Friday, February 18, 2022

The Stars Her Destination

Following yesterday's post I surprised myself by going ahead and doing what I said I should be doing for once. I uninstalled both Atlas and Phantasy Star Online 2: New Generation. That emptied some space in my Steam folder, which I'm currently re-filling with Lost Ark as I write.

With luck I'll have plenty of time to try it out today and tomorrow. Most of the blog posts I've read about the early game make a point of how "on rails" the opening stages are, something Naithin re-iterates in the comments. Bearing that in mind, it would seem prudent to hold off from posting about it until I've had time to get to the part where the game opens out. (Although when did that ever stop me before?)

More to the point, I already had something brewing about Chimeraland that I bumped from the schedule (Schedule? What schedule?) in favor of complaining about games putting on weight. I even used one of the screenshots from the unwritten post as the opening image for yesterday's semi-rant because it was ready to hand and seemed to fit.

Rather than try to rush through the opening stages of Lost Ark so I can slap some kind of post together, I thought I'd write about something else while I wait for it to download. That means, when I log in, I can settle back and take my time working out all the important stuff, like how to take screenshots, without feeling the heavy breath of a deadline on the back of my neck.

I don't want to build this thing up too much. It's not as if the post I had in mind was anything special. It was just something I ran across while I was out exploring that I thought might be worth sharing. So here it is.

Chimeraland is a sandbox game, a term that can mean a number of different things. A sandbox can be a place where you jump about, screaming and kicking sand in all directions, or it can be somewhere you sit quietly on your own, humming to yourself as you construct castles of the mind. I imagine there's plenty of kicking and screaming going on over on the free-for-all PvP continent but where I live it's all about being constructive. 

When  it comes to construction, Chimeraland's no Landmark. For all its flaws, Landmark did allow players with sufficient skill and talent to build some absolutely astonishing edifices, many of which I was fortunate enough to see for myself and none of which are shown in the illustrations for this article, which chooses instead to focus on how they were made.

In praising the flexibility and potential Landmark's toolkit offered the imaginative and capable player, that piece also unintentionally puts its finger on the game's big problem. (Okay, one of the big problems. If only there'd just been the one, eh?) "The tools you were given to build with were also much better than most games of this type. It took a bit to really master the controls but those controls offered incredible flexibility once you did."

We should probably inject a dose of pragmatism here. It didn't take "a bit" to master those controls. It took a lot. There was math involved. I'm willing to bet that most of the players who built the truly amazing, almost photo-realist palaces and castles and the recreations of scenes from the movies, had either a professional or an academic background in digital design. The bare minimum entry level would have been "serious hobbyist".

It was a trope of the game that Landmark's own developers didn't fully understand how to use the toolset they'd given to the players. As the linked post explains, "The community changed a core aspect of the creation tools..." Boy, did they ever! After that, a handful of players, writing and distributing "How To" guides via the forums and YouTube, took the ball from the devs and ran with it. Those poor devs never really caught up, let alone got their ball back.

That's not the case with Chimeraland. Not only are there no sophisticated tools, there aren't even any basic building blocks. You can readily take on a far more original, individual, imaginative construction project in Valheim, where you can terraform the landscape or EverQuest 2, where you can build brick by brick, than you can in Chimeraland, where you're basically working with the virtual world equivalent of self-assembly furniture.

In Chimeraland you snap pre-made parts together and place them on the immutable terrain. That makes the whole thing much more accessible but also much more limited. The strong upside is that it opens construction up to people with ideas and vision even if they lack the technical skills required by games that expect a higher level of expertise, not to mention commitment . It's a lot easier to build your dream home when it comes in prefabricated sections.

Other than that kind of user-friendliness, where Chimeraland really comes into its own, compared to other construction-led games I've played, is in the complete lack of interest the developers have paid to the laws of physics. If there's an object in the world that has collision, it's almost certain you can attach a floor or a wall to it and go from there. You can build in trees, off the side of cliffs, on top of boulders, underwater, anywhere you want. Even in the sky. 

I don't mean you can build houses that fly. At least I don't think you can although I wouldn't bet against it. What you can do is build up. And I do mean up.

In her travels across her home continent, Floradyne has seen a number of towers and skyscrapers but the construction she came upon by chance the other day made all of them look like bungalows by comparison. Whatever the thing was (She couldn't quite make it out) it caught her eye from a long way off. Something thin, skeletal, stretching into the sky. She spurred her vultura into the air and skimmed over the fields to take a closer look.

