Salt Lake Comic Con 2021

There was no Salt Lake Comic Con in 2020, obviously, but they booted things back up for 2021. The vaccine had come out a month ago, and everyone was cautiously creeping out of their bunkers with masked faces and little band-aids on their arms from the booster shots. It’s still not really clear to me whether or not this kind of thing was a good idea for society, but I had firmly secured a fulltime job making D&D books for Kickstarter at that point, which meant it was very easy for me to quarantine for two weeks both before and after these kinds of events, so any covid that bodyhopped into me hoping to jump into a new host later on was in for a rude surprise even if my shiny new antibodies turned out to be asleep at the wheel.

I didn’t end up posting any pictures, though, so let’s drop them here to get us caught up before I move on to 2022.

A lot of people just slapped their everyday mask onto whatever costume they were wearing, but some made costumes that had masks built in, like these three. No idea who they’re cosplaying as, but I respect the commitment to incorporating the pandemic safety measures into the costume.
Praise be.
Helluva Boss had a lot of really good episodes, but it keeps setting up long-running plots and not following up on them, when it could’ve tied those plots off in their debut episode and avoided created expectations. Fizzbot here is still an awesome character and costume, though.
Another costume that I think may have been selected specifically due to pandemic concerns. The only way to get more protected would be with a fully functional spacesuit carrying an independent oxygen supply.
Pyramid Head has been coming up at Comic-Con a lot, lately. Silent Hill is well and truly dead, so I’m not sure what’s causing the uptick. I like the pint-size take on the costume, but no points for pandemic safety. It doesn’t count as a mask if you’ve punched giant fucking holes in it at mouth level.

Continuing our trend of people not taking the pandemic seriously. Avatar is always a reliable source of good group costumes.

Even with the Con being cancelled in 2020, this has my Waldos-per-year quota covered through the end of Biden’s (first?) term.
Da da da da da daaaaaaaa da da da di ya da da da da di ya da
The more modern the character is, the easier it is for the cosplayer’s everyday facemask to work as part of the costume. This Aeris, for example, almost looks like she could be “pandemic Aeris” the same way you might have variants like “steampunk Aeris” or “spear Aeris” or whatever. The color scheme’s off, though. And the real star of this is obviously the chocobo, but there’s less to say about that.
This game had god-tier character design.

And the Harley Quinn round-up clocks in at thirteen Harleys. Suicide Squad Harleys are no longer even a plurality of the set, with only 3 Squad Harleys compared to 4 BTAS Harleys (7 if you count a couple of bikini Harleys that use the BTAS symbols and color scheme).

Okami’s North Ryoshima Coast Was Probably A Late Addition To The Game

I frequently speculate about how certain odd things in a game may have come about due to relatively late decisions in the development process, late enough that the change might have left some detritus lying around. I strongly suspect one such change is the role the Water Dragon plays in Okami.

The second act of Okami is a cartoon political drama centered on Queen Himiko of the capital city of Sei-An, the capital’s high priestess Rao, and the underwater Dragonian people who live under the waves off the nearby Ryoshima Coast (it should be noted that while the people are mostly drawn from Japanese legends dating back millennia, the locations were made up for the game).

When you first arrive in Sei-An City, the city is crippled by plague, so all the side quests are unavailable. There’s not much to do except follow the main plot, meeting up with Priestess Rao and salvaging a ship sunk by the rampaging Water Dragon off the coast. As you leave the ship, you are pursued by the Water Dragon. It’s possible to escape the Water Dragon, but only if you’ve invested in enough magic reality-warping ink to draw enough lilypads to let you jump from pad to pad safely to shore (Okami’s protagonist is wolf-form Amaterasu, and therefore much faster jumping from pad to pad than swimming). If you’ve been spending your XP on health or wallet upgrades (and possibly even if you’ve just been blitzing the game and not getting any XP from side quests or feeding animals and stuff – I had tons of XP and lacked ink because I gave it a low priority, but I’m a fairly thorough player), or if you try a less effective escape strategy like creating one lilypad and using ink to create gusts of wind to blow you towards shore, you will be caught by the monster, whereupon you…end up safely on shore, exactly the same as if you’d successfully escaped the Water Dragon.

A number of adventures ensue. You shrink down to tiny size and have a Fantastic Voyage in the Emperor’s body (different guy from Queen Himiko, but he’s a minor character) to defeat the source of the plague, meet Queen Himiko and a friendly orca who can swim fast enough to outpace the Water Dragon so long as you’re not stupid which lets you explore the outlying islands, find one of the zodiac gods who’ve been sharing their magic reality warping ink brush powers with you, and discover the hidden whirlpool that leads down to the city of the Dragonians. There, they ask you to go on another Fantastic Voyage, except this time instead of shrinking down to fit in a human body, you are staying normal size to go into the Water Dragon and purge the corrupting spirits that have driven him mad. Plus, once you get rid of the Sei-An City plague, a bunch of side quests open up, so you might run around doing those for a while.

I bring all this up to make the point that you do a lot of stuff between your first encounter with the Water Dragon and the point where you go inside. And the method of getting inside is that there’s a chamber in the Dragonians underwater palace where the Water Dragon perpetually has his head stuck in with his mouth wide open. It’s kind of a weird way to get inside the Water Dragon, and matched with the weird part of gameplay where you get chased by the Water Dragon away from the sunken ship and have to guess the fastest way to escape on your first try or else get deposited on shore automatically and anti-climactically. I suspect that originally the dragon would swallow you as you tried to escape the wreck, and you would do the Water Dragon dungeon before you cleansed the plague in Sei-An City, and all the plot beats with the cat god’s tower and exploring the islands and the underwater palace of the Dragonians were added later, likely because Okami’s Act 2 is pretty lightweight without them.

