Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Sandrock, On And Off The Rails

Today was a much better day in Sandrock. There was none of the lag or stuttering that made playing such a struggle yesterday, although moving from area to area still took longer than it should. 

The Steam screenshot key now works and the game appears in the "View" list, complete with the correct link to the right local drive. I did try following Pallais' suggestion but I didn't see any change until the latest update from Pathea. They're hotfixing every day at the moment and even though nothing in the patch notes seemed to relate to my issues, maybe it comes under "bug fixes" or "optimization".  

Or more likely my computer isn't playing the giddy goat with me for once. It's becoming increasingly clear I'll have to upgrade sooner rather than later, not least because it's now beginning to fail to reach the Minimum Required Specifications for games I would like to play rather than, as it has done for years, games I have no interest in playing.

For example, thanks to some powerful endorsements, I've had my eye on both Horizon Zero Dawn and V Rising. I put HZD on my Steam wishlist a while ago and this week it went on sale at half price. I was about to buy it when I thought to check the minimum specs and saw it would be very much touch and go whether I'd be able to run it at all, let alone find the experience enjoyable.

As for V Rising, I miss the minimum spec for that one by a mile. My PC is six years old and I've never upgraded a single component in that time so it's hardly surprising. The question now is whether I upgrade the obvious, easy to install items like the graphics card, RAM and processor or whether I just replace the whole thing.  

I live on the wrong side of the tracks. Literally.

I'd definitely do it piece by piece and hope to get maybe another three years out of it but I have a suspicion my recent problems may stem from some failing in the motherboard itself. I'd hate to buy a bunch of new pieces and then find they made things even worse. 

Anyway, fingers crossed, everything's working at the moment so I'm going to kick that particular stone down the road for now. I'm sure I can get by with the games the machine can run. There must only be about ten million of them.

Getting back to Sandrock, I'm finding it considerably harder to get going there than I remember from when I started in Portia. Things seem less intuitive somehow, even though the gameplay is all but identical. 

There are a number of possible explanations for that:

  • My memory is bad (Known fact!) and Portia was just as difficult at the beginning.
  • Sandrock is more complex under the apparently similar surface.
  • Early Access means the game isn't yet as polished as Portia was at release, when I bought it.
  • I am getting worse at playing games.

Any or all of these could be true. None of them mean I'm not having a good time, though. In some ways, the more I have to scratch my head about it, the better I like it.

One thing I'm less keen on is the time management aspect of the game, which so far seems identical to Portia. That's something I'd forgotten about or more probably blanked in that way we have of only remembering the good parts of experiences we broadly enjoyed, while conveniently forgetting the bad. 

I find it interesting that most descriptions of the "My Time At..." series describe them as "Building Games". The Steam Store page for Sandrock puts building front and center: "After accepting a job offer to become Sandrock’s newest Builder, you’ll arrive in the wild and rugged city-state, where it’s up to you and your trusty tools to restore the community to its former glory. Gather resources to build machines, befriend locals, and defend Sandrock from monsters — all while saving the town from economic ruin!" 

The player character is even referred to as "Builder" by every NPC. There's really no getting away from the idea. And yet it's not at all what I think of when I hear the term. Landmark was a Building Game. Minecraft is a Building Game. A Building Game is a game where you build things.

My workshop, named after one of my favorite books, Flora Segunda of Crackpot Hall. That's Flora, standing in front of it, too.

You don't really build anything in Portia or Sandrock. You manufacture things and place them in specific locations dictated by the game. That's not building. 

The "My Time At..." series is well-named.  The way you spend time is crucial to the experience. These are Time Management Games. Almost everything you're required to do revolves around timed events, from the micro to the macro. There are annual events that come around on the calendar, there are projects you're given that have deadlines, there are daily construction orders, there's a weekly competition...you even have a set bedtime!

More significantly, every item you make is constructed from parts that have to be manufactured in various machines and each machine takes a specific number of minutes to make each part. In Portia, like just about everyone else whose experiences I read about, I ended up with assembly lines of machines all chugging away, turning out bricks and bars and widgets by the score.

