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”

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.

Magic Superpower Personality Tests

Awaken Online tried to do a thing where the full dive MMO gave you a hidden personality test and gave you magic super powers based on it. This went very poorly, on account of the “personality types” had tons of overlap, to the point where some of them were practically synonymous. The general idea of “your personality gives you superpowers” is not a bad one, but rather than coming up with a list of elements and then working backwards to try and cram personality types into them, you’d be better off making use of existing personality categorizations that at least mostly work and assigning magic powers to them.

For example: Myers-Briggs gets a lot of criticism for being unscientific, and it is. All its numbers and letter codes gives people the impression that it’s the result of some sociological study or something, but it’s really just the result of two kinda smart people sitting in armchairs and trying to come up with a way of categorizing people’s personalities, then declaring victory after coming up with four binary switches that felt mostly right. But people strongly identify with their Myers-Briggs personality types and that’s good enough for fiction.

Now, one of the major failings of Myers-Briggs that you’ll have to address is that it treats its four personality axes as binary switches, but quite a few people are close enough to the middle that they can flip letters based entirely on how their day has been going. So you’ll want a set of four opposed pairs of magical power, but you’ll also want to leave room for most people not being strongly attenuated along all four axes. Maybe not being strongly attenuated means you don’t get any magic or maybe you get a reduced form of both.

‘Course, that puts it on you to come up with four opposed pairs of magical voodoo. DiSC personality types are already in a set of four, a 2×2 grid of people-oriented vs. task-oriented and leader vs. follower types, which means you can assign them the classical four elements and call it a day. DiSC’s inspirational personality type is a people-oriented leader whereas their conscientious personality type is a task-oriented follower, so let’s call inspirational fire and conscientious water because they’re opposites like that (or maybe we’d want to make inspirational air and conscientious earth, depending on how we want to assign the other two, whatever). DiSC personality types also usually come with a primary and secondary, and you could either ignore the secondary or let everyone be multiclass.

Option three: The five emotions from Pixar’s Inside Out are based on real psychological research, although they discarded Surprise on account of it being too similar to Fear. You could use the Pixar five or the original research paper’s six. Either way, everyone has all of the emotions to one degree or another, so this would definitely be less of a “only firebenders know firebending” setup and more of a “everyone knows firebending but some people are especially good at it” setup.

You might be able to wring something out of astrology. A major problem here is that astrological personality types are usually phrased as “[thing] but also [opposite of that thing]” and therefore mean nothing at all, or at minimum declare that a sign is predisposed to a certain behavior without presenting any particular alternatives. Like, people criticize the Myers-Briggs for being a horoscope, but it actually does tell you that you’re extroverted and therefore not introverted (or vice-versa), and in fact its major failing is being too certain in that pronouncement, and failing to account for people who are not really strongly predisposed to either trait.

Taking Sagittarius as an example because it happens to be my birth sign (assuming we use the Babylonian system and not the modern one, ’cause it turns out stars move around sometimes), allegedly Sagittarius is supposed to be full of wanderlust and stuff. This describes me not at all, in that I am so attached to staying in my room that I have to make an exertion of will not to get DoorDash to deliver 100% of my meals and never eat out or even go grocery shopping ever again (which, in addition to not being great for mental health, is also something I can’t afford). But it’s not like I have literally never gone traveling or that I reacted like a neurotic cartoon character when I did, so if you wanted to stretch and deform the definition of Sagittarian wanderlust until it fit me, you could, because there’s no explicitly stated opposed trait that it stands in opposition to. Myers-Briggs declares “you are an introvert, and therefore not an extrovert,” horoscopes declare “you are a Sagittarius, and therefore you like to explore.” Okay, sure, but in what context? As opposed to what? Who out there recoils in horror and says “ugh, exploration, I hate exploration”?

But if you’re willing to write up twelve different magic powers and write your characters to match the alleged personality traits, it can still work for fiction. Just ’cause star signs have no connection to personality types in real life doesn’t mean they can’t in whatever fantasy world someone wants to write a book in. There’s definitely a lot of mythic foundations to build on when using star signs. Just saying “the magic of Pisces” feels like it means something just ’cause Pisces is super old.

Or you could throw darts at an exhaustive list of emotions and assign elements to whatever they land on until you get bored or run out of elements to assign. Awaken Online did that, and it’s a top 5,000 book, so hey, clearly it’s not a deal breaker for its target audience.

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.

Continue reading “Marvel Interactive Universe”

Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home is generally pretty spectacular. No pun intended, it’s just almost impossible to praise a Spider-Man story without drawing on one of the many adjectives that have been used to describe him. Really, it’s a testament to how incredible Spider-Man media has gotten lately that Far From Home isn’t the best Spider-Man story we’ve gotten so far.

But in keeping with the theme of this blog, I want to complain about its biggest missed opportunity. Specifically, regarding the sub-plot in which (very mild spoilers) Peter Parker gets a new costume and pretends to be “Night Monkey,” a European knock-off of Spider-Man, in order to prevent people from noticing that famous New York super hero Spider-Man had a brief stint in Europe that happened to exactly coincide with Peter Parker’s class trip. At no point in this sub-plot is there a scene where “Night Monkey” puts on a fake British accent to pretend to be European, and Ned comments that it’s an awful accent and he should probably just avoid talking in the Night Monkey costume altogether. Maybe they thought it was too obvious? Because I surely can’t be the only one who thought of this.