Further evidence in support of this theory: Ryoshima Coast is split into two zones, Ryoshima Coast proper and North Ryoshima Coast. North Ryoshima Coast is where every single plot beat required to get inside the Water Dragon is located, but Ryoshima Coast proper is where the shipwreck is located and where your first encounter with the Water Dragon takes place. If you move the Water Dragon dungeon to happening after you get swallowed while escaping the shipwreck, you can very neatly excise North Ryoshima Coast with only three small edits required: First, you must move the departure point for Oni Island (the stronghold of Act 2’s main villain Ninetails, which can only be reached with the help of both Queen Himiko and the Water Dragon) from the viewing platform in North Ryoshima Coast to the nearly identical viewing platform in Ryoshima Coast proper. Second, you need to make the route from Shinshu Fields (the first region of the game) to Kamui (where Act 3 starts) accessible by double jumping, without needing the cat god’s wall climbing power, because the cat god is no longer a thing. Third, you need to edit references to thirteen zodiac gods to instead be references to twelve. You get the double jump much earlier than the cat climb (in fact, if the height of the cliff was shrunk but its shape was otherwise left alone, you could reach the top with the wall jump you have at the start of the game), but that’s no problem, because you also need the thunderbolt to get to Act 3, and you get the thunderbolt from Oni Island at the end of Act 2.

And you probably know that the Japanese zodiac only has twelve signs in it to begin with, and that Cat is not one of them. You may also know that the Cat takes the place of the Rabbit in the otherwise identical Vietnamese zodiac, and that Japanese/Chinese legend has stories explaining why Cat didn’t get to be part of their zodiac (short version: Because Rat is a bastard). Cat’s inclusion as a thirteenth zodiac god makes perfect sense, but it would have made just as much sense to exclude Cat, so I find it noteworthy that it is Cat who is found in North Ryoshima Coast, the one zodiac god who could plausibly have been added near the end of development rather than planned from the start.

And the cat climb power is used almost nowhere in the game except North Ryoshima Coast. While the internet has no encyclopedic listing of all cat climb points, the Okami wiki does note that the cat climb power is one of the least used in the whole game (the wiki uses the power’s official name of “cat walk” – I have switched to “cat climb” to make its use more intuitive to people who have not played the game, but it’s the same power). The only three cat climb points I remember in the entire game outside of North Ryoshima Coast is one in a dungeon in Agata Forest, the one you use to reach Act 3 in Shinshu Fields, and once in an Act 3 dungeon (although, in fairness, the last one actually would’ve required redesigning a small section of the dungeon to add, rather than just adjusting the height of a cliff and adding a cat statue). Contrariwise, the super-dig power you unlock that lets you dig up hidden objects which are buried in solid stone has a couple of dig points at every map in the game, even though you unlock it at around the same time as cat climb (it’s in Ryoshima Coast proper).

Here’s a bonus speculation, although I’m much less sure about this one: I think Act 2 was originally meant to either come before the confrontation with Orochi at the end of Act 1, or else its antagonists Ninetails and Blight were originally supposed to be unrelated to Orochi. In the game as it is, these two emerged from Orochi’s slain body as two out of four dark spirits who fled to cause mischief far away from Shinshu Field where half of Act 1 takes place. But Act 1 also takes you to Taka Pass, and Taka Pass borders Ryoshima Coast, and the reason why you can’t go to Ryoshima Coast and start Act 2 early is because the city checkpoint is closed due to the mysterious plague fog that’s descended on the city (you have to use the inferno power you get from the end of Act 1 to blow up a cannon and knock the bridge back down). But Orochi’s not dead yet, so Blight and Ninetails shouldn’t be doing anything! If Blight and Ninetails are just other, lesser demons, like the Spider Queen and Crimson Helm you fight in Act 1, then this makes perfect sense, but if they spawn when Orochi dies, then who’s causing the plague fog? Was Orochi doing it personally and then Blight took over after Orochi is defeated? If that’s the case, then what did defeating Orochi even accomplish?

There’s a lot of explanations for this early Blight problem. Maybe it was decided late in development that Act 1 should be completely self-contained, which required bumping the defeat of Orochi up to much sooner in the plot, so that Susano’s arc could be tied off there. Maybe the whole plot of Act 2 was always supposed to come after Act 1, but was originally disconnected and episodic from Act 1, with Blight and Ninetails getting up to shenanigans totally separate from what Orochi was doing further north, and they decided that this made the game seem aimless (which is still a problem even after Act 2’s villains are tied to Orochi’s defeat – the first time I tried to play Okami some 5 years ago, I drifted away early on in Act 2 because it felt like Orochi was the climax and I was playing the world’s longest post-game section). Maybe it’s just an oversight, because Act 2 was built after Act 1, and the reason why Ryoshima Coast is closed to regular foot traffic was made up by someone who was thinking of the story as it was during Act 2, without stopping to think that players would first come here while exploring the boundaries of Act 1. Maybe it’s just a bug, and the guy who talks about why the bridge is closed is supposed to talk about how they’re trying to keep the cursed zones out during Act 1, and switch to talking about trying to keep the plague in during Act 2, but the flags weren’t made correctly so the guard talks about the plague fog during Act 1.

North Ryoshima Coast, though, I’m pretty confident that was added in after the game was already well into production in order to put some more meat on the bones of Act 2.

Far Cry 2 Has A Dumb Ending

At the end of Far Cry 2, the Jackal, the arms dealer who equipped both sides of the civil war that tore apart the fictitious central African nation you’ve been murdering your way through, turns out to be working on a plan to evacuate the entire civilian population of the nation and then trap the militia and mercenaries inside to kill each other to a man. The player character helps this plan at the very end, presumably including the part where both the Jackal and the player character kill themselves at the end, because the Jackal seems to think that war is a literal infectious disease and that you can’t just decide to stop fighting wars, you have to actually die or else other people might become infected by war-fighting just by proximity to you.

