Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Cab It Up

 

If I was on Twitter this would be a tweet but I'm not so it's a really short blog post instead. 

Neo Cab is the best game I've played in a long time. And I want this picture on a T-shirt.

Full review tomorrow. Maybe. 

Depends which timeline we're in.

I Run Missions

The latest instalment in Guild Wars 2's Icebrood Saga, which I previewed somewhat sarcastically just one week ago, dropped last night. It seems to be called either "Champions" or "Power" or "Primordus Rising" or very possibly "Icebrood Saga: Champions: Power: Primordus Rising". I admit I've lost track of the current naming convention.

Whatever it's called, it's alright. I'm not sure I'd go much further than that but I've played through the new story content and I didn't not enjoy it. It took the traditional two and a half hours, on the nose, only with more fighting and less standing around chatting than usual. 

The format is different to what we've been used to but I suspect not to what we're going to have to get used to in the future. After years and years of muddling around with various combinations of open world and instanced content, none of which ever seemed to suit enough people for ArenaNet to stick with any of them, we've arrived at something called "Dragon Response Missions". 

Theese are repeatable, instanced sequences of events that can be done either solo or in groups of up to five players, either premades or put together by the game, as you prefer. They seem to tick more boxes than most of the previous content delivery systems while avoiding some of the most egregious pitfalls. They also bundle up into a relatively saleable package for the Gem Store so they would seem to have a better chance of sticking around than most of the gimmicks ANet have tried over the last eight and a half years.


 

And I have to say, somewhat grudgingly, that they do work. I'd vastly prefer to have this content presented as it was in Season One, as time-limited events in open world maps, hanging around only as long as it takes for the next chapter to arrive but I accept that ship sailed long ago. A vociferous faction within the playerbase hates anything that's not forever and one-time content is uncommercial since it costs the same to produce as repeatable material but can't be repackaged and resold.

I was surprised at just how many DRMs (Dragon Response Missions. You'd already forgotten, hadn't you?) I had to do this time. Six of them. At least, I think it was six. Wait, no, I mean I know it was six as in that's how many I did. I'm just a little vague on whether maybe the first couple were ones I hadn't done from last chapter. I am finding it hard to keep all this stuff straight in my head these days.

Now I check the press release it does indeed look as though the first two missions I did, one down some cave and the other... no, it's no good, I already forgot where the other was and I only did it last night... aren't part of Power at all. The official four this time around seem to be the ones in Fields of Ruin, Thunderhead Peaks, Lake Doric, and Snowden Drifts.

That might explain why I noticed a significant jump in quality when I got to Ebonhawke. (That's the Fields of Ruin one for those who've never played GW2 and indeed for those that have but don't care to waste brain cells on Tyrian trivia like what city is in which map). The dialog and plot didn't change all that much but the mechanics of the fights became considerably more interesting, suggesting a different team might have had a hand in designing them.


 

This is the really surprising thing about the new chapter. The fights are genuinely enjoyable. It's been a while since I last thought that about a story instance. Sure, they have been getting much better but that's "better" on a scale that begins at "tedious" somewhere back in Season Two and floors out at "unbearable" in the middle of Season Four before slowly climbing back up to the dizzy heights of "tolerable" and even "okay"during the Icebrood Saga. 

Or something like that. Honestly, I've blanked a lot of it. Or tried to. Anyway, the instanced fights used to be something I dreaded and now they're not. In fact, on this latest evidence, they might even be something I could find myself looking forward to. I never thought I'd say that.

I'm not saying I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do and start repeating these missions over and over until the next set drops. Life is neither long enough nor dull enough for that to sound like a good option. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that I might do them again on another character, though. Maybe even more than one.  

It sounds like damning with the faintest of praise but it really isn't. These instances truck along. They don't waste a whole lot of time. Something's always happening but none of it takes too long. Well, okay, the bit with the dragon spears did drag on a little but I thik that had more to do with most of my pickup group spending more time lying down than standing up.

There was a quite a bit of that in the final instance in Snowden Drifts, too, although that group was a lot more capable. Just had too many glass cannons. I was very glad I was doing the missions on my heal-specced druid, the one I always use for story content. He's hard to down let alone kill, which came in handy for getting everyone else who can actually do more damage than a kitten on valium back up off the floor. It's not always all about the dps, even in GW2. Okay, admittedly it usually is...

I'm a little in two minds about how the new direction approaches narrative. Traditionally, the story part of the Living Story has been delivered in lengthy scenes where the player and any number of important NPCs stand around and tell each other the plot. At inordinate length. Sometimes the PC will be given something to do, like in that party we had back in Beetle Manor. Often they'll get to chip in now and again. Basically, though, it's sit back, relax, watch and listen.

With the missions it's more like trying to hold a conversation with three people while jogging through heavy traffic. Everyone's shouting over everyone else, there's a lot of background noise and you only have one ear on the conversation because you have to watch out for things that might kill you.

It's fortunate the entire dialog gets printed in the chat box because I would have missed whole chunks of plot without it. As it was, appreciating the subtle nuances of the voice actors (whom we're all very glad to see (or hear) back at work, I'm sure) took up most of my attention. Having everyone talking during the action sequences certainly works dramatically. I'm just not sure it works practically. Maybe I need to adjust my audio settings to prefer speech over the sounds of stuff being set on fire.


 

And there's a lot of stuff being set on fire. Either that or frozen solid. That's the theme - fire and ice. Believe it or not, I'd kind of missed the memo about Primordus being Tyria's official Elder FIRE Dragon. I'd always had him pegged as "Earth" or "Stone" for some reason. Possibly because he comes with attached dwarves and dwarves always suggest solidity and earthiness, not fiery armageddon.

I did know Jormag was the Ice dragon, of course. Can't really miss that. So it makes sense in a mythological way that they're twins. Twins who hate each other and want to kill each other. Or at least Jormag wants to kill Primordus. If Primordus has expressed an opinion I must have missed it. I don't think he's spoken yet.

As you can probably tell, this recent episode has re-onboarded me a little with the storyline. I do find the whole elder dragon thing quite intriguing. There were some pointed conversations on the nature of dragons between Ryland, Caithe, Braham and the Commander. Kas might have chipped in, too.

Oh yes, the gang's all here. Rytlock grunted a couple of times but he took a back seat for once since he was on Logan's home turf. Marjory and Taimi had cameos and even Gorrik showed his face although he didn't get any lines. Still, he's doing a lot better than Zoja. Seriously, recast her role already, don't just keep ghosting her. She's the greatest living Asuran! How would she not be there, telling everyone they were doing things all wrong?



Marjory's not much better off. Clearly no-one in the writers' room has clue one what to do with her, which is ironic seeing she's supposed to be a detective. Whatever happened to that, anyway? Taimi, once so over-exposed half the playerbase would cheerfully have drop-kicked her off Rata Sum, had one short scene, which she managed to steal by coming over as excitable as a dog in a sausage factory. For someone with just a few months to live (Remember that plotline? No, neither do the writers, apparently) she seemed remarkably chipper. 

Everyone seems remarkably chipper given the situation but then I guess we all know something about that these days. There's always some bleedover, isn't there?