On a similar note, Infinity War and Endgame represented probably our only chance to have Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberpatch reference Sherlock Holmes on screen together, and it never happened. All it would’ve taken is one line! The MCU’s meme generation department is asleep at the wheel here!

July Humble Monthly (Mostly)

July’s Humble Monthly bundle had two big headliners that they dropped early to try and entice people into subscribing: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Moonlighter. The whole bundle just dropped and I’m picking through it now, and some of the other half-dozen bundled games are pretty good.

Road Redemption is a biker gang story taking place in what I assume is a perfectly accurate depiction of Australia’s interior, a racing game crossed with a healthy dose of combat which is also a rogue-lite. You run a gauntlet of races (and race-related challenges) in which murdering the other contestants is a valid and, indeed, dominant strategy for victory, receiving cash for upgrades if you win and taking health penalties if you lose. Once you get murdered yourself, you go back to the beginning, but you also get some XP to spend on permanent upgrades. It’s a fun timekiller, but I’m finding the gauntlet approach kind of kills its ability to be a timekiller. Individual races (or race-y challenges) only take 5-10 minutes, which is perfect when I just want to decompress for a bit while transitioning from working on one thing to working on another, but an entire run takes a full 1-2 hours, and I don’t love the action/racing hybrid enough to want to dedicate entire sessions of gaming to it like that.

60 Parsecs! is a game in which you are in a space station and nuclear war has just been declared on Earth. There’s a missile headed right for you, so you must quickly grab as many crew and supplies from the station as you can in the sixty seconds before the missile impact and then skedaddle in an escape rocket. After the initial panicky escape, the game is about careful resource management as you attempt to survive long enough to find a planet to colonize. I have no idea if you can ever reach a win condition or if you just keep going until you die, because my first two playthroughs ended with my captain (and often everyone else) dead in less than a month. I think maybe the goal is to live for sixty days, in keeping with the whole sixty [unit] theme the game has so far? The game has a 60s-ish sort of Hanna Barbara reminiscent art style and has a very good juxtaposition between the initial sixty second panic and the slow decision making of the subsequent hour-ish of gameplay. There is a weird drawback where the longer you survive, the worse the pace of the game gets, as a successful run means more time between the panic bits, and you don’t tend to run into a whole lot of new content unless you get farther than you have before (although it’s possible this is because I’m still getting the hang of the game and lived long enough to reach the planet only once out of my two playthroughs, so maybe there’s more randomization of what planet it is and what conditions are like there that I just haven’t seen).

Kind Words is a lovely idea poorly executed. It’s not a game so much as an app where you can send a request for messages and get replies. There’s a generic avatar sitting at a desk who does different animations based on whether you’re currently reading a note, writing a response, etc., but it’s decorative more than interactive. Each message is limited to being about a single paragraph long (roughly the length of our new beefed up 280-character tweets). People are encouraged to put out messages requesting encouragement and support for their problems, and to write replies to other people who’ve made requests. Fantastic idea, but I find myself slipping constantly into one of the less helpful things to do in these situations, trying to solve the problem. Deprived of the ability for two-way communication, though, I don’t know what else to do. Normally when having this kind of conversation you want to 1) ask questions and 2) rephrase their concerns back at the person using slightly different language to show that you’re listening and understand. With badly limited space and no way to get a chain of responses going, neither of these is as effective as they would be in regular voice or text chat. Incidentally, you can get a similar service from 7cups.com, except it’s in text chat, which works much better. I find myself keeping Kind Words open in the background for the chill music while just having regular 7 Cups chats. On the other hand, 7 Cups’ efforts to monetize itself always come across as kind of exploitative and sinister. It never stops people mid-chat and demands money from them to continue the conversation, but it does use a lot of gamification tools that feels manipulative.

Moonlighter was apparently a big enough deal to be a headline title. I’d never heard of it, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if it had caught on and become at least momentarily famous while I wasn’t looking. It’s got Zelda-esque combat, randomly generated dungeons, and loot that, instead of selling to a shop, you sell from a shop, setting prices yourself and responding to shifts in supply and demand, and making investments into both your own shops and other, specialty shops that can sell you things like weapons and armor or magical enchantments. It’s got a good pace of dungeon crawling at night and then shop managing during the day. I’ve just about mined out the shop management aspect after a little less than an hour of gameplay, which means either this game is about to hit me with a curve ball to keep things interesting or it’s actually a shallow prototype that’s got the foundation of really good mechanics but fails to keep things interesting long enough to get anywhere near that mythical fifth dungeon. If guess-and-checking prices until you hit upon the one that people like best is all the shop end of the game has going for it, then I’d rather I just have a regular shop to sell my goods to so I can focus on the dungeon crawling, but we’ll see if things get deeper as I go on.

I haven’t tried Mechanicus, Love is Dead, or Nairi: Tower of Shirin yet, and will probably spit out another blog post when I do. These game review posts actually take longer than a book review post, but they don’t require me to commit to seeing a particular book all the way through, so as long as I’m still trying to unbury myself from my Kickstarter workload, we’ll probably be seeing more of them. On a related note, I may end up dropping Spider-Man and Philosophy halfway through to jump back into some regular fiction. I feel kind of glutted on non-fiction lately and I’m hoping I’ll have an easier time getting content out if it’s focused on fiction again. Not sure what I’ll read, but there was a Humble Book Bundle I grabbed recently and I’ll probably stick my nose into one of those.