There’s so many dumb things in this plan. The idea that you can evacuate the entire population of a nation except for the combatants, when combatants make up maybe 20% of the population at an absolute extreme level of hyper-mobilization (5-10% is way more likely even for a civil war where logistics are relatively easy). The idea that war is an infectious disease and that the people who fight it have to literally die instead of retiring. The idea that the two opposed factions will keep fighting until all of them, every last one, are dead, when they’re already starting to come to a truce and are thus presumably both close to exhausted, which will not change even after the existing leadership of the two sides is totally annihilated.

There’s also the part where all your buddies turn on you for vague reasons. I can imagine a perfectly good reason: At the end of Act 1, one of the two factions (it changes based on your playthrough and makes no difference) has the other on the brink of total defeat and are trying to consolidate their rule by killing a ton of people, including all the mercenaries who kept the war going. You have a choice to either help your mercenary buddies defend the bar where you’ve been hanging out together for the whole act, or help a bunch of civilians escape the country. I chose the latter. The buddies who showed up to fight me were mostly the Act 1 buddies, with only one exception. That one exception tried to talk the Act 1 buddies out of starting a fight with me, although he does side with them when this inevitably failed. So the Act 1 buddies try to kill me because I abandoned them to try and save the civilians, and my one Act 2 buddy joins them because he’d already cut a deal with them to flee the country, probably because the Act 1 buddies showed up first and put a gun to his head.

They don’t actually say that, though. Act 2 Buddy (mine was Xianyong Bai) says his escape plan is still on, then the lead Act 1 Buddy (mine was Marty Alencar) comes out and says the deal was to leave me on my own and wants Act 2 Buddy to shoot, Act 2 Buddy tries to defuse the situation, and Act 1 Buddy starts shooting. Act 2 Buddy sides with Act 1 Buddy. My understanding is this plays out pretty much the same regardless of who you try to help at the end of Act 1, so it’s only coincidence that any of my buddies have any reason to dislike me. An equally supported but much stupider interpretation would be that the buddies have been infected by the war virus that the Jackal thinks exists and are killing people at random. It comes across like someone thought it would be cool to have your buddies turn on you in the game’s finale, but apparently didn’t follow that thought far enough to write some dialogue where they actually say why they’re doing it.

I wonder if there were originally supposed to be multiple endings? Towards the end, you have several missions where you’re assigned to kill a high-ranking member of the UFLL/APR by another high-ranking member of the UFLL/APR as they struggle for control of their respective factions, but can instead decide to kill the person who assigned the mission. By the end, you’ve whittled each faction down to exactly one named character, who are meeting at a jungle bivouac to discuss a unified government. Part of the Jackal’s plan is to kill them both in order to throw the factions back into chaos (this part, at least, makes sense – after the total massacre of the leadership of both factions, the remaining troops will scramble to re-establish a chain-of-command, and given the militia-and-mercenaries-duct-taped-together nature of the armies, it probably won’t be straightforward or bloodless). Another part of the Jackal’s plan is to collect the diamonds to bribe the border guards, which is where you fight your buddies. So it’s straightforward to have three endings: One where you go to the Bivouac and join the new government, killing your buddies and the Jackal to eliminate anyone who can destabilize the new regime, one where you go to your buddies and plan an escape together, killing the faction leaders and the Jackal so you can cut your way out of the country, and the game’s existing ending where you help the Jackal with his stupid plan. This still would’ve had the problem that the “good” ending is the stupidest one, but at least I could’ve helped my buddies flee the country instead. Honestly, it would’ve been much more in keeping with the game’s themes if the ending was to realize that we can’t do anything in this country except make things worse, so probably we should just leave.

Far Cry 2 Tried And Failed To Be Realistic

Half-Life is a 1998 first-person shooter that pushed the realism of the genre forward by having guns lie on the ground like regular objects instead of glowing red and spinning in the air. Its graphics have not aged well – it’s on the wrong end of the Half-Life gap, which is no surprise since the Half-Life gap is named after the way that Half-Life 2’s graphics, while clearly aged, look about as close to modern games released almost twenty years later as they do to the first Half-Life’s graphics, released just six years before. Despite this, I found that its atmosphere and immersion still worked even though I first played it fifteen years after its release, past the age when nostalgia is usually able to get its hooks in.

Far Cry 2 is a 2008 first-person shooter that tried to push the realism of the genre forward by portraying a civil war in a fictitious African nation somewhere in the blood diamond region, where two rebel factions with armies comprised as much of foreign mercenaries as of local insurgents fought over the remains of a country that everyone was fleeing as fast as they could. Healing animations involved digging bullets out of your flesh with a knife or setting horribly bent and twisted limbs, enemies with a sliver of health left limp around or fire at you from the ground while bleeding out, and you have to keep your anti-malaria meds topped off or you might find yourself weakened or even incapacitated by the disease in the middle of a firefight.

You can tell from the phrasing that I don’t think Far Cry 2 was as successful in its immersion as Half-Life. Far Cry 2 has a lot more horsepower behind it than Half-Life, so where did it go wrong? Certainly not in its environmental design. Far Cry 2 depicts central Africa with a variety of different biomes and settlements, although it does lack any major cities, which is a disappointment but not an immersion problem, and in fairness to the devs I can see why representing something on the scale of Kinshasa or Luanda while also making the surrounding countryside the focus would’ve been difficult. Luanda, capital of Angola, is a major, modern port city, and Kinshasa, capital of the DRC, is the third largest city on the continent of Africa. But also it would have to look big while also being dwarfed on the map by the surrounding countryside, which means the surrounding countryside would also have to be bigger, and it’s kind of inconvenient to traverse as it is. Mercenaries tried to have major cities on a map that focused on the countryside, and the end result is that Pyongyang feels puny. Far Cry 2 has the advantage of taking place in a fictional country, though, so it might just be a small country with no major cities.