Of all the elements of the game - exploration, story, gathering, combat, mini-games, social interaction - it's the "Building" I find the least enjoyable. 

I'm not saying I don't enjoy it at all. I find it both entertaining and satisfying up to the point when I've made all the crafting and manufacturing machines and upgraded them as far as they'll go. In Portia, that probably took me well over half of the seventy hours I played, so it seems a bit rich to complain about what happens after that. I'd already had my money's worth by then.

It's a problem that's far from unique either to this series or this genre. Many, perhaps most, games suffer from it. Once you've learned the ropes and made yourself about as capable as you're likely to be, all that's left is to use the skills you've gained and the items you've made and that can all too quickly begin to feel like work, not play.

Wouldn't you rather sit in the shade all day, reading, rather than build stuff for a living?

In other genres, specifically mmorpgs, that becomes the "Endgame Problem" we're all familiar with but in narrative-based "building" games like Sandrock and Portia it's more of a mid-game issue. Those seventy hours I spent in Portia weren't nearly enough to get me to the end of the storyline before I ran out of patience with the never-ending factory management.

Seventy hours, though. It's a long time for a game to hold the attention. Yes, I know mmorpgs rack up thousands of hours and last year I put over 300 hours into Valheim (Nearly 400 by now...) but for a game with a single, linear storyline, seventy hours is some going.

Of course, most of that time I spent hitting rocks with a pick or critters with a stick but even so. If I get anything even close to seventy hours out of Sandrock I'll be very satisfied.

And I never really explored the social aspect last time. I didn't try to date anyone or even really make close friends, let alone get married. It's a major part of both games and it seems quite well-done from what I can tell, although I'm very far from being an aficionado of such systems. Maybe if I focused more on that and less on trying to build all the things I'd feel less like I owed my soul to the company store.

The characters in the two games are worth getting to know, too. They're varied and nuanced and the "wholesome post-apocalyptic world" makes for an unusual backdrop to the usual rivalries and romances. 

Passive-aggressive much, Nia?
The writing isn't at all bad, either. Take, for example, the five-page letter my character received in the mail today. It's from the best friend she left behind when she took the train to Sandrock to become the Builder there. Here, read it for yourself...

That's an impressive piece of correspondence to wake up to, especially when there's no real indication it has any relevance other than to fill out your character's backstory and tell you something about the world she lives in.

The series is good at that kind of worldbuilding, which makes it a very satisfying experience for an explorer, so long as you don't mind reading between the lines. Sometimes, though, I wonder if I'm reading things that just aren't there. 

I was deeply suspicious of the Church in the first game and I'm even more dubious about the branch in Sandrock but I have a suspicion that my suspicions are unfounded. I think I'm too used to expecting darkness beneath the bright surfaces in games like The Secret World or Doki Doki Literature Club to take a "wholesome" world at face value. Maybe these really are just nice people.

Yeah, Maybe. I guess I'll find out if I ever make it to the end of the story this time. I'm certainly going to give it a go.


  1. Wow. Now after having read the synopsis, I'm going to have to chase Flora Segunda of Crackpot Hall down.

    1. And I now know why Flora is a redhead. So is Ysabeau.

      And me, being a redhead in a house full of them, approves.

    2. The Flora Segunda trilogy is one of my favorite fantasy series and I mine it all the time for character names. The story wasn't supposed to end where it does but, to quote the author, "the publisher didn’t want another book–they barely wanted book three!" Nearly a quarter of a century in the book trade has convinced me that publishers know even less about what they're doing than record companies.

      If you don't want to read a long YA trilogy, I recommend the brilliant short story collection, "Prophecies, Libels and Dreams" , most of which is set in the same universe. I just wish she'd publish something new. It's been eight years now, apart from a couple of short stories.

    3. Given that she was nominated for the Andre Norton Nebula for the first book is enough for me. And yes, I do agree with you on publishers and record companies. The people who do know don't have the power over the bean counters, who want ever increasing profits instead of finding and developing new talent.


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