We Interrupt This Review To Bring You Breaking News

I’m moving Friday’s article to today and gonna do another review on Wednesday, because I want to get this one out ASAP: Every last Crusader Kings 2 DLC is on sale for $15 right now. It’s at the Humble Bundle. I have logged more hours on this game than any other in my entire Steam library. The only downside to CK2 has always been that playing with anything less than every expansion installed makes it hard to discuss the game with other people, and for the next week and a half, that’s no problem. If you have any interest in strategy games or the medieval period, pick it up. The game has expanded drastically past its namesake, and includes not only mainland European and Middle-Eastern feudal dynasties, but also vikings and other pagans, African kingdoms, Mongol hordes, and whatever India’s getting up to. Also kind of the Chinese, but they’re not playable. Rumor is that the map was getting so gigantic that adding China to it would’ve rendered the game unplayable on too many machines.

Anyway, now is your chance to get all of the CK2, and unless you are either completely uninterested or completely broke, you should do so.

This Is Probably Not A Good Sign

Train Simulator makes sense. People have always liked model train sets, train simulator is a model train set that doesn’t require an entire room of your house. Harvest Moon makes sense. Having a farm in an industrialized world is quite difficult, there are few farmers left and you must be very good at farming (and probably a megacorporation running a megafarm) to make it work. Roller Coaster Tycoon makes sense. Operating a theme park requires such a spectacularly large amount of money that most people will never even get to try and wouldn’t be inclined to bet ten million dollars on it if they had that kind of money, as opposed to just taking the money and retiring. The Sims makes sense. In the Sims, having a nice house full of nice things, making friends with all the coolest people in town, and becoming phenomenally successful in a glamorous career are all just a matter of time.

But a new phenomenon has emerged lately. Truck Simulator. House Flipper. Mechanic Simulator. PC Building Simulator. None of these are the kinds of things that would be perpetually out of reach for the average middle class person. Indeed, most of these things are just being a middle class person. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I notice that there’s a growing sub-genre of video games where the fantasy is having a job.

Scourge of the Betrayer: What Is Probably The Plot Has Begun

The first three pages of this chapter (not that it’s formally split up by the book, but you know what I mean) are about Captain Braylar banging the barmaid he saved from the boorish soldiers earlier, while the scribe viewpoint character is sleeping in the other bed in the same room. This puts me in a difficult position: We’re getting to the point where I should probably put a moratorium on criticizing this book for its over-enthusiasm with how cool Captain Braylar is, but if I do that there is nothing left to comment on.

It is worth noting that the way in which Captain Braylar is built up isn’t as juvenile as you’d expect from a book that just can’t stop talking about how cool this character is. Like, at some point the barmaid gets nervous about potentially waking the viewpoint scribe up and asks to stop, and Captain Braylar stops and gets agitated with her and throws her out. This is not how the scene would go in a typical Mary Sue wankfest (no pun intended), which would not have tolerated anything stopping its protagonist from conquering a woman, and indeed would have gone on for ages about how satisfied she is. But while the squeeing over Braylar’s awesomeness is much more competent – it attributes the woman’s shyness to circumstance, thus keeping Braylar’s sexual prowess unblemished, it has Braylar respect her wish and thus firmly establishes that he’s not a sexual predator, but it also has him react with agitation so as to firmly establish his dominance – the fact that the narrative is doing nothing else but go on and on and on about this guy makes it just as Sue-y as a more straightforward gushing. Jeff Salyards – our author – is clearly demonstrating that he could write a good story, but that he just doesn’t want to.

Then, on page 36, the plot finally arrives:

Continue reading “Scourge of the Betrayer: What Is Probably The Plot Has Begun”

Scourge of the Betrayer: A Book About Nothing

At least one of the books in the Humble Bundle of books I recently snagged is not a short story anthology. At least three of them, actually, because they’re a trilogy. Or the first three books of an “arc,” at least. Whether they’re also the last three books of that arc, I don’t know. What I do know is that Scourge of the Betrayer is the first of them, and I’m going to be giving that book a poke. Here is our opening paragraph:

My new patron clambered down the wagon, dark hair slicked back like wet otter fur, eyes roaming the stable yard in a measured sweep. He fixed on me briefly before continuing his survey, and it occurred to me, just as it had a hundred times since accepting the commission, that this would be unlike any other job I’d done.