So despite one minor disappointment, environment design isn’t the reason why Far Cry 2 is less immersive than Half-Life. And neither is weapon design. Far Cry 2 covers all the standard bases: Pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, LMGs, rocket launchers. It does lack a bit of Half-Life’s variety in weird things like the gluon gun, but that’s not an immersion problem. It’s the opposite: Half-Life had to earn things like the gluon gun with its commitment to its atmosphere, making these things seem like plausible bleeding edge tech from a laboratory working at the outer frontiers of science, when they would’ve come across as goofy hyper-tech if they were dropped in right from the start (and goofy hyper-tech would be fine in certain contexts, but not Half-Life, which takes place in something approximating the real world). Far Cry 2’s gritty setting of a country worn down by years (decades?) of civil war with secondhand weapons precludes that kind of tech, so it’s not a surprise or a problem that it’s limited to your more standard military armaments.

And it’s not Far Cry 2’s enemy AI that’s the problem, either. The AI have the aforementioned limping around and firing from the ground when nearly dead, which makes them much less predictable than your standard FPS enemies, including those from Half-Life. They’re also much more willing to flank and surround the player, and the absence of any red dots on a minimap means you can get surprised by a straggler in an area you thought you had cleared, and that finding a sniper can be a challenge. And they’ll happily run you over if they can, which is an anti-climactic but not unrealistic way to die (if you want to play FC2, learn to dive for cover when you hear an engine revving). Far Cry 2 is better than perhaps any other video game at getting across the chaos and tension of a modern battlefield, where there’s never any clear signal as to whether or not you’re safe or when you’re in danger (although the game’s AI is, of course, oversimplified compared to real battlefields, and you can eventually pick up on patterns for where enemies are located and when they bring in reinforcements – still, Far Cry 2 puts a lot more effort into mitigating the limitations of AI when emulating battlefield chaos, and it pays off).

No, the problem with Far Cry 2’s immersion is its ambition. Half-Life simulated an underground laboratory under attack from aliens. You see a lot of friendly scientists and security guards early on, but they thin out as the crisis goes on, as everyone is either killed or holed up in a secure location. Far Cry 2, on the other hand, aims to simulate an entire country. The map, even combining both north and south together, is all of 6×3 kilometers, but that’s enough to feel like a wide expanse of rural countryside. No, the problem is that, outside of the in-engine opening cut scene and a couple of mission-specific spawns, there are no civilians. If you see a car approaching, you can and should unload your LMG on it or shoot it with a rocket launcher or whatever, because it is always an enemy.

Despite the fact that you look pretty indistinguishable from the mercenaries employed by both sides, both factions attack you on sight even when they’re on patrol on the roads, even early on when (as tracked by the game’s reputation system) you are a total unknown. You should be indistinguishable from allied mercs of either faction, but somehow everyone knows to attack you immediately. Even guard posts shouldn’t necessarily be able to suss out that you’re an enemy right away. Plus, while you have to take jobs from both factions to complete the story, you can support one over the other exclusively until they run out of missions, then switch to the other. At minimum, during the first half of this process, you’d think the one faction would stop shooting at you. The briefings given before missions do make it clear that you’re valuable because you’re a deniable asset, one which their own troops don’t know is (for now) on their side, but that suggests that both rebel militias are shooting at everyone they don’t personally recognize. Unless these armies are both 200 or fewer troops, that should result in tons of friendly fire.

And, perhaps most important of all, the game’s immersion is broken by its irritating and frustrating mechanics added, most likely, out of a misguided obsession with realism. I mentioned earlier that enemies can run you over, but this is a very not-fun way to be forced to reload a save. Being overrun by enemies who get on all sides of you makes a lot of sense, you’re supposed to be just a regular mercenary so really it’s kind of weird that it takes like five or six people to overrun your position instead of just three (a consequence of the deep reserve of health you get from being Player One). But also, realistically speaking, why would you ever send one person by themselves to storm positions held by eight enemies? Realistic drawbacks are only immersive if you provide realistic solutions, but the realistic solution to the problem of being outflanked is to bring more guys with you. The best you get in Far Cry 2 is a single buddy, you can only get them on the field by almost dying, and they won’t follow you to your next objective, just hang out at the spot where they bailed you out that one time (which they won’t do again until you reach a new safehouse to refresh the buddy rescue).

Plus, as is often the case with these kinds of things, realistic features that make fights easier are ignored. The enemy retreats under only the most extreme of circumstnaces, only if you’ve killed the vast majority of their allies and you’ve completed enough missions to have a strong reputation as a deadly enemy (and it still happens so rarely that I wonder if the times I’ve seen enemy remnants running away is actually a bug). Given these are rebel militias and mercenaries, you would expect them to start running away much more easily.

It’s hard to tell exactly how much of the problem is that Far Cry 2 was overly ambitious and ran out of development time on which to deliver on their ambitions, and how much Far Cry 2’s devs thought of “realism” as synonymous with “hardcore” and ignored parts of reality which make things easy or pleasant. It’s true that reality is generally more gruesome and difficult than video games, so being realistic will move things in that direction, but there are in fact nice things in the real world that video games have failed to emulate, and leaving them out is immersion-breaking. For example, unlike in video games, the real world is primarily made up of people who aren’t murderers and don’t mean you any harm. Even in warzones where people who want to kill you are common enough that you bump into them frequently, they still make up a maximum of like 10% of the total population, often less.

The malaria attacks were considered the most annoying part of Far Cry 2, but for my money I think the way enemies instantly recognize you even at very low reputation is worse, especially when combined with how quickly they respawn. Regardless of exactly what feature was the most aggravating, there were lots of gameplay elements intended to make Far Cry 2 more gritty and realistic, and which might’ve worked if the game had been realistic in general, but unfortunately it uses realism exclusively to disempower the player.

Magicka Is Unplayably Unstable

Magicka is a game where you are a wizard and can combine different elements together into a spell. Cast fire by itself, and you spray a little gout of flame that will set enemies on fire. Cast lightning by itself and you shoot a bit of lightning that chains between enemies. Combine them, and you will cast lightning that sets enemies on fire. Casting arcane by itself creates a beam of deadly energy. Casting shield by itself creates a shield in front of you that absorbs all attacks from that specific direction while its health lasts. Casting arcane and shield together and you create a set of land mines that explode into deadly energy when someone moves across them (including you, so watch your step). And if you combine shield with life, you create healing mines that heal anyone who steps on them, which, it turns out, is one of the most time-efficient methods of healing in the game.

