Monday, November 30, 2020

Darkness, Darkness...

Sometime around the middle of Sunday afternoon I happened across this news item at Massively OP. I was mildly interested. I had a vague memory of having heard the name Reign of Darkness before, although I didn't immediately associate it with an mmorpg. Maybe I was thinking of that project Funcom canned when they were having money troubles. Or was it CCP? Some northern European developer, anyway. 

"Old school hardcore" isn't a phrase that sets my juices flowing these days, either. It might have, a few years back. There was a moment when taking a trip back to the imagined golden age seemed like a fine idea but I'm guessing most people are over that, now. And anyone who's not is probably playing Classic WoW.

Still. Tab-target and all. It seemed negligent not to at least take a look and there was no time to waste. Doors close on the free weekend at 10am PST on December 1st. Which means you still have a day to check it out for yourself, providing you're reading this right after I hit publish.

Reign of Darkness is conveniently available on Steam and I do mean conveniently. Steam hasn't generally been thought of as a primary platfrom for mmorpgs but if there's one time when it comes into its own it's for demos and tests like this. It makes a big difference, not having to come up with yet another throwaway email address to make yet another account with yet another company for yet another game that I'll only ever use this once.

Instead it was a flurry of quick clicks and a fast download and there I was, staring at my new character moodily staring back at me from beneath her pointy hood. Nice armor, too.

There was a large Kickstarter logo to the upper right and a succinct and coherent mission statement to the left. I didn't stop to check the Kickstarter page at the time. I was eager to jump into the game, get a few screenshots and call it a day. I figured I'd get a blog post out of it and not much more. 

I'm going to de-rail that story by saying right now that I ended up playing for a couple of hours. It was fun. Also, I have since visited the Kickstarter page and it's a good one. 

The goals are realistc. The developers (it's really pretty much one guy, Tyler Smith) already have a working game. They just want to ensure that development is able to continue. The sum they're trying to raise, $100,000, seems realistic but for once, very unusually, they've itemized exactly how that money will be spent.

At least, I think that's what the wheel is meant to show. There's no explanatory gloss. It's fascinating to see the lion's share of money to be raised is predicated for taxes and legal costs. I'd be curious to hear some more on how that works. Also, why the total comes to $123,000 rather than round hundred the campaign asks for.

Overall, though, it comes across as one of the more balanced, rational and convincing Kickstarter pitches I've seen. The goals are clear and coherent, there's a working product backers can try out and the stretch goals do in fact stretch the concept rather than break it.

Not that I imagine the stretch goals are going to come into contention. The campaign has only just begun (it runs until December 27th) and so far it's at $1,656, which is 1.66% funded. The way these things go, if they're going to succeed there's usually a big burst at the start and then again towards the end. RoD's going to need to pick up some traction if it's going to make its goal.

I'm thinking about pledging, albeit only at the level that gets me a copy of the game and a title. At $20 that's really not much of a commitment. It's the same price as the Early Access version already available on Steam. I might just buy that instead.

The reason I'm considering it is simple. Reign of Darkness already has the makings of a decent mmorpg. I played for a couple of hours yesterday and didn't really want to stop. It's barebones, yes, but the bones are sound. It just needs flesh putting on them.

The developers are a little vague about their credentials ("Together our team has worked on many projects and has over 30 years of experience.  Working on apps, online & offline games, company-specific tools, and many other creations.") but they mention having worked on the Vanguard Emulator project. That doesn't surprise me. There are some distinct similarities between RoD and Vanguard.

There are a lot more differences, though. There are all the usual high fantasy trappings ("Medusa, Minotaurs, Lycans, Vampires, Sirens, Chimeras, and vile serpents, Dragons") and the classes are familiar (Necromancer, Paladin, Priest, Archer, Barbarian...) but the choice of background and setting is odd. It's set in an alternate version of the Middle Ages when "Through his own actions mankind created the bane of his own existence, he had created Satan".


There's a lot of that going on, I find. I'll add this one to my growing pile of horror-inflected fantasy I.P.s. I have a post brewing about that but it's almost too big a topic to get a handle on right now. Suffice it to say that, for me at least, dragging Christian iconography into the fantasy mix is not a strong selling point.

I'd rarely let the supposed lore put me off playing an mmorpg with solid diku-MUD gameplay, though, and based on my brief experience with it so far I'd definitely say Reign of Darkness has that. Once I'd made my character, which didn't take long since there are currently no choices beyond whether you want to be male or female and what you want to call yourself, it was off to kill small animals and level up.

Yeah, not exactly. I did get to that but it took just a little longer. First I watched the optional introduction in which a mysterious figure, apparently suffering from a severe depressive illness, made a long speech in a barely-audible whisper. The figure kept its back to me the whole time. Once it stood up. Then it sat down again. Meanwhile an ominous, giant figure moved across the horizon. If it was meant to be unsettling it succeeded.

Once that was done I logged into the game itself and found myself in a small castle. There were quite a few people wandering around, most of them players. At this point I'd usually spend a good while fiddling with the UI and the settings but RoD doesn't have many options yet and the defaults are very close to what I'd choose so I just checked I had a weapon equipped and set off to start hacking up the local wildlife.

The scenery was pleasant enough. The game's made in Unity and looks immediately familiar because of that, I think. I found a guard who wanted some scorpions killed, which sounded about my speed, although I thought he was pushing his luck asking for fifteen. Hasn't he ever heard of the Kill Ten convention?

Scorpions were easy enough to find. They were all over the place and the size of carts. Unfortunately the first three or four I tried were inert. I could hit them but they didn't bite back. I would have been fine with that but they also took no damage so I moved on.


That was the only glitch or bug I experienced in the couple of hours I played and it only happened in one spot. I soon found a scorpion that didn't stand still for being poked with a sword. It killed me and fast. I woke up in the castle and tried again with the same result.

