Tuesday, June 2, 2020

I Like This Place, It's (Not) A Zoo

I have Tobold to thank for this one.

A while back, when Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about, he asked his readers whether they thought he ought to buy it. I hadn't played it myself so I dropped a link to a very interesting article on Gamesindustry, which I thought might help him decide.

Tobold bought New Horizons, played it for a week or two, didn't much enjoy it and stopped. Since then he's had an eye out for "a better game of the same genre" and now he thinks he's found one.

It's called My Time At Portia, which is, I think, an extremely curious title for a video game. Especially that choice of preposition. The first thing that came into my head when I saw the name was "Last Year in Marienbad", closely followed by "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" and "My Dinner with Andre".

There is something of a naming convention going on here, isn't there? Or maybe it's just me. Then again, this whole genre, the so-called Life Sim, seems redolent of a particular inflection of post-modern irony, one that curves so far back around it meets its own faux-naif self-reflection coming the other way. It's children's entertainment sub-texting Baudrillard.

It also happens to be kind of the corner on which I live. Or where I'd like to. I would if I could. I'm very envious of everyone who's playing New Horizons (although I notice most people have gone quite quiet about it lately. That always happens.). If I had a Switch, I'd be playing it.

Instead I'm playing Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, which is barely an Animal Crossing game at all by most AC fans' reckoning. And, yes, I am still playing it. Every day. And enjoying it, although it's so laggy some evenings about all I can manage is to craft a couple of things and send Pete around in his van to fob off all my animal friends with a few butterflies and fish. I'm surprised some of them can remember who I am.

It is the animal friends thing, isn't it? That's why Animal Crossing. This is what I was saying to Tobold. I realize that in video game industry terms AC:NH, Stardew Valley, MTAP and a whole bunch of others are part of a specific gaming genre but AC:NH broke out because of those animals, didn't it?

I know they're what does it for me. There's a koala bear, who reminds me of  Pump Up The Volume era Christian Slater, doing an Elvis impersonation in my cabin (My cabin? My Cabin!). I'm being quizzed about my sleep patterns by a superannuated extra from Animaniacs. It's orders of magnitude more compelling than having similar interactions with cartoon human beings.

You work with what you've got, though, and I don't got a Switch so I thought I'd give My Time At Portia a go. It's on sale on both Steam and the Epic Store right now. I very nearly bought it yesterday but then I noticed there was a demo so I downloaded that instead.

I love this map. Barnarock, the peninsula in the north-east, is where my character comes from. Portia, where she lives now, is around the coast to the south.
I played it today and now I'm a bit stuck. Not in the game, which is paramountly simple to understand. No, I'm stuck over whether to carry on playing the demo, which I'm very much enjoying or to stop and buy the game while it's on offer for cheap.

Here's the thing. Unlike most similar set-ups, progress in the demo is not transferrable to the game proper. Usually what happens with these things is you download the demo and play it and if you like it you pay some money and either it opens up the rest of the game or it allows you to transfer your save file when you start.

People have clearly complained because there's a big warning on Steam telling you that's not going to happen. I'm glad I read it in time. I don't know how long the demo is or how far you can get but I do know it would be very annoying to have to do it all over again if you weren't expecting it.

Demos exist to show potential customers enough of whatever it is for them to make a purchasing decision. The MTAP demo does an excellent job of that. I already know enough about the game to make my choice. It's a very good demo. The problem is, I'm just not a very good customer.

I know I want this game. I like it. I like the colors, the animations, the conversations, the gameplay. I could already critique it from the couple of hours I've seen. I took a lot of screenshots in preparation for a first impressions post, which this isn't. It would have been a very favorable review.

I'm sure it's not perfect. For once it doesn't seem to be in Early Access so I think we have to treat it as feature-complete. Replying to Tobold, Redbeard noted some translation issues and those are quite apparent even in the demo.

Only I really like "translation issues". They both amuse me and make me think. And anyway, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between text that's been mistranslated and an idiosyncratic prose style. When Oaks says "I'm kind of simple", is that poor use of idiom or is he expressing a political philosophy? I mean, he's walking around a technologically advanced city dressed in culottes and a bearskin cloak... it's hard to be sure.

