributes. At the beginning of the game, there’s no way to win. By the late game, you’ll be winning every award without even trying.

20180512143140_1.jpg

No contest.

So, with having to juggle your increasing number of smiths on various journeys and vacations, crafting and selling weapons, balancing all of the different weapon types and their growth potentials, is it easy to get lost in Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!

Yes. In all the wrong ways.

If you can’t tell from the screenshots of the main game area, even though your blacksmith continually gets bigger as the story goes on, your blacksmith becomes more and more crowded with every upgrade. I’m also not a huge fan of the entire UI in general. I know it’s a management game, and information is supposed to be everywhere. But there’s just too much. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the day, time, or weather in the upper right corner as that information is rarely important enough to look at. The ‘chat’ box on the bottom right is sometimes clever but useless unless you really need to review what happened two seconds ago. All the numbers you see in the menus about weapon stats and smith stats are all just numbers, too: the higher the better, that’s all.

In fact, there’s a single example that wraps up my entire problem with this game: the ‘Feed Me’ button in the upper left. It’s a cute puppy thing. I don’t want the puppy thing to be sad. So, I click on that button so the graphic changes to show a full food bowl and a happy puppy thing. That’s it. That’s the purpose of that button. And frankly, if that button does, say, give all my smiths a bonus to productivity because the puppy potato is happy, the game doesn’t say so.

20180510234536_1

This button right here. I can’t stand the emotional manipulation! Just let me play the dang game, puppy potato!

There is so much gosh-darn clicking in this game, it makes the late-game unbearable. Almost nothing in this game is done automatically. When characters do anything, literally anything, whether it’s taking a vacation or exploring or selling weapons or whatever, they don’t just come back to their workstations when they finish. First you have to click on the smith to get a report saying that they finished. Then you have to manually point and click a workstation to send them to. How much harder would it have been to assign them to their last workstation, or a random one if that one got filled?

Confession time: my ten hours playing this game was not concurrent. I’ve had to come back to it a couple of times because I lose the desire to play it. I’m certain I’m at the late stage of the game, but every time I reach a fame objective, do you know what the next objective is? Gain more fame. At this point, I’m starting to wonder if there’s an ending, or is it just a never-ending race for more fame. I really wanted to finish it for the review to say a hilarious cathartic ending was waiting at the end of the grind, but I just couldn’t do it.

All this isn’t to say I didn’t have fun with this game. On the contrary, the humor and the overall game system at the very least kept me wanting to come back and play it. If you want to kill an hour or even a half hour, it’s a great game. But I find it very challenging to sit down and play for longer stretches of time. In doing research for the game, I discovered that even the creators of the game’s wiki gave up before they were finished. It’s kind of a testament to the game’s lack of depth. But then, what did I expect from a game about a potato blacksmith?

Holy-Potatoes-e1441234440248-800x480

The humor keeps it afloat. The game mechanics weigh it down.

I think this must be what the item and potion shop owners must feel like when a battered-up adventurer strolls into town looking to buy and sell. There’s nothing like a peaceful life, but man is it a bit boring and monotonous.

If you enjoy management games, don’t mind a clickfest, and can pick up on a lot of anime and video game pop culture references in the form of potatoes, pick up Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! this game during the Summer or Winter Steam Sale. Or, better yet, get it on a GOG.com sale without all the nasty copyright protection. You might not finish it, but you’ll get a kick out of it.

Review: 7.5/10