All in all it was a creditable effort, I thought. I had fun.

I think there may have been a bunch of other non-story stuff in the update too but you'll have to wait for someone else to tell you all about that. Oh, wait, no-one else writes about this game any more, do they?

I guess that'll change when the expansion lands. For a couple of weeks, at least. And it'll take a full expansion to redirect attention this way because for sure the Living Story doesn't have much impact outside the installed base any more. 

Tough business.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Cruel Garrison

Time for a very quick update on what I've been up to in World of Warcraft. Dithering, mostly. My monthly subscription falls due in five days and I haven't yet decided whether to cancel. 

I re-subbed back in October with the intention of checking out the Shadowlands pre-patch, the level squish, Chromie Time and the new tutorial zone, Exile's Reach. I did all of those, wrote a bunch of posts about it and generally had a pretty good time. 

The plan had also been to open up access to the Vulpera allied race, make a fox and level that character to the cap but what with one thing and another I ended up levelling a goblin shaman first, all the way from character creation to the pre-Shadowlands level cap of fifty, something I definitely hadn't expected to find myself doing. After that I didn't quite have the determination to push the fox to fifty, mostly because the EverQuest II expansion arrived when she was about ten levels shy.

When Reign of Shadows appeared in early December I didn't stop playing WoW altogether but my hours dropped to a bare minimum. I was still logging in but almost entirely to keep my ricketty garrison working on hexweave bags. 


 

Even so, that took more time than I expected. I'd imagined it would be like EverQuest's Overseer, just a few clicks on the UI each day, but it seems Blizzard intended something a lot more hands-on. Making bags required me to keep my tailor supplied with sumptuous furs, while upgrading just the few buildings I needed to get the operation up and running cost gold I didn't have. 

I found myself out hunting wolves and cat-people for their fur for an hour or so almost every other day and making repeated forays into old raid instances to make money. For the last two months I've played WoW every day and while I've been there, that's all I've done. 

At first it was fun. Then it became a habit. Now it's starting to feel like a chore. I guess it's the WoD experience in microcosm. And I'm beginning to realize it's also all been a bit... pointless.

First I noticed that hexweave bags can reliably be bought for between 250g and 300g on my server. Using my garrison I can make a bag every other day or so for free but I can make enough gold to buy three or four bags in just the time it would take me to gather the fur. 

It's more satisfying to make them, in theory, but that satisfaction wears off after the first half-dozen or so. I'm at the point now where I feel I might as well just do a bunch of old raids once a week and buy my bags.


 

More significantly, I realized eventually that having an Alliance character with a garrison isn't going to help my Horde characters with their inventory issues. Blizzard take their faction split a lot more seriously than most other developers. Since one of the main reasons I was doing this in the first place was to put thirty slot bags on my Vulpera hunter I clearly didn't think it through.

Of course, I have Horde characters who could build garrisons of their own. And that sounded like a fairly attractive option until I realized something else. Garrisons are unique to the character that quests for them, not the account or even the faction on that account. 

Since my end-game here is to be capable of supplying big bags on demand to any new characters I make and play under the free-to-play rules after I cancel my subscription, what I should have done was send one Alliance and one Horde character, under level twenty, to start a garrison and then be very careful not to let them level too far to be able to keep using it. 

I'd already confirmed on my other free account that you don't need to subscribe to have a garrison and that under the new levelling rules you can get the quest at level ten. Today I spent half an hour getting my level fifteen druid from Stormwind to Shadowmoon Valley just to make absolutely sure she couldn't use the garrison I already had. I've found that no matter what online guides tell you about WoW you never really know for sure until you test it in game.


 

This time I could have saved myself the swim. She couldn't even see the damn thing. It exists in some other plane of reality, apparently. I spent the next half hour porting back to talk to Chromie then heading back to Shadowmoon to get the necessary quests.

That was just for proof of concept. I'd have to do the same again with a horde character and then I'd have to level up the garrisons and the necessary buildings and keep farming the furs and I'd have to fund all of that with characters in their teens. It makes absolutely no sense and I'm not going to do it.

A better plan might be to use the remaining five days of my sub to make enough gold with my Horde and Alliance level fifty characters to buy enough hexweave bags for everyone. That would be far, far easier and an ideal project for keeping my hands busy while I listen to the second England-Sri Lanka Test Match.

That's sorted then. Grind some gold, buy some bags, cancel the sub, go back to playing for free. Only...

I've been wondering whether I ought to buy Shadowlands. I've read a lot about it and it sounds pretty good for someone who enjoys levelling. I'd probably get a month or two's solid entertainment out of it and it's looking likely I'll be at home for about that long before I get the call to go back to work.

So, I'm dithering, as I said. Shadowlands is tempting but I haven't really finished with Reign of Shadows yet. It would make more sense to concentrate on finishing one expansion before I start on another. 

Or I could just let the sub roll on for another month and decide later. That's how they get you, isn't it? 

Well, it's how they get me, anyway.


Monday, January 18, 2021

Next Cab On The Rank

One thing about playing mmorpgs that hadn't really occurred to me until recently was just how incredibly self-sustaining a hobby it is. I mean, I knew... I just hadn't been confronted by the evidence in such a personal fashion until now. Of late it's become something I can't easily ignore as I find myself spending more time and money on single-player titles.. 

There's been slippage, for sure. I didn't plan it but there's a lot of it going around. As Syl put it in her comeback post today, "the star of MMO gaming has also waned for me these past years as it has for many". 

Okay, maybe "waned" is a stretch. I'm not convinced I'm even spending less time playing mmorpgs than I was five years ago. I just have more time to play them. I've been at home an awful lot these past two years. Even I can only log so many hours in the same old, familiar games, week in, week out, year after year.

Circumstances certainly don't help. I have been feeling more than the occasional craving for novelty. Not so surprising, given I can't have travelled more than a couple of miles from my front door for the best part of eighteen months. If there was a constant stream of fresh mmorpgs to try I'd most likely have been happy to stick with those but as we know only too well by now, mmos take a hellishly long time to bring to market. Even early access can't get them to us fast enough. 

In common with just about everyone with a blog that used to focus on mmorpgs, of late I've been playing and posting about games in other genres. The newfound desire of gaming platforms to act like pushers in some 1950s exploitation flick, with their "just try a taste - the first one's on me" has had the hoped-for effect. 

Hoped-for by them, that is. What they don't tell you is just how fast you'll burn through these things. After two decades of mmo gaming it's a shock to the system. 

We're not three weeks into the year yet and already I've started and finished five single-player titles (Disco Elysium, three of the five chapters of the Blackwell Chronicles and Along the Edge which I never even got around to posting about) plus a couple of one-act demos. I've also tried several other freebies from Amazon and Epic, including two I'm still playing, Anna's Quest and Darkside Detective.

That's a hell of a lot of games to get through in eighteen days, especially when you consider there have been times when a lot fewer than half that many mmorpgs would have kept me fully occupied for eighteen months.

I'm beginning to see now why I've read so many people complaining about backlogs. Once you realize just how fast you get through this stuff it must be tempting to panic buy. I mean, what if the supply dried up? You need a massive stash just to feel safe.