Some special “magicks” are castable from specific element combinations in exactly the right order, for example, arcane-lightning-arcane casts teleport, but arcane-arcane-lightning is just a laser beam with some lightning damage attached. Some element combinations aren’t a special magick, but are useful enough to be worth memorizing, like the aforementioned healing mines, the earth/shield stoneskin armor, or the highest single target DPR attack in the game, steam-steam-arcane-lightning-lightning, or as I like to call it, the death ray. Some elements don’t combine into a magick, but have synergistic status effects if you use one after the other rather than together. For example, make an enemy wet with a water blast, then freeze them solid with a cold blast, and now using an earth attack to launch a boulder at them will do massive damage.

The story is a satirical fantasy story about wizards sent on a quest to save the world from an evil rogue wizard who’s made a pact with a demon for supreme arcane knowledge and get revenge on the order for imprisoning him however many years ago. Your main mentor figure/quest ATM is Vlad, who is not a vampire. The king introduces one level by hoping he can find someone easily manipulated to throw at an army of orcs so he doesn’t have to lead his soldiers into the fight. At one point on an airship level, an NPC announces that they must depart to their home immediately and leaps off the side of the ship.

The game is quite difficult, partly because it’s intended for multiplayer play and I can never find more than one person to play with, and partly because the difficulty helps push people to explore the spell system and find out combos like the healing mines and death ray, rather than relying on the chaining power of the default lightning blast to kill everything (something which mostly works for the first two levels).

Except, unfortunately, it is extremely unstable. It crashes all the time, in different places for different people. Sometimes you have to try again another day and hope the crash has cleared up with time, which somehow actually works, at least some of the time. Sometimes you just have to try and beat the crash to the next checkpoint, killing the enemies before whatever memory leak is killing you can catch up and then loading the game from the next checkpoint, where hopefully the problem is fixed. Sometimes you have to start over from the beginning and hope that whatever weird combination of memory values caused the crash in your last playthrough doesn’t get locked into this one.

I got through about two-thirds of the game, and now I’m crashing consistently on a loading screen, which means it’s either restart or Regrets. I have chosen Regrets. Playing it from the beginning, I would constantly be anxious that the run might be ended by another unavoidable crash, and the game just wouldn’t be fun with that hanging over my head. Much like the Force Unleashed, this is a good game that I wish I could finish, but technical difficulties have gotten in the way. Worse, the technical difficulties arise not because my computer is too weak or even too powerful, but seem to afflict everyone, so there isn’t even a hope that I might be able to come back later with a stronger computer.

Little Big Workshop

Little Big Workshop has managed a fairly rare feat: Getting onto my Regrets list despite my coming very close to completing it. This game was fun just often enough to make me want to keep playing, but it was also very stressful a lot of the time, because it never quite had enough tools to really make the little factory I was running efficient enough. I couldn’t partition my workforce and say “right, you lot hang out in this section of the factory and you lot hang out in that section of the factory and I will have you working on separate projects all the time,” so as my factory grew and I had more and more workers running more and more machinery, my output didn’t go up nearly linearly because I had workers who would decide to cross the entire length of the factory to reach a workstation that had opened up on the other side, working on an entirely different project from the one they had been working on.

The game is full of trap options, things that look like they will increase your productivity but actually aren’t efficient enough to balance out their increased costs. The clearest example is that you unlock specialists way before you unlock the advanced machinery that only specialists can operate. Specialists require a higher salary, but because of a bug, they don’t actually work any faster than your standard generalist workers. Even if they were 20% faster or whatever, it would hardly matter, because once you’ve got midgame machinery up and running, by far the greatest bottleneck on your productivity will be the time spent moving things around your factory. You can, of course, minimize this by designing your factory such that things involved in the same process are nearby one another, and that’s the part of the game that actually works, but it means that any upgrade to your workers that doesn’t improve movement speed had better have no ongoing costs, because no increase in worker salary could possibly be worth it. Going 20% faster at something that only makes up 10% of your construction time is only a 2% increase overall.

I still feel the game tugging at the edges of my mind to go back and try to find a way to push myself up to the level of profitability required to finish the Champion Milestone and call this a win. There are strategies I haven’t tried, but the problem is that it takes an hour or more of gameplay to build up the kind of funds needed for a major factory expansion, even with the clock set to as fast as possible, so every time I try anything I am spend an hour in boring production of routine products to build up wealth to then spend another hour watching my newly expanded factory operate and trying to figure out if the general trend is an improvement or if its increased costs are too much. I like the gameplay loop, it just takes way too long to implement a new strategy and get feedback on whether that strategy is working.

I tried looking up guides online to see if I can just copy someone else’s factory layout exactly and put this one on the “Completed” pile, but the only things I’ve been able to find are one suggestion to exploit a bug and another that’s basically just to engage in another ten hours of glacial expansion and micromanagement, making the same products with the same machinery, but just assigning them to different sectors of an ever-growing factory. I can’t even zone out and zen-grind it while listening to podcasts and audiobooks (did you know that they’re finally getting the entire Discworld series on audiobook? I can’t believe it took this long, but this year it’s finally been happening!), because I have to keep figuring out exactly which contracts to assign to which parts of the factory – if I accidentally assign a second contract for making cupboards (or whatever) to Workshop Alpha, then they’ll get bogged down with two projects at once while Workshop Beta sits around twiddling their thumbs, so I have to keep doublechecking which parts of the factory are active and which need new work, and the amount of micromanagement required steadily goes up as I buy more plots of land and build a larger factory, but the actual resource management stays the same. All I have to do to march to victory is keep doing more of what I’m already doing, but I just don’t want to do that for another ten hours to tick the final box on the final milestone when it’s all the worst combination of too much busywork to zone out but too little new content to be interesting or fun.

