The State of the Blog

So, what’s up with the blog? It’s had real spotty updating lately.

Partly, the problem here is that I am very tired. My Kickstarter ventures simply aren’t working, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next. Various video and novel projects are getting poked at, and I’m constantly haunted by the fear that whatever I pick next will also be a total flop, and I will spend another 6-12 months of my life chasing something that ultimately won’t work. It’s really hard to do something when it feels like it will ultimately amount to nothing.

But there’s another problem: I’ve largely lost interest in the easiest source of content for this blog, the chapter-by-chapter book reviews. I’ve lost interest because I’m no longer using it as a means to improve myself as a writer. Rather than investigating a specific genre and getting some blog posts out of the process, the focus is now exclusively on writing blog posts. When reviewing LitRPG and Conan, I was invested in the research, in sating my curiosity as to what the fundamental tropes of LitRPG and the overall shape of the Conan story was, respectively. When reviewing these Humble Bundle books, there’s no greater thread through the stories I’m pursuing. Having discovered that Scourge of the Betrayer kind of sucks, it’s not clear what value there is in pursuing it further. There’s no investigation to complete, here.

Someone did send me a free .pdf copy of their collection of fantasy short stories, which was neat. It’s probably not the kind of thing that’s going to happen again, but having received the .pdf, I am going to at least take a stab at reviewing it. After that, I’m going to figure out a research project of some kind to pursue, rather than aimlessly reading whatever comes to hand, because the aimless thing just hasn’t worked at all. If nothing else comes to mind, I can just go back to Conan. Plenty water left in that well.

Everyone Dies In Boy Meets World

Boy Meets World has a surprisingly high implicit body count. For whatever reason, a character’s final appearance of a season has a fairly strong tendency to include them being in mortal peril, whether comic or dramatic, and then the character doesn’t always return for the next season.

Example: Stuart Minkus is the nerdy kid in season 1. In the final episode, an over-the-credits scene sees Cory and Shawn harnessing their latent psychic powers to blink him out of existence. It’s clearly meant to be a non-canon credits gag, but Minkus is totally absent starting season 2, so apparently our heroes legit killed a guy with their mind powers.

Example 2: Mr. Turner is in a motorcycle wreck during a very special episode towards the end of season 4. We last see him badly injured in a hospital bed, giving Shawn’s hand a weak but reassuring squeeze. This is meant to indicate that he’s gonna be okay, except that when I say “we last see him” I don’t mean “for the episode” or even “for the season,” I mean for the entire rest of the series. And there’s a whole other season that takes place in high school, so it’s not just that the cast left him behind but in good health when they graduated. Dude is gone.

I’m kind of lying, though, because the show’s writers seem to have noticed the problem in a late season 5 episode where Minkus does reappear, claiming to have been in an off-camera “other part of the school” for the past four years, and calls out to an off-camera Mr. Turner. Mr. Turner doesn’t respond, partly because actor Anthony Tyler Quinn wasn’t actually on set and partly because he died a year ago and Minkus is having a psychotic breakdown after being trapped in a psychic mirror dimension for four years by Cory and Shawn’s powers.

A similar author saving throw was made to save the most prominent of the not one, not two, but three siblings mysteriously erased from existence after season 1. Cory’s younger sister, the only one of the three to be Cory’s sibling, specifically, and the only one to appear in more than one episode is also the only one to be returned to existence after a season 2 obliteration. She came back under a new actor in season 3, so we can be reasonably confident she isn’t dead, but probably shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the Matthews family’s daughter was replaced by an only moderately convincing changeling, something that might seem farfetched until you remember that Cory and Shawn once vaporized someone with psychic powers on camera and also that the sibling in question’s name is Morgan, as in “le Fey.” The possibility implied by canon is that season 1 Morgan and season 3 Morgan are the same person, but that she was grounded for an entire year so thoroughly that she did not once see Cory during that time, which is probably darker than the changeling theory, all things considered.

Draft RPG Characters

In any game where you assemble a build from lots of options, the meta-game eventually gets stale as a handful of particularly useful spells get settled on. A pretty consistent way to break this up is with the draft (or some other method of cutting down the options available, like Magic: the Gathering’s ever churning Modern format or randomized Sealed Deck format).

What if you did a draft with a party of RPG characters? Everyone would have to have access to the same pool of features, which means you’d have to have a game altered or built from the ground up to handle it, but as a very simple proof of concept, imagine a game of 5e in which everyone must play a wizard, we assume that all of you learn spells from each other, but when you prepare spells on a long rest, you have to draft your spells. No party member can prepare the same spell as any other party member, so if Alice took fireball, you have to take something else.

One problem here is a lack of any competitive element. The critical thing with a draft is that Alice takes fireball not just because it’s good for her build, but because it’s also good for yours, and she wants to deny it to you. I don’t know how to introduce that competitive element that really makes the draft pop, and without it, I think it might be better to go with sealed deck. Instead of everyone learning spells from each other, no one can learn spells from each other, and all spells are sold as sealed booster packs. A fireball has a certain chance of dropping from each pack, and if you don’t get it, you’ll have to make do with something else.