I had to copy/paste that into a word processor in order to get the first two lines to be visible. Smart Publishing should consider getting a better formatting guy. Like, minor formatting errors are one thing. Still kind of unprofessional, but things slip through, no one’s perfect, so long as everything else is firing on all cylinders, I don’t even notice. This is the very first paragraph of the very first page.

The next two pages are a storm of proper nouns unmoored from any meaning. New characters are introduced on a nearly per-paragraph basis, making keeping up with who’s who basically impossible, and a handful of place names are introduced as well. I know there’s some kind of caravan, a military captain is in charge of it, a stable boy and a nomad who seems vaguely Mongol are part of it, and that our viewpoint character is a scribe. Some number of soldiers are involved, but I’ve lost track of which ones are repeat characters and which ones are newly introduced.

Continue reading “Scourge of the Betrayer: A Book About Nothing”

We Have Slain The Gods

Pre-modern people lived for millennia in a paradigm where fate was omnipotent and tradition inviolate. The only way you could possibly hope to survive was to follow the traditions of people who were currently surviving, because the methods of learning to survive in this or that environment were so precise and the consequences for failure so immediately lethal that figuring it out just by being very clever was absolutely impossible. The process of preparing some foods in a non-toxic way is utterly insane in its complexity, and often extremely far-removed from its ultimate lethal effects, to the point where you could skip the cleansing process, prepare your food much faster, feel very smug about all your extra free time for years, and then start getting sick and dying on a timeframe so detached from when you first started bucking the tradition that it’s practically impossible to connect one to the other.

Inuits who use bones cracking in fires to divine what hunting ground to use today are using a random method of selecting hunting grounds, more random than any human could manage, thus baffling any attempt by caribou to avoid places where Inuits tend to hunt them. A group of clever young Inuits who decide that letting cracked bones decide their hunting grounds for them is dumb and just go where the hunting is best will train the caribou to avoid them and die of starvation. The Inuits had no idea that they were using randomization to prevent themselves from accidentally training the caribou to avoid being hunted, they just had a tradition, and if you didn’t follow that tradition, you died. For reasons that absolutely nobody understood.

The ancient world is one where if you don’t live in accordance with the ways of your ancestors, the gods will kill you.

And this is something I had to explain to you, my modern reader, because the gods are dead.

At some point in the past couple of centuries, human understanding reached a tipping point, where if someone is killed and we don’t know exactly why, that’s a mystery. It’s intriguing and maybe frightening because of how bizarre it is.

I don’t want to oversell the accomplishments of humanity, here. Just like a physicist falling from a plane can calculate the properties of a parachute that would save them but probably can’t make one mid-fall, knowing why people die doesn’t always help us save them. We know what heart disease and cancer are, and it still kills a ton of people, because knowing what they are and knowing how to thwart them are different things.

But I do think it’s worth remembering: The days when the world was so ruled by unexplained and inexplicable processes, when human life was so subject to unknowable forces, that to even try to comprehend them and improve upon them was a fool’s errand, that all you could do is keep to the traditions that had kept your people alive all this time and hope for the best? Those days are over. We figure out new and better ways of doing things on an annual basis. We invent new and superior “traditions” so quickly that we can hardly learn them fast enough to keep up, and are constantly at risk of falling behind the people who can adapt to them more quickly.

For better or for worse, we have plundered the riches of Olympus.

We have slain the gods.

The Final Frontier: A Jar of Goodwill

I think the entire Humble Bundle I just got might just be short story anthologies, which is certainly fine by me for purposes of blog fodder. Today’s story comes from the Final Frontier, which is a collection of stories that would be Star Trek episodes if Smart Publishing had the Star Trek IP.

Not that all stories necessarily follow the Star Trek format of being a ship exploring on behalf of some more-or-less utopian space communists. The first story opens with this line, for example:

You keep a low profile when you’re in oxygen debt. Too much walking about just exacerbates the situation anyway.