With mmorpgs you don't have that problem. When you're deep inside one there's always more. The big fear is keeping up, not running out. 

And there are a lot of mmorpgs. In the past I've handled any moments of ennui by just downloading another. I'm still doing it. This morning, after yesterday's post and comments, I re-installed Allods Online. (Geez, that My.Games portal is annoying. I remember now why I uninstalled it last time.)

The thing is, after two decades I feel I've all but exhausted the supply of mmorpgs that interest me. Everything now's about taking a second look. Or a third. Or a tenth.

And doing that doesn't scratch the novelty itch. Not the most appealing metaphor but let's press on. 

The worrying thing is how moreish I'm finding the single-player titles. Finish one, you want to start another. It's chain-gaming and I'm not sure it's healthy.

Last night I began playing Neo Cab. I'm not going to give it the full first impression treatment because I kind of already did that back when I played the demo just over a year ago. I already have a lot to say about it, though. 

I'll get around to posting about it in detail when I'm further in but for now I'll just say it's excellent. Also it plays suprisingly differently than I was expecting. You get out of the car more than I thought you would. I find it quite stressful, but that's something I was expecting. The demo made me sweat.

The question is, how sustainable is single-player gaming as a pastime? For me, that is. For a start, there's the potential cost. One of the best things about playing mostly mmorpgs for twenty years is the money it's saved me. Even allowing for subscriptions, expansions and new games it's been incredibly economical and that's mostly because mmorpgs go on forever.

Single player games don't - at least the ones I enjoy - and that's the real problem here. The kind of single-player games I like don't just end, they end before I'm done with them. A long time before. All of them, pretty much. It's annoying. 

I could replay them but mostly I don't. The plain fact that there's an ending and I've seen it tends to put a cap on the experience. Maybe I could revisit it in a few years but first I have to build up that buffer.

Mmorpgs, as Kaylriene was saying, though, those you can keep on playing even when you're not sure why you're doing it. I can whittle away the afternoon or the evening just doing dailies, sorting inventory, dyeing my armor. It's not exciting but it passes the time. Literally. 

Best of all, there's almost never a point where it feels like you've reached an ending. And that's relaxing. It takes the pressure off. Mmorpgs, the way I play them at least, are relaxing. Sometimes I get so relaxed I fall asleep. Single-player games, they keep me awake. Make me think. Concentrate. Even, in the case of Neo Cab, make me a little scared to log in.

Hmm. That's the question. (Good! I was wondering what it was!). Do I want to feel relaxed and have it cost me next to nothing or would I rather pay money to be stressed? Put that way, it sounds obvious but it's not as easy as a choice as you might think. 

I'm pretty sure if I was working, not sitting around at home under lockdown, I wouldn't even be having this conversation (with myself). When I get home from work or I'm on a day off it's relaxation I'm looking for but after weeks of sitting about at home I find I'm in need of stimulation. Also new things to write about. And I don't mind paying to get them.

I'll probably keep on doing both, then. For now, anyway. 

Later in the year? 

We'll see.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Way We Were


This afternoon I got an old PC working again and on it I found a few folders of screenshots I hadn't seen for a while. Nothing all that far back, but some half-lost memories all the same. Here's a selection.

The house Mrs Bhagpuss was working on in Landmark way back in very early alpha. It was called Little Qalia in homage to Vanguard's superb open-world housing.

And here's the original, Mrs Bhagpuss's Qalian home on a very stormy day. We had properties on close-by plots along the same beach. I'm hoping the Vanguard emulator team gets around to restoring housing one day. I'd love to build my house again. In the same spot.

While we're on the subject of housing, I think this is from a project Mrs Bhagpuss was working on in Rift. There were a lot of shots of it on the drive I was lifting files from. I'm always very loyal to EverQuest II and Vanguard when it comes to housing but I never really investigated Dimensions in Rift. 

On this evidence it seems I really should have paid more attention. Of course, the way mmorpgs work, I imagine these houses are still sitting there, in stasis. I'm not sure what level of dimensional access you get in Rift on a free account these days. Maybe I should log in and find out.

Finally, just for comparison, here's a shot of a room in one of Mrs Bhagpuss's many, many houses in EQII. It's striking how rough the textures seem compared to any of the other shots in this post. I'm not sure if that's what the game's graphics generally looked like back then or whether the quality had been dialled down for practical purposes, which was sometimes necessary when working on large housing projects. Whatever the reason, EQII looks a lot better these days - on my screen, anyway.

Allods is another game I regularly think about revisiting but never follow through. I don't even have it installed on this PC although I noticed it was there on that old one. Allods would feature high on my list of underappreciated mmorpgs. Visually, it's stunning, paricularly for it's age, and the graphics have aged exceptionally well.

These shots are from beta back in 2009 I think. The PC I was tinkering with was an old one of Mrs Bhagpuss's, as must be obvious by now. We both played gibberlings in the beta and had a great time.  There's no race anywhere in the genre like the gibberlings. Or if there is, I've never been lucky enough to find it.

The images I was most excited to see again were the ones from our time on EQII's Test server. We played there for several years, duoing with a variety of characters but most often with these two: Mrs Bhagpuss tanking as a ratonga Bruiser and me providing dps, off-tanking and heals as a Necromancer. Between the two of us and the pet we could just about make a full group. I loved healing as a necro although it required constant vigilance. I've seen necros main-heal groups in both EverQuest and EQII because necros can turn a claw to anything but a duo is about as far as I'd care to push it.

I even found a handful of shots from Final Fantasy XIV. We came close to sticking with that one after the revamp but in the end we gave it up to go back to Guild Wars 2. Good decision, I think.

If we hadn't, we'd never have seen the things we did. I haven't cropped the UI from this so as to leave the chat box where you can watch Yaks Bend's much-missed superstar commander setting up another of his hallmark golem rushes. This looks like a big one but I've seen bigger!


A golem army's not just for offense, of course. This defensive ring is a prime example of why Yaks Bend was the most-hated server in World vs World for many years. No-one remembers any of that now, it seems. Sic transit gloria mundi.

And that's why we take screenshots. And hope not to lose them.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Hero Comes Along

 

Tipa's post on playing DCUO on the Switch reminded me the tenth anniversary celebrations had just started. In theory, I already knew that. I'd already logged in to pick up my freebies. I just got distracted.

What happened was, as soon as I arrived I remembered I'd never done the two event missions from the previous update, Long Live The legion. Since those seemed to be the only way to get a look inside the Legion Clubhouse and I had the vague feeling access for casuals with no hope of meeting the required combat rating might be rescinded when the next update dropped I thought I'd better get on with it.

I queued up as DPS and in less than thirty seconds I was grouped and in the instance. Unfortunately as far as sightseeing went my new group were already at the final boss. By the time I worked out who we were supposed to be fighting it was all over. I picked up my loot and skimmed around a few corridors but there didn't seem to be a lot to look at. Some corridors, mostly.