While I’m certain there are winning strategies to Little Big Workshop and that I could figure them out with another 10 hours of time investment, the fact is I’m not having fun anymore and I don’t want to spend another 10 hours not having fun just to call this one a win.

D&D 4e Is Bad Actually

People occasionally try to mount a defense of D&D 4e. It was the edition war du jour from 2008 to 2014 when 4e was the current edition and Pathfinder was continuously pushing its teeth in, and that time frame being what it was, that edition war started off with people openly harassing one another over elf games and by the end had morphed into pretending that supporting the wrong elf game was racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever because it was no longer considered acceptable to harass someone over elf games, so people had to pretend that the other side’s community was guilty of some kind of actual wrongdoing. I bring this animosity up in advance because you will sometimes see people who are very committed to defending 4e or PF1, and they might wander into this post, and if they do I want everyone to know in advance what’s up. At some point, the broader 4e/PF1 community entangled their favorite TTRPG very strongly yet also completely baselessly with their sense of moral worth, and you still get lots of people who act like “4e was bad, actually” automatically implies “and therefore everyone who has ever enjoyed it is a bad person,” so instead of shrugging their shoulders and moving on they become a SungWon skit.

But anyway: Why did PF1 outperform 4e by such a wide margin? Why did 4e dwindle to nothing while PF1 consolidated nearly the entire TTRPG market around itself? PF1 got crushed by 5e just like 4e got crushed by PF1, so it’s clearly not that PF1 is some kind of unassailable holy grail of gaming. The math between skill points, attack roles, and saves are incompatible, so you can’t do things like rolling a spell attack against a Willpower save or whatever. The balance is a joke – PF1’s approach to making content was to produce huge amounts of it to the point where there are twelve different ways to make any given character concept and let the community figure out which of those builds is actually viable, to the point where their PC Shifter class is weaker than their NPC Warrior class, a class designed to be simple enough that the GM can easily slap levels of Warrior onto an existing stat block to make it stronger but not any more complex, and it’s not a huge deal if levels of Warrior are much weaker than levels of proper PC classes as a result, which they are – except the Shifter, which is a wreck. A lot of PF1 classes and prestige classes seem to have been designed by figuring out how many cool ideas they had, and then spacing them out from level 1 to level 20, while paying no attention to whether or not the abilities they were giving to a level 20 character were remotely on par with what the other classes got. And the power scale on PF1 was much more expansive than 5e’s, so a character build that fell behind too badly (and some of them did) wasn’t something you needed a calculator to notice, they were unplayable, totally unable to contribute anything to combat.

And yet, despite these flaws and the considerably larger starting capital available to 4e, 4e did not outperform PF1. 4e still does not outperform PF1, according to the Orr Group Industry’s report for Q4 2021 (the most recent as of the writing – they’re usually a quarter or two behind). 4e’s frequent use of aura effects makes it far easier to play on a virtual tabletop than physically, so Roll20 should, if anything, be giving it a slight advantage, and yet 4e is not only less popular than games still in print like 5e and PF2, not only less popular than its own competitor PF1 and predecessor 3e, not only less popular than non-English D&D alternatives like Tormenta and Das Schwarze Auge (which get some advantage in their home markets, but D&D is available in Portugese and German), not only less popular than indie spin-off games like Dungeon World and Savage Worlds (I think? Savage Worlds is listed twice, one more popular than 4e, the other less), it’s also less popular than AD&D, making it the least popular edition of D&D period. It is more popular than 13th Age, though, so it’s still more popular than games that attempt to continue iterating on 4e’s own ideas.

For anyone defending 4e, the first question to answer here is: Why do so few people want to play it? 4e benefits from the endorsement of Matt Colville and the Penny Arcade guys, and it’s still the least popular edition of D&D ever, even on a platform that makes running it quick and easy, where it’s cumbersome and difficult on most others.

Continue reading “D&D 4e Is Bad Actually”

How To Play Out Of Space Solo

The developers say that Out Of Space is completely playable solo, but this is misleading. Technically it’s totally true – I have beaten the largest map solo, so clearly this is doable. However, it’s much, much harder than the multiplayer. Playing Out Of Space solo means you jump right into a special challenge mode, resulting in a difficulty wall that’s hard to get past. This makes sense with the game’s basic theme of being about the difficulties of moving into and maintaining a home with other people. The multiplayer is the game’s default mode, about arguing over who’s going to do the dishes and trying to work out a division of responsibilities that prevents you from being overrun by alien goo monsters, while the solo mode is a special challenge where you have to take care of everything yourself.

But if, like me, you have no friends (or, more likely, you have no friends who’ve bought this obscure indie game), you may wish to play Out Of Space solo from start to finish. And if you’ve tried it, you’ve probably made decent progress on the smallest six-room map, but the alien goo gets more aggressive over time, so you’ve found the tide turned against you and eventually you get overwhelmed. Worse, while the alien aggression ticks up on a timer, it also ticks up if you clear a certain number of rooms, whichever occurs first, so you can’t beat the game by speedrunning the rooms before the goo gets too aggressive to handle. You have to contain it just like you were in multiplayer, but with the resources of just one person. How is this possible?

Step 1) Shrink your front line. Once we realize we’re on the clock, we solo players tend to react by moving blindly forward as quickly as possible, trying to beat the aliens before they get too powerful. This is both impossible, since alien aggression will increase in response to the number of rooms you’ve already cleared even if you’re way ahead of the timer, and also tends to lead to salients that are impossible to defend. If you always clear whichever room is closest to the water faucet you start with, you will end up expanding in every direction and hit that critical endgame of hyper-aggressive aliens with active rooms at three different farflung ends of your space house, and you’ll have absolutely no hope of holding them all even on the small maps. Instead, when you’re expanding, take a moment to check how many doors the room you’ll be expanding into has. Doors adjacent to dirty rooms get dirty themselves, and that dirt spawns alien eggs, which spawn aliens, which spawn dirt into your clean rooms. You’re probably familiar with the general process, but note that the key chokehold here is doors: Aliens can’t open doors, which means doors are impervious as long as you can keep them clean, which means your total vulnerability is a product of the number of doors and the furthest distance between any two of them. You want to both decrease the number of doors you need to monitor and make sure that all doors are as close together as possible.