There's old-school and there's hardcore and there's "you're doing it wrong". Which I was. Over the course of the next half-hour I managed to find out several things about how to set up a character in Reign of Darkness, among them how to choose a class (you can have up to three, mix-and-match), how to spend points on statistics (you start with forty, all unallocated), how to select spells, attacks and passives and how to move your abilities onto your hotbars so you can actually use them.

Some of this stuff I'd normally expect to have found in Character creation and the rest of it in a tutorial. Here you just have to pick it up as you play. 

Once I'd gotten all that lot sorted I had a much better time of it. I found some more quests (the game's not too old-school to hang a punctuation mark over an NPC's head) although I had to remember them for myself since I couldn't find a quest journal. I put my bow away because arrows are in limited supply and took to relying on my trusty starter sword.

As I wandered the roads around the castle, laying steel to anything that came in reach, my bags began to fill up with what looked like crafting materials and cash drops. With a couple of necromantic spells and a leech attack worthy of any dark knight I was winning most of my fights, even with creatures a level or two above me, but there were plenty of times when it was close and a few when I got in over my head and woke up back in the castle courtyard.

At one point I ventured through a portal at the base of a tower only to find myself in an arena of some kind. I came back out pretty quickly but not long after I managed to get into a competition with some passing stranger over who should be killing a scorpion and it turned out I'd tripped my PvP flag because the stranger left off killing the scorpion and killed me instead.

It was all quite jolly. I was having a pretty good time. It got even better when I searched the corpse of something I'd killed and found a blue-quality sword. Nothing like a good drop to raise the spirits. When I received an off-hand weapon and found I coud dual-wield I was really starting to get into it.

By the time I made level five it was plain Reign of Darkness was successfully pressing most of the right buttons for me. It's clearly in the very early stages and I'm not sure how much content it already has (although someone in chat mentioned hitting level thirty-two and I saw someone riding what appeared to be a wyvern mount, so there would seem to be some depth to the game already). The potential is evident, though.

Although it's coming from a somewhat different branch of the mmorpg evolutionary tree, perhaps the game RoD most reminds me of is Project:Gorgon. It has the same handmade feel to it, a similar sense of being one person's vision. There's the same impression of care and attention, that this is something someone's making because it's the game they want to play themselves.

That's not going to help RoD break any sales records but it's a good sign for longevity. Games like these tend to grow slowly but stick around. I'd be surprised if the Kickstarter succeeeds (although I hope it does) but, like Project:Gorgon, I don't imagine failure to fund will put an end to it. When P:G failed, Eric and Sandra Heimburg just kept plodding along and I imagine Tyler Smith will, too.

Like P:G, I can imagine RoD picking up a small but loyal following, particularly if development on Pantheon continues at the current, glacial pace. There's very definitely a market here that's not being well served and anything functional is going to draw at least a small crowd.

Reign of Darkness is already better than just functional. It's fun, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. I don't imagine I'll end up spending a lot of time there, not least because I find the premise and the lore more than a tad disturbing, but I can definitely see it becoming one of those games I pop into now and again to see how it's coming along and then find myself playing for longer than I intended.

That alone makes it worth either backing or just buying on Steam. The question is, when am I going to find the time to play?

Sunday, November 29, 2020

November Songs

Good news! I've sourced a name-of-the-month song for every month from now until next August, bringing us full circle to where this all started with September Songs. I know everyone was worried I wouldn't be able to manage it but it's okay! I did it! It really wasn't so difficult, either! 

Of course, most of them are pretty obscure and some of them aren't even all that good but, hey, you can't have everything. At least we can all sleep easy in our beds now that's settled.

Nothing obscure or inferior about this month's lead selection. Or should I say last month's? Yes, I definitely should because I've kind of got this going on the offbeat, haven't I? Never mind. Let's crack on!

October Songs - October Song - Amy Winehouse - The much-missed Ms Winehouse. I kind of missed her entire career, even though I did once hear her unveil Rehab live on national radio when it was still not much more than a demo. She was semi-famous by then but I had no clue who she was. It was a sit up and take notice moment, for sure, but then I slumped back and forgot about her again. My loss. All our loss. In the extremely unlikely case anyone's not up for a bit of Amy, maybe I could sell you on a slice of Bif Naked instead. It's good.

I Found A Fox - Hounds of Love - Kate Bush - Takes something to follow Amy Winehouse but what it takes Kate's got. Title track from la Bush's best album. I'll fight anyone who says otherwise. There are a lot of covers of this. I was surprised. I guess it has that stadium strut that vocalists can't resist. Ezra Furman somehow manages to make it sound like Hothouse Flowers (no criticism - I love his passion - and his pearls) while the Futureheads twist it into a call-and-response football chant. Rah Rah Riot's version reminds me of My Life Story and Jackie Wilson at one and the same time, while Patrick Wolfe is... well, he's Patrick Wolfe, isn't he? I might do a whole post of Kate Bush covers.

Terms And Conditions Apply - Just A Girl - Parade - Sometimes you get lucky with these generic phrases, sometimes you don't. This time I didn't. I mean, it's a nice enough, old-fashioned pop song, I guess. I certainly didn't know they were still making them like that in the twenty-teens. They probably shouldn't have been. When the only other option is Jesus Jones, though... yeah, feel free to skip this one. In fact, I insist.

The Simple Secret Of The Plot - I Could Write A Book - A Rodgers and Hart number from the Great American Songbook (by way of Pal Joey), meaning everyone's covered it, from the sublime Sara Vaughan to the pants-splitting P.J.Proby, whose version I am not going to link. I have some standards left.

C.O.N.F.O.R.M. - DJ Shadow -  Tip-top trip-hop. 

I Am The Fox - Nancy Kerr and James Fagan - I'm not the greatest folk fan but this nips along nicely. I was originally planning on using either The Fox by Elton John, the chorus of which is indeed "I am the fox" or the bizarre After The Fox by The Hollies, which I fear I may have linked before. I'm not sure many people would want to watch that one twice. Or once, come to that.