There was still the second event to try. It turned out to be a raid, which I should have expected because now I think about it the format for these updates is often one group instance and one raid. (And didn't they used to call these updates "Issues", in keeping with the comic book theme? Now they're Episodes, which presumably speaks to the influence of TV, where DC's been so successful in recent years). 

I queued up and once again it took less than half a minute. Probably more like fifteen seconds. This time I got in at the beginning so I saw the whole thing. Unfortunately, once again, there wasn't much to see. Just some cavernous space. We weren't in the Legion's headquarters, that's for sure.

Long Live The Legion!
There were several fights. I died (Sorry, got "knocked out") I think it was three times. Might have been four. Not many other people seemed to be getting K.O.'d but that was because they knew what they were doing. Every time I play I tell myself I should have made a character who stands at max range and channels beams of light or force or magic or whatever it is, like I see other people doing. I'd probably stay on my feet longer doing that instead of whacking raid mobs with a stick.

Not that it matters. I log in most updates and some holidays, pick up my freebies, do the open world repeatable quests once or twice, maybe the event instances if they sound interesting (Thematically interesting, that is. They're all pretty much going to be fights, I know that.)  

If I get anything for my base I go there and decorate for a while. That's probably how I spend most of my time in DCUO these days. Also it's good to see Krypto. He always seems so excited to see me.

There were a couple of base items in the rewards I got from the event instances so I spent a while trying to find somewhere to put them. The Legion symbol was easy. I put it behind the Legion conference table I got last time. The giant fountain was a bit of a poser, though. 

Let's be honest, my whole base is a mess. I got the basement one back when housing was first added and it's thematically appropriate for Batman types or maybe moody magic users. It really doesn't work for most of the furniture I get. I ought to go read up on how housing works in DCUO these days. I'm fairly sure you can have multiple bases. I definitely need one that's bright and breezy.

Come over here and say that!
While I was fiddling about with fountains and such I was thinking about that and about the ranged attacks and maybe having the wrong character and it occurred to me that one of the tenth anniversary gifts was a CR290 token. With that I could make a new character and blast them up to a level from where I could at least see current content, if not actually join in with it. Or, as Tipa explains:

"This is actually the perfect time to pick up DCUO. Daybreak is celebrating DCUO’s tenth anniversary this month, and one of the benefits is a free boost to the max level of 30 and enough gear for a combat rating of 290, as well as a free 75 skill points to spend however you like, and a leveled-up artifact of your choice. PlayStation and PC players get the same benefits, as well.

This won’t bring a new character up to the latest content (requiring a combat rating of 310 or better), but it’s not far from it, and a serious player could make up the difference fairly quickly."

And DCUO is generous with character slots. I have plenty left. I went to character creation to see what I could do with my new token which was when I realized I still have several others unused from previous events, letting me make characters that start at various CRs from 190 upwards.

I have no clue how I got this red mist around me. I have no idea how to make it go away.

 

There's a reason I haven't used them. I remembered what it was when I made my latest new character. It has nothing to do with the tokens. They work perfectly. It's my attitude that's faulty.

Every time I make a new character in any mmorpg with the intention of using one of these near-max-level bootstrappers the same thing happens. I get to the moment of truth, when I'd have to apply it, and I start to wonder if this is really the best time. 

I mean, something might come up, mightn't it? Somewhere down the line there could be an occasion when being able to make a fresh high-level character might be hugely to my advantage. Like... well, I don't know what like but it could happen. And what if it did and I'd used up my tokens on random characters I'm never going to play? Eh? Eh??

The upshot is that I have a load of these things in various games just waiting for the perfect moment. Which never comes. I only used the ones ANet handed out because they super-annoyingly gave them to us in one of the ultra-rare shared inventory slots so that if you don't use the token you can't use the slot for anything else. And even then I kept it for the best part of two years before I finally caved.

So, inevitably, what happened was that I spent the best part of an hour making a new character (Superhero games. So many options) and then I ended up logging her in without using a booster.

And while we're on the subject, why is it when you log your hero in, they never look like you thought they were going to? Is the lighting different in game? I swear I gave her a sun-yellow costume with flame-red boots but here she is in gold and orange. Worse, indoors it's shades of brown!

I knew I shouldn't have washed it on hot cycle.
I did at least skip the tutorial so she started at level four. Then I played her for long enough to get her to level eight and logged out. I even did the first solo instance. The thing is, I really like the first thirty levels of DCUO. I'd actually prefer the whole game to be like that rather than how it is. So there's not much incentive for me to skip it.

On the positive side, I did at least have the sense to make a character whose main powers are blasting people with rays from her hands. So long as I stick with that as I level her up and take the relevant options when I spend my points I could end up with someone who doesn't spend most of her missions running back from respawn.

All of that took so long I never got round to doing the new tenth anniversary content itself. It's something with the Anti-Monitor, I believe. I watched Crisis on Infinite Earths last year so I know who the Anti-Monitor is. 

I'm kidding. I've been steeped in this stuff for nearly sixty years. I know who everyone is. 

I'm kidding! I don't know who anyone is after about 1992!

Never mind. The new stuff will hang around for a few weeks yet. I'll get to it before it goes. But first I really need to do something about that base...

Friday, January 15, 2021

Into The Light

The Blackwell Chronicles is a five-game series, written by Dave Gilbert and published by Wadjet Eye Games, which is to say Dave, his wife, Janet and an artist by the name of Ben Chandler. I believe the first person to recommend the series to me was Jeromai, some considerable time ago, but it was only after I played the same team's standalone title, Unavowed, which shares some concepts and at least one character with the Blackwell series, that I got around to playing the others.

The individual games are quite short. I have to believe that because Steam tells me it's true. My combined playtime for the five comes to a shade over twenty-six hours. Memory tells me it must have been a lot longer. The overall experience is quite intense, intellectually and emotionally. Time slows down while you play.

The format is part point and click adventure, part mystery puzzler, part visual novel. These genres and categories are becoming about as useful as the thousand kinds of house music. Distictions to be debated by devotees only. All that matters is they're character-driven supernatural mysteries. Good ones.

The coherence of the series is its greatest strength. The games were produced over an eight-year period from 2006 to 2014. Their narrative consistency speaks to their origin as the product of a single mind, writer Dave Gilbert, although, like a long-running TV show, the power and impact lies in the gestalt.

It's something of an ensemble piece with many recurring characters but at its core Blackwell is a two-hander. Roseangela Blackwell is the initially unwilling medium, Joey Mallone her cynical spirit guide. Over the course of five games what begins as a cliche concludes as an elegy.

The series strengths are manifold. The gameplay is solid throughout. The controls, which vary only in a few small details from chapter to chapter, are intuitive and functional. I did have one persistent issue with useable items sticking to the cursor but other than that everything felt well-polished.

Much of the busywork of adventure games is edited out to the great benefit of the narrative. Every interactable object and any notable background elements are described on a right-click, used on a left. There are enough non-significant items to keep things interesting but the game is smart about housekeeping. You only get what you need.


 

As you'd expect in a detective game, which these are, much relies on questioning suspects and wtnesses. Dialogs feel natural, within the necessary strictures of the process. There's a looseness that pleases. Not everything has to be about the case.