This is definitely a planet that the Enterprise would visit somewhere outside of Federation space. The whole theme of the first few pages is that space is super inhospitable, which has the obvious-in-hindsight consequence that being poor really sucks in space. Whereas on Earth, limited access to water is almost always a clear sign of corporate abuse and limited access to air is unthinkable, in space, that stuff has to be imported, which means someone is shipping it out here, and that guy needs a paycheck. This is the kind of place where you’d like to have some government intervention so that everyone gets to breathe courtesy of taxpayer dollars, but absent that, your debt grows with literally every breath you take.

Our protagonist is “Alex” and the story is written first person, so I have no idea whether they’re male or female. The setup is that Alex is running up a big air debt, and the harbormaster of the station they stay on is having difficulty justifying letting Alex continue to run up that debt. The alternative is usually to go into hibernation and only be thawed out for guaranteed work until they’d built up enough spare funds to buy their contract back. It’s left unclear what the effects of long-term hibernation would be. Do you still age? Can you go crazy from it? Either way, Alex isn’t looking forward to it. The harbormaster does have an alternative, though.

Continue reading “The Final Frontier: A Jar of Goodwill”

Rules For Writing The Addams Family

There’s a new Addams Family movie coming out in a few months. I’ve been rewatching the old 90s Addams Family, though I’m not sure if I’m going to see the 2019 film. I also watched some of the 60s Addams Family, to compare some of the episodes of the 90s show that were based on episodes of the 60s show. I also looked at a few of the original comics, which appear to be primary inspiration for the 2019 film, but they’re all single panel gags that don’t lend themselves to the level of characterization you get out of a movie. All of this has got me thinking about what makes the Addams Family work (and it doesn’t always, the Addams’ have had their share of duds).

One thing that I don’t think has ever been messed up is that by default the Addams are completely functional. Although the family often becomes dysfunctional as a source of conflict, their default state is one of love and acceptance contrasted against macabre mayhem. That’s the fundamental joke of the Addams Family: That they express wholesome 60s sitcom family values through the medium of a horror/slasher flick.

Something that’s important and occasionally gotten wrong is that the Addams Family don’t go out looking for trouble. The neighbors, bureaucrats, and other pastel-colored normal people who walk into the Addams estate are often the targets of comic terror and violence. Just like Bugs Bunny can never go after someone or else he comes across as a bully, the Addams Family need to be minding their own business in their estate when the outside world comes knocking. Now, the Addams’ are also enthusiastic hosts, so you could imagine them intentionally inviting people into their house, but while this would be in character, it would make the Addams Family the villains. Fester and Wednesday get more leniency on this than the rest of the family, especially Wednesday, but even their schemes should be more retaliatory than belligerent.

Something that is usually gotten right, but which I could see the 2019 film messing up, is that Gomez is neither the hero nor a buffoon. When the situation calls for it, Gomez is a swordsman and an acrobat, ready to fight for his family with fundamentally the same skill set as Zorro. This action hero side of Gomez is neither reliably effective nor comically inept. Gomez’s penchant for romantic violence rarely saves the day, but it can stall for time or provide distraction and he looks good doing it.

Gomez and Fester bring madcap violence to the family, especially Fester. Gomez is often shown doing things like building model train sets so he can then cause tiny model catastrophes, but Fester blows up actual, real buildings. Grandmama Addams’ place in the family tree has been inconsistent, but she’s usually pretty assertive and violent, which makes her more at home on Gomez’s side. Morticia’s side is distant and calculating. Morticia encourages carnage and violence, but almost never directly participates. Lurch and Thing are not directly related to the family, but they are much more firmly on Morticia’s side of this spectrum, stable anchors despite their ghoulish mannerisms.

Wednesday is a blend of the two. Although originally she was an adorable sadist, her steady evolution into monotone, calculating, and vengefully evil genius has made her probably the most compelling character of the family. Wednesday is the most dangerous member of the family, and is the one most likely to escalate the stakes in act two (i.e. things were bad enough, but now Wednesday is plotting a murder) and to resolve the conflict in act three (i.e. Wednesday has murdered the problem). Pugsley plays an important role as default victim to her sadism and henchman to her plot-relevant schemes, but I don’t really feel like he has much to do except be Wednesday’s Igor and I think that’s a place where the Family could use some expansion.