In The Phone Booth - My Drug Buddy - The Lemonheads or Hanging On The Telephone - The Nerves. Oh boy. Sophie's choice or what? I can't split these. Don't make me. Two of my all-time favorite songs and performances.  There's no video for the Nerves original, sadly, although of course there is a great one for the Blondie cover, which is damn fine in its own right.

Feet On The Ground, Head In The Clouds - This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) - Talking Heads - Represented here by an off-the-wall (yes, literally) cover from MGMT. You wait ten paragraphs for a New York band and then four come along all at once. I love that MGMT clip. Where the hell are they even playing? Is this what rock and roll's come to? God, I hope so. Also, is it just me or do they not both look and sound like Papooz doing Ann Just Wants To Dance? I'm going to throw Shawn Colvin's cover in here, too, just because it's so different. Maybe she's from New York as well. Doesn't sound like it, though.

The Buckboard Bounce - Buttons and Bows - Gisele MacKenzie & Miyoshi Umeki - I never liked this song. It's so irritatingly cheery. I looked at a whole bunch of versions and they ran the gamut from bland to nauseating. Except for two. The one above and this one

Real Tough Cat - Tough Cat - The Ferros & Nick And His Jaguars - One of the bands I was in at college used to do a song that borrowed its chorus from that ad tag "Real Tough Toys for Real Tough Boys". I didn't write it. I didn't sing it, either, I'm pleased to say.  It was less embarrassing than Tough Top Cat by Marvin Rainwater, though, a parody of Big Bad John re-written for a cat called Big Tom. Go on, click on it. You know you want to.  

Out Of The ShadowsWork Not Play - Jim Carrol Band - I have the album this comes from. It's not great. To my ears the Jim Carrol Band always sounded like they were going through the motions a bit and Jim never entirely convinced as a lead vocalist, except on the much-covered People Who Died (posts passim). Watching this wonderful spoken-word version, though, it's easy to see why so many people who knew what they were talking about took him so seriously. 

Hawkwind used the phrase as the title of one of their lesser workouts and it also crops up in The Adverts minor hit No Time To Be 21, which opens with the not-so-punk rallying cry "Life's short, don't make a mess of it". Wise words from the great T.V. Smith

More Of The Same - Caroline Rose - I'm going to keep banging this drum. Picking random phrases for titles then running them through search engines to see what comes up is just a fantastic way to discover new artists. I mean, how was I ever going to notice someone with a name as nondescript as Caroline Rose doing a song with a title as generic as "More of the Same" otherwise? And what would I have missed? To quote an extremely well-judged comment on the YouTube thread that follows the clip "i mean cmon, how can you not love this? i mean, right??" Right!!

If you want more of the same (and I know I do) here she is doing it again and again.


No Service - Futuristic - If I was to list all the reasons I shouldn't be saying anything about hip-hop we'd be here 'til Christmas. I know what I like, though.

Do You Wanna (Jump Jump Jump?) - Jump - Lana del Rey -  I finally gave up trying to collect every Lana outtake. There are just too many. I still grab all the ones I happen across, though. This one I've had for many, many years. It's from 2010, around the time I discovered her, I think, a year or so before Video Games set her foot firmly on the ladder of fame. Speaking of Video Games, it was a top ten hit all over Europe including the U.K. but I only just now realize it barely scraped the top 100 in the U.S. Get with the program, you guys!

The Real Thing - Russell Morris - Six minutes of prime Aussie psychedelia. Worth watching to the end. So's this, for that matter. Probably a lesson somewhere in both of these about not making the video so compelling you forget who's singing the song.  

Truce - The Dresden Dolls - I'm not sure how Amanda Palmer and/or the Dresden Dolls keep finding their way onto these playlists. I've never owned anything by her or them. Never even downloaded anything from YouTube, as far as I can remember. I wouldn't even say I liked most of what I've heard. But then, I'm not sure liking it would be the point. I certainly admire it. 

Gimme The Loot - Big Baby Tape - Eastern European Beastie Boys on quaaludes. I didn't even know what language they were singing (singing?) in until I ran a sample through Google translate. (It's Ukrainian). Seventeen million views so I'm guessing they're big. Somewhere. Another corking video, too. We have some real winners this month. Only we seem to have used them all up now. It's mostly static images from here on in.

Spaced Out - Cockney Rebel - A cautionary tale. This is an outtake from an album that's been in my top-five all-time favorites since I first heard it in the early 1970s. I can see the extended re-release CD with all the tracks that never made it onto the original vinyl album on a shelf not five feet feet from where I'm sitting. And yet when I picked this title and searched and this came up it was completely new to me. Even when I listened to it I couldn't remember ever hearing it before.

I can recite the track listing of the original album verbatim. I know almost all the lyrics off by heart. This bonus track, though, which would have fitted perfectly with the ones that  made the cut? Must have bounced straight off me. Gone, even though I listened to that extended CD plenty of times when I got it a few years back. Just goes to show it's not always what you hear, it's how and when you hear it.

The title's been used a few times, perhaps most appropriately on this twelve-minute chillzone epic from the Bootleg Boy. I don't know if he created it or... well... I mean, he chose the name. It's bound to make you wonder.

Thank You For Your Patience - Stuart Clark - Then again, with so many all-but-anonymized uploads on YouTube with mysterious credits like "Provided to YouTube by DistroKid" and "Auto-generated by YouTube", attribution isn't always obvious. Sometimes it feels almost sinister.

Ready Or Not - Omaha Nebraska (Ready or Not) - Bowling for Soup - Yeah, there are better-known songs that actually use this in the title but I don't really like any of them all that much. Bowling for Soup, though, I love

On Repeat - LCDSoundsystem -Could this be any more eighties? Only it was recorded in 2005. Warning: it cuts off abruptly at the end. The full version is under the main title link. 