Across an eight-year run the games themselves remain remarkably constant while technology changes inside the game-world. Roseangela graduates from a desktop computer to a smartphone. Plot points revolve around the way data travels, from dictating machines and notepads in the flashbacks and prequels to usb sticks, email and downloads in the near past, the games' present. Decades of cultural shift, documented.

The puzzles are mostly reasonable and logical. Sometimes I ran into things I wouldn't have done but never things no-one would. I did occasionally revert to a walkthrough but almost always because I knew what to do but couldn't figure out how the game wanted me to do it. A handful of out-of-game hints was all I needed although I did make good use of the neat in-game mechanic whereby the two protagonists discuss what they think they should do next.

That works so well in large part because of the real excellence of the voice acting. It's some of the best I've encountered and one of the reasons is the tone, uniformly understated. I can't think of a single instance of overacting across the entire series. No-one puts on an accent they clearly can't manage. No-one hams it up or clowns about. No-one attempts to sound portentous or meaningful. 

The cast don't sound like video-game voice artists although I'm sure they are. Self-evidently they must be. What they sound like is experienced, professional actors in a radio drama. They also sound like they're being well-directed, the lack of which is so often the downfall of game voiceover. I don't believe I noticed more than a couple of false line readings in the entire series and even those could have been a matter of interpretation.


 

It's as well the voice acting is so good because there's a lot of it. A good deal of those twenty-six hours I spent sitting back, watching and listening. Some sequences run on for quite a while without the need for intervention from the player. And that's fine. Both the material and the execution are more than capable of sustaining that level of attention. I never felt twitchy for a scene to end.

If the actors are exemplary, so are the artists, given the limited tools at their disposal. Unlike voice acting, where video games run well behind the pack, video game artists lead the field. Even the makers of global hit movies look to videogame artists for inspiration. 

Blackwell doesn't have that kind of art. It has simple, flat illustrations that remind me of cels from a 1990s cartoon. Maybe a retro animation harking back to the 1960 or '70s. It's a hard style to pin down but it very much works. 

The colors are vibrant without being garish. The set design is clean without resorting to minimalism. The world has a used, lived-in feeling, slightly heightened but never to the self-conscious level of something like Backbone. No talking animals, either.

The animation is very limited but also effective. Coming off Disco Elysium, which has some of the best incidental character animation I've ever seen, the notional movements of the Blackwell characters feel eliptical, sketched, but they do their job. 


 

Much more important are the cameo portraits that appear when characters speak, the facial expressions that have the nuance needed to carry the emotional heft. And there's plenty to carry. Blackwell's themes are cosmic, sure, but also intimate. The series is studded with failure and loss, character after character breaking down, being broken down, then being borne up. 

And so we come to the greatest of the series' many strengths: the writing. It starts out assured and gains in confidence from there. There's a difficult balance to maintain between the supernatural, the personal, the puzzles and the plot. Gilbert handles it deftly. The mysteries are involving, the meta-mystery is nuanced and elusive, the characters are consistent, well-rounded, good company. There's nothing flash or show-offy about any of it. It's class.

As with any long-running series, over time the characters become friends. Even the ones you don't like. Roseangela is likeable throughout, with her unsubtle questions and chemical crutches. I wish she'd say yes to a drink once in a while. She obviously neds one. Her character arc is really something to see although when you've seen it, at the end, you might wish you hadn't.

Joey irritated the hell out of me for most of the run. He starts out a smart-mouthed cynic you want to slap and scarcely redeems himself with his increasingly frequent bouts of passive-aggressive self-criticism. By the end, though, I came to understand and even sympathize. He's had a difficult unlife. Cut him a little slack.

There are so many memorable characters, lives glimpsed in vignettes. Every game does a superb job of recalling what came before with photographs and memorabilia scattered around in places that make perfect sense. There's a texture to the tapestry. A consistency. I'm very glad I played though the series not just in order but also in quick succession, so those memories were fresh. 


 

That said, I started at the end with Unavowed which, despite not being part of the series, clearly is part of the series. And I'm happy I did. There's a moment in the final chapter, Blackwell Epiphany, when you meet a character who later appears in Unavowed. When it happened I literally sat back my chair and exclaimed her name out loud. With an expletive. It felt like meeting an old friend unexpectedly in the street. "It's you! It's really you!"

There's a strange, looping asynchronicity. The set-up is for the reveal in a then-unrealised future. I'm sure Blackwell veterans, meeting the same character in Unavowed, have the same sort of reaction in reverse. It makes my head spin to think of it.

As does the internal logic of how this particular character comes to be who they are in Unavowed, doing what it is they do there. Because given the way the final Blackwell game ends, that can't happen. 

Another mystery. One I hope to see solved or at least elucidated in the next game Dave Gilbert writes. At least, I hope he'll write some more. The FAQ on the Wadjet Eye website worryingly still seems to think there are only four Blackwell games ("Soon to be five") and Dave's personal blog hasn't seen a new entry since 2016, although he's very active on Twitter.

Even though I couldn't find anything to confirm it, I hope he's working on something. A sequel to Unavowed or another story set in the same world. I haven't seen enoough yet. I want to know where all this is going. 

And if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Maybe We'll Love It


Continuing this week's impromptu theme, yesterday's post barely came closer to what I'd meant to write than the day's before. I did always plan to use the promo video for Guild Wars 2's upcoming Champions: Power update but only as an example of a point I wanted to make about how promotional videos can sometimes work against the purpose for which they're made.

This was something I found myself thinking about after I'd watched the spectacular official video for Chemtrails Over The Country Club,  the title track from Lana del Rey's follow-up to what is now one of my top five favorite albums of all time, Norman Fucking Rockwell

We should probably have the video right away so we know what we're talking about. Watch it to the end.

Objectivity can be hard to come by when you love an artist 's work as much as I love Lana's. It gets harder yet, when you find yourself dealing with a sequel, not just to what may turn out to be the artist's career high but to what is probably also one of the highlights of your own lifetime spent listening to popular music. When Mariners Apartment Complex dropped back in 2019 I played it over and over like I hadn't played anything since... well, since I first found Lana back in 2012, as it happens, but perhaps more meaningfully since I was buying vinyl back in high school.

Even that breathtaking impact did little more than hint at the glory of what was to come. Next we had Venice Bitch, clocking in at just under ten minutes, suggesting something like Ride's epic sweep, opening with what seemed a simple, sweet pop song, only to subvert and shatter those expectations in a psychedelic surge that felt like decades compacted, spiking. 

Those two promos created such pressure. The visuals perfectly, ineffably melded with the songs. They're works of art but so are many pop videos. The Venice Bitch video, though, it's also a drug. It's psychotropic. I'm guessing it works the way ASMR works. Or something like it. 

 

Back in 2019 I watched it over and over and I rarely got to see the end. Or the middle, sometimes. Even if I watched it in daylight, by somewhere around the six or seven minute mark I'd be in a trance state. Usually the coda would bring me back, Lana intoning "If you weren't mine I'd be jealous of your love"  like a mantra, phrasing like Marilyn, splitting "weren't" in two until everything came clear.

