Archive for January, 2012
Christmas at 2fort
On Christmas Spirit And Virtual Items
Looking past the overtones of commerce, the Christmas season is, or rather should be, a time of humble introspection. At heart, it serves as a reminder to value friends and family over hard cash; a lesson demonstrated by giving freely to your loved ones. This is Christianity’s take on a call for temperance present throughout almost religion. As frequently as they tend to squabble, most faiths seem to agree that if you care at all for your immortal soul, you should not tie yourself to worldly goods. But what if the goods you care for aren’t real?
The rise of the Internet has done truly wondrous things for videogames. Once limited to connecting two people facing the same screen, they now offer us entire continents to roam as we please. In a way, the massive realms of yore provided by the MMO-genre these days are more than just playgrounds. They are increasingly intricate, scale-models of human society, with complex economies and patterns of migration unwittingly created by thousands of people from all over the world.
No matter how fantastical their premise might be, games can never quite get away from human nature. It bleeds into them. We bring it with us whenever we log in; not just our virtues, but also our vices. Our vanity. Our greed. So our virtual communities, far from utopian, are plagued by smaller versions of the injustices and sins all too common in our real world. Take, for instance, the growing importance we attach to virtual items. Some items have always been rarer than others, and those who owned them took a certain pride in doing so. But this used to be tied to gameplay, a matter of owning the most powerful weapons or the toughest armor.
Now we go so far as to hunt for accessories that serve no purpose other than to look pretty and to distinguish ourselves from those who don’t own them. They have become our version of status symbols. Instead of sports cars or designer clothing, we brag about epic mounts and unusual hats. Ironically, the virtual world manages to be just as materialistic as the real world.
Traditionally, Christmas serves to remind us that money is only so much ink on paper. Today, it might be fruitful to go a step further and to keep in mind that your Bill’s Hat, your Dragonwrath Staff and your Diamond Pickaxe of Fortune are only so many ones and zeroes. Their distinct purpose, the only reason they exist, is to bring you joy. If you put them on a shelf to be appreciated rather than used, if they’re gathering dust hidden deep in some virtual backpack or if you’re haggling to turn them into a profit, then you’re doing it wrong.I owe this epiphany to a man called Bear, a Nordic nerd and regular on my Team Fortress 2 server of choice. Some eight months ago, I had gotten it in my head that I really wanted the Sticky Jumper, a sidearm for the Demoman class that allows you to propel yourself across the map without suffering explosion damage. Since it doesn’t drop randomly, most people pick it up at the store for a few cents. However since I didn’t have a credit card, I decided to craft it.
There is no recipe for creating the Sticky Jumper per se, but it’s one of several (at the time, three) possible results when crafting a secondary weapon for the Demoman. All I needed were some slot and class tokens, a bit of metal and patience. Probability suggested that I could expect to create a Sticky Jumper in three tries. Probability is a bitch. I crafted a Scottish Resistance, then a Chargin’ Targe, then another Chargin’ Targe, then another Scottish Resistance. Short on ingredients by now, I scraped together the tokens for a final try. At long last I crafted yet another Chargin’ Targe.
“Bother this troublesome nonsense!” would be the polite paraphrase of my frustrated outburst in the chat. Noticing my aggravation with what I had crafted, Bear immediately figured out what I was up to. “Trying to craft a Sticky Jumper, Joe?” “Yeah. No luck on my fifth try though” “I bought mine. It is kinda cheap” More people pitched in sharing their own stories, and once again I ended up explaining why I was going through the trouble of crafting it. Bear, in the meantime, had fallen conspicuously silent. A few minutes later, an automated message announced that he had just wrapped a gift.
There’s a rather obvious connection there, but at the time I was slow to make it. “Did you die yet, Joe?” “No, why?” My curiosity piqued, I threw myself off the nearest cliff. A notification popped up, presenting me with Bear’s gift, complete with ribbon and colorful wrapping. Sure enough he had gotten a Sticky Jumper for me, the item for which I had been hunting for weeks.