I haven’t really put a whole lot of meat on this idea’s bones, but I think it could help break up the monotony you get after a couple of campaigns into 5e when everyone starts settling on optimal builds.

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.

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.

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.

Reus

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.

July Humble Monthly (The Rest)

Love is Dead is a fun little isometric platformer game where you can swap between controlling one of two zombies in love. In each level there are three screens, and on each screen (viewed in isometric view), your goal is to accomplish some specific objective and then reunite, plus there’s a pancake in the level somewhere, and you need a certain number of pancakes to advance from one world to the other, so better to grab them whenever you can. Sometimes the two lovers start separated and the only goal is to reunite, other times the lovers start together but need to split up to accomplish an objective like searching through a pet cemetery for their lost cat and dog, and must then reunite at the end. Naturally there are moving platforms, hostile zombies, crumbling platforms, and the like that require more of your reflexes than just walking across a screen to pick up a pancake, then turning around to walk back.

There are seven worlds and so far I completed all of 1 but have only nibbled on 2, so I don’t know if the game keeps up its new ideas and interesting mechanics through the whole thing, but it’s off to a promising start. There is a framing story, though I’m not sure if it’s ever going to grow beyond the excuse plot it was in the first world: the zombie lovers have lost their similarly deceased cat and dog and need to go and find them, and upon exhuming the pet cemetery and finding them not there, discover a friendly human who lets them know that the undead cat and dog were spotted heading into the nearby city. Is this going somewhere? Or is every world going to end with the cat and dog having been spotted going to ever more exotic and dangerous locales, with the only real plot beat being at the very end when the family is finally reunited? Only time will tell, and I’m trying to get a blog post covering three games out in two or three hours, so that’s time I don’t have. I will probably end up playing more of it in the future, though, because it’s cute and fun, so maybe I’ll have follow-up later.

Nairi: Tower of Shirin is an adventure game. I gave it 15 minutes on the merits of its art style, but lost interest at the first segment of actual gameplay. I’m not down for rubbing every item on my inventory against every bit of scenery until the plot finally agrees to move forward. I’d probably be happy to sit through this game as an animated movie, even if it did have a bunch of weird screen transitions and it was entirely sub-titled with no voice acting. A movie with some weird cost-saving stylization would be fine. A movie where I have to stop and solve a crossword puzzle every five minutes is not. I gave this one a whirl based on its art style (which is fantastic) and I wish I hadn’t, because now I wish I could gift it to someone who actually likes adventure games.

Mechanicus is a 40k-themed dungeon crawler in which you must lead techpriests and their servitors in battle against Necrons while crawling through a tomb world for techno goodies. It’s also got a bit of an XCom-y thing going where you don’t have a single dedicated party but instead have lots of little units, and you assign one party of them to a mission at a time. I played for less than an hour before running out of time before I needed to make this post, and that’s not nearly long enough to give a game like this a good once over, but in terms of “how valuable was this monthly bundle” I’m pretty confident I can already declare that Mechanicus is worth it on its own. Bear in mind the standard here is that most forms of entertainment cost about $3-$4 per hour and the Humble Monthly is $12/month (or slightly less if you buy in bulk), so really what I’m saying is that I anticipate it will take me at least another three hours to get bored of Mechanicus. That’s not a super high threshold to clear, but it’s not nothing, either.

Marvel Interactive Universe

I’ve thought for a while that a Marvel Interactive Universe would be a cool thing to have, like the MCU but for video games. Instead of trying to skip to the end with Ultimate Alliance style team-ups, give major characters dedicated games and bring them together for team-ups after they’re established as individual heroes.

The secret sauce of the MCU is in consistently getting good people to make their movies for them, so if you were going to make the MIU, the question is less in exactly what gameplay mechanics you’d use game by game, and more in what studios you would hand different properties off to in order to get the best gameplay. That’s the challenge I plan on tackling here: Picking which studios should get which characters. In order to do that, we do need to assign heroes a genre of gameplay, but we don’t need to figure out exactly what features will make it stand out from the rest of their genre, we just need to figure out what studio is good enough to figure that out for themselves.

Spider-Man is both a free space and something you probably can’t lead with. Sony still has those rights and they won’t part with them until you are an unstoppable MCU-style juggernaut and they have consistently failed to make a profit off of the character themselves. The thing is, the 2018 Spider-Man game was fantastic and my recommendation for using Spidey as the headliner for a new MIU is just to go to Insomniac, ask them who was in charge for Spider-Man 2018, and give the Spidey game to those exact same people. Sony can and have done that for themselves and have no reason to let my hypothetical project poach the character.

I don’t know the video game copyright status of Marvel’s characters very well, but I’m going to go with the same copyright status the MCU had when it got started: Spidey, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men went with their respective film franchises, which means the Avengers are our only big names left. Fortunately, the success of the MCU means we’re on much more solid ground in terms of name recognition. Whereas the MCU had to take Iron Man from someone people barely even recognize and turn him into the vanguard of what would eventually become the most ambitious film franchise in Hollywood history, our Avengers games’ main problem is going to be stepping out of the shadow of their beloved film counterparts.

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