If I watched it at night, well, chances were I'd be fast asleep before the end. I haven't watched it for a while but yesterday I did, thinking about writing this today, and the magic's still intact although repeated exposure has built some limited immunity. I managed to keep my eyes open, at least. Just barely.

Norman Fucking Rockwell, when it arrived, turned out to have a dozen more tracks all as good as Mariners or Venice Bitch. Some, arguably, better. And there were more videos, made to the same standard. The whole thing had "career high water mark" stamped all over it. You'd have to be David Bowie to move on from something like that.

So releasing a superb collection of spoken-word poetry was a masterstroke. Could have been a calamity but not if you have the literary chops and especially not if you have the voice. And Jack Antonoff.  


A palate cleanser, anyway. And here we are, two years later, a few months late, waiting on the reveal. We've had a taste already. The official video for Love Me Like A Woman, the first single off the album, released at the tail end of last year, comes replete with  handheld camera shots and faux Super8 home movie filters and it also uses some of Venice Bitch's choppy tricks to similar effect. 

I find it disorientating but instead of inducing a trance state it gives me mild motion sickness. Also, the last few seconds, when the song's ended but the incidental conversation continues, brings me out of one moment into another in a way I'm certain is intentional but which I find oddly exclusive.

The "live" version of the same song from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon though... Oh, my. That has an entirely different power. It focuses attention wholly on the song and the performance and in doing so opens up a world. As a tempter for the album I find it compelling. 

 


And so to Chemtrails itself, or the video, at least. It was linked on Pitchfork when I checked Feedly a few days back. I watched it immediately. For some reason the link wouldn't open the YouTube original so I foolishly watched it in the embed. Too small. Impact blunted. Rookie error.

Then I went to YouTube, as I should have from the start, and watched it fullscreen. It's a stunning video that follows Lana's long-established fifties technicolor fetish with a horror movie twist I didn't see coming. That twist took me right out of the song, although the color keying was already so strong I wasn't fully inside to begin with.

Chemtrails Over The Country Club is a great song. It's even a great Lana del Rey song. But I wasn't sure of that until I watched this simple lyric video. It lets the song speak for itself, without all the drama. 


Lana's songs attract a lot of fan videos. Some of them, like the ones Mermaid Motel makes, are as good or even better than the official promos. There are always plenty of lyric videos, too. This may not be the prettiest made for Chemtrails but it's the one I watched first and now it's the one I keep watching.

Here's a thing. Watching that lyric video has something of the same ASMR effect on me as the Venice Bitch. Less intense. Mellower. But my skin tingles. It's a physical sensation. I have it on in the background as I type and I had to stop, tab out and stare at the lyrics as they reveal themselves. 

And this lyric video makes me more excited for the full album than the spectacular mini-movie I saw first. Not just because the song can breathe free but because of something in the simplicity, the inexorable, rolling inevitabilty.

A great video is a great video. A great song is a great song. Put the two together, you might get something greater still. You might get Venice Bitch. Or you mightn't. It's a gamble. Maybe just make a movie?


And the greatest gamble of all must be whether something greater than the two parts is even what you want. If you're making art, then, yes, of course. If it's commerce? Maybe not.

Getting back to games, if anyone who's mostly interested in those is still reading, which has to be doubtful, it's something we see a lot. I wrote about it, in some detail, nearly three years ago. The same links I'd use here are there, if anyone needs examples. I'm sure you can all think of plenty of your own.

That GW2 video I linked yesterday falls squarely into a category I call "Hey, guys! Remember our game exists?" It's the default for trivial updates in ongoing franchises. Mmorpg players see it a lot. When you have your income stream locked in you can afford to tread water that way. For a while.

When you have an expansion coming, though, you need to bring your A-game. For all my reservations, that Chemtrails promo is doing what it needs to do. Just not really what I need it to do. But then, much as yesterday, Lana doesn't need to sell me. And I guess neither does GW2.

For entirely different reasons.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

We Appreciate Power /s


Believe it or not, when I sat down to write yesterday's post I had no thought or intention even to mention Louise Wener or Sleeper. The whole point of the opening paragraph was to set a scene wherein I came home, sat down in front of the computer screen, spotted a new video for the next chapter of Guild Wars 2's Icebrood Saga, watched it and wondered why I even bother.

Only what happened was that in just a few keystrokes I was away on a journey so much more interesting, which, after all, was kind of the point. The thing about that promotional video for Power... No, hang on, let's have it so we know what we're talking about...

 

So, yeah, the thing about is this: I don't have a clue what any of this stuff they're promoting is. 

I play GW2 every day. Really, every day. On two accounts. Yesterday I played on three. I probably rack up thirty to forty-five minutes even on days when all I do is dailies. Most days I play two or three hours. I've been playing since launch. Eight years. Nearly nine years if you count the beta weekends.

I've played all of the Living Story episodes at least far enough to know what's going on. I'm curious about that part. I'd like to see what's happening in Ebonhawke. I want to know what Jormag's up to and what Primordius is planning.  

Problem is, I know that's going to be less than one per cent of the update. A lot less. Vanishingly small, in fact. The narrative exists only as a framing device for activities I neither understand nor care about.


 

What are "Dragon Response Missions"? I'm guessing they're some kind of repeatable, instanced content. I think it's those things they've taken to embedding in the storyline, where you take some confusing option from a menu on a portal and run around not having much clue what's happening until stuff updates and you can leave. Yeah, it must be those.

Then there are the "Allied Factions". Say what, now? And that's Skritt, is it? Is this any different from back in the original personal story, when we all had to decide which NPC races got to join the Pact? Because I chose Skritt then. Aren't they already our allies? Did they defect or something?

Sorry, it's starting to sound as if I care and I really don't. I know this is just some new grind designed to give achievers things to do until the expansion arrives. There's no good reason to get sucked in to that.

Ok, how about "New Upgrades and Faction Rewards"? Upgrades to what, exactly? Gear? We don't have a gear ladder, do we? I thought that was the point. I made my Ascended armor years ago and it's as good now as it was then. Since I never change my build I don't need Legendary, because all it does is let you swap easily between the same power levels you have at Ascended. Is there some other grade I missed? (No, there isn't).


 

As for those faction rewards, I guess those are the things I looked at on a vendor last time and couldn't see any reason to buy. Only now there are more of them. Whoop-di-do.

Are there people out there doing all this stuff? Why? What are they doing it for? If they get these upgrades, what are they using them for? Is there content that requires them? Am I missing something? Like the game, maybe?

Here's what I do in GW2. World vs World and World Bosses. Holiday events. Three hours of Living World story every couple of months. Once in a great while some map completion or a fragment of personal story. Most of it content that was in the game when it started. Oh, and sometimes I do some Heart of Thorns stuff for fun. Because I like it. 

The great thing about GW2 is that, after eight and a half years, pretty much all of the original content is still populated, active, meaningful and even busy. Same with a lot of the stuff that's been added since. If you feel like doing Dragon's Stand, the two-hour long epic finale from the expansion before last, which hasn't been current endgame content for years, you can. There are squads doing it every day. You can find them in LFG. 