Even with the added cost of wrapping it, it wasn’t a big gift. But I was taken aback by the fact that someone hundreds of miles away, someone I’d never met face to face and probably never will, bothered to spend money on me. Bear was reaching out to someone who was, despite all the time we spent playing together, a total stranger. It may have been a small gesture, but it was surprisingly considerate; an act of kindness I could not have anticipated. I thanked him probably a hundred times.Later on, I looked at my own treasury; a puny collection of a half-dozen hats dropped in my lap by the game’s routines or crafted after gathering metal for weeks. The economy of the game dictates that each of them was worth several Sticky Jumpers, and yet the lot of them didn’t mean nearly as much to me as the three words in the description of my Sticky Jumper: “Gift from: Bear”.
I loved the gun. This was no rational reaction. It was neither reasonable, detached, nor calm. Then again, it didn’t have to be. It was a gift. I did not appreciate it for its value, but for the wonderful moment of surprise, the seconds of joy crowning weeks of disappointment. Was there ever a more divine use for our virtual piles of gold? Why was I niggardly hoarding everything the game handed me, when I could be handing it to others?
My thoughts turned to the movers and shakers; the people who make a point of owning every hat in the game, the people who spend weeks going through the same dungeon over and over again looking for a piece of epic gear, the people who spend hours on trade servers trying to make a good bargain. Who are they if not the Scrooges of our generation, jaded misers hoarding a pile of digital riches that might brighten the days of a hundred gamers? Eternally discontented, they chase the buzz their wealth used to give them by adding to it, always looking for more and more. But more isn’t the answer. Less is.
Whether he realizes it or not, Bear’s gift has taught me a valuable lesson. So this Christmas, I decided to return the favor. Between his impressive collection of headgear and my humble assortment of items, I had a hard time coming up with a gift. But at last, lightning struck. Bear and I share a guilty pleasure: our fascination with the Huntsman, a significantly less effective bow-and-arrow alternative to the Sniper’s trusty rifle. Despite all the ridicule it earns me, I have been using it almost exclusively since the game first handed me a bow. It served me well for over two years. When I came across my first Name Tag, I gave it the custom title of “Face Invader”, a name well-earned through over 100 hours of sniping. And now it was time to give it away.
You could say that a Huntsman, one of the cheapest items in the game, doesn’t make for a very impressive gift. But I wasn’t just giving him any old Huntsman, I was giving him my Huntsman; two years of my online career and the sum of all those times Bear had fallen victim to my arrows. It was the Team Fortress equivalent of a personal gift.I’m ashamed to admit that I was initially hesitant to let go. After all, I had spent quite a lot of time with that bow and I cared for it more than I probably should. I had doubts. I felt so attached to that weapon that I didn’t want anyone else to have it. It was a weird realization, but at long last I noticed that I did no longer truly savour using that Huntsman. The joy had waned over time. I did not care for it any more, but the idea of not using it felt alien. Without knowing, without paying attention, I had let that item take a hold of me. It was no longer mine so much as I was its own. It was a liability, a burden. It needed to go.
At last, I let go. And in all that time I spent with my “Face Invader” I had not done anything more brilliant, more wonderful, and more delightful than giving it away. I made Bear smile. Nothing I had achieved with that bow could compare to that. And though it feels weird to go back to a bland, nondescript bow now, and though I might miss my Huntsman at times, I know that it’s in good hands. Bear certainly doesn’t have any qualms about killing me with my own weapon. Normally I’d be inclined to get a bit worked up over my virtual demise, but every time Bear pierces my head with another arrow, I get to see those three little words in the description of my assailants weapon: “Gift from: Joe”. And then I smile.
So as you spend the holidays reuniting with loved ones, handing out gifts and (if your loved ones are anything like mine) gorging on delicious treats, keep in mind that in this enlightened day and age, the spirit of giving need not be limited to the real world.
Count your virtual blessings. Perhaps you will find that you might find more joy in giving them away, than you would in keeping them.
“Proper review’s supposed to start at the beginning,” muses the effortlessly soulful voice of Logan Cunningham, Bastion‘s narrator. At least he might, if he were asked to review the game. “Of course, it ain’t so simple with this one…”
Bastion, the debut of indie developer Supergiant Games, is not an easy game to classify. It dresses up like a dungeon crawler, but sacrifices many of the genre’s core tenets in favor of focusing on a strong, heavily structured, linear story. This mélange may not grab you straight away, as you’ll lament the rather stale gameplay long before the aesthetics and subtle world-building add up to anything meaningful. But Bastion is worth enduring. It may not pay off immediately, but boy does it pay off in the end.