Fire On The Mountain - American Darkness - Chelsea Wolfe - I do play favorites, don't I? I mean, there're plenty of times I could go with a song that uses the full phrase as a title but instead I veer off and pick a pull-out lyric instead. If I didn't, though, I could end up featuring something like this Grateful Dead track, where they sound almost disturbingly like the Police. And someone might think I actually liked it.

Wishlist - Pearl Jam - Then again, I present the case for the defence: Pearl Jam. I have never liked them. I have never heard a single track by them that didn't sound like a college band playing in a rehearsal room two buildings away. But this came up on a search and I did my due diligence and listened to it and... it's alright, isn't it? Definitely evidence for my theory that a lot of people up their game for Letterman. They still sound like a college bar band but you can at least hear Eddie Vedder's lyrics for once and they're not at all bad. He's kinda cute, too, although not half as cute as the bass-player's hat.

Rainy Days In New York City - Rainy Day In New York City - Paris91 - That title hardly deserves to be in blue. All I did was pluralize it. I had a wealth of choice, too, so long as I didn't mind altering the word order slightly. Plenty of people have had the same idea or something close to it. Not least among them the Bay City Rollers. Oh, yes. The Rollers! Tremble, you very well may. If the live clip of them doing it somewhere in Japan wasn't so faint and fuzzy I'd have felt compelled to pop it out. Saved by lack of quality control!

I might do a whole post on rain songs. Weather could make a series. There's something to look forward to.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Rainy Days In New York City


One thing you can say for point&click adventure games, they take amazing screenshots. For a start, the developers have done most of the work for you. Almost every scene arrives with your characters artfully arranged in naturalistic poses. Just so long as you don't move them about and end up with one facing a wall and another staring moodily at a light fitting.

Then there are all the pull-outs. The items you examine, the faded photographs and handbills, oil paintings and matchbook covers, each close-up lovingly re-created in period detail. All you have to do is click. No framing the shot, no swinging the camera, no scrolling into first person and out, no need to remember to hide your pet or your mount or do the dance with your entourage of followers and companion animals until all of them line up, momentarily out of shot.

Okay, I have some questions about which decade we're in. I mean, there's this running gag about an addictive game called Trollgate that Donny plays on his phone but these guys just got killed a few weeks ago? Maybe it's an old picture. Like fifty years old...


Best of all, no being photo-bombed by some barbarian in neon pink armor with shoulder-pads the size of twin aircraft carriers just at the crucial second before your jittering mercenary decides it's time to strike a martial pose right in front of whatever the hell it is you meant to get a picture of, only now you fricken' don't care any more...

As for commentary, it comes as standard. These shots caption themselves. Lines of dialog all neatly displayed and handily arranged so as to complement the composition, never blocking anything that matters.  No need to jab at the keys in the hope of catching that bon-mot before it scrolls offscreen. Everything hangs around long enough to ponder, consider and, if you so desire, record.

Kind of takes the skill out of it, doesn't it?

Unavowed, like most of the point&clicks I've played these last couple of years, is weirdly beautiful although it takes a while for that to come through. When I fired the thing up for the first time it gave the exact same impression all these games tend to give. 

... but then isn't this the dog that just got killed? Oops! Spoiler!

It looked like rough sketches stretched too thin. The colors looked too bright, too dull, too garish, too muddy. Not right. The textures looked false, scratchy, artificial. The characters seemed like cartoons, awkwardly animated, mannequins come to some kind of glitchy half-life.

And then, in no more than a few minutes, you're in a world. Not looking into it but in it, inside, living there. All the flaws fall away leaving a purity that comes from function fitting form. When we talk about virtual worlds this isn't what we think of but perhaps we should.

Yeah, maybe. Until you want to take a doll out of a wardrobe and the game doesn't want to let you. 

Oh, the game teases you. Tells you the doll's there. Doesn't show it, just has someone else report it then dismiss it. You don't need it. Leave it be.

Except you damn well know you need it because you're in this world and you're unravelling the mystery and you're already two damn steps ahead of the blasted game. Yes, we do need that doll! Why would you even mention it otherwise?

And then, hardly any time later, we learn about college student who lived here, how she'd had that doll nineteen years, which has to be pretty much the whole of her life, and that woman's dog chewed it all  to hell and she was so goddam angry... We even know the doll's name. It's Arabelle. 

Like a doll someone had owned and loved for all their life and even taken with them when they left home? Nah, not seen anything like that.


So we go back and try to take it but no, we don't need it, except yes we do. Of course we do! And then the guy in the protection circle tells us he needs something important to each of the violent, disturbed souls so he can send them to rest. Hey, do you think? Could it be?

Yes of course it could. It is. You know it is! But can you pick the doll up? No! Because you haven't danced the dance. So go finish all the other stuff first and then come back and finally, finally, the dumb game lets you do the thing you knew you had to do half an hour ago, the moment you knew there even was a doll.

Frustrated, much? Oh, yes, I have been. Frustrated by the exigencies of the form and the implementation thereof. It's a circle yet to be squared in any adventure game I've encountered. Sometimes they let you shovel everything into your capacious pockets regardless of contentious propositions like weight, volume or sanity. Other times you can only pick up things that count and only when they count. 

Some developer must have tried every point on that curve and none of them is ever quite right. Unavowed is right at the extreme end of pragmatism. There are very few intereactable objects and even fewer that allow you to interact with them before you have a good reason. There's the odd knife or screwdriver that lets you slip it into your jacket for later but even then "later" is almost always looking you in the face.

I've finished the first three cases out of seven and so far I've seen one interactable item that I couldn't figure out a use for. That outdoor water faucet in back of the Eddings house. What's that about? Other than that every hammer's found its nail.

Maybe we'll be back. Unavowed is a game that loops. It doesn't seem entirely linear although it doesn't have that go and come I remember with mixed emotions from the Broken Swords. If I had to guess I'd say we won't be turning on that tap. 

Guys? I've got an idea. I mean, it's a little left-field, I know, but could we pick the team first?