Only last night a guild was recruiting in open chat for people to come join them for Triple Trouble, content introduced in 2014. It takes organization, co-operation and a lot of people and it still gets done. Every day. 

Even in the minor leagues content persists. Two days ago I logged in to Metrica Province and got swept up in an organized attempt to beat back the invading hordes sent by Joko as part of his failed invasion.  Joko got eaten by Aurene the Magic Dragon long ago. He's not invading anywhere any more only no-one told his armies. The events go on and people still do them as though it mattered. 

I don't know any other mmorpg that's managed to keep so much content so relevant for so long. Almost everything that's ever been added is still being done and not just by the inevitable one or two oddballs. It's being done by groups and squads and teams and because of the way the game was originally conceived passers-by are being sucked in and they're doing it too.

And there you have the nub of it. All of that content is out in the open world, not locked away in instances. If the upcoming invasion of Ebonhawke happens in the real Ebonhawke I'll eat these words. But I'm betting it won't. It will be hived away in an instance as a "Dragon Response Mission", meaning it can be packaged and sold in the Gem store when this chapter of the Saga is replaced by the next.

Which is why I'll probably never see it again after I do it the one time required by the story. And why I really can't bring myself to care any more. Only, for all the same reasons I just gave, I'll still go on playing. I'll still keep logging in, every day.

So I don't imagine Anet care that I don't care. Why would they?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

I Talk About Sleeper


When we got back from our officially sanctioned one hour exercise period, a two-person, one household walk in our local area, and I'd sorted the recycling and put the bins out (the excitement never starts around here) I made us both a coffee, sat down and finished the last few pages of Louise Wener's debut novel Goodnight Steve McQueen.

Louise Wener was the singer in my favorite Britpop band, Sleeper. Well, it was either them or Powder. Apart from knocking out tune after tune that sounded like you'd been humming them all your life, pretty much a baseline requirement for any band of the era, Sleeper were known for the narrative carry of their deft, articulate three minute slice-of-life songs. 

It's a long tradition in British pop from Pete Townshend's dexedrine sketches of mod life through Difford and Tilbrook's kitsch dramas, all the way to Alex Turner documenting the new millennium. Someone's out there doing it for the pandemic right now, I'm sure, only I'm too out of touch to tell you who that might be.

 

Louise Wener's the only one I can think of who traded her six-string for a laptop and turned herself into a successful novelist. It seems like a transferable skill but the jump from snappy lyric to sustained prose isn't one every pop star can pull off.

It took me a long time to get around to reading my first Louise Wener novel. I bought her sophomore effort, The Big Blind, ("A quirky, stylish, feelgood novel of high stakes, lost love and poker") years ago, mainly out of curiosity. It sat on my shelves, unread, until the first lockdown, when months of enforced idleness, much of it with the shops shut, pushed me into doing something I should have been doing all along, namely reading things I already own instead of just buying more and not reading those either.

The Big Blind was a lot better than I expected. It's a very good mainstream novel. Even with time on my hands, though, I probably wouldn't have taken it off the shelf if I hadn't already read her rock and roll memoir, "Different for Girls: A Girl's Own True-life Adventures in Pop", a solid read.

The older I get, the keener I am on these transit van tales. There's a burgeoning genre of self-lacerating accounts by literate musicians, many of whom write unsurprisingly well. It is, after all, one of the things they became famous for doing. It's all the other things they did, of course, before they became famous, while they were famous, after they stopped being famous, that make the books so compelling.

 


Especially now they're all writing books about the same period. They're all of an age. They've all had the same experiences. They were present at the same events. Triangulating between Louise Wener, Russell Senior, Brett Anderson and Luke Haines feels like picking your way across a fractured, fascinating mosaic. 

Senior is the wittiest, Haines the most scurrilous (and the scariest). Brett I've yet to get to. Louise, though, she might be the most forthright. She says things about herself that it's hard to believe she knows she's said, sometimes, and her girl-next-door demeanor almost persuades you it's your mistake.

In Goodnight Steve McQueen, the story of a late twenty-something guitarist and songwriter, whose biggest break to date was being in a band who could have been the Wonder Stuff, if the Wonder Stuff hadn't got there first, Louise follows the second rule of fiction: write what you know. Very much as in Mick Farren's seminal (and impossible to find) masterpiece The Tale of Willy's Rats, it isn't until you get to read the memoir that you realize just why it all seemed so true to life.

 

The Big Blind (aka The Perfect Play in its American edition, which I also bought, thinking it was a different book entirely), though, has nothing to do with music or the business. As far as I know, neither do the rest of her novels, The Half Life of Stars and Worldwide Adventures in Love, both of which I have on the desk in front of me as I type and both of which I plan on reading during this year's lockdown. 

And that will be that. Louise's final flirtation with fiction was in 2009. Her memoir appeared three years later. That's all she wrote.

Oh, except for a BBC radio drama series, Queens of Noise, about a fictional indie band called Velveteens, which she co-wrote with Roy Boulter, refugee from pre-Britpop baggies, The Farm

Until I checked her wikipedia entry for this post I'd never heard of Queens of Noise but now I really, really want to listen to it. And it turns out I can! Now if the BBC would just like to put their adaptation of Ian Banks' Espedaire Street online we'd all be happy.


In 2017 Sleeper reformed. It's what bands do, now. When I was a teenager groups had a shelf life. They lasted a few years, five if they were lucky, then they'd split up. The talented ones would join other bands or go solo and the rest would get jobs as car mechanics or buy pubs and become alcoholics, just like they would have if they'd never been in a band that made it in the first place.

These days a couple of hit singles means a career for life. It would be easier to make a list of the bands that haven't given it another go than the ones with the guts to stay gone. Pop acts are like mmorpgs; they keep on going even though it's hard to imagine there's anyone left who cares any more. Although this last year might have something to say about that...

And, honestly, it makes sense. Ambition like that doesn't just boil away and neither does affection. The bands want to keep on doing it, the fans want to keep on pretending they haven't grown old. Why not?

 

Of course, it helps if you have the talent to back it all up. Sleeper in 2019 sound as good as Sleeper in 1996. The new songs sound like the old songs only with a richer texture. And Louise clearly has one of those paintings in her Crouch End loft.

Still, good as she is at the day job, I hope she gets back to the laptop someday. My days of going to gigs ended around the same time Sleeper knocked it on the head the first time round. If I ever start again (and I was, ironically, thinking about it just before the pandemic hit) it'll be for something wholly new, not to revisit old glories, no matter how well-sustained.

Novels, though? I could always use a few more of those, especially now, when it's dark before five and too damp to go out, even when they let you. Maybe now we all have have time on our hands would be a moment.

Thanks!

Monday, January 11, 2021

Amateur Cartography


I have a habit of hammering out comments on blogs without necessarily having read the rest of the thread. I don't always do it, or even mostly, but there are times when I read the post, have an immediate reaction, open the comment field and have at it. Then I post the comment, read it back and only then read what other people have said.