The protagonist, known only as The Kid, wakes up to find the city of Caelondia ravished by a mysterious calamity. His world is turned upside down, with bits and pieces of debris floating through the air, gliding up to form paths underneath his uneasy steps. A stranger’s voice fills his ears, guides him, and tells him to head for the eponymous Bastion, a safe haven for troubled times such as these. But no one got there in time. The Bastion is deserted, safe for Rucks, the engineer who built the stronghold. He’s not eager to share details, but the old man claims he can fix everything. He just needs a little help. So The Kid ventures right on into the Wilds, looking for survivors and the parts needed to rebuild.
In terms of gameplay, Bastion focuses more on top-down hack’n'slash combat than on the character-building, item-hunting of Diablo. Its approach is rather action-heavy, a flurry of dodges and well-timed attacks. The independent nature of the inputs, with movement and action tied to keyboard and mouse respectively, enables you strafe, evade, retreat, or take careful aim, and often turns combat into a positively visceral affair.
Yet even with this revised mission statement in mind, the game could still have used a bit more polish as the controls tend to act up on occasion. Swings and slashes have the most annoying tendency to glide off models ineffectually, which fortunately doesn’t affect enemies as much as it does near-indestructible crates. And though I’ve never been able to determine whether this is a real issue or just a matter of hard-to-spot hitboxes hidden against a backdrop of ragtag visuals, every so often you’ll find yourself placing an enemy square in your sights and somehow still end up missing.In between various field trips, The Kid returns to the Bastion to build new shops with the parts scavenged along the way. The Distillery offers passive bonuses by way of magical booze, The Forge lets you upgrade your weapons (which are stored at The Arsenal), while The Shrine lets you kick it up a notch by praying for bigger foes and bigger rewards. The Bastion is also where the many buffs and upgrades earned, usually focused on either critical hits or reliable damage output, can be applied. Yet while this measure of choice is nice to have, it doesn’t keep the game from feeling stale. Ultimately, there’s just not a lot to Bastion. Mechanically speaking, the game is sparse.
Make no mistake about it, Bastion is more concerned with delivering an aesthetically pleasing tale than with providing gratifying gameplay, which wouldn’t be a problem if the story took a little less time to pick up the pace. The visuals, the music, the smooth, sexy voice of Logan Cunningham; all of the individual pieces are there from the start. But after a strong intro, the narrative loses focus, content to provide backstory while letting you wander around. Given the linear nature of the piece, it’s easy to feel abandoned. The narration starts to feel like a gimmick, a way to fill our ears with lore without stalling the frenetic gameplay this genre holds so very dear (occasional bits of self-aware humor not withstanding).
It’s only some three hours in, roughly halfway through the game, that Bastion‘s story is truly set in motion. After all this time exploring the impact and consequences of the Calamity, the game finally starts unravelling the causes behind the catastrophe. The Calamity was no random act of god, but was in fact engineered by Caelondians trying to rid themselves of a native tribe. The few survivors The Kid has been rescuing – all of them natives – soon realize this, and one of the outraged survivors reacts violently. Suddenly the narrative comes to life, and conversely the gameplay starts breaking down.
Bastion keeps a tight leash on its mechanics right from the start, keeping them minimalistic to the point of being crude, showing us just how much it’s willing to sacrifice for its story. The game starts tormenting you. The more you try to rebuild, the more things start to fall apart. Ingeniously, Bastion turns your previous successes to dust and makes you watch as things break down around you. With every sacrifice you start to care a little more. Before long you’re willing to give everything, and you will.
Bastion‘s first half is slow, with every aspect pulling it in a different direction. However the second half, with its immaculate visuals, forceful narration, and absolutely stunning vocal pieces by Darren Korb and Ashley Barett, is a masterfully emotional experience. Bastion climaxes in a moment that is as profoundly deep as it is beautiful, as somber as it is hopeful, as sentimental as it is heartfelt. The game grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. It had me tearing up, sitting through the credits and savoring every second of it. It left me dazed, staring at the screen, still lost in Caelondia.
