Monday, February 26, 2024

Nightingale's Sweet Song

You know all those explanatory posts and videos people like to do? The ones that come under the catch-all title "Why I Play..."? This is the opposite of one of those.

When it comes to video games, I'm not much interested in Achievements but I do find the ones Steam hands out quite useful for bench-marking my progress against everyone else. This morning I completed an instance called Astrolabe Site of Power to obtain my Astrolabe card, for which I received the fifth of Nightingale's fifteen possible Achievements.

The Astrolabe is part of what is either the main quest-line or the extended tutorial. It's hard to tell them apart since the former seems to shift imperceptibly into the latter at an unspecified point. Puck is still popping up to offer instruction, advice and criticism but then I suspect he'll be with us indefinitely. He clearly has some agenda of his own he's not yet ready to reveal.

Although Nightingale is ostensibly a sandbox, it employs a number of mechanisms familiar from more directive genres, not least gatekeeping by gear score. The Realms are riven with opportunities that require no particular marker of ability to attempt - towers, ruins, caves, ziggurats and mysterious structures of all kinds - but the entrances to storyline instances are closed off by crackling force-fields that don't let anyone pass until the necessary requirements are met.

Excuse me? Are you my dietician now?

The same checks, unsurprisingly, apply to resource nodes, all of which come with a gear score below which your tools simply bounce off. I don't know how far the numbers in Nightingale go up but given that I've seen nodes that require a score well in excess of two hundred, it seems safe to assume that the GS30 needed to enter the Astrolabe indicates its positioning at a fairly early stage in the storyline.

You might think, then, that quite a lot of players would have breezed past it long ago. I certainly would have thought so but it seems I'd have been overestimating the interest, enthusiasm or willingness to follow instructions of the great majority of my fellow Realm travelers. As of time or writing, the Astrolabe has been completed by fewer than fifteen per cent of players.

The next instance in line, the Provisioner Site of Power, asks for a Gear Score of 40. I already have that. Exactly that, in fact. It would also seem to be quite closer to the start of the game but fewer than ten per cent of players have claimed the Achievement for that one.

It's impossible to be sure whether what seems like a very steep tail-off in engagement with the main storyline equates to a similar withdrawal from the game as a whole or whether it just indicates a disinclination to follow signposts. Nightingale is a survival sandbox, after all. Maybe most players prefer to do their own thing and set their own goals. 

It would be easier to assess the probabilities if I knew just how much of the tech tree was gated by the storyline. As yet, I'm unsure. You can buy a lot of recipes from vendors and for currencies that are easy-to-very-easy to acquire. Basic essence dust can be salvaged from literally anything so all you need to do is chop down a few trees. Tier 1 essences, as Tobold explains, are easily farmed from Fae Towers and other sites of interest in Antiquarian Realms.

Without doing any deliberate farming at all, I've already obtained enough of both to buy every recipe I've seen on sale and to upgrade all of my main gear slots. Given the relatively challenging nature of my adventures in the Astrolabe, which included one death for me and several for my companion and which only ended in success when I found a nice, safe spot from which to snipe the boss without him being able to do anything about it, I'll be doing what I can to raise my Gear Score a bit more before taking on the Provisioner.

Hang on Dora, I'll come revive you after I've cheesed him from up here.

Again, though, I'm unsure just how much upgrading I'll be able to do. I suspect that although everything within my current upgrade tier - Uncommon - is open to me without further recourse to the storyline, whatever comes after may not become available until a set point in the narrative. I suppose I could go look it up, but where's the fun in that?

The whole thing is made much more complicated by the layered nature of Nightingale's power structure. It reminds me very much  of Valheim in the way you can stack multiple food and potion buffs not only to raise various resistances but also to increase you health pool and give yourself all kinds of advantages. 

In this respect, compared to Valheim, Nightingale seems at least an order of magnitude more complex. As in Valheim, you can change your own stats through what you eat, drink and wear and according to what buffs you can acquire but you can also change the environment around you according to what cards you choose to play. It's as though Inflexion took the console commands that allowed you to change Valheim (Or Palworld.) as a player and put them inside the game so you could change them as a character instead.

It's a subtle difference, since the outcome is much the same, but it makes for a more immersive experience, at least if you're the kind of player who sees their character as more than just an extension of themselves. It puts the mechanics at a remove from external reality, binding them into the lore and the environment, and by doing so attempts to uphold the fiction that Nightingale is something more than a game. 

Those are mining nodes sticking out of that thing.

It would be tempting to claim that's a contributory factor to why I'm finding it more compelling than Palworld but the facts don't really bear out that interpretation. I made a couple of console changes to Palworld and they added to my immersion there rather than detracted from it. It didn't matter that it was a metafictional rather than a fictional act.

I suspect I'm finding Nightingale a good deal more immersive mostly because there's a lot more to see and do than there is in Palworld, which already feels a little thin by comparison, even though I've really only seen a couple of Nightingale's Realms - Abeyance and Antiquarian - and just one biome - Forest. I did get a brief exposure to two other biomes, Swamp and Desert - in the early tutorial but I couldn't pretend I explored them to any significant extent.

How many more Realms or biomes there might be I couldn't say. Again, I could look it up but I'm not going to. Not yet, anyway. I don't feel the need to do any research of that kind because it's clear to me I still have a great deal to discover about the Realms and biomes I already know or know of. The maps feel huge and they're partially procedurally generated so there are an infinite number of variations on the finite themes. 

It's taken me nearly real-life day's play to get this far and I haven't even done half of the stuff marked on the maps in the two Realms I've opened, which is nothing like everything there is to do there. I can't see how it can take less than several more real-time days to exhaust the possibilities already in front of me. Even with the number of hours I'm putting in right now, that would take a month or more and that's just two maps out of as many as I care to create.

Maybe by the time I have GS230 I'll also have a way to get up there.

Good, new games often give an impression of unlimited potential but it's rarely sustained. I'm not claiming I'm going to be spending the next month or two playing Nightingale for several hours a day, every day. Then again, that is what happened with Valheim, where Steam tells me I've spent a somewhat unnerving 384 hours so far. 

What I will say is that although I've played and enjoyed a slew of new games in the last year and found much to write about all of them - Noah's Heart, Dawnlands, Once Human, Tarisland, Palworld... - I can't remember thinking about them anything like as much when I wasn't playing them as I have been about Nightingale. The last game that applied to probably was Valheim.

I suspect it might have something to do with the need for forward planning. That does always get me thinking outside of the sessions themselves and Nightingale is one of those games where just running about aimlessly doesn't always get you as far as you'd like, although it's certainly fun to do anyway.

Despite what I said earlier, I'm not convinced it's about content either. I suspect much of that may become repetitive after a while once the assets that get re-shuffled every time you make a new Realm become familiar. 

It's certainly not about polish. Nightingale is neither as polished or finished as the other games on that list, not even the ones that are still in beta or Early Access. In fact, Nightingale is buggier than any game I've played in a while.

Dora, cloned by a bug.

I don't think it's about affection for my character, either. I like her well enough but that utterly expressionless face does make it hard to bond with her. 

(On that topic, I would like to revise my comments on the lack of idling animations very slightly. Flora does sway very slightly from side to side when at rest. That's it, though. And since we're on the subject of personalization, I also found out today there are emotes in the game. Like everything else, you have to find them for yourself. If you hit "Z" yet another radial menu pops up, this one with a number of emotes from the obvious (Wave, Salute.) to the outre (Relevé, Pirouette.). No Sit, though.)

It might be the deep crafting system with its many, many possibilities for making slightly different variations of every item. I'm sure that's going to appeal to a lot of folks. It sort of appeals to me - in theory - but I know myself well enough to understand I'll never make full use of it, just dabble around the margins, as and when I happen by sheer chance to acquire a full set of mats to make something strange or unusual.

What is it, then, that seems to have pushed me further into the game than 85% of the other people playing it, even if we are only less than a week in and there's ample time for everyone to catch up and pass me as I inevitably run out of enthusiasm next week or next month? Could it the story, perhaps? 

I have a feeling I'm going to be needing a lot of these.

Nah, I don't think so. It's nice that there is one and the narrative conceit of trying to find a way back to Nightingale (Yes, it's a place. Did we not cover that?) does offer both a reason to push forward and a framework for doing so. It's hardly a page-turner, though. There's no sense of needing to Find Out What Happens Next in capital letters. It's more of a general signpost on which way to go than an engine driving me relentlessy onward.

I don't have an answer to all these rhetorical questions, by the way, just in case anyone was waiting for one. This post is me, musing out loud, hoping something will come to me. It hasn't, not yet.

If I really take a step back and think about it, I'm not even sure Nightingale is resonating more strongly with me than most of the games in that list above. The posts I wrote about them, especially in the first week or two, probably sound just as enthusiastic. Maybe I just get over-excited when I have new stuff to see and do and write about. 

Even if that's true, I don't think I played more than twenty hours of any of those games in the first five days. Nightingale definitely has something they didn't. 

If I find out what it is, I'll be sure to let everyone know. Until then, I'll just keep playing in the hope it might eventually come to me.

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