So, there's no doubt in my mind that this is a game I'd enjoy. Except for one thing. It's single-player.

I have a problem that seems quite common among people who've played a lot of MMORPGs, which is that I find it very hard to commit time to games, even online games, that don't offer evidence of the presence of other players. It doesn't have to involve meaningful interaction; I just need to know they're there.

Take Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp for an example. I play it one hundred per cent solo. There isn't even any mechanism for communicating with other players as far as I can see. You can't group with them or talk to them. But they are there.

I see them standing about. Just one in each of the tiny zones. I can see their names. I can see their outfits change. I can trade with them and make friends with them (in the most abstract way). Their mere presence somehow validates all the time I spend there, even though clearly it does nothing of the kind.

My Time At Portia is very reminiscent of a game I bought a few years back and about which I posted a few times. That game was Yonder. I liked it a lot, but According to Steam I played for just six hours. The last time I logged in was July 2017, which was also the month it released and the month I bought it. I played it a few times and then I stopped because I was the only one there.

If I could carry progress over I'd just keep playing the demo until there was nothing left to do. Put off any decision that way. But I can't because, if I did decide to buy the game, I'd have to do it all again. Not a terrible hardship, I know, but still...

You're either on the bus...
Then, Yonder was quite an empty sort of game. Very beautiful but without a huge amount to do. By most accounts, MTAP does a far better job of keeping players entertained and motivated. The very gaminess of it as compared to the beingness of Animal Crossing seems to be what drew Tobold to prefer it in the first place.

It wouldn't draw me but I can't play Animal Crossing without I buy a Switch and there aren't any and even if there were I am not ready to pay that much just to hang out with my animal so-called friends.

Maybe, with plenty to do, I won't find Portia empty. And I'm better at playing single player games now than I was in 2017. And it's only £9.99...

Sod it! I'm going to buy it. There, that's that sorted out. Thanks for the advice, everyone! This is what blogs are for!


  1. Glad we could help!

    And there’s always sharing your adventures on the blog to validate your time in a singleplayer game. ;)

    1. I am already so far down the "playing to get a blog post out of it" hole I'm not sure I'll ever climb back out.

  2. I suspect that since you play AC type games that you'll be more used to the type of "playdates" or "hanging out" that is done in MTaP. I've never played the demo, so I don't know how far along the relationships with the townspeople (or the storyline) that you're allowed to progress. The reason why I say that is because while there are some aspects of MTaP that seem very adult oriented, the concept of "playdates" or "actual dates" (which happen later) seem geared toward what a kid would think adults do in as far as hanging out.

    I will say that the relationships are set up in such a way that the game does seem to push you in a very specific direction toward a certain relationship early on, but don't think that's somehow the "optimal" choice. I dithered quite a bit on who to end up romancing, and who I did was definitely not in my initial top three choices while getting more and more acquainted with the townsfolk.

    I'd highly recommend leveling your combat skills before progressing in the overall storyline, but as an MMO player you're likely conditioned to do that anyway. But this also becomes important as there is a definite end to the game's story, although you can keep on playing afterward (in much the same way that Sid Meier's Civilization games do). The planning ahead that you tend to have to do for MMO progression will definitely come in handy here, as you'll be constantly pushed to improve your shop's facilities and output in order to meet demand.

    One final piece of advice: don't take a job unless you're sure you can complete it. There's no shame in passing on a job --even though Higgins is an ass-- because you know your shop doesn't have the capability. Go get the materials, upgrade your shop, and then go for the jobs.

    Oh, and an extra note: be careful when googling stuff about the game. I know I shouldn't have been shocked by it, but yeah, there's Rule 34 related stuff out there for MTaP. There are some things you can't unsee.

    1. The whole "romancing NPCs" thing creeps me out in every game I've seen it so I was planning on ignoring it as far as possible anyway. If it turns out to be essential to progression then the more child-friendly it is the better. I did notice the game has a PEGI 7 rating so I guess it pretty much has to be.

