A Retrospective

Posted by on Dec 5, 2017 in Editorial

Something this morning triggered a thought for a new project, which I quickly realized was an old project, and that lead to a very short jaunt down memory lane. Having not a lot of active intel to write about, I thought I’d relay this stream of consciousness both for posterity and on the off chance someone out there who believes that blogging started and ended with WordPress can get straightened out a bit.

See, I worked in desktop support after graduating from college with a degree in Biology. I had computer knowledge and got the job through a temp agency. But there were changes happening in the company so I got my foot in the door with a web development company and eventually jumped ship to work there full time. This was great because it was a small company and we as employees had unlimited access to web and DNS hosting, databases, email, FTP…the works.

Being a web developer meant I had the skills and opportunity make whatever I wanted on the off-hours, and what I wanted to make was a gaming news website. Back then I had the support of friends who were as interested in such a thing as I was, although I did all of the design and development work. Problem was, we were about as far from the games industry as folks could be, seeing as how we lived in the Northeast, which was a blank space as far as the industry was concerned in those days. We had no contacts and no cachet, so I built a mechanism into the site that would allow me to enter RSS feeds, parse the content for keywords, sort the content into buckets, and allow us to peruse news and info from other websites as a starting point for our own content. Mostly this process revolved around digesting the info, seeing what other info we might have in the feed bucket about a topic from other sites (as a way to gauge the “importance” of the news), and then writing up the details, thoughts, and opinions on the subject. Of course, we had a full back-end user and content management system, comments, and gallery, so this site was effectively it’s own custom blogging platform.

However, things took a sudden turn when I was contacted out of the blue by someone who claimed to have trademarked the name of the site we were using. Naturally, I checked on this, and he wasn’t lying, but the trademark was filed well after our site had been in operation for several years, giving us prior claim that should have negated any attempt to grab the domain name out from under us. Still, we couldn’t continue to operate using that domain so the site had to go dark. This was at the time that my mother passed away from cancer, so I wasn’t in the mood to fight with this guy overpayment or anything. In the end, I made him pay the transfer fee and gave him the domain (since I wasn’t paying for hosting or anything anyway). I checked in a few years later, and apparently, his business venture was no longer in operation (it had been legit from what I was able to determine) so I guess all’s well that ends.

Over the years, web development kind of greyed out for me; it’s now something I do for The Man, and not for enjoyment. Plus, why reinvent the wheel in the Age of WordPress? Of course, the world has moved on from the days when there were a few respected, non-commercial gaming news sites like Blues and Shacknews. Now gaming news is Big Business, and while it often seems suspiciously like these sites are cannibalizing one another for news briefs rather than getting their info from the relevant sources, for a small potatoes site to do something similar would be the epitome of pointlessness.

Since I had been flying mostly solo during those early years, I opted to take up the e-quill again, first through Blogger, and then through WordPress.com before moving into a dedicated domain name, Cedarstreet.net. Cedar Street was where I lived in college, and I had opted to immortalize that time through a domain and website, but it didn’t quite fit with the subject of games. I came up with Levelcapped in a fit of irony: as primarily an MMO player at the time, I had almost zero level capped characters in any game. Instead, the idea was a play on the insistence that the game changes once a character reaches the cap; so, then, would my blogging focus as I staked out this new parcel of e-space.

My attention was “MMOs”, but not a single MMO. I was probably well away from Ultima Online by this time and was swimming through the WoW-focused explosion of games that were trying to ape WoW’s style while attempting to sell us on how different they were. I went through a LOT of games during that time, which seemed to be in stark contrast to what others were doing by focusing with a white-hot intensity on one game of choice. In retrospect, this was my bad because people seemed to always be on the hunt for specific information, and as they progressed they needed more and more specific information. My MMO tourism was probably good for some people who wanted an overview of esoteric games like Fallen Earth and Neocron, but as I moved on to other games I stopped being a resource for those people who needed the help when I started talking about other games that potentially regular visitors weren’t playing.

As MMOs multiplied and the tribalism set in, discourse took a nasty turn almost everywhere you went. During this period I wanted to focus on why I was writing what I was writing about, and why people might want to read it: our shared love of gaming. It seemed that as people got themselves worked up in justification of their decision to play this game or that, they weren’t focusing on A) talking about what they enjoyed, and B) letting people enjoy what THEY wanted to enjoy. I wanted my posts to provide that positive message that games are made to be enjoyed, not to use as weapons against people who happen to like something other than what we want them to like. There’s just too much diversity on the market to claim that our choices are the RIGHT choices, and we should never block avenues from future consideration as a way to justify our own choices. We aren’t gatekeepers of any kind and should seek to share our love of our hobby with anyone who will listen. Having lived through the era when geekdom was an avenue to ostracism and ridicule, people were squandering their opportunities left and right.

Sadly, Gamergate happened and blew everything to hell. Amidst stories of blacklisting and doxxing of those who preferred to celebrate all kinds of games made by all kinds of people, my tiny corner of the Internet didn’t seem important enough to continue, lest I become someone’s easy target. Was this a mistake, not speaking up? Possibly, in the event of all-out war, but this was just focusing on an entertainment industry which I had no sway over; in my mind, shouting at harassers wouldn’t help the cause of the oppressed, and would only turn their focus on to me and my family. Instead, I decided to go on hiatus. Blogging didn’t seem to be much in vogue anymore anyway, with the prevalence of YouTube and the rise of Twitch and other game streaming services. A younger generation (who probably weren’t even yet born when I started my blogging career) seemed to be moving away from READING and wanted more hyperkinetic hosts and wacky facial expressions in their gaming info. Truth be told, a picture is worth a thousand words, and watching a Twitch stream or Let’s Play on YouTube is a better means of discovery for someone interested in a new game than some random old guy writing 1000+ words on the same subject. My readership had never been significant enough to worry about leaving people behind, and so I stopped my Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule and contemplated my options.

That kind of brings us to today. As you can tell, this post isn’t about A GAME so much as it is about a transcendence that I think a lot of gamers find themselves experiencing as they get older. While we continue to play, and continue to obsess over learning the ins and outs of our chosen titles, we also start to look back at a history of gaming, both personal and writ large. I don’t have access to a wealth of financial data spanning multiple studios or consecutive years, but I have a sense of where things have been that extend back to a time before the current popular market demographic. Today’s Twitch is yesterday’s blogging, which was that day’s forums, which were that day’s USENET. It’s kind of weird to find a niche of content delivery and attach oneself to it, and then to watch as it moves out of vogue for something that doesn’t seem to make much sense, but Twitch and YouTube aren’t any less important or relevant, for all of the controversies they seem to engender. Likewise, there’s still a lot of good to squeeze out of blogging because the Power of the Written Word will never fall out of favor.

Now I’m kind of in flux. I am not really playing A Game with any regularity, or even gaming at all with regularity. I thought I wanted to try and make a go of streaming, but it turned out to be quite the hassle and not really worth the effort to me. I still engage with folks on Twitter, but blog less because while blogging about ideas can be a kind of therapy, I hang out in our Combat Wombat Discord server which affords real-time conversations that can offer quicker catharsis than spending time writing and editing and publishing and promoting to a potentially indifferent audience can muster. Obviously, I’m not ABANDONING blogging, but I also think that Levelcapped is going to become less of a gaming-centric blog and more of a general catch-all space for slow rambles about games, technology, and the kinds of thoughts that people start to have as they look over their shoulders and back into the past.

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Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Posted by on Dec 5, 2017 in Editorial, Xenoblade Chronicles 2

 

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (i.e. XC2) was to be my Hail Mary, my Japanese Savior, and the final opportunity to pull my Switch buyer’s remorse out of the toilet. As the Switch had been an impulse buy, and with no strong loyalty to any classic Nintendo properties, I hadn’t been snagged by any of the existing Switch games — yes, that includes Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I personally consider unnecessarily frustrating and overdone in all the wrong places. What I wanted was a game that gave me a reason to take the device from its cradle and use it until the battery died. I hoped that XC2 might fill that niche, being a game in the more traditional JRPG mold.

How’d that work out for me? Let’s just say that if they make a movie out of my relationship with the Switch, it’ll be a legitimate nail-biter.

Watching Titans die at sea is a spectator sport.

You start the game as Rex, a salvager, who lives on the back of a Titan and through exposition explains why and what that means: humanity was kicked off the planet’s singular land-mass by the Creator and was consequently forced to live on the back of these massive creatures that plied the seas. Why Rex is living alone on a relatively small (yet still massive) Titan was not addressed (aside from “dead parents”), but his job was. Salvagers dive beneath the seas to collect goods that end up down there either through accidents or because a Titan dies because when you and thousands of people live on the back of a mortal creature, you have to be aware that someday you’re going to take an unscheduled trip to visit Davey Jones when your neighborhood literally gets old and dies.

Rex is hired by a local Teamster because he’s from a particular Titanic (oh the irony) neighborhood. The team that needs his expertise doesn’t say what they’re after, but it’s quickly understood that they are looking for a special “Blade” called the Aegis…

…and this is where we’ll leave the plot and talk about the mechanics.

A “Blade” is a sentient elemental force that is bound to a “Driver” who wields the power of the Blade. In the presentation, the Blade is an aspect that acts more like Ash’s Pikachu than anyone else’s Caterpie in that they hang out and factor into the cut-scenes and aren’t simply deployed in combat. A Driver can have up to three Blades at the ready but can have more on deck. Blades come in three major varieties: tanks, healers, and DPS, so yay for boring consistency, I guess. 

The point of a Blade is really to impart Arts (or is it Artes?) to the Driver during combat. Arts are special moves that can be deployed after they’ve charged. A Driver charges his or her Arts by performing mundane auto-attacks. Combat in XC2 isn’t all that active; once you target an enemy, draw your weapon (an active process), and are within range, the Driver will begin a 1-2-3 cycle of attacks which do increasing damage within the cycle. For example, first hit might do 15 damage, second does 45, and third does 75, at which point the attacks return to stage 1, then stage 2, and then stage 3. Repeat until someone is dead. But the key is to find the best time to use available Arts, in a process called Cancelling. This really just means timing your Art use to coincide with the auto-attack animation for maximum benefit. What’s the benefit? Well, the purpose of the Art is one, but foe each Art used, another meter is filled. This one has four stages, and relates more directly to the Blade that the Driver has deployed. Using this special Art, the Blade will attack via a QTE. There’s really a lot more to things than this paragraph might indicate, but I’m not far enough along in the story, nor do I have enough party members yet to take advantage of all of the weird combos and chains that can be produced through skillful Art deployment.

So there I was, trucking along and enjoying the game. I was really feeling like XC2 was going to redeem my Switch purchasing decision, but that was only until I got to the first major city and found that Monolithsoft doesn’t give a damn about your sense of what is nice and good in the world. As I’m running across the wide open plain between the start of Chapter 2 and the first city, the mobs were as thick as ticks in the summertime but ranged from level 4 to level 8fucking1, all mixed up in an absolute aggro nightmare. I managed to haul ass to the city, but after that, I died anytime I went outside. Considering all my missions required me to go outside, that was going to be difficult. Even when I decided to grind low-level mobs right outside the doorway in the hopes of leveling up a little, I learned the hard way that the advertised level made no difference. There are normal mobs, and specialty “named” mobs of the same phenotype, so telling them apart is next to impossible. That’s how I ended up dying to a level 5 bunny who was made of kevlar and was packing an arsenal that would give the Punisher a boner.

So I turned to the Internet because even though the game has tutorials, there’s only so much real explanation that can be given in a few lines of text on the screen. There are all kinds of weird systems, like the pouch mechanic which allows you to apply timed buffs in the form of food, drink, and even board games and musical instruments. There’s item equipping, and a whole array of Weapon and Skill points to be allotted. And someone, somewhere at Monolithsoft figured it’d be cool to not only allow you to level by doing but to side level by spending some special category of XP whenever you sleep at an inn. Don’t forget to sleep now and then, even if it means you need to fast-travel out of your current story instance, kids.

With this and other Internet-sourced knowledge, I returned to the game. I also said “fuck it” because if I couldn’t get past this hump then the game would be dead to me anyway, so I started taking stupid chances…like swimming in clouds. There’s too much to really explain what this means, exactly, but I thought that jumping off a Titan and into the cloudy sea would be like falling off a cliff, except…it’s not. And the main story wanted me to cross a bit of that cloudy sea to get to my objective. So I did, and with my new found knowledge at hand, I was able to move the story along to a point where I got more NPCs in my party, which helped with more progress.

As of this point, I am pleased with the game again. In fact, I made such progress that I managed to not just progress, but to slaughter an entire nation’s worth of soldiers. This is not the mission objective, but as I’m running around trying to find the objective on this map, I keep running into more enemies. I just can’t not kill them all.

So, a few bullet point caveats for those who are on the fence:

  • There are no Japanse voice options out of the box. There is a free DLC that adds that for those who want it.
  • That means the VOs are in English. In fact, many of the characters have accents from around the UK. I know some people (a.k.a. my daughter) demand that Japanese VO, but I kinda like the non-American accents.
  • When you move in combat your attacks stop, which kinda sucks especially when some of your Arts are designed to be triggered from behind or to the side of your enemy
  • And the movement is really sllloowww in combat. There’s always a lag between what you’re doing and when you’re allowed to move. Rex starts out with an Anchor Shot Art that generates a healing potion, but you best not wait to use it until you’re on death’s door, because the chances of you being able to move to pick it up in time are pretty damn slim.
  • I have a beef with the compass navigation. The current mission location is highlighted on the compass, but it has an obscenely wide swing, meaning that even if you turn a full 180 degrees the indicator is still in the center of the compass even when you’re really, really close to it.
  • And the map sucks because you can’t scroll or zoom or add custom waypoints.
  • Pyra’s boobs do not need to be as large as they are.

think those represent the limit of my complaints at the moment. My latest investigations and circumstances don’t alleviate the fact that I could get stomped by a level 81 gorilla on the plains while I’m looking for level 12 quest rewards, so there’s that.

Right now, though, it looks like I’ll be using my Switch more in the coming weeks than I have in the run-up to now. I can also recommend XC2 with at least one thumb up because I have already put about 7 hours into the game (which is a lot of consecutive hours for me) and I think that says something about the power of the game on a system that was in danger of collapsing under the weight of a blanket of dust.

 

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Thanksgiving Recap 2017

Posted by on Nov 28, 2017 in Editorial, Scopique Plays, Virtual Reality

I don’t really have anything pressing to say here but feel that I should surface from time to time in order to justify the cost of renewing the domain, so here goes.

As one might expect, I spent a lot of time with the Odyssey HMD. I finally got a VR version of Minecraft, which is amazing. I started hollowing out a mountain in order to build my own “Hall of the Mountain King”. VR gives the game a sense of scale that you really don’t get in 2D, so building a personal Moria is one hell of an ambitious and worthwhile goal, IMO.

I also “played” a bit of Elite Dangerous in VR. Seriously, if you played ED in VR and weren’t convinced about the immersion, you’d be lying to yourself. I docked with The Genosis, which was leaving its system for the last stop on its tour. I did some light trading because I didn’t want to (literally) miss the bus, but docking and undocking has never been so friggin amazing as it is in VR.

During the holiday sales, I picked up an AG racing game called Redout, which has VR support, though the WMR support isn’t 100% solid with this one. Still, anti-gravity racing from the cockpit with full frontal vision is quite the experience, I can tell you that. I also got Tilt Brush and Google Earth VR, both of which are cool exercises but I can’t see any practical use of either except to show the capabilities of VR.

In non-VR news, I finished Star Wars Battlefront II‘s campaign. People say it’s short, and I guess it is compared to Skyrim, but I also don’t weld my ass to a chair and blow through the scenery in a mad rush to get something done. That’s a blessing — I take time to experience the game, yo — and a curse, considering how easy it is for me to get disrupted and move on to something else. I felt the campaign was extremely well done, although the flying portions were a bit too easy. I kept waiting for a plot-twist but it never came. In fact, depending on how “canon” this story is, it could really set up the bridge between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. As it is, it explains why there’s a Star Destroyer face-planted on Jakku for Rey to scavenge from. Maybe, it explains more than that…

Speaking of disruption and moving on to something else, I restarted Horizon: Zero Dawn. When we last left my Aloy clone, she was at the Ring of Metal fending off a never-ending spawn of killers that were literally piling up at the doorway. Because an NPC seeing a corpse alerts the NPC to trouble, I couldn’t fight my way through the carnage to get to where I needed to be.

This time, though, I started over on “Story” mode because I’m more interested in the story than I am in achievement. I’ve already gotten past the Ring of Metal stage and have made it to Meridian where there are so many side-quests and errands to pick up that I’m kind of getting antsy. I’d like to just stay on the main quest and get through it, and then double back and play for cleanup and exploration if the game allows.

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Grab Bag for November 6, 2017

Posted by on Nov 6, 2017 in Editorial

Extra Life

This past weekend was the official Extra Life streaming marathon. Overall, the Combat Wombat team did very well, bringing in 3/4 of our goal! GO GO WOMBATS! Personally, I didn’t help much. I get most of my donations through my wife’s co-workers, but there was a conflicting family fund-raiser for our daughter circulating at the same time. I also didn’t send out my customary emails to friends and family. Still, I brought in a little more than 1/5th of my goal. I’m considering asking for donations from family in lieu of Christmas gifts this year.

Also, thank you to those who donated, both to me, and to all of the other participants!

Destiny 2

My first four hours of the stream on Saturday was Destiny 2. I “finished” Titan’s story zone and was pushed to Io, where I did enough to unlock the social zone there. I also made it to level 20 thanks to the public events. Destiny 2 can get kind of crazy, but during those four hours, I think I died just once, during a public event, despite some of the seemingly overwhelming numbers of enemies in some of those story areas (namely the Fallen on Io that just keep zipping around). So I got my sparrow(s), unlocked a whole lot of weapons, shaders, et al., and will keep on keeping on with the story.

Folks in the clan are talking about raiding and nightfalls, but I don’t think I’ll be down for either of those. I like Destiny 2 OK, but I’m liking it as a solo experience right now. Moving outside of the story arcs means paying attention and formulating plans and all that, and I really don’t think I’m down for that level of engagement with this game. I expect that I’ll finish the story with this character, and then put the game to bed. I’ll have to evaluate DLC when it comes, but right now I’m not sure that’s on my radar.

RimWorld

After taking a few breaks from the stream, I came back with RimWorld because if there’s a game that’s fun to watch, this is it. The reason is because it’s random: you either get the fates to smile upon you, or you get the fates to kick you to the curb.

Luckily after having watched Stargrace play for several hours, I’ve learned a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to RimWorld. I also set the game to have fewer “interruptions” in the form of disasters and raiders. My colonists are pretty good — no one has died yet, knock on wood — and we’ve expanded the base to about as large as we need it currently. Once we unlock more research stations I’m going to need to open up some new areas.

I’m currently playing without mods, although I’d like to see if there’s a mod that can teach skills or improve skills of colonists. I know part of the game is to do more with less, but it’d be nice to be able to have the “more” mean “have one colonist teach another so we can have fewer idle people and more productivity”.

Samsung Odyssey

Today is the day! A proclamation that falls on deaf ears, apparently. I think I’m one of a mere handful of people I know who is excited about VR; for everyone else, it’s a write-off.

I’m still not entirely sure what or whyWhat, as in “what the hell am I going to use this for”, or why, as in “in light of the question of whatwhy?” I expect that I’ll pick up something like Space Pirate Trainer to have because the Steam VR integration for Microsoft Mixed Reality devices isn’t quite there yet. I’m hoping that maybe Elite Dangerous‘ native VR mode can work, although I’m not holding my breath quite yet. There’s a few other apps on the Microsoft Store that I might try.

I’m of the mind that anything can be successful if you help it to be, and since I’d like to see VR be successful, I’ll help it. Sadly, I don’t think too many other people care, for various reasons.

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On Blade Runner 2049

Posted by on Oct 10, 2017 in Editorial, Other Geeks

On Blade Runner 2049

I cannot write about this movie. There’s no way I can explain to you, the reader, how I feel about it. I can explain the plot (which I won’t do), and I can talk about how faithful it was to the 1982 prequel, and I can talk about the “quirks” of the almost 3-hour film, but there is absolutely no way I can provide the most important part of the film in words: the atmosphere.

Without spoilers, 2049 takes place 20 years after Blade Runner, and while word on the street is that you need not have seen the 1982 original, the narrative is far more coherent if you have since a good chunk of the plot focuses on the fate of Deckard and Rachel and the consequences of their flight. 2049 is still primarily concerned with replicants, the genetically engineered labor force pioneered by the Tyrell Corporation and later adopted by the Wallace Corporation. After off-screen events that saw an even greater animosity aimed at replicants, Wallace convinced the population that his Nexus 8 line would solve the problems of Tyrell’s Nexus 6, but the undercurrent of distrust still remains — hence the continued need for the “blade runners”, special law enforcement branch that is tasked with “retiring” replicants who act up. Ryan Gossling plays “K”, a blade runner and himself a replicant who is only respected — not necessarily liked — by his superior officer.

The story is important and hasn’t been given away in any of the marketing materials, but at the end of the day, the plot felt less important the more one considers it. The original Blade Runner was all about the nature of being human. In 2049 they attempt to up that ante by making the question of the nature of humanity far more overt by throwing out questions about the “soul”, Biblical references, and more subtle cues that can be read about here (with spoilers). When the ramifications of Deckard and Rachel’s flight are made apparent early on in the film, it’s meant to be the focal point for the audience as much as it is for the characters within the film, but in writing this post, I think there’s a more important message beyond “what is human”?

The atmosphere of the Blade Runner movies is what I call “classic cyberpunk” (as opposed to the “nouveau cyberpunk” that tries to cut the dystopia with something more palatable, like Shadowrun‘s inclusion of high-fantasy). In these settings, humanity has worked itself into a species and civilization dead-end. Corporations rule from afar simply by convincing the population that they can’t live without their products. The pursuit of shareholder equity leads to the exploitation of natural resources to keep up with the manufacturing demand necessary to supply an increasing population first with creature comforts and later — when resources begin to dwindle — with basic necessities. Overpopulation causes growth both up and out: massive blocks of semi-highrises sprawling well beyond current urban borders offering the bare minimum of living space. There are fewer national borders as people move around the world towards inflection points of greater opportunity, which is an act that only serves to overburden systems that are already struggling to keep up. In between all of this, technology slides in not just as something to take minds off the oppressive situations of daily life, but as a last-ditch effort to give a dying species some last measure of solace as they decay alongside the world around them.

This is where the deeper message came from. In the Blade Runner films, replicants were designed as slaves we could feel good about. They weren’t considered human and could be tailored to the jobs that needed doing both on Earth and in the off-world colonies. The question the first movie asked was whether or not the experiences and memories served as the basis for emotions, and whether the ability to feel those emotions made replicants more human — or more human than human. 2049 takes that a step further, and that forms the crux of the actual plot of the movie (which I can’t explain for obvious reasons), along with questions about free will and the relationship between creator and created.

Still, what I came away with this morning after some reflection isn’t that these movies are about “what is human”, but rather “what does being human mean”? In the Blade Runner universe, humanity has brought Earth to the brink of destruction through wars and exploitation, stripping it bare to feed the corporate engines of consumerism — a fear that was much greater in 1982 when it was a possible future that’s no less scary in 2017 when it’s our actual present. Humanity has created colonies on other planets — 9, according to Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace — but it’s not enough for him. He believes that humanity should expand throughout the universe on the backs of replicant labor, and his all-consuming quest is to find a way to increase replicant production in order to realize that goal. He envisions trillions of replicants, which is what should demand a pause: wouldn’t that equal or even exceed the number of actual humans? And if subserviant replicants achieve superior numbers over their human masters, what could that mean for natural humans?

Blade Runner and 2049 movies prefer replicants to humans. Humans have destroyed Earth, which is obvious in every single establishing shot in both movies. In 2049 we see K flying back to Los Angeles: a continuous plateau of low-rise apartments cut with narrow thoroughfares that lead to the central district of corporate high-rise buildings. Those who inhabit these skyscrapers are the only ones who can see the sky, although there’s not much to see as the constant haze of acid rain clouds is everpresent. There is no good reason to live in Los Angeles, yet millions apparently do and are content to continue to live their lives in the neon canyons of the buildings that have been built up around them. This is humanity’s legacy. It’s what humanity has done to and for itself. Replicants, however, are genetically superior to humans. They are newborns in the epochal scale. Although they are initially used only as disposable resources — mirroring the general philosophy of practically everything in the Blade Runner universe — they express that “more human than human” tendency to position themselves as the inheritors of the humanity that actual humans put aside in their desire to exploit and expand.

We could call these movies “cautionary tales” of the consequence of human greed, but that’s doing these films a grave disservice. These movies are meant to be experienced, not just watched and absorbed and dissected for the first low-hanging-fruit moral that we can extract. Both Blade Runner movies are art house films, and while that sounds pretentious I believe it to be true. Each scene is relevant both to the plot and to maintaining a cohesion of cyberpunk oppression so that we never feel like there’s going to be salvation for anyone at the end of the line. The replicants have the best chance of extracting themselves from the decline of Earth, but humanity has already proven that its decisions and values make them unworthy of being saved. It’s a sad realization as a human who can’t transcend to become a replicant and adds to the layer of inevitable dread that these movies provide.

I both can and cannot recommend Blade Runner 2049. If you liked the first one, you will love this one. If you hated the first, you will despise the second. If you cannot sit for three hours filled with scenes of silence, long establishing camera angles, and (after having read this far) whiffs of director Denis Villeneuve’s French-level pretentiousness, you will be miserable. 2049 has a lot going for it, though, if you are open to it. It’s a beautiful movie even when it’s presenting the direst predictions. Although it’s difficult to consider how no dialog makes a performance, everyone involved on-screen did a fantastic job (even traditionally manic Jared Leto). Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a message movie or a blockbuster movie, but it is a thinking movie and more importantly, a feeling movie that affects the audience at various emotional levels when we open ourselves to it.

 

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MMOs on a Scale

Posted by on Oct 5, 2017 in Editorial

I had originally intended to leave a comment on Syp’s post today regarding the possibilities of adding role-playing to MMO quests, but in the process of trying to form a coherent thought that didn’t sound like a blog post in its own right, I realized that I should probably branch off an write a blog post anyway.

After reflecting on the most recent D&D marathon that was chronicled in the Adventure Co section of this very website, I came away with the impression that among those who had traded TRPGs for MMOs, there was a greater tendency to apply MMO approaches to TRPG situations than there was to take advantage of the open nature of TRPGs.

What’s an “MMO approach”, then? MMOs kind of exist on a scale of free-action somewhere between the “here’s a shovel good luck” freedom of sandbox games like Minecraft, and the “you have one job” rigidity of side-scrollers. While MMOs do have stories, as players we are always only passing through them. We are presented with an illusion that we’re “the hero” and that we are “making a difference”, but the story is already written. The only choices we can make are how long we want to dally on the road to the next milestone, and whether or not we want to interrupt our narrative consumption with some extraneous activity like PvP or crafting.

MMOs teach us that all problems are to be solved by figuring out a puzzle that’s probably been sourced from some other, more well-known puzzle (Tower of Hanoi, the Riddle of the Sphinx, etc), by collecting items, or more likely by killing something. Our D&D game, then, kind of progressed this way, or so I felt. We ran published modules, which in and of themselves don’t offer a lot of freedom, but the main benefit of an RPG is that if the GM or players want to go off the rails, they can (even with published modules), unlike in MMOs where there’s absolutely no room to go anywhere but the rails. Applying the MMO mindset to a TRPG means that conversation and nuance are rarely considered as means to an end, options are not explored despite having literally all the options that the theater of the mind can invent, and at the end of the interaction, sending someone home in a Zip-Loc bag is the best and most forthright way to get beyond the current obstacle.

So if MMOs can push their mindset into TRPGs, can we reverse the flow and get TRPG-level freedoms into MMOs?

I think we already have them in sandbox games like Minecraft or in the “survivalbox” genre. These games provide the framework and the tools but impose no narrative. The stories are the experiences of the players, not the experiences of the characters, so the decisions we make as players affect the game world: who or what we kill, where we build, and how we treat other players. But that’s not “role-playing”, that’s dicking around with self-sourced goals. Very few — if any — survivalbox games offer any kind of tools for players to create these structured, in-game narrative threads for players to “role play” through, so while survivalbox games can offer a lot of players the ability to play together using mechanics without reservation, there’s no purpose except in what the players devise for themselves.

On the opposite end of the scale, then, we have more simplistic games such as platformers and side-scrollers. In these types of games, we don’t get freedom, but we don’t expect freedom: we expect a score. A lot of MMOs lean in the direction of using loot as a primary driver. In some ways it subverts any narrative the game offers, even becoming an impediment for those players who’d rather blow through content to progress in the ways that matter to them. When the acquisition of loot and the importance of gear is the agreed upon (and even designed) as the real reason to play, there’s no need for free-form decision making. So long as players (and developers) believe in and seek out this kind of game, having the absolute best role-playing options in any MMO isn’t going to have a high ROI.

I don’t think that MMOs can accommodate free-form choice model. If they did, they’d look like survivalbox games. That’s not a bad thing because a survivalbox game with MMO structures like quests, dungeons, and raiding would be kind of cool…but also kind of impossible. The reason is the “Ms” in MMO: Massive and Multiplayer. MMOs must offer the same opportunity to all players, and in order to do that, no one can seriously affect the game world with a lasting consequence (unless you’re a dev/designer). TRPGs deal with small-party cause and effect in a world of complete on-the-fly imagination, so as happened in our D&D game, if the players blow up a flour mill in the course of a mission, that’s OK (although the villagers will probably starve because of it). In an MMO, if blowing up the flour mill is an option, we know that the flour mill will be rebuilt in the next fifteen minutes so other players can take their turn in destroying it. The only alternative is to instance the world based on individual player decisions, but I don’t think we’re at the technological point where that’s feasible, even if our reality operates on that exact principle. 

It’s kind of weird because everything old is becoming new again. We have the GM mode of Divinity: Original Sin II which offers the mechanical handling of number crunching while staying out of the way of the narrative and is probably one of the closest CRPG games offering that TRPGs do. Beyond that, if we want to really provide a video TRPG experience, we need to gaze way back to the days of MUDs, MOOs, and other text-based CRPGs. Anyone could jump into these games, but certain people from the community could be promoted to craft the world and create experiences for the players. These could be one-off adventures for players in the right place at the right time or could be world-changing events that everyone would have to deal with when they completed. I’m not sure why we haven’t moved more forcefully in that direction, considering the earliest MMOs like Ultima Online pulled so much from those early CRPG adventure games. Maybe we’re getting there — I’m thinking of games like Legends of Aria which allow for custom rulesets, or even the most advanced mods for Minecraft — or maybe we haven’t gotten there because of the potential for people to use such tools to harass and annoy one another, or more importantly to unbalance the game world, specifically between players who use such systems to “twink” their characters and their friend’s characters beyond a mechanical “level appropriate” load-out — once again, ignoring any pretext of narrative in favor of loot and power.

I think in order to achieve this level of content a game would need to be built with the primary focus being on the toolset and not the game itself. While I have recently discovered the modding tools released by Larian to create areas for DOSII, the tools are sufficiently obtuse to someone who doesn’t have the professional vocab that Larian devs/designers have, meaning that the tools, while powerful and exciting, aren’t going to help someone who just wants to set up a quest line for her friends to run through over the weekend, and then maybe offer it for other players to build upon/use themselves. If the tools are easy but powerful (a tall order indeed) then the game can be and survivalbox as it wants to be, as players can find or set up a server that suits their external goals of providing an experience that meets their game-internal goals. That needs to be the focus, then: good, easy to learn and use tools that can be employed by the end user to create professional designer-level experiences within the framework of the game. Beyond that, players would need to accept that yes, the game may become imbalanced. Players may (will) abuse the system, but there will also be those who take the responsibility seriously and create something that can offer more freedom than the current crop of MMOs are able.

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