A critical part of shrinking your front line is buying and placing rugs underneath those vents that spew goo periodically. Rugs are (close enough to) impervious to getting dirty, so having a rug under a vent will prevent that vent from starting up a goo alien flanking attack which might otherwise spell your doom. No room with a vent is secure until you’ve put a rug down under the vent. You’ll still want to clean the vent off while clearing the room to buy you enough time to get the rug down, and you’ll want to make sure the floor is totally clean before putting the rug down, because dirt underneath the rug stays there and will eventually spread out from underneath it and create more alien eggs, but if you put a rug down on a clear floor below a clean vent, that vent will be unable to dirty the floor again even after it starts spewing goo again. Be warned that objects in the room can still get dirty by the goo-spew, and while this won’t reopen the front line (alien eggs can only grow on doors and walls, never on objects), it will render those objects non-functional. Despite the game’s name, you are pretty much never out of space to put down new objects even on a small map (although individual rooms can get very cramped), so it’s usually best to just leave a vent room empty.

If a battery socket is directly under the vent, this will in some ways be helpful, as the battery getting knocked out by the goo will let you know that the vent needs cleaning. The battery is not destroyed by vent goo the way it is by aliens, so you can just grab a bucket, toss the water from the bucket across the battery socket and vent (you can get both with one bucket if you angle it right), and plug the battery back in. So long as you have a rug underneath, no further effort will be required.

Continue reading “How To Play Out Of Space Solo”

Things I Say A Lot When Reviewing Games

5-star or 10-point rating systems for video games are, I think, rightly despised as a review metric, redeemed only accidentally by the existence of Metacritic. While an obsession with Metacritic review scores is unhealthy, Rotten Tomatoes-style averaging of both critic and audience opinion is useful data. The practice of review point scales predates Metacritic by a lot, though, reaching back to the days of magazines and the early internet when this kind of mass data collection to observe general trends wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Ever since May-ish of this year, I’ve reorganized my games list in such a way as to encourage myself to play more new games to completion, rather than picking at them for an hour or two before falling back on replaying something comfortable, which happens a lot because I’m usually picking a video game to play when I’m tired and picking a new game from a backlog of nearly 200 seems daunting. I started using the blog again as a place to dump my thoughts on these video games, because it turns out once I’m playing new games I actually have new things to say about video games for the first time in a while. Imagine that. And as I’ve spent a few months playing lots of new games, I find myself gravitating towards a few familiar phrases. It’s kind of like a rating system, except without the claim that all games are to be judged on a linear scale of badness to goodness. Indeed, one of the most common ratings I give is “recommended to anyone who thinks the premise sounds cool.”

This ad-hoc, organic rating system is probably not cutting to the core of the human experience of interactive media or anything, but I’m confident it is better than the standard numerical system. Numerical rating systems might’ve made sense as a first try at giving a bottom line on the quality of a video game, but I don’t think it’s hard to improve on that first try.

Play This Video Game. I stress again that these categories aren’t a linear spectrum from best to worst, because we are starting with the category that is “games which are really good” and will be ending with a category that is kind of like “games which are really bad,” and it’s mainly in the middle categories where one category is clearly not better than another. This category, though, is for video games that I recommend to absolutely all gamers, even if I know nothing about them except that they like video games. If the basic concept of a Metroidvania where you play an adorable bug exploring a fallen kingdom full of secrets and lost treasure doesn’t immediately repulse and enrage you, you should play Hollow Knight. Bastion is another game I would put in this category, and Transistor is borderline between this category and “Interesting Enough To Justify Its Playtime.” I haven’t played Hades yet, but given Supergiant Games’ track record, I expect it would also end up here. Games in this category look good, sound good, play good, and don’t overstay their welcome – they’re paragons of their respective genre so good that even people who are usually ambivalent about that genre will probably enjoy the experience.

Janky/Flawed, But It Delivers. If the first category is exemplified by Hollow Knight and XCOM, this one is exemplified by STALKER (for janky) and Assassin’s Creed II, IV, and Syndicate (for flawed). As you can tell from the exemplars, this is really two very similar but still clearly distinct categories. Assassin’s Creed games are safe and same-y but very good representations of their chosen historical eras. If you want historical tourism, Assassin’s Creed delivers, often for eras where there is no competition. Janky games like STALKER and Necromunda: Hired Gun have rough edges resulting from small or medium size teams trying to bring big ambitions to life, but they successfully deliver their core experience of being an illegal scavenger looking for psychic artifacts in the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion and being a cyborg bounty hunter in the underhive of Warhammer 40k’s Necromunda, respectively. I recommend these games to people who like the idea of the premise, because for those people, the jank/flaws don’t matter as long as it delivers.

Interesting Enough To Justify Its Playtime. The best exemplar of this category is definitely Papers, Please, but the significantly less good Mind Scanners, Not For Broadcast, and Fortune 499 also qualify, so remember that these categories aren’t intended to be a linear scale from best to worst. This category is defined by two things: Being interesting, and being short enough that the interesting thing doesn’t wear out its welcome. That doesn’t necessarily mean these games are short, because maybe the interesting thing is so engaging that it holds my attention for twenty hours, but I can’t think of any games that actually pulled that off from the top of my head. Papers, Please only lasts for about three to five hours, but I went back for second and third playthroughs, so it was much more interesting than it needed to be to justify its playtime. Not For Broadcast and Mind Scanners were starting to test my patience a bit by the time they got to the end, and it was mostly because I could tell I was approaching the end that I carried them through to completion, so it’s a good thing they weren’t any longer than they were and they probably would’ve benefited from being slightly shorter.

Continue reading “Things I Say A Lot When Reviewing Games”

Thief Simulator

Thief Simulator is kind of a weird game – it’s got the overall style of the “having a job simulator” games that’ve become more popular recently, with a first person perspective that emphasizes a high degree of granularity in actions. For example, in order to drive somewhere you have to use the interact key to open your car door, get in your car, and turn on the ignition, and only then is your control scheme switched from on-foot to in-car, and your perspective remains in first person inside the car rather than zooming out to a third-person vehicle perspective.

Except, of course, the job it’s simulating is being a thief, so it’s actually a stealth game about avoiding cameras and guard patrols and stuff. It’s more grounded than most stealth games, as a major part of the early game is in observing the routines of tenants of various houses you’d like to rob so you can find a window of time where the house is deserted or, failing that, at least when everyone is asleep, then break in and steal everything with no risk of someone walking in on you to interrupt (so long as you don’t trip any automated security features like cameras or window alarms). It’s only in the second half that the game throws you at buildings which are continuously patrolled by security guards, a staple feature of your average high-adventure sort of stealth game.

And the introduction of those guards also marks the point where the game starts to get kind of boring. In earlier parts of the game, there were always multiple options for how to burgle a building, which made it feel organic, like you were penetrating defenses set up with a limited amount of resources. This camera scans between two different entrances because they couldn’t afford to have two different cameras permanently camping on each of them, that window has no shutters that prevent you from unlocking and entering because it’s on the second floor and the owners didn’t think second story window security was important, the car gate isn’t visible from the house which means you can open it up from the inside to create a getaway route and no one will notice unless they happen to be walking up the driveway at that exact instant because this is a house, not a fortress, and people like privacy.

This starts to fall off in the second neighborhood’s larger, higher-end buildings, but those at least feel like they’re run by people with enough resources to invest in as much security as they want, balanced out by the fact that their houses are enormous and by now you’ve got hacking tools that help you disable a lot of the automated security from at least a small distance. There’s exactly one way out of house 202, the car gate in the front, but the building is big enough that there are at least a lot of options for how you’re going to navigate between the mansion’s three security guards while you’re inside.

In the third neighborhood, though, it starts to feel like the defenses are impenetrable except for one very specifc route that was left open to you by the developers of the game. The whole game is about being a thief exploiting gaps in defenses, and of course the maximum difficulty is going to be buildings with exactly one gap in their defenses to exploit, but the increased difficulty comes at the expense of the feeling of simulation. Some of the third neighborhood buildings are more like the last few buildings of the second neighborhood: Lots of guards covering a large floorplan. Not all of them, though.

There’s also an element of home decoration that’s a lot of fun, where towards the end of the game you can buy a house and then arrange furniture and stolen items inside of it, replacing the grimy industrial safehouse you’d been using for the first half of the game with an empty house that you can fill up and turn into something that looks just as lived-in as the houses you burgled in the first two neighborhoods (which look pretty good, and the third neighborhood isn’t a decline in the quality of building layout or doodads, either, it’s just an industrial neighborhood full of warehouses and server farms and stuff). You don’t have to pay any attention to it if you don’t want to, and it’s annoying that the only items you can outright buy to decorate your house with are furniutre pieces that you can’t steal – any stealable objects must be stolen and then placed in your house rather than sold.

I imagine this is to try and tie the home decoration side-activity more firmly into the main theft gameplay, so that a nice-looking home will necessarily be full of nice-looking TVs and kitchen appliances and stuff that was stolen from specific houses, rather than stealing a bunch of cheap but portable junk like toasters and broken iPhones over and over again until you can buy your own TV, but I would’ve appreciated being able to go on a spending spree and make my house look cool in one two-hour block of home decoration rather than having to make a shopping list of appliances I need to steal and doublechecking against the wiki to make sure the items I’m looking for actually exist.

Thief Simulator does have some janky rough edges. The game is often quite finnicky about exactly where you’re hovering your cursor to interact with an object, which can lead to annoying situations like absonding from a house with a bag full of stolen loot while the police are on their way, and then accidentally ramming your hand into the window a couple of times becuase you’re struggling to get the door handle in the exact center of the screen. The physics of carryable objects like TVs or printers (they make you more visible and also bystanders who would otherwise ignore you will call the police if they see you hauling a printer out to your creepy windowless van) is acceptably functional, but barely, with lots of little annoyances like having to get a running start up a staircase to ram your way through some kind of catch at the bottom stair, and if you drop or throw an object at the wrong angle, it can get launched into the stratosphere.

The lack of fall damage on objects is also weird and annoying. I’m willing to accept no fall damage for the thief as an acceptable break from reality because the game has no health system, the maximum drop in the game is three stories, and depending on how you land and what you’re falling on, a three story drop is potentially manageable (the thief is depicted as quite nimble by the end of the game). No fall damage on objects means that throwing a television out of a second story window to climb out after is not just possible, but frequently a good idea – it means you don’t have to sneak through any first floor defenses while slowed down by a large object. For a game whose whole selling point is that you’re playing as a mostly-realistic thief whose abilities are limited to things that a real world human thief could probably accomplish, it’s kind of annoying that tossing valuable electronics out of second or third story windows is not only effective, but that later buildings are built around this (I’m 80% sure that the intended way to get a server or an office shredder out of building 303 is to toss it out of a second story window).

Despite the jank, I think Thief Simulator is pretty good at doing what it sets out to do. If the premise of being a more-or-less realistic human thief burgling houses in a regular old town somewhere in regular old America or Canada sounds cool, Thief Simulator delivers. If that premise isn’t reaching out to grip you, though, it’s not the kind of Hollow Knight-grade masterpiece where I’d recommend it to basically any gamer.