Sometimes that means I find I've repeated a point someone else has made. Sometimes another comment adds information or insight that makes me wish I'd read it before I sounded off. Most times, though, it doesn't really affect anything. I'd have made the same comment either way.

Once in a while, though, something strange and unpredictable happens. This morning I made the following reply to a post at Later Levels entitled "Taking notes: keeping records during video games":

"I hugely prefer the game to do it for me, for two reasons. Firstly, as you say, it makes for a more relaxed experience for the player. Much more importantly, though, in almost all adventure or roleplaying games I see myself as the director not the actor. It’s my character (or the protagonist if it's a named character) who inhabits the gameworld. I’m merely facilitating their explorations. They have skills that are not my skills and knowledge that is not my knowledge. I can direct them but it’s they who have to act. Accordingly, it’s they who need to make notes, not me."

 When I read it back after I'd posted it, I spoted this comment by Quietschisto immediately preceding what I'd written:

"Taking notes is half the fun of mystery games! Automated notebooks etc. are a bit of a turn-off for me, as it takes away player agency. When confronted with a narrative focusing on a central mystery, the player character becomes secondary, it’s all about the player himself putting together pieces of the puzzle, and anything the main character does automatically can spoil something. What if the player came to a different conclusion? Following a wrong lead is part of the game, and when done correctly, can be a lot of fun. So, go Team Manual Notes!"

There could scarcely be a starker encapsulation of the difference between two sets of expectations of the same source material. The waters are muddied slightly because the nominal subject here is adventure or mystery rather than roleplaying but the genres share such an extensive hinterland these days I don't feel it's much of a stretch to treat them as variants rather than separate entities.


 

I've held roughly the same position since I first began playing tabletop rpgs in the early nineteen-eighties. When I was introduced to the concept and set about creating a character of my own I never felt that character was my avatar (not that we ever used that word back then). I felt I was the author or the director but never the actor.

In any situation the question was never "what am I going to do?" but "what is my character going to do?". Always at one remove. It made perfect sense to me. After all, I don't know how to cast spells or wield a battle-axe. I couldn't climb a cliff or ford a river in flood. If I lifted my torch to light a cave and saw an eight-foot tall spider looking back at me I'd probably have a heart attack and if I didn't I'd run like hell in the opposite direction.

It's always my character who has skills and aptitudes and abilities and attitudes that allows them to survive in these situations, not me. And the games enable that by use of various statistics and numbers and rules. The more the game can facilitate that process, the better.

I have never liked making maps or keeping written records while gaming. It's sometimes a necessary chore but I've always seen it as a shortcoming of technology. If making maps is a part of gameplay, my character should have cartography skill and checks should come from that. When passed, the game should provide appropriate mapping.

That didn't happen much in the early days of mmorpgs but my response wasn't to make maps of my own. Instead, like most people, I searched around until I found someone who liked doing that sort of thing and used theirs. Most people presumably felt that way because there was a whole publishing industry based around printed maps. 


 

One of the handful of websites all EverQuest players had bookmarked was EQ Atlas. Most of us probably had a folder next to our 14" CRT monitors with all the maps we thought we'd need neatly printed and filed. Another was Allakhazam, where you'd find all the nitpicking details of every quest, none of which the game documented for you.

As time went on, EverQuest, like almost every other mmorpg, acquired in-game maps and in-game quest journals and all kinds of accoutrements to make it so the player didn't have to do the grunt work any more. And for most of us it was grunt work. We'd all been relying on the existence of a relative handful of people who actually enjoyed making lists and drawing maps. And those people, because it was fun for them, kept on doing it. But the rest of us didn't have to and we were glad.

Except I wanted more than that. I wanted it to be my characters who had the combat skills, not me. I wanted the outcome of fights to be decided by dice-rolls not by how fast I could twitch my fingers. And, yes, I wanted the characters I played who had lower stats to be disadvantaged materially in game as a result. It was supposed to work both ways. You shouldn't be able to compensate for your characters low dexterity by dint of youe own nimble fingers.

I used to argue that case in game, not infrequently. It was rarely well-received. Most people thought they were playing a game not watching their characters living a life. And, ironically, the more the games did to take the load off the players, the less important the characters became and the more the games became about player skill.

It wore me down like water on a rock, smoothed away away the jagged edges but left the core. I don't mention it in chat any more and I accept that much of what my charactesr do in game will be limited by my skills not theirs. But it didn't change my basic belief: it's not about me, it's about my character. 


 

The result is all games mean less than they did. They've become just that: games. Somehow, they used to be more than that.

In mmorpgs it doesn't matter all that much. It's a confused and confusing medium anyway, the personal mixed inextricably with the social, other people's enjoyment affected by your knowledge, ability and skill. Once you start playing team games it can't just be all about you any more. And once you've learned the habit it carries over even when you're playing alone. 

Single-player rpgs and character-based adventures and mysteries are different. There, it's the player, the character and the game. No-one else's feelings or wishes to consider. You can cheat as hard as you like and you'll only be cheating yourself. Use walkthroughs, save-scum, keep rolling the stats until you get the ones you want. Even download third-party hacks that break the whole game. Go ahead, knock yourself out, no-one else knows and if they did they wouldn't care.

If you're going to play it straight, though, it comes back to the perspective split. Who's looking at the world? You? Your character? The two of you together? The first feels mechanistic, the second is impractical. It has to be both, doesn't it. But in what proportion and with what precedence?

This has much to do with what I liked about my time in Revachol and also what I didn't. More than most games I've played it goes hard on the concepts of character skills and knowledge. The protagonist can do things you never could, knows things you never will, feels things you just can't. He does it in context and without your assistance. He has hunches, feelings, insights. He pulls off feats you wouldn't have thought him capable. Him, neither.


 

If he did this all on his own Disco Elysium wouldn't be a game. It would be a peculiarly animated movie. But you direct him. You build up and tear down his personality. You dress him in costume. You give him motivation. I've rarely felt the role of director a more apt metaphor than here. At times it's scarcely a metaphor at all.

I said at one point that I felt Disco Elysium worked best as a game. My views on its weakness as a narrative have moderated but I don't want to walk that back. In fact I think I'll walk it forward. It plays as I feel a video game should, if it aspires to be something more than a game. For once, most unusually, I didn't find myself thinking here was a story I'd enjoy more told in another medium. As a movie perhaps or a novel. For once the gamelike elements seem integrated, utilized, not appended or indulged.

One of the great strengths of the design is that the gameworld retains an intense, brooding sense of mystery while at the same time not expecting the player to go searching every nook and cranny for enlightenment. Everything that can be revealed is highlighted for you. Everything, that is, the character is able to perceive. 

The character's perceptions are modified by many factors: items, thoughts, skills, attributes. Only through a combination of these does he see his world. But you see him and there's your agency. You wind him up and set him down and hope he performs.

It's a compromise. Technology hasn't yet reached the level where we can insert ourselves into worlds nor yet change our perceptions to match another's. We're stuck for now with smeared lenses and thick gloves, trying to squint the world clear while we fumble at the controls. But this feels a little cleaner, a little closer. If I screw up my eyes I can almost see the future.

It's a future where I won't be keeping notes. Or drawing maps.

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