Blood Sisters: Shipwrecks Above

Blood Sisters is an anthology of vampire stories written by women, and it’s worth noting that they consider “written by women” to be a cover-worthy selling point. I’m always skeptical of anthologies that advertise themselves with “written by [demographic],” because even if you are trying to give more writing opportunities to [demographic], you have presumably selected authors who are actually good at their job and who can be advertised on their own strength. I got this one as part of a Humble Bundle and I’m gonna dive into it here principally because it’s a short story anthology so I can pick one, write a blog post about it, and then move on to another book if I feel like it.

Something about the first story in the book, A Princess of Spain, was so immediately boring to me that I decided to skip to the second story in the anthology, Shipwrecks Above. I’d tell you why, but I have no idea. For all I know it’s a perfectly good story, but that first paragraph somehow just repelled my eyes beyond what would be reasonable for text to accomplish.

Shipwrecks Above, though, opens with this:

This one, she rides the tides. She has been hardly more than a shade drifting between undulating stalks of kelp, and she has worn flickering diadems of jellyfish, anemones, and brittle stars. The mackerel and tautog swap their careless yarns of her.

Fish are spreading rumors about some drowned undead? I have no idea what this has to do with vampires, but I’m down to find out.

A few paragraphs into the backstory of this drowned woman, we set the tone for the story:

Her father and lover, her self-appointed Lord in all matters of this world and in any to come hereafter, ferried her high into the Carpathian wilderness, up to some crumbling ancestral fortress, its towers and curtain walls falling steadily into decrepitude. It was no less a wreck than the whalers and doggers, the schooners and trawlers, she has since sung to their graves on jagged reefs of stone and coral. And it was there, in the rat-haunted corridors of István’s moldering castle, that she did refuse this dæmonic paramour. All his titles, battlefield conquests, and wealth were proved unequal to the will of a frightened girl. When he had raped her and beaten her, he had her bound and, for a while, cast into a deep pit where she believed that the Archangel Michael, bringer of merciful Death, might find her and bear her away from this perdition unto the gilded clouds of Heaven.

What buy-in the opening paragraph managed is rapidly wilting. The only thing the story particularly has to say about incestuous rape and torture so far is that it sucks, so we certainly appear to be in full edgelord mode here, something that I’d suspected might happen in a vampire anthology. This is the kind of story where a story about human evil is confused for a story contrived to be maximally evil.

Continue reading “Blood Sisters: Shipwrecks Above”

How To Eat EA’s Lunch

This post comes with a hidden suffix of “in 2007,” because right now EA’s lunch is FIFA lootboxes and you eat that by getting the FIFA license away from them somehow. You could also set their lunch on fire by convincing enough nations to ban their lootboxes. What I’m really talking about is how to out-Sims EA, which, much like Cities: Skylines out SimCity-ing EA, would be eating such a tiny side dish of EA’s lunch in 2019 that they probably wouldn’t notice.

But I do want someone to make Cities: Skylines but for the Sims, because although the Sims 4 lacks the spectacular cavalcade of failure that was SimCity 2013, its steady decay is just as bad for the series overall. The Sims 3 was already heavily monetized and microtransactioned, and the Sims 4 not only continued that trend, but had the gall to strip away nearly all the expansion content and even some core features of the Sims 3, then tried to sell everything piecemeal again.

The first Sims was released in January of 2000, on the wrong end of the Half-Life gap where video games released around the time of Half-Life 2 look closer to modern day graphics in 2019 than they do to video games released around the time of Half-Life 1, just a few years earlier. Like, sure, you can tell 2019 graphics are a huge upgrade, but the 1998-2004 graphics gap is even bigger than the 2004-2019 gap. All this to say, the Sims 2, released in 2004, could sell itself based on nothing but more graphical fidelity in your virtual dollhouse. On top of that, the Sims 2 was designed ground up to be a virtual dollhouse. It shipped with lots of bonafide characters in its pre-made neighborhood, not just generic-ish families that served as default friends and neighbors for mechanical purposes, but a neighborhood full of existing relationships and personal dramas to interact with.