Maybe it's there for another. Someone who wasn't with us this time. Unavowed is about teams that break and re-form. You're always having to choose, leave someone on the bench, bring in your specialists and hope you made the right call. 

Only it doesn't maybe matter as much as all that because Unavowed is forgiving of errors. So far I haven't encountered a failure state. When it looks like you left the teammate you needed sitting in the subway car it always turns out there's another way to crack the egg using the spoons you brought along. Sometimes it's messy but you get it done.

I'll say the same thing for the game. The mechanics are messy. Just how many bullets do those two cops have in their guns, anyway? We must have been locked in that storage unit for five minutes or more before I figured out how to get free (no thanks to you, Eli) with the two of them shooting non-stop the whole time. And that motor-boat chase that came after? That was kind of ludicrous. If you can't do a convincing chase scene with the game engine you've got then why put one in?

Then there's the subway car. Rember I mentioned that? How is it we can leave someone on the train while we spend maybe a few hours hanging out in bars and alleys, breaking and entering and brokering deals that go sour, then get back on the same train and find whoever we left right there in the same carraige? 

How, exactly, does that work? Did he just sit there the whole time on the off-chance we might come back and swap him out for someone? Did the entire New York subway system go on hiatus so he'd be exactly where we left him or is it just an amazing co-incidence that we just happened to get done with what we were doing right as he came around for the who knows how manyeth time?

Or, indeed, the living, if this train system's anything to go buy.


For that matter, why the hell leave the decision on who's in the team until we've all got on the train? We have a headquarters. We had a meeting there to decide what we're going to investigate next. We have one of those meetings every day! Why not pick the team at the meeting so whoever's left can get on with something useful in their lab or practice throwing fireballs or hacking up the target dummy? Then, when we want to swap someone, we'll know where to find them without having to hope they'll be on the right train!

There's forgiving and there's immersion-breaking. It's not as though I want to be on a timer to fail. God knows I hate games doing that. There just ought to be a more convincing way to ease past the unbelievable. Like bullet time, maybe. Go into ideas mode where the action slows to a crawl because you're operating at the speed of thought. Where the ideas you try that don't work are framed as thought experiments not actual things you did.

I just think a lot of this stuff could have been done better. Aren't these the sort of things people notice in a play-test? I certainly found them pretty hard to hand-wave away. But, hey, it's not my job to fix this stuff. I just think it could be fixed and quite easily.

Another thing I'd like fixed is the railroading. It's nice to have dialog options but when all of them are different ways of saying the same thing, y'know, those aren't options. 

Too many times already my character has had to express attitudes that I wouldn't have had her express if I'd been writing her lines. In any situation where a choice is offered I'd like the chance to choose, at minimum, between yes, no and maybe. Or I don't care. That's always a good get-out. And just to make it even more frustrating, sometimes there's a "Say nothing" or "Keep quiet" option. Couldn't we have one of those every time?

Yes, these metaphorical choices are supposed to speak to my state of mind. I get it. Only, I'm not really all that bothered, y'know? And I'd kinda like to be able to express my lack of feeling.

I get the difference between a written character and a played one. I understand this isn't an rpg, that the central character isn't mine, but if I'm giving up agency I want consistency in exchange. Either give my character a coherent personality and don't pretend I have control of how she thinks and feels or give me all the tools to create a personality for her. If she has to react one way and one way only for the plot to work that's one thing  but if you're going to tell me how she feels about it as well then don't pretend I get any say when I really don't. It's annoying.

Those are my main gripes so far and they're common to most adventure games I've played. Unavowed handles the inconsistencies better than many and it's because so much of what it does is so good that these mechanical shortcomings stand out.

None of them materially affected my enjoyment. It's an excellent game with gorgeous art, interesting characters and a compelling narrative. Even at this early point I'm more than usually motivated to imagine re-playing it to see things from the perspective of one of the other characters, perhaps taking different decisions along the way. Usually I don't much find that an appealing prospect but here I think it could be.

Some day a real rain will come. Or, better yet, leave.


With the negatives out of the way, next time maybe I can focus more on what it is that I like about the game. I just hope it stops raining soon. There's a point in every game where continual rain goes beyond being atmospheric and just starts to feel miserable. And don't get me started on how everyone just stands there like it's a sunny day in spring! Talk about not having the sense to come in out of the rain. I know Eli's a fire mage and he never gets wet but everyone else must be drenched to the bone...

Okay, enough kvetching. Let's go play some more.

Friday, November 27, 2020


So, Black Friday. What's that all about? As usual, I got a whole lot of links to things I wouldn't buy at any price, plus a whole lot more for stuff I might consider if it was cheap enough. Certainly not at these miserable discounts, though. Seriously, if it's not half price or less, who even looks?

And of course there was something from Steam telling me there were offers on five things from my wishlist. Like that's news. Something on my Steam wishlist is always on offer and still I never buy anything. 

I was thinking only the other day how I ought to go in and clear the whole thing out. I'm not sure I'd download most of the things on there if they were giving them away. And it's not as though I've wishlisted a lot of games. Seven, to be precise, and one of those I swear I had nothing to do with. I think it added itself when I downloaded an alpha build.


I'll tell you what the titles I have on there are. Why not? I'm not ashamed of any of them. They're all perfectly respectable titles. I'd be in a bit of trouble if you asked me why I'd picked them instead of any of a thousand others but I'm sure I had my reasons at the time.

The not-so-magnificent seven are

  • Kenshi
  • Legend of Grimrock II
  • Totally Accurate Battle Simulator
  • Past Fate
  • Flowscape
  • Kind Words
  • Fuser

Let's see if I can figure out why I put those on the list.

Kenshi's the kind of game that I dreamed of playing in the '80s and '90s. I read about it a couple of years ago and got a big nostalgia hit for the person I was back then. So I put it on the list. It's been up for sale several times since and every time I imagine actually playing it it's not nostalgic longing that sweeps over me - it's a wave of boredom. Imagine actually playing something like that in 2020. The world has moved on since games like this seemed like an amazing idea and I hope I have, too. If not, I don't want to know.