      The whole combat and storyline thing is going to be interesting. I thought a huge part of the attraction of this type of game was that they don't have any combat and not much story either. Everything I read about all of them seems to suggest its all about hanging out with NPCs and chatting about nothing much. I thought it was obvious that the reason Tobold went for this one rather than AC:NH was that it has all the usual RPG trappings.

      I'm not at all sure how combat and a plot are going to fit into this genre. I'm wondering if it's really the other way around and it's mostly an RPG with a life sim skin.

  3. If you like it, consider giving Stardew Valley a try. It's similar to Portia, but 2D and with more polish and charm. Also maybe some Atelier games with their focus on small scale stories, character interaction and giving gathering and crafting more attention than simply fighting.

    1. I've read quite a few people talking about Stardew Valley but those graphics are a very serious turn-off for me. I just looked at some screenshots to check I was remembering it correctly and my instant reaction was "oh no, not that!" so I think I'll give it a miss. The Atelier games look more interesting but again, it's not a style or a sub-genre that particularly appeals to me. It was interesting to learn that it's credited with introducing crafting to RPGs, though. I might look into that a bit further.

  4. I went through a phase of trying to find more games to capture what I enjoyed about Stardew Valley for a while after discovering (much to my surprise) that I quite enjoyed SDV.

    This was one of them! It didn't quite gel with me at the time, but that was while it was still in early access. Probably heavy on the 'early' side of things, too. I have been meaning to give it another go at some point but I wonder whether what put me off even could be fixed.

    To me, by comparison, it felt rather soulless compared to SDV. It *felt* very much like a 'me-too' cash-grab. But...? 100% possible that was entirely me projecting onto the game and that the devs are every bit as passionate about the genre. I dunno!

    1. See my comments above re Stardew Valley. There are countless 2D MMORPGs that look somewhat like that and I've tried a few but they just don't work for me. Actually, they more than don't work - I find them off-putting. It's a purely aesthetic issue - I find them uncomfortable and irritating to look at so it really doesn't matter how good the gameplay is or how engaging the characters are.

      Visually, I really like soft, rounded 3D shapes, rich, super-saturated colors and thick, layered textures. In 2D I'm drawn to very flat surfaces that use chalk, pastel or colorfield washes. I very much don't like top-down perspective and I'm not keen on isometric 3D. I seriously cannot be doing with sprites!

      Based on the screenshots, I fiond it very hard to imagine myself playing, let alone enjoying Stardew Valley. It would need to be absolutely amazing to overcome the way it looks. My Time At Portia, on the other hand, doesn't really need to do very much. It looks so soothing, warm and comfortable. It just needs to not be terrible and I'm quite likely to feel favorably towards it, even though all the characters are disappointingly human.

      It also reminds me quite strongly of Landmark, which I wasn't expecting. Probably going to be writing about that once I've seen a little more of the game.

      Stardwew Valley pushes most of my "off" buttons. Quite a few of the popular games of this kind I've read about do. Terraria, for example, looks like it has great gameplay but I can't imagine looking at it for long periods.

    2. How about Slime Rancher? Nearly everything is round and bloopy, and there are cat slimes!

      (I played My Time At Portia for about 19h, says Steam. I’m half surprised I forgot to blog about it, but ultimately, it struck me more as an achiever sort of game, very focused on crafting, lots of directed mini-goals. In between one day cycle to another, I just lost track of all the stuff I should be supposedly building and never quite got back to it yet.)

    3. Slime Rancher looks great. I'll put that on the list. And yes, even in my brief time so far i can see how very co-ercive MTAP wants to be. I'm very good at ignoring that kind of thing, though, unless they hard-gate everything behind a linear progression of some kind.

  5. Ugh. I play Animal Crossing to get away from crafting systems, building, RPG-style progression, and really everything Tobold seems to be looking for.
    (Yes, I am very unhappy about New Horizons introducing crafting to the series. No, I won't rant on about it here.)

    1. I'm with you on that. I thought the whole point of "Life Sims" was that they didn't have vertical progression and linear plots. And I thought crafting/farming sims were a different sub-genre altogether. But what do I know? I'm just an MMORPG scrub!


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