Then the Sims 3 launched, and had a big ticket selling point: Neighborhoods were now completely open world, interconnected, living towns full of sims who went about their daily business holistically, not silo’d off into a bunch of lots each of which was its own world divided by loading screens. I don’t know how they pulled this off in 2009, because my 2017 laptop gives me 2-3 minute long loading screens when first loading a game and tends to start stuttering under the strain if I play too long. Regardless of how, this was again the kind of leap in technology that justified a new game and selling new expansion packs that were basically the same as the expansion packs for the old game, except they were for the new game. Some people are still Sims 2 adherents, but not many.

Then the Sims 4 dropped, and the fanbase legit split. The Sims 4, by virtue of receiving ongoing support, won the struggle overall, but Sims 3 communities remain intact while Sims 2 communities have mostly withered away to one guy posting content for the odd stray comment from his supportive dog. The Sims 4 was a technological step backwards, returning to silo’d lots divided by loading screens. Basic features like the toddler stage of life and even pools were not present at release for the Sims 4. In fairness to the Sims 4, the real essentials like the toddler life stage and pools were added in free content patches rather than sold as microtransactions (even though the Sims 4 is generally even more aggressive than the Sims 3 with microtransactions), and it did include some engine improvements that made one of the core features of the game – socialization – more believable and evocative. Back on the first hand, though, it also lacked the Sims 3’s incredibly flexible Create A Style system, which allowed for lots of flexibility in coloring wallpaper, flooring and roofing, and Sim clothing. Self-expression took a huge hit in favor of dynamically generated social drama. Those are both core features for the Sims, although they tend to appeal to different people, and I strongly suspect this is why the fanbase split. In terms of overall quality, sacrificing one for the other is a wash.

And just like SimCity vs. Cities: Skylines, EA can’t copyright much of anything that makes the Sims great. They have a few families like the Goths and the Altos and the Landgraabs who are recognizable to the fanbase and have some traction with the audience, but if you shipped your Sims-alike with the Mort family, people would get that it’s basically the same as the Goths and would be happy to pick up playing dolls with your Morts right where they left off with EA’s Goths. Despite having an audience who cares deeply about telling stories, the Sims is an almost purely technology and gameplay driven franchise. Anyone willing to develop the tech and polish to do it better can take over the entire fanbase. Now, that’s no mean feat. Indie devs riding a $100,000 Kickstarter would not be able to pull that off. But although Sims money pales in comparison to what it was back in 2007-ish, it’s still big money, and someone willing to do it right could plausibly see a very large return on the investment, significant upfront costs in developer expertise and literal money notwithstanding.

So how do you do it? How do you out-Sims the Sims?

Continue reading “How To Eat EA’s Lunch”


Rounding out the week in which I play and review random video games mostly from the Humble Bundle, let’s talk about something I dug out of the Humble Trove: Reus. Reus is a game in which you are some kind of disembodied Gaian planet consciousness. To begin with, the entire surface of the planet is covered in lifeless wasteland. Your goal is to turn that lifeless wasteland into a thriving human civilization. On the one hand, this is kind of anthropocentric, but on the other, human civilizations are more delicate and more volatile than any natural process (there are natural processes that are more delicate, and natural processes that are more volatile, but not only are these both very rare, none of them are simultaneously as delicate and as volatile as humanity – simultaneously challenging to maintain and a source of chaos and instability). Nothing’s stopping you from generating biomes and just watching them until the clock runs out, but it’s as easy as watching paint dry and about as exciting. The game revolves around tending to human civilizations mostly just ’cause nothing else would be particularly difficult.

Your means of interacting with the world are your four friendly giants: Ocean, Forest, Mountain, and Swamp. You can use these giants to create a total of five biomes: Ocean, forest, mountain, swamp, and also desert, which forms in the shadow of mountains. Human settlers come along to create villages in either forests, swamps, or deserts, but oceans are necessary to get the whole thing started and you need mountains to make deserts. Plus, different biomes can hold different resources, so even though mountains are too tiny to contain entire villages, you can still slap down copper on them, and if that mountain falls within the border of a village, they’ll start mining that copper.