If Kenshi invokes nostalgia, Legend of Grimrock II is Marty McFly pulling up in your driveway in a deLorean and inviting you back to 1985. It's Eye of the Beholder II with slightly better graphics. I just think there are better ways to spend my time. And my money.

Steam, always parental, warns me Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (TABS for short) isn't like anything I've played before. That's the appeal, really. It looks like something you'd fire up for a few minutes for a laugh. I generally feel annoyed with myself if I spend much time on stuff like that, though, so it's a temptation I should probably resist.

Past Fate is an mmorpg in very rough alpha state. I played it a couple of times and wrote about it. I don't like it much, I'm not interested in playing it and I have no memory of putting it on this list. I'm guessing playing the alpha added it automatically.

Flowscape I had to look at again to remind myself what it was. It's not a game at all. Occupy White Walls looks like a theme park in comparison. I'm not sure how it ended up on Steam, much less on my wishlist. I think I must have seen it as some kind of replacement for Landmark, which, now I think about it, does make it sound quite appealing. Hmm. It's 35% off. and it wasn't expensive to begin with. I might buy this one. 

There's no real excuse for not already having bought Kind Words except that plainly I don't want to. It's almost always on some kind of offer and it's only £3.99 full price. Thing is, I just know I'd never "play" it, if playing is even what you do there. I think I drained all the value out of this one already when I read all the blog posts about it a year or two ago.

Fuser, though, now there's a different story. I really want to play this. Or mess about with it, more like. I got an email announcing it a few weeks ago because somehow it's an NCSoft (sorry, NC) game and apparently that means if you play Guild Wars 2 you have to be told about it. 

I was interested enough that I watched one of the tutorial videos and it did look like it might be fun. I was less than impressed with the list of licensed songs that come with it but in a way the weirdly disparate nature of the tracks - I mean, who hasn't dreamed of a Glen Campbell/Pixies/Fetty Wap joint? - just makes it more intriguing.


The price tag, though. £54.99. Yeah, right. I wouldn't pay half that. Maybe a quarter. Maybe. Which is a moot point because it's the only title on my wishlist that hasn't received any kind of discount yet.

There's one title missing from that list of seven because yesterday it was a list of eight. I cracked! Our corporate overlords got me. I bought something on a Black Friday discount. First time ever, I think.

As I'm sure anyone who's played it has already realized from the pictures, the game that switched from my Steam wishlist to my Steam library yesterday was Unavowed. I'd had it on there for quite a while, since I looked at it after someone in the blogosphere was raving about it. I ought to be able to remember who that was but I'm afraid I've forgotten. Sorry about that. It's my age (plays all-situation get-out card). If you'd care to out yourself in the comments I'll backfit a link. 

(And thanks to Jeromai, who points out in the comments that he was singing Unavowed's praises a couple of years ago (and I commented to say I was adding it to my wishlist, where it was then the only item) but that we both most likely first heard about it from xyzzysqrl, who called it "one of the best games I played in 2018". It's a good thing someone's paying attention!).

Unavowed is a really obvious, unadventurous purchase. Of all the games on the list it was always the one most likely to make it to "owned" status. It's a point&click adventure game, my second-favorite genre after mmorpgs. It's urban fantasy, a subgenre I think is just made for this kind of game. It has stellar reviews. It also looks to be more than averagely replayable, making it potentially good value for money.


And I was missing a good adventure game. As has been apparent from numerous posts here over the last couple of years, I get quite into them and also I get quite a lot out of them, not least material for the blog. There's only so many posts I can write about levelling in World of Warcraft, after all (although that particular well is nowhere near dry yet, trust me...).

So I bought it, installed it and played through the introduction and the first case. And I was planning to write a first impressions piece on it, only, last night, right after I finished playing Unavowed, I watched the fourth episode of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which gave me an idea for a post that would combine both experiences plus a bunch of others... and then this morning I sat down and wrote this instead.

So now I have two more posts to write. Three, when you count this month's song title round-up. I guess my mini-drought is over. Suppose I'd better get on with it.

I think I might just play some more Unavowed first...

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Fire On The Mountain

Everyone else is out there, venturing into the lands of the dead and here am I, plodding through pre-Shadowlands WoW. Not even the cool, new Chromie-time WoW, either. Just plain old no-one likes me I'm the worst expansion ever Cataclysm.

Only I do kind of like it. I finished the whole of the zone storyline in Eastern and Western Plaguelands and thought it was pretty good. That popped me over the limit for most of the expansion but there were a handful of zones that went another five levels so I picked one of those and on I went.

Which is how I ended up spending the last couple of days in Mount Hyjal. WoWHead calls it "the zone most players quest in when starting Cataclysm zones". Yeah, I wouldn't have used the word "zone" twice in one sentence there. Also, a little confused as to how they'd have started in Mt. Hyjal when Cataclysm was new. There was no level-scaling back then, right? Wouldn't it have been high-level? 

Who knows? Ancient history. Whatever. Add it to the pile of things I don't understand about how WoW works. It's a big pile.

I had vaguely heard of Mount Hyjal before but I had no idea where or what it was. I do now, having spent something like ten hours there, and I can't say it's anywhere I'm keen to see again, once I get the hell out. Half of it's on fire and the rest is so undifferentiated and bland you can only imagine being on fire would be an improvement.

The zone storyline is equally uninspired and derivative. It has none of the personality or, indeed, personalities that made the Plaguelands such a pleasure. It's all druids and nature and elemental forces and demons and blah blah blah. How many times are we going to do this dance? Seriously?

I'm tough but I'm fair.


That sounds like I hated it. I didn't. It's perfectly fine, in the usage I was decrying the other day. The narrative at least makes sense although the structure is a little unstable. As far as I can tell you can be at the end while still not having done all of the middle but I don't think it matters all that much. 

Also, could we get a moratorium on NPCs giving dire warnings about urgency when in practice you can take all the time you want and it's going to make no difference whatsoever. I mean, I really dislike quests and events with timers but if you say the clock's ticking and it's not it feels even worse.

And anyway, how bad can things be if we're taking time out to save bunnies? About the only memorable NPC in the whole timeline is the self-aware, passive-aggressive, emotionally manipulative, centaur, Mylune. She literally hugs bunnies and makes doe eyes at you if you don't want to join in.

She has a couple of quests, one of which involves catching hyperactive, terrified rabbits and squirrels in a box, the other rescuing injured baby deer. Someone was very clearly having altogether too much fun when they wrote Mylune's lines,a  few of which made me laugh out loud. Fun at whose expense, though? That's the question.

I don't want to question your priorities, but...

I'm guessing Mylune, whose first appearance this is, was a bit of a favorite at the time, either with players or developers, because I see she turns up again in every succeeding expansion. Maybe she's in Shadowlands, too, although I guess she'd have to be dead, which might not quite fit the mood.

Other than that, I couldn't tell you the name of another NPC, even though it's only been a day or two. There was an archdruid who got burned to a crisp. I remember him. He looked like a bear. Well, he looked like a charred black lump but that was after. And there was big turtle who talked in free verse. Other than that I'm blanking.

Oh, wait, there was that snarky guy on the hook! He was fun. They should have given him more screen-time. And the mortal-turned-demon who played us in the most predictable scam ever. He was... well, okay, he was straight from central casting but at least I can remember him. 

Tell me how you really feel, Kristoff.

If the plot wasn't up to much the mechanics did their best to make up for it. There was a fair bit of turning into things which, as has been discussed here before, is something I generally disapprove of but I have to say WoW probably does it better than most. If I'm going to have to turn into a giant owl and fly around blowing a whistle or climb up trees and throw bear cubs into a net I'd rather do it with one simple button to press and the UI doing all the heavy lifting.

I forget exactly what level my vulpera hunter was when she arrived in Mount Hyjal. Thirty-four? Thirty-five? With just one final part of the zone storyline left to complete she's now thirty-nine. I'm hoping to limp her on to forty before we leave but I'm not sure there's quite enough questing left in the tank. 

Still, it's pretty good going. The mobs stopped scaling at thirty five but I can't say I've noticed much of a difference. They don't seem to die any faster than they did a few levels ago. The quest rewards are still mostly upgrades although that's often because of the random roll mechanic. It seems to fire more often than you'd expect, bumping close to half of everything I get by a quality level. Sometimes two.

Wait, so you're saying all that stuff you got me to do that was supposed to help the cause was just to break your bonds and set you free? Wow! I never saw that coming...


Xp, though, that's very much beginning to fall behind. Even thought there are other 30-35 zones in Cataclysm, I won't be trying to stretch this experiment any further. I haven't decided yet whether to move to another expansion or go back and have Chromie re-fit the Cataclysmic world to my requirements. 

I'm tempted to move on, partly because I can see doing all of the Cataclysm zones on different characters, but also for the money. The biggest practical difference I've noticed between levelling in older expansions as opposed to newer ones is the amount of gold I make. 

By the time my shaman hit fifty she had around six thousand gold and that was after spending a couple of thousand along the way. She made pretty much all of it in Battle for Azeroth's Vol'Dun, which is, ironically, the vulpera's homeland. By contrast, as she nears forty, the vulpera hunter has barely a thousand gold to her name. I'm thinking maybe it's time for her to go visit the folks for a while or at least do some adventuring closer to home.

I'm feeling kinda woozy. Y'don't think it could be these flowerzzzz....


One thing's for sure: in WoW Retail this time around, I've rediscovered my love of levelling for it's own sake. I'm having a great time bringing these characters up through the ranks but I have no clue what to do with any of them when they hit fifty. They're pretty much going straight onto the bench to sit things out while the next up takes a turn. Which is exactly how I played mmorpgs for years.

The exception is the dwarf hunter. He has a garrison to run. He comes out once or twice a day to set missions and check everything's running smoothly. I can already see why this was a feature loved by some and hated by many (or was that the other way around?). Even in its eviscerated state it's demanding. When it was current content it must have bordered on the oppressive.

The main reason I'm sticlking with it is I hear you can make bags. It seems you need to be a tailor to do it. So far I've worked out how to farm the fur and make the cloth. That much I managed by trial and error but I suspect the next stage will require research. 

I'm off to do that now. Expect more redundant news on outdated content no-one cares about any more - as it happens!

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

On Repeat

A topic that bubbles up in conversation now and then, when people talk about playing mmorpgs, is the time-consuming nature of the hobby. People occasionally out themselves as addicts or make a point by quoting extraordinary /played statistics running into hundreds or thousannds of hours over a number of years. It's a given that successful, long-running games come with more curated content than most of us are likely to consume even once.

In some ways mmorpgs have more in common with other media than they do with video games, even those that come in series. Single-player games tend to have finite narative arcs that alternate paths and endings merely complement. Almost all non-competetive games have some kind of completion state, whether it's a Game Over screen or a full set of achievements.

It's as well, then, that mmorpgs hang around. When Blizzard's John Hight says of World of Warcraft "Why should it ever end?" he's doing no more than stating the obvious in the form of a rhetorical question. Why indeed? There's no reason. 

In these days of boxed sets and streaming platforms, a long-running mmorpg isn't all that different from a series of movies or a long-running TV show. Time was when you'd need to catch something like that on broadcast or release. Maybe, if you kept your eyes open, you'd get another chance on repeat or rerun or revival. 


Nowadays, it's harder to think of things you can't access at will. Even failures and flops live on in a dim half-life, uploaded to YouTube from glitchy VHS cassettes or released back into the culture by creators hoping for another shot at an aesthetic validation they never experienced the first time around. Unsuccessful online games are one of the rare cultural entities that fade and even there, like a superhero's death, you can't count on it lasting.