It appeared someone had tried to build a stairway to heaven. It looked as though they might just have done it, too. In a right-angled, corkscrewing spiral, vanishing into a vortex of perspective, sections of stairs had been clipped together, heading to the stars. Looking straight up, Flora could just about make out some kind of platform at the zenith.

I thought about it for a minute. Another of the many peculiar design decisions in Chimeraland is the way all players have open access to each other's homes. The default message when you approach someone's place is an invitation to come inside and make yourself at home. I guess if NPCs can do it, why not players? 

There's even a mechanism for setting fees for strangers to use the crafting tables and other devices in your home. Mostly I just lie down on the bed and have a rest, which costs nothing. Given that level of access, there was clearly no custom or etiquette preventing me from climbing the stairs to see what might be at the top. That wasn't what made me think twice. I was scared of falling off. 

I don't suffer from a fear of heights in real life but then I generally don't go climbing hundreds, thousands of feet into the air on an open staircase with no guardrails. It was fine for a while but as the ground got further and further away, vertigo began to set in. The higher Flora went, each sharp turn, each small landing, felt more exposed, more precarious. 

I began to take more care, then more care still. I was worried a finger-twitch on the keyboard could send Flora plummeting to... well, not her doom because there's no death for player-characters in Chimeraland and possibly no falling damage either. Still, I didn't want to take the fall.

The higher Flora climbed, the stronger and louder the winds blew. Wisps and tatters of cloud occasionally blocked the view and the sound of the air rushing past made me worry whether there was a chance she'd be snatched up and swept into the sky.

Fortunately that didn't happen, although it would have made from some great screenshots. I think the buffetting I felt was in my imagination but I'm not absolutely sure. Chimeraland has an active weather system and that includes wind. She's been taken up in a tornado before now.

The stairs seemed to go on forever, climbing higher than the peaks of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. It was evening when I began the climb but as Flora neared the end, night had fallen and the stars were out.

And how! Chimeraland has the most intense night sky I have ever seen in any game. Deep midnight blues, actinic whites, stars, moons, planets, meteorites, nebulae... It's like someone designed a planetarium show after a chewing on a handful of peyote buttons.

Nighttime in Chimeraland is spectacular enough from the ground. When you're eight miles high it's overwhelming. Someone evidently decided they'd like to see it that way every night.

At the top of the stairs was a huge platform, open to the endless drop on all sides. Around the edge were crafting stations and other facilities as well as an aquarium or two. Above, accessed by a short set of stone steps, a second floor offered rest and relaxation with a bed and a few seats, a cloud lounge, somewhere to sit back and stare into the void, while hoping it wasn't staring back at you.

I spent some considerable time there, taking selfies and screenshots, trying to frame something of the vertiginous, sprawling majesty of the setting and failing. I did the best I could but really, you had to be there.

When the sun came up I looked to the horizon and the snowcapped mountains. I called Flora's trusty vultura to her side, took them both to the highest point, mounted up and jumped off the edge. From that height everything looked like a map below us as we cruised slowly down (Yes, down...) to the peaks below.

What we found there is a story for another day. Well, it probably would have been if I hadn't tried to catch a Condor minutes after we landed and gotten everyone killed. 

And now, in considerably less than the time it took to write all that, Lost Ark has downloaded and installed itself. Onwards and, yes, in a manner of speaking, upwards! If I get any stories out of Lost Ark even half as good as the ones I'm getting almost every session in Chimeraland, well I won't have time to tell them all.

Nah, just kidding. Of course I'll have the time!


  1. In case you missed the tip on the launcher, there are some "planetoids" you can fly to. They're about 25 ingame miles from the ground and behave like mountian tops, but some people settled on them at my server. Flying through "space" in a winged hippo is certainly a thing I'll remember from Chimeraland.

    As for construction, I only miss there were arches... Arches, and arched windows, and arched doorways. Funnily there are arches in "old ruins" scattered on the map, but players can't access arches, which would allow a lot of European flavored constructions. But I don't complain, I'm pretty happy with my 500-blocks home, never played a game allowing home design and construction and turns I love it. :)

    1. I did not know that! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I was looking at the planetoids from the top of the tower (You can see several in the screenshots) and I could see how detailed they were but it never occured to me you could actually get to them.

      Not sure if my vultura would be up to the flight but now I know it's possible I have to give it a go. This game just gets stranger and stranger. It really deserves to be better known. It seems to be doing things I haven't seen done in the genre before and that rarely happens any more.


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