In order to create different resource types past the most basic, you need the help of human ambassadors. Ambassadors from each of the forest, swamp, and desert villages unlock different powers on different giants, so whenever you have one available, you need to consider which giant to give it to. You get these ambassadors from helping villagers complete projects, like creating a marketplace, a harbor, an alchemy lab, or whatever, and in order to do that, you need to make sure the village has enough resources to provide sufficient food, wealth, and/or tech within their border to complete the project before the timer hits zero. You struggle against limited space within the borders of the village – each tile of the planet can only host one resource and they often have symbioses that can be hard to juggle, like a plant that provides more bonuses  when next to a mineral, or sometimes even when next to a specific other type of plant.

So you provide resources to give villagers the points they need to complete projects so they provide ambassadors that allow you to provide better resources. But also, if you develop a village too quickly, they become “greedy” and will send out raiding parties to destroy nearby villages. The greed wears off eventually, but only if you stop developing the village for a while. Your giants can attack the armies to protect the targeted villages, but every second they’re doing that, they’re not helping villages with their projects, plus, they do have finite health, and even though they can stomp all over a single army, at some point you will need to take some time out to heal them or they will be whittled down over time.

The game provides a couple of possible goals in the form of “developments” (read: achievements), the most straightforward of which is to increase global prosperity as much as possible before the game timer hits zero and your giants all fall asleep, prosperity being the total of all wealth, tech, and food. Other goals, nearly as obvious, are to increase a specific village’s prosperity as high as possible, to get a village with a certain amount of prosperity using no animals, no plants, or no minerals within their borders, to get a village to a certain amount of prosperity using only animals, plants, or minerals within their borders, to have a certain amount of food, wealth, or tech in use (which mostly means “within village borders,” although there’s also some mechanics for resource use I haven’t gotten into that aren’t really important to the overview) worldwide, or sometimes things like creating a “fishing village” that’s got a certain amount of prosperity and contains a certain number of ocean tiles within its border (because you can have ocean tiles within a village’s borders even though humans won’t build the village itself on top of it).

These weird setups can encourage you to do things that would normally be sub-optimal, like make a really big ocean. Ordinarily, that’s basically just a waste of tiles, but if you need a fishing village with at least five ocean tiles in their border, your options are to either leave the opposite shore desolate so that nobody ever settles there and ends up splitting the ocean in half, with neither village having five tiles, or else make a really big ocean such that even split in half both villages will have like seven tiles. Villages don’t actually grow that big most of the time, so this mostly just ends up with a weird empty abyss in the very middle, well outside the borders of both villages, but one of them did hit five tiles, so hey, mission accomplished.

The resource-placing puzzle is fun and highly varied, since you never know exactly what projects your human villages will go for. You might want a desert village to be pure wealth because deserts are good for that, and desert villages do trend strongly towards wealth-based projects, but they might land on building a shrine, which requires wealth and also food, and now suddenly you have to figure out how to get lots of food in a desert. The timer is also convenient for using Reus as a wind-down game between blocks of work, because you can say “now I’ll play Reus for half an hour” and there will be a very obvious breakpoint after half an hour of playing Reus, because a round of Reus is measured by an actual countdown, the goal being to get as much done before it runs out. Unfortunately, meta-progress through multiple rounds is measured by getting enough achievements to unlock longer round times, and my Reus playing may well come to an end now that I’ve hit the point where the obvious way to continue advancing is to start playing the new two-hour games that I’ve unlocked. Half-hour rounds were the perfect length for winding down between working for two-hour blocks, and hour-long rounds were probably a bit irresponsible but no worse than when I played two missions of Ace Combat Zero a day and sometimes very long missions came up. But at two hours, I would spend as much time on between-work cooldowns as actually working.

And that is the reason why, despite having clocked probably 10+ hours on the game in the last week and having plenty of achievements left to aim for, I’m probably not going to be playing a whole lot of Reus anymore. I will probably play one or two 120-minute rounds just to grab the low-hanging fruit available from having twice as much time in a round, but it’s something I’ll have to make a proper gaming session out of sometime when I have lots of spare time. I realize this is a weird use-case and probably won’t impact most people’s opinion on the game, but I’m really disappointed to have lost a game that’s perfect for thirty-to-forty minute chunks. I’m sure there’s another one out there that I haven’t completely mined out, I’ll just have to find it.