Jeromai was talking recently about purging games from his hard drives: "I used to just keep the game around… just in case. Well, part of deliberate unfettered gaming is to loose that fetter. UNINSTALLED. Gone from the hard disk. What’s the harm? I can always re-download it again when I get the urge to play it again. The save files are mostly all intelligently maintained or cloud saved these days".

It's true, although I suspect many of us will take a little longer to feel entirely secure in our non-ownership of things we really care not lose. But then, nothing is ever guaranteed. Files corrupt. Disks break. Tapes fade. Even books burn. It's maybe safer in the ether, after all.

The medium isn't the message, anyway. What's stopping all of us going back and doing it over isn't access to the data. It's time.

And playing mmorpgs takes for-frickin'-ever! Even with things on fast-forward, with all the short cuts and the  boosts and the skips. Look at that WoWHead chart I put up yesterday, telling you how long it takes to go from ten to fifty in different expansions. The shortest time is twelve hours. 

Twelve hours!  Twelve hours to get a single character to the old cap, experiencing just a fraction of the basic content of one expansion, from the perspective of one race, one class, one faction. At which point, in the minds of many - possibly most - the game is just about to begin.

Not that most people really are going to get through even that small portion in any twelve hours. It's going to take the average person twice that, I would bet, unless they literally skip the actual content of the content.

Twenty four hours, which is less than it took me to level my shaman, is long enough to watch all three seasons of Stranger Things, something I was doing concurrently with my recent stint in WoW.  It was the disparate experiences that sent me down this track. Also the similarities.

When I finally got around to playing WoW about five years after it arrived I was surprised to find it wasn't at all what I was expecting. I'd heard plenty about it. Plenty. It was a cultural phenomenon and I thought I had a pretty good handle on it despite never having played it.

Yeah, well, I was right and I was wrong. WoW wasn't not what I was expecting but it was much more than I was expecting. It had depth and feeling I hadn't anticipated. It also reminded me very, very strongly of other mmorpgs, some of which I liked better, and yet it didn't disgrace them. In some interesting ways it shed light on them and made me appreciate them even more. And want to play them again. 

Stranger Things is like that. It's not quite the cultural phenomenon WoW was in it's prime but it's the show that made many of us take notice of Netflix as something more than just a distribution service. It had sufficient cultural capital to penetrate the mainstream as a trope, an analogy for a genericized cultural nostalgia, similar to how WoW stood in for nerd culture in general back in that South Park episode and a score more noughties comedies.

I thought I had ST pegged; eighties' nostalgia filtered through a post-nineties' ironic lens. A mash-up of all those Spielberg-influenced, D&D-quoting, kid-friendly movies that themselves referenced a Saturday Morning Pictures culture long forgotten even then. All thrown into a blender with monster-of-the-week hits sequenced all the way from the Outer Limits to the X-Files.

And then I watched it and, like WoW, it turned out to be everything I thought it would be and something entirely different at the same time. Just as WoW, back when I first played it in 2009, was both easy and hard, so Stranger Things is both light and dark. In both cases I went in expecting a frothy, sugar-sweet rush that wouldn't last and came out feeling strangely changed; satisfied yet unsettled; fulfilled yet wanting more.

Good art bounces. Playing World of Warcraft always makes me think of playing EverQuest. It makes me consider what that game did first and did right. It makes me consider what came after and how at least a part of the culture changed because of it and is still changing now.


As I was watching Stranger Things I couldn't but help compare it with its preternatural progenitor, Buffy. As in mmorpgs of a certain stripe everything comes back to EQ, so in television shows like this, everything comes back to Buffy but in the case of Stranger Things there are tighter correlations than just that. I could start my dissertation on the touchstones right now. I imagine someone already has. 

What it really makes me want to do, though, is re-watch Buffy from start to end. And I could. I could do that. It would take me six days. If I did nothing else but eat and sleep. Taken at a more realistic pace, five or six episodes a day, I could be through it in a month. 

Which is still a hell of a long time. One day I'll do it but time is growing short. As life passes, things pile up. It's hard enough to keep pace with everything new that's added without revisting and re-evaluating.

Except you have to. You really do. Nothing worth doing is worth doing only once, at least not when it comes to art and culture. It all needs to be looked at again and again, set in context with itself and everything else. The cheese does not stand alone.

One of the more curious effects of this peculiar year for me has been the recovery of my re-reading habit. For many years I re-read as a matter of course. I would often irritate people in pubs with my theory that it's the third time that counts. The first read is all about discovery, the second about comparison. The third is the first clean read. I can elaborate, trust me, but I won't.


Working in a bookshop for twenty years broke me of the habit, not intentionally but through the sheer, unceasing torrent of free, new books. I never had time to re-read anything because I had to keep winnowing that pile. This year, for the first time in a long time, at home, surrounded by thousands of books, I started to re-read. And it was good.

Only my rule of three didn't apply so much. I could barely remember having read most of the books in the first place. It was more like reading them for the first time, again. You really need to re-read in real time to keep the doors of perception propped open. Same with movies, TV, music...

And, I guess, mmorpgs? Maybe? I'm not sure. Because we for damn sure aren't likely to start again from scratch and do the whole thing over, are we? I mean, many of us come around a few times. We go back to older games and give them another spin. But it seems to me that's more like playing a few tracks from an old album than reading a whole novel or even sitting through a full movie.

With Shadowlands launching today a whole new layer gets added to the cake. And, trust John Hight, they'll keep adding. Because why in the hell should they ever stop?

But we will. We will stop. Which is why we have to make choices, like Jeromai. What to keep. What to lose. And, for me, what to pick up again, and when, and how many times. How many more times?

I am so going to re-watch Buffy. Maybe I could use the time I'm not using not playing Shadowlands...

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