2296: Games Called “Simulator” That Aren’t Simulators: A Joke That’s Run its Course

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Back in the Good Old Days, my Dad played a whole lot of Flight Simulator, both in its SubLOGIC days and subsequently when it became a Microsoft product. (He still does, though perhaps not quite as much as he used to.)

One recurring joke we had in our family was taunting my Dad by saying that Flight Simulator was a game (which it is), which he would inevitably respond to by vociferously declaring that “it is not a game”, because he didn’t play games. (He has relaxed this policy in recent years, largely due to the advent of iOS.)

While I didn’t agree with his assessment of what a game was, I did, however, understand where his argument came from. Proper noun Flight Simulator was a cut above even other lower-case flight simulators in terms of realism and depth, and noteworthy at the time for being one of the only civil aviation flight sims. It was also noteworthy for being one of the first ever open-world sandbox games, in that there were no goals whatsoever besides those that you set for yourself; there wasn’t even really a “fail” state, since if you crashed, you could just respawn and start again.

By far the most noteworthy thing about Flight Simulator was the fact that it did exactly what its title suggested: it provided an accurate simulation of what it was actually like to fly a plane. That means no simplified controls; that means no throwing your plane around the sky; that means the need for at least a basic understanding of physics (including lift, thrust and drag) in order to even get off the ground. And even outside of the more obvious realism aspects such as the flight model, even navigation was simulated accurately; you had to tune navigation radios, follow the needle and so forth. Many real-life honest-to-goodness pilots actually trained to fly on instruments using Flight Simulator, such was its level of realism and detail when it came to this side of things, even if the graphics weren’t particularly impressive in the early days.

As a result of all this, I came to associate the word “simulator” with… well, simulations. Virtual depictions of something real — and a depiction that errs more on the side of realism than providing a thrilling gaming experience.

This morning I received an unsolicited Steam invite to a group promoting an upcoming game called Pregnancy with Your Mom Simulator 2016. This is what Pregnancy with Your Mom Simulator 2016 looks like.

If you have never encountered the modern use of the word “simulator”, Pregnancy with Your Mom Simulator 2016 pretty much sums it up. These days, although Flight Simulator still exists, the word “simulator” is much more frequently used in a “hilariously” ironic manner to describe something ridiculous, obviously unrealistic and filled with puerile humour.

I generally have nothing against puerile humour for the most part, but the use of the word “simulator” for this kind of thing is just getting a bit beyond a joke now. In just the last few years we’ve had Surgeon Simulator, Goat Simulator, Shower with Your Dad Simulator, Zombie Training Simulator, Corporate Lifestyle Simulator, Domestic Dog Simulator… and, well, literally hundreds of others. While there are a few genuine simulators in among the dross — the most noteworthy being titles like Euro Truck Simulator and its ilk, which follow the Flight Simulator mould of actually providing a realistic simulation of a real-life activity — the vast majority of these games are designed to be stupid visual jokes for YouTubers and streamers to whoop and holler over on videos with headlines like “CRAZY game from HELL?! SHOWER with YOUR MOM!!”

More than anything, I find it a bit frustrating to see the word “simulator” thrown around so casually these days because sometimes you just want to actually indulge in a genuine simulation of something — you want to see what it’s like to drive a truck, use heavy construction machinery, fly a plane, launch a rocket, whatever — and this nonsense’s use of the word completely devalues the word “simulator” to such a degree that it’s now meaningless. Moreover, it’s actively difficult to find real simulators — which, in the past, have had pretty functional, self-explanatory titles, such as Flight Simulator — among all this shit.

Ultimately this sort of thing is just another side-effect of the attention deficit disorder that the Internet seems to collectively suffer from. The population of the Internet staggers drunkenly from meme to meme, desperately searching for the next joke they can milk until it becomes the opposite of funny, then all the people who only use Facebook can start posting about it and it officially becomes dead, at which point a new meme shall rise and everyone shall become sick of it once more.

Perhaps I’m just old and cynical. Or perhaps I’m just tired of Steam and the mobile app stores getting flooded with “joke” games like Pregnancy with Your Mom Simulator 2016. People complained about the Wii being laden with shovelware, but that was nothing compared to the shit we see on Steam and mobile in 2016 — shit that distracts attention away from stuff that is actually noteworthy and interesting.

2295: You Should Play Aselia the Eternal

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JAST USA recently released Aselia the Eternal on Steam. The game’s been around for a good few years now — its original Japanese version for even longer — but its release on Steam will doubtless allow a whole new audience to (hopefully) enjoy it. I will now attempt to explain why it is worth giving it a go.

Aselia the Eternal is a combination of a visual novel and a strategy game. The overall balance is very much in favour of the story side of things — it’s a good six hours of reading before you get to the game’s first strategy battle sequence — but when you do get to the strategic aspect, it’s a game that puts up a good fight.

The narrative concerns the player-protagonist Yuuto, who finds himself drawn into another world populated by people who speak a completely different language to him. Unable to find his way home, he gradually learns to communicate with these people — the ones with whom he’s staying known as “Spirits” — and finds himself recruited into the army as an “Etranger”, a wielder of a powerful, sentient sword that regularly threatens to eat his soul.

Gradually, as Yuuto becomes more and more involved in the lives of the Spirits, he starts to worry less and less about trying to find his way back home and more about helping to resolve the conflict that threatens to tear this fantasy world apart. As such, the narrative becomes very much a high fantasy sort of affair — war on a grand scale, magic and mayhem around every corner, transcendence of humanity not at all out of the question — and builds to a thoroughly exciting conclusion that I won’t spoil here.

The story is compelling, interesting, well-written and well-translated, but it’s the gameplay part that is perhaps the most interesting thing about it, since it’s one of the most original takes on strategic RPG-style combat I’ve seen. Virtually eliminating all luck from the equation, combat in Aselia the Eternal is actually about putting units together in small squads to perform most effectively according to what type of unit they are — and by doing this correctly you can effectively guarantee that you’ll win a conflict before you reach it. The tricky part is in finding those suitable combinations in the first place.

The basic rules of engagement have each of your squads made up of three ranks — a frontline fighter, a mid-range tank and a support fighter bringing up the rear. Each of the different types of Spirits perform best in a particular slot: Blue Spirits (such as the eponymous heroine) do their best work as speedy damage dealers in the front row; Green Spirits tend to have the highest defense and HP, so sit in the middle; Red Spirits often have support abilities that can damage an entire enemy squad or provide suitable benefits to your own, so sit at the back. You’re not limited to this arrangement — and indeed, with Yuuto in the mix, who is none of those things, you’ll have at least one squad with an unconventional lineup — but there are clearly optimal ways to do things, making each of the battles in the game as much of a puzzle as a strategic RPG experience.

Aselia the Eternal comes together so nicely because everything it does is in service to its narrative and worldbuilding. Despite not having an open world you can freely explore, its excellent storytelling and descriptive narration builds a wonderfully convincing setting that gives the strategic sequences genuine meaning and drama. And, as a result of that worldbuilding, your units in the strategic sequences become more than just sets of stats and abilities; they become people. People who you don’t want to see die, because yes, this game has permadeath.

The question of being “more than just a soldier” is one of the main narrative themes explored in the game, and it’s a rather wonderful moment when you realise that you, the player, are having the same epiphany that the characters in the game are. There are some wonderfully touching sequences with Yuuto and the Spirits as they get to know one another, and you’re right there with them. And, as the narrative ramps up and you bring more and more allies with you, the tension becomes palpable as you take them into battles that you really don’t want to see them lose.

I don’t want to say too much more because part of the wonder of Aselia the Eternal is exploring the experience for yourself and discovering everything this remarkable work has to offer. Suffice to say if you enjoy in-depth storytelling — and lots of if — and aren’t averse to a bit of red-hot strategy action, you should most certainly check it out. And then strongly consider supporting JAST’s recent release of the sequel Seinarukanawhich I’ll be investigating for myself in the near future!

2294: Partners in Space Empires

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Finally got the chance to try out the physical version of Star Realms today, and it turns out to be an excellent game that appeared to go down well with all four people who were playing it.

I was particularly interested to try out the physical version of Star Realms because it provides the opportunity to play in ways other than the head-to-head two-player default style that the computer and mobile versions offer. You need more than one deck to do so (one deck per 1-2 players) but since the game is not expensive in the first place, getting enough cards to play with up to 6 people is still eminently affordable, and probably cheaper than many other, bigger-scale games.

We played in two different ways: firstly as a “free-for-all” game in which anyone around the table could attack anyone else on their turn, including splitting their combat scores between multiple opponents if they saw fit. The climactic moment of this particular game came when my friend James scored a massive 34 points of damage on my friend Tom, taking him down to just 7 Authority remaining. Conveniently, the hand I had drawn for my next turn — I was after James — had exactly 7 damage worth of combat power in it, so Tom was swiftly dispatched, to our great satisfaction; Tom generally beats both James and me in most games, so it’s always a genuine delight to utterly destroy him.

Following that, we tried a team game in which two two-player teams face off against one another, each team starting with a single Authority pool of 75 instead of the usual 50. In the team game, both players on the team play simultaneously and have their own “in-play” area, hand, draw deck and discard pile, but can pool the Trade and Combat resources they accumulate by playing cards. This means that the game’s “ally” abilities (which tend to trigger when multiple cards of the same colour are on the table) can only happen within an individual team member’s in-play area, but players can pool their resources in order to more easily acquire expensive cards or deal significant amounts of damage to their opponents.

I particularly enjoyed the team game; the dynamic was very different to the free-for-all multiplayer and two-player head-to-head variants, and the cooperative aspect worked well. In many cooperative or team-based games, “alpha player” syndrome rears its head, with one player tending to dominate discussions to such a degree that teammates go along with whatever they say without any real input. In Star Realms, however, the fact that each player is building their own deck — and teammates are mutually agreeing on how to proceed — allows for them to feel like they’re taking independent actions, but also to feel as if they’re contributing to the overall effort. Discussion and collaboration is essential to success — and can lead to some spectacular combos of cards hitting the table — but at no point did I feel like one player was dominating the table talk, nor did I feel like the game was especially unbalanced when played in this way. In fact, there are many aspects of the game that actually feel more balanced when played in a team game — certain abilities appear much stronger and more useful than they do in the free-for-all or head-to-head game, and specialising your deck with particular colour cards becomes even more important than it already is.

Star Realms was a resounding success, then, which I’m pleased about. It’s a simple, quick and easy to set up game that has a nice blend of theme and mechanics. I’m looking forward to playing it some more in the near future.

2293: Scorched Earth

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Had the pleasure of playing a game of Netrunner this evening. I still don’t know the game all that well, but with each new game I’m learning new things about it — most notably what cards to expect to come up against, how to counter them and, most importantly, what not to do.

Tonight, the main lesson was the existence of a card on the Corporation side called Scorched Earth; this is an Operation (something that takes effect immediately when you play it) that, for the low, low price of just 3 Credits, allows the Corporation to immediately and unavoidably do 4 damage to the Runner if the Runner has a Tag on them. Given that the Corporation deck in which Scorched Earth appears has a number of security programs that automatically give the Runner a Tag, Scorched Earth appears to be a very real and constant danger, and the way to deal with it is to ensure that you don’t end a turn 1) with a Tag on you and 2) with less than 4 cards in your hand. As it stood, I did end the turn with 3 cards in my hand and a Tag on me, meaning that the 4 damage immediately and unavoidably killed me horribly. And after I was doing so well at stealing my opponents’ Agenda cards, too.

I really like Netrunner, even though I haven’t played a whole lot of it so far. It’s very strongly thematic, despite being a game in which you primarily focus on the mechanics of the cards you play. The lore is clearly very well thought out, as the various Corporation and Runner decks available are very consistent in their overall themes — one Corporation deck (Jinteki) is all about being sneaky and laying traps for unsuspecting Runners, while others focus on acquiring income, Tagging the Runner or all manner of other nasty things.

I don’t yet know the game well enough to feel confident about building my own deck, but the starter decks that the basic Core Set comes with are providing more than enough variety for me to be getting on with. Given that it’s pretty rare you’ll get through a whole deck in a single game — in fact, the Corporation loses if they get through their whole deck — I find that I’m still seeing new cards with each new game I play, which is nice, though not necessarily entirely conducive to developing effective strategies for the game. I am at least getting a feel for how the different factions play; tonight I played the Anarchs faction of Runners, who have a strong emphasis on playing Virus programs, which become more powerful and effective over time or through repeated use. This has, I think, so far been my favourite Runner faction to play, but I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to try the Criminals yet, who, I believe, focus on acquiring money, which is very important. (I, in fact, struggled a bit for cashflow in this particular game until the neutral Armitage Consulting cards came out, allowing me to earn a little more per turn rather than a measly 1 Credit for 1 Click).

I’m interested to play more. I don’t know if I’ll ever be good enough to play at a tournament level or anything like that — probably not, to be honest — but I certainly enjoy the experience of playing it. It’s a game that is surprisingly straightforward to understand once you decipher the basic rules (and the non-standard, asymmetrical terminology it uses for different parts of the play area) and, more importantly, pretty quick to play, too. It’s easy to set up, highly portable and expandable, though I will likely hold off on acquiring new packs of cards for it until I have a better handle on the basic mechanics and the ways the different factions handle.

We’ll hopefully be playing a bit more tomorrow. Now I know to watch out for that damned Scorched Earth cards, I can hopefully survive a little longer without embarrassing deaths such as the one I suffered this evening!

2292: Thirty-Five

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It was my birthday today; I am now thirty-five years of age, which means on some forms I’m officially in the next age bracket. If ever there were a more obvious marker of our respective mutual creeping towards the grave, it is surely moving down through the age ranges on official forms. I’m not sure if this means I count as “middle-aged” or not yet and honestly I don’t really care all that much; age has always just been a number to me, and, for better or worse, I’ve always preferred to act the age I feel rather than the age I am.

It was a pleasantly quiet day today — something much-needed for both my wife Andie and me after numerous recent stressors. We had a lazy morning, Andie made a “mug cake” in the microwave for me (delicious), and then we went out to our local Japanese eatery Zen for some sushi and deep-fried goods (also delicious). The remainder of the day has been spent writing an article about Senran Kagura’s art and soundtrack, playing Final Fantasy X HD and, as a lazy post-dinner activity, a spot of Dead or Alive Xtreme 3.

I’m probably supposed to reflect on where I’ve come from and where I’m going on such a momentous occasion as my age going up by one. Right now that’s a fairly depressing prospect, though, to be honest, so I’m going to refrain from going too much into that. Let’s just say that things haven’t been great, but plans are in motion to make life a little better, even if it takes a while to bring them to fruition.

For now, I’m pursuing home-based work so I can be with my wife while she’s off work with her chronic pain condition; hopefully this will provide enough of an income to at least survive on, if not live a particularly exciting life, but then I never really lived much of an exciting life anyway, with the most exciting things I tend to buy being either video or board games. With that in mind, please do get in touch if you have any (paying!) writing work that I might be able to do from home — or if you’d like to support me directly, please consider making a pledge to my Patreon, which was set up with a mind to making my work on MoeGamer a bit more regular and in-depth.

You may ponder why I don’t pursue writing gigs in the games press any more. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind that, though the way I’ve been treated in the past has somewhat soured me on the business as a whole — plus there’s the fact that the mainstream games press (i.e. the ones that pay) all still have the “feminism” stick firmly jammed up their collective asses which, far from promoting the amorphous concept of “diversity” as they’d like to think, actually just stifles criticism from a variety of perspectives, not to mention thoughtful, meaningful exploration of games on the more provocative end of the spectrum. And as my good friend Chris was kind enough to say the other day, I’m better at writing about games than 1,200 word reviews talking about how nice the graphics are and whether or not there’s any screen tearing, or 500-word news pieces on industry Twitter spats and inevitably fake rumours about new Nintendo hardware.

MoeGamer, