1674: Raiding the Stars

I think I’ve found a suitable successor to classic Atari space sim Star Raiders. And that successor is Artemis, the starship bridge simulator. It was the second time I’ve played it tonight, and it confirmed what I had suspected on reflection since the last time I played: that Artemis is a spiritual successor to Star Raiders.

There’s a chance that if you’re reading this, you don’t know what either Star Raiders or Artemis are, so a brief lesson: Star Raiders was the original space sim, featuring a surprisingly detailed simulation of what it might be like to fly around the galaxy defeating enemies and protecting starbases from being overrun. Artemis, meanwhile, is a space sim exploring what it might be like to fly around the galaxy defeating enemies and protecting starbases from being overrun. You can probably see why I’m drawing comparisons here.

There’s a twist, though. While Star Raiders was a single-player affair, Artemis is a multiplayer experience that requires a rather elaborate setup. Specifically, you need a computer to act as the simulation’s server and the ship’s main viewscreen, then several other devices — one per player — act as the bridge’s various consoles. From here, the players have to work together — and communicate — to fly the ship as one and defeat the enemies in the area.

It’s a highly flexible system, too; the default game mode is pure Star Raiders as you do your best to protect the sector’s starbases from attack, but support for hand-crafted missions and even RPG-style affairs with a human “game master” overseeing proceedings and triggering events and attacks as they see fit give the game a considerable amount of longevity.

The only issue is that which I’ve already mentioned: the fact you need multiple computers, phones and/or tablets to play together. This has become less of an issue since the affordable mobile version, but you’ll still need to actually get four or five people together to play the damn thing, unless you’re very good at multitasking!

It’s an effort worth making though; it’s a co-op experience altogether unlike anything else, and if you have the slightest interest in space sims — including Star Raiders – then you won’t be disappointed.

1673: Customer Service Done Right

The Internet is full of people bitching and complaining about poor service — usually with a pointed passive-aggressive (or just outright aggressive) tweet — “Hey, @virginmedia, our service has been down for 6 hours, you bunch of fucking assholes”, that sort of thing — so I feel it’s important to mention and celebrate the places that do things right and provide a good experience for the customer.

Today, I bit the bullet and went to the “fat man’s clothes shop” here in Southampton. Dubbed High and Mighty (a polite way of saying “Tall or Fat”), I originally thought this place was a small, local establishment but have since discovered it’s a nationwide chain. Anyway, regardless of how big it is (no pun intended), I’d never actually been in there, but a cursory examination of their website the other day revealed that it might be a good place to go to get myself a new suit. I need a new suit, you see, because while the one I have technically fits, it’s designed in such a way — “slim fit”, I believe is the term, an altogether unfortunate use of the word “slim” when applied to jackets and trousers of this size — that it’s almost impossible to move your arms, legs and shoulders more than a few centimetres in any direction, and things like bending over to tie up shoelaces are particularly troublesome.

So I decided to go along and get a new suit. Despite being out of work for a bit, a pleasant windfall a while back allowed me to get a new TV (bought almost immediately before I lost my job, as Sod’s Law tends to go), a new car, today’s suit and a few miscellaneous sundries while still having some left over for a rainy day. As such, I figured it was worth spending the additional money on something that would actually fit and — hopefully, anyway — look something akin to “nice” atop my horrible, fat-ass frame. (I do not like my body, if that was not already clear.) Even if it transpires that I don’t need to wear a suit for my new job on a daily basis, I figure it certainly doesn’t hurt to look presentable on the first day at least, and there are also things like weddings and stuff coming up that I’ll need a suit for, so it’s worth having anyway.

So where does the customer service come in? Well, I wandered into the aforementioned shop and was immediately greeted by the sole inhabitant, who, it turns out, was the assistant manager, manning the shop on a Monday lunchtime. He politely asked me if he could help me with anything — without being pushy — and, after a moment of considering saying that I was just looking, I instead decided to say that I was looking for a suit, and could he help me out?

“Of course!” he said enthusiastically, coming out from behind the counter. He asked me what sort of style I was looking for — I didn’t really know, but I wanted it for work and possible other occasions, so he suggested something plain and neutral — and what my sizes were. I didn’t really know, so he took a look at me, estimated my chest size (accurately) and measured my waist before giving me a few jackets to try on. I found one I liked, but the sleeves were too long, so he pinned them back to give me an idea of what they’d look like with adjustments. Then he found me some trousers, which I took into the changing rooms to try on, and he provided me with a pair of shoes to try with them for a better idea of how they’d fit with smart shoes on rather than the trainers I was wearing. Eventually I emerged with a pair of trousers that were comfortable, that fit and that allowed for freedom of movement, and paired them with one of the jackets I’d tried earlier. Then I happily handed over £250 — more than I think I’ve ever paid for clothes in my life — and agreed to come back when the adjustments had been made, which should be later this week.

All through my time in the store, I felt comfortable and at ease, which is something I don’t feel at all when shopping in stores full of “normal” size clothes, which often don’t quite go big enough for me. (Even were I to shed my gut, I’m still quite broad-shouldered anyway, too.) I felt like my size was just that — a size — rather than something abnormal and disgusting. (I still feel that about myself in private, but it was nice to be in an environment where other people didn’t treat me that way.) I walked away feeling happy with my purchase, and keen to return to the shop the next time I needed some decent clothes in an appropriate size for me.

That’s exemplary customer service, and how to get a glowing recommendation from me. Nice one, High and Mighty; I’ll be back.

1672: It’s Time to Take “Simulator” Back

On a whim, I downloaded a game called F-117A Nighthawk: Stealth Fighter 2.0 from retro gaming specialists Good Old Games the other day. This was the sequel to a game I used to play a whole bunch on the Atari ST, our main family computer back in the late ’80s to early ’90s — F-19 Stealth Fighter.

F-19 and F-117A are both the brainchild of Sid Meier, the legendary game designer who is most well-known for the Civilization series these days. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, though, Meier and his compatriots at MicroProse — a company which he co-founded — were specialists in the field of simulations of various kinds. And not just flight sims, either; notable early MicroProse titles included submarine simulator Silent Service and air traffic control simulation Kennedy Approach as well as the detailed but accessible jet fighter sims like F-15 Strike Eagle that the company was most well-known for.

That “accessible” part was an important part of the appeal of MicroProse games — even as a young child, I was able to pick up a joystick and happily fly a virtual F-15 or the non-existent F-19 (and its real-world counterpart the F-117A) without crashing, for the most part. (Landing was — and still is — troublesome, but it was ever thus.) And yet the games were packed with detail and options that allowed you to make the experience more realistic if you so desired — systems that could get damaged or fail in flight, more complex flight models, less forgiving physics models for landing and all manner of other goodies. In other words, they were games that both my young self and my confirmed propellerhead father could get something out of — although the latter often noted that SubLogic’s (and subsequently Microsoft’s) Flight Simulator series was considerably more “true to life” in numerous ways.

Booting up F-117A Nighthawk: Stealth Fighter 2.0 (which is a fancier version of F-19 Stealth Fighter rather than a completely new game in its own right) made me realise that a full-on, proper simulation like this is something of a rarity these days. Oh, sure, we still get the odd authentic simulator like Euro Truck Simulator and Farming Simulator, but for the most part, simulators aren’t what they used to be.

And I mean that literally: the definition (or usage, at least) of the words “simulator” and “simulation” have changed over time, and branched off in a couple of directions: first they were co-opted by social game developers to describe isometric-perspective clickfest non-games like FarmVille and CityVille and, more recently, they’ve been adopted in a humorous sense by games like Surgeon Simulator and Goat Simulator — games that are making a joke out of the fact that they bear little to no resemblance to reality whatsoever. (A joke that some might argue has gone a little bit too far now, but that’s not really what I want to get too hung up on right now.)

An honest-to-goodness flight simulator, though? A rare sighting — along with their closely related cousins, the space flight simulator. (In the latter case, we’re usually into the realms of pure science fantasy, but good space flight sims treat their subject matter with as much respect as those games that are firmly based in the real world. See: X-Wing, Tie Fighter, FreeSpace.) And that’s a bit sad, really, because surely with the power of modern systems we could do some absolutely kick-ass flight sims these days.

Flight sims were, during the ’90s and early ’00s, showcase titles for powerful computers. Fast processors were needed to crunch the numbers for increasingly realistic flight models, and the dawn of the 3D accelerator video card age brought us texture-mapped visuals that were forever pursuing the “photo-realistic” ideal. No-one ever quite managed it, but there were more than a few games that got pretty close — and even when they didn’t, there were plenty of games that managed to suspend one’s disbelief enough through atmosphere and a feeling of authenticity to make you feel like you were really sitting in the cockpit heading off on a deadly mission into enemy territory.

F-117A is a prime example of this. Its visuals consisting entirely of flat-shaded polygonal graphics with occasional dots appearing on land and sea to give a (surprisingly convincing) feeling of speed and altitude, the game nonetheless remains somewhat terrifying thanks to its stealth mechanics. You need to fly under radars and make sure you don’t do anything that will attract attention — no firing off weapons unless you’ve reached your target; no hitting the afterburners to get where you’re going a bit quicker. The little gauge in the cockpit that reflected your visibility to enemy radar — a nod to accessibility rather than something I for a moment believe is present in a real F-117A cockpit — became something you’d glance furtively at before returning your attention to the occasional radar “blips” you’d see on the cockpit’s multi-function displays. You’d lower the nose and drop altitude still further, terrifying a few Libyan farmers as you flew past a few hundred feet above their heads. Then, when your target was in range, you’d lock on, open the bay doors, release your payload and then get the hell out of there before pursuers arrived on the scene.

I miss that sort of experience. I know I can still have it with F-117A, but it would be awesome to see what that game would look like had it been made today. I wonder if we’ll ever see a resurgence of this kind of game? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility; after all, traditional PC roleplaying games, point-and-click adventures and all manner of other genres have made successful comebacks in recent years — I think flight sims are long overdue their time in the sun.

1671: Whoopsy

The astute among you will have noticed that there was no post yesterday — or at least, there didn’t appear to be. In fact, what happened was that I wrote the post, saved it as a draft, went to do something else — possibly eat dinner, have a poo or go to bed — then promptly forgot to publish the bloody thing. Whoops. Oh well. “Caught up” now — not that the original “rules” of #oneaday really matter now that it’s just me still beavering away at this blog every day.

I’m glad I still do, though, for numerous reasons. For one, it’s satisfying to see that number at the start of each post, and to think that I have been writing something of varying quality every day for nearly 1,700 days in succession. Over the course of those 1,700 days, my life has been through some significant changes. I’ve held several jobs, moved house several times, just about lived through the end of a marriage and the total collapse of my life that resulted from it — seriously, make sure you marry the right person and avoid all that shit happening to you — and now find myself pondering what might happen in the next 1,700 days.

For starters, I have not just a new job but a new career ahead of me — ten days from now, I’ll be starting my new position that I secured a while back. I’m hesitant to go into too many public details at present — never sure why this is the norm, but I’ll go with it for now — but suffice to say that it’s a position that will actually make use of the skills and experience I’ve built up over the past few years, even if it isn’t precisely what I pictured myself doing a few years back. Still, as I noted around the time my position on USgamer came to a close, I’ve come to the conclusion that pursuing your “dream job” is an exercise in frustration that only, in very rare cases, leads to something stable you can do for years to come. Much better to nail down something that you know you can do well, and that will still have a chair ready for you each morning rather than unceremoniously dumping you at a moment’s notice. (At least I hope that’s what I’m going to get with this new position!)

I have a new car, too, but I’m sure that will be the subject of a whole other post some day in the not too distant future. All I’ll say for now is that I like it very much, and hopefully it will be a suitable means of conveying my person from my house to my place of employment on a daily basis, starting ten days from now.

Aside from that, there isn’t really that much interesting going on in my life at present. Which, to be honest, I’m kind of cool with. While “interesting” periods of your life can certainly provoke plenty of interesting things to talk and write about, they’re also exhausting, both mentally and physically. At present, I’m quite enjoying the feeling of “nothing” — the fact that things are slowly falling into place, and I don’t need to do anything else for now. I can just sit back, relax and enjoy myself for a few days — and I think I’ve earned that.

1670: At Your Side

[Edit, 16/08: Apologies for those who missed this yesterday -- it seems I composed an entry and then didn't publish it properly. I present it now, better late than never. As if you care.]

So I finally finished Sweet Fuse this evening and I’m very happy I did.

For those disinclined to look back over my previous entries about this game, here’s the quick version: it’s a visual novel for PSP (Vita-compatible) in which you play Saki Inafune, niece of Mega Man designer Keiji Inafune, as she gets trapped in a theme park at the behest of a terrorist dressed as a pig. Along the way, she encounters a selection of fine-looking gentlemen and, over the course of seven days, gets to know at least one of them very well indeed.

Sweet Fuse has an utterly ridiculous premise, but ultimately it’s little more than a gimmick or hook to draw you in to the game proper: the story itself plays itself admirably and consistently straight throughout, not being afraid to tone down the light-hearted humour in favour of some pathos or outright tragedy at times. Saki herself is at times a little ill-defined as a character, but such is the nature of the visual novel protagonist, whether they’re male or female: they have to be flexible enough to make the various routes through the narrative plausible, and also non-specific enough to make them identifiable with for a wide proportion of the audience.

The nice thing about Sweet Fuse’s story is that you don’t get the whole truth in a single playthrough. In fact, depending on which of the game’s cast members you choose to pursue, you might not get the truth at all. Follow the path for Towa Wakasa, young boy band idol, and you’ll have an enjoyably romantic little tale in which you find out a bit about Wakasa himself — and how Saki feels about him — but you’ll learn almost nothing about the motivations behind Hogstein’s hijack of the park and the deadly game he makes the cast play. (You do, however, get a tiny teaser which is easily missed if you’re not paying attention.) Conversely, play through the route for Subaru Shidou, detective originally intended to be in charge of the park’s security on its opening day, and you’ll get tantalisingly close to the complete truth without revealing absolutely everything. It’s not until you play the route for the “secret” character, which only opens up from a second playthrough onwards, that you get a full, final and complete explanation of what has truly been going on.

And, without spoiling it here, I was surprised at the nature of the truth. As previously noted, the expectation for Sweet Fuse, given its premise and setup, is for the story to be rather light-hearted in nature — and indeed, there’s a lot of self-consciously ridiculous stuff that goes on. But ultimately there’s a serious core to what has been going on — and it doesn’t feel out of place, despite the fact that the villain you’re pursuing throughout the narrative is almost constantly dressed as a cigar-smoking pig with a disco ball around his neck.

Ultimately, your response to Sweet Fuse will depend on how much you care for the rather “hands-off” nature of most visual novels: despite the premise of the game being somewhat akin to the Zero Escape series, there are no real “puzzles” to solve as such; the most you have to do throughout the game is pick the right choice when one comes up, or occasionally pick out the most important word or phrase from a monologue in order to proceed. In other words, the game is extremely light on “gameplay” and this may disappoint a few people — particularly given that the theme park that forms the game’s setting is supposed to be based on video games — but it works and, on reflection, is probably a sensible choice; breaking up the game with, well, “gameplay”, would break its flow and run the risk of you not being able to proceed due to, to put it politely, a deficit in your own skills. By handling it this way, anyone can see the story through to its conclusion, and thanks to convenient quicksave, fast-forward and rewind functions, going back to see other possible outcomes to various scenarios is quick and painless, too. I played through two whole routes in a single day today, albeit fast-forwarding through the first three “common route” chapters and just making the appropriate choices where necessary. That still left four unique chapters per character, though.

I’m glad I played through Sweet Fuse, as it ended up being really, surprisingly good. I was immediately intrigued by the premise — and I love seeing the face of people when I explain it to them — but what I found was actually rather different from what I expected, in a very positive way.

If you have a Vita or a PSP and are hungry for an interesting story-based game to while away some time with, you could do far worse than a copy of Sweet Fuse, then. Highly recommended.

1669: Lord of All the Land… Well, City

Haven’t added to my board game collection for a while, so I treated myself to a copy of Dungeons & Dragons board game Lords of Waterdeep and its expansion Scoundrels of Skullport.

For those unfamiliar, Lords of Waterdeep eschews the dungeon-crawling of the other Dungeons & Dragons games available at present in favour of a competitive strategy game where players challenge one another to score as many points as possible through completing quests.

At heart, Lords of Waterdeep is a worker-placement game somewhat akin to Uwe Rosenberg’s well-respected Agricola. Each round, each player has a number of actions to take (here represented by “agents” that you place in buildings around a map of the city of Waterdeep) that allow you to do various things: collect resources (here in the form of money and adventurers of various classes), pick up quests for later completion, build new buildings to add new action spaces to the board, or play “Intrigue” cards to either benefit yourself or directly screw over your opponents.

It’s this latter aspect in particular that means I like Lords of Waterdeep quite a bit more than Agricola – there’s a lot more direct player interaction thanks to the “attack” cards that usually allow you to directly impact another player’s collection of money and/or adventurers, but even without direct conflict I find the game tends to put people on a much more even playing field than Agricola’s enormous decks of cards tend to.

For those less familiar with Agricola, the full version of the game gives you a hand of “Occupation” and “Minor Improvement” cards at the start of the game; our gaming group likes to distribute these through draft, a process which gives an immediate advantage to those who have played the game more and learned the decks more thoroughly. Lords of Waterdeep eschews this system in favour of a combination of things: the constructible buildings, which provide a benefit to their “owner” any time another player takes them, and the quest cards you’re completing throughout the course of the game. Most of the time, these simply award victory points to help determine a winner, but a number of them are dubbed “Plot Quests” and provide ongoing benefits over the course of the game. In other words, you very much “earn” these benefits through play rather than being dealt or drafted them at the start of the game and then simply having to find the perfect moment to play them, and when they become available — all available quests are public knowledge — everyone has a fair crack at them.

Lords of Waterdeep also isn’t as stressful as Agricola in that there’s no race to feed your family (or equivalent) every few turns; in other words, the game is more about earning victory points rather than attempting to avoid losing them. That is, until you add the Skullport module from the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion, which provides various new action spaces and quests that net you “corruption”, which is worth a variable amount of negative points at the end of the game according to how much corruption is in circulation around the table.

There’s still an element of scarcity and a scramble for resources, however, particularly if you indulge in the Undermountain module of the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion, which, besides adding a few new action spaces, focuses on high-value quests that require a huge amount of resources to complete successfully. You need to quickly prioritise which quests are worth working on and which are not — taking into account the fact that your secret character card provides you with a bonus at the end of the game according to the types of quest you completed — and hope, pray that your opponents don’t hit you with a Mandatory Quest card: a quest that you have to complete before any others, which is typically very low-value and low-requirement, designed simply to get in your way and waste a turn or two.

I haven’t yet had the chance to try the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion, but I’m looking forward to breaking it out in the near future. We had a game of the base game a short while ago and enjoyed it, and it inspired me to pick up my own copy. I’m looking forward to playing again.

Oh, and if you’re curious, there’s a good version available for iOS.

1668: Gentleman Friends

Longtime readers may recall that some time ago I extolled the virtues of a (Vita-compatible) PSP game called Sweet Fuse – a game that I’ve recently returned to in order to clean up some endings I missed.

This peculiar game is a visual novel-cum-dating sim in which you take on the role of Saki Inafune, niece of legendary game designer Keiji Inafune (of Mega Man and Mighty No. 9 fame), as she gets caught up in a plot led by a terrorist dressed as a pig to take over the video game-inspired theme park Inafune-san designed. Along the way Saki (and you) will encounter several gentleman friends, each of whom has their own unique narrative path that branches off in the latter half of the game after a shared beginning.

Sweet Fuse is what’s known as an otome game, meaning it’s primarily aimed at a heterosexual female audience — or at least depicts heterosexual romances from the perspective of a female protagonist. Such games are relatively widespread in their native Japan, but it’s quite rare to get them localised for the Western market, which still seems to assume for the most part that the majority of gamers out there are testosterone-filled heterosexual men. As such, Sweet Fuse immediately sets itself apart from other games of its type — and this is without taking its unusual premise into account.

Speaking as a heterosexual gentleman who has played his fair share of bishoujo games (visual novels and dating sims aimed at a heterosexual male audience) I initially wasn’t quite sure what to make of Sweet Fuse. In this type of game you’re often encouraged to put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist to such a degree that they rarely appear on-screen and, when they speak, their dialogue is unvoiced. This is, in theory, to allow the player to project themselves onto the protagonist and imagine it’s themselves embroiled in the situations depicted throughout — be they fantastic, romantic, erotic, strange or just plain messed up. It’s an effective device that tends to work well. But, I found myself questioning before I started playing the game for the first time, will this still work if the protagonist is a different gender to me?

The question of whether male players can “identify” with female protagonists is often mocked among the more social justice-happy members of the games press, but in the dating sim and visual novel space, where you’re encouraged to inhabit the role of the lead character a lot more intimately than in other types of interactive entertainment, it’s an important consideration. Part of the way these games work on an emotional level is down to your own personal opinions and tastes — who do you find attractive or desirable, physically, sexually, emotionally and in terms of their personality? If you’re outside the target audience of a work, inhabiting the headspace of a protagonist that pointedly is not you, and considering potential partners that are contrary to your own usual sexual preferences, can that really “work”?

Well, of course it can; most of us have read books, seen films, watched TV series where we’ve rooted for characters to get together, even if they don’t match our own characteristics or preferences — and for female fans of games, they have to do this a lot of the time anyway. All this is, I’ve found, abundantly true with Sweet Fuse. As a heterosexual dude, it’s liberating to play the role of Saki and consider the virtues and vices of these different men as I choose which of the narrative paths to pursue. And, it turns out, it’s not all that difficult to put yourself in Saki’s shoes and contemplate which one is most attractive or desirable. (Urabe. Without a doubt.)

Like any good visual novel, Sweet Fuse’s various narrative paths are all unique, but all feed into a single interpretation of what is going on. Pursuing a single character and then putting the game down gives you a satisfying ending to the story, sure, but in some cases doesn’t reveal any of the truth behind the bizarre situation that forms the basis for the game. Others provide teases of information; others still are clearly the “main” routes that provide the most information. All are worth exploring — and it’s for this reason that I’ve picked up Sweet Fuse again after quite some time not playing it.

With, I think, two routes left to go (plus possibly a refresher on the others I’ve previously completed) I still haven’t got to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Count Hogstein and his apparent vendetta against the main cast. I’m very much looking forward to discovering the truth — the paths I’ve played to date have been by turns heartwarming, touching, intriguing and thrilling; now, it’s time to see Saki’s saga through to its conclusion, and wonder if we’ll ever see a game quite like Sweet Fuse in the West again.