Not many games have the power to move a person to tears. This one does.
Bottom Line: Bastion may not impress as a game, but it’s a damn fine piece of art and song and memorable in every way. I recommend getting the soundtrack edition, at your earliest convenience.
The 2D platformer has now turned into the gritty, military shooter of the indie crowd: After a few well-designed smash hits turned into huge commercial successes, the genre has risen to ubiquity and now every upstart bedroom developer and their dog seem to think that all it takes to put them on the road to fame is one retro jump’n'run with cutesy visuals. This thought struck me while playing Storm in a Teacup, a simple little Iphone game that was recently ported to the PC via Steam. As you probably already figured out, I wasn’t having fun.
After a series of delicious treats, from the twitchy precision of Super Meat Boy to the somber Limbo, from the mind-bending Braid to the colorful VVVVVV, Storm in a Teacup marks the point at which the genre tilts into oversaturation. Intent to ride the wave created by better games, it seems to be built on the assumption that as long as you include even the most egregiously contrived allusion to childlike innocence (in this case: a plot about some kid riding around in a magical teacup) any game will sell. Its shtick? Press spacebar to jump, tap spacebar repeatedly to jump slightly higher.
I’m loath to even call Storm in a Teacup a game. It’s a jumble of platformer tropes thrown together without thought or consideration: Keys and matching doors, seesaw puzzles, crates to be pushed and moving parts to be avoided. Everything it does has been done before, and better. If it wasn’t for the horribly imprecise controls, you could probably blaze through it in an hour. As it stands, you’re left with a game that deliberately wastes your time, forcing you to take the same cheap jumps over and over again until the 30 seconds worth of looped audio make you want to claw your ears out.
Perhaps you think that I’m holding Storm in a Teacup to unfair standards. The title did, after all, originate in Apple’s App Store store, priced at a mere dollar, and even the PC version is not much more expensive. It’s just a simple little Iphone game, right? Wrong. Fruit Ninja, Cut The Rope, Doodle Jump, Angry Birds and Ninjump are Iphone games. They make clever use of the touchscreen or at least manage to work around its limitations through good design. Storm in a Teacup tries to move an existing concept over to a new platform. It’s a PC game ported to the Iphone, then ported back again. And everything about it sucks.
Don’t let Storm in a Teacup fool you. Behind its facade of flash and color the game is every bit as soulless as it is uninspired, and unpolished on top of it. It’s not Modern Warfare 3, nor is it Battlefield 3. It’s not even Homefront. It’s an unlicensed copy of Terrorist Takedown in what is quite obviously a homemade box, with a photocopied cover and a chipped disk.
Bottom Line: Stay away. Every penny is too much, and every minute I spent with it is one I lament.
With a nod to Andrew Walt, I present ’10 For The Twitter Age’, my taut 2011 retrospective. 10 games I played this year, 140 characters each.
Portal 2: Surprisingly on par with the original for the most part, but significantly less taut. Still, remarkable writing, amazing ending.
Mount & Blade: Warband: First thought: So it’s just an endless series of battles? Second thought: Sweet, it’s an endless series of battles.
Super Meat Boy: Minimalistic, but excellently so. One of the rare cases where repetition leads to mastery, not boredom. Bitchin’ tunes, too.
Team Fortress 2: Multiplayer excellence, now free-to-play. It’s the gift that keeps on giving! Especially now that I embraced giving gifts.
Mass Effect 1 & 2: Brilliant writing, and veritable loads of it. It bends under its own verbosity at times, but it doesn’t collapse.
Alpha Protocol: Broken in some ways, impressive in others. Forces you to choose not knowing the consequences. Cruel, and genius.
Minecraft: Boundless in every sense of the word. Allows for endless creativity, and a glimpse at your own psyche. I turned away in disgust.
Rayman: Origins: At heart merely a solid platformer, but the art team went above and beyond. The soundtrack now ownes my soul.
Echo Bazaar: London dragged underground! Devils and dirigibles! Bohemians and Bats! Criminals and Clay Men. It’s free
Bastion: Crude mechanics and stale gameplay, but beautiful art and song. Moved me to tears. It’s that emotional.
Again, this is not a top ten list, simply ten games I happened to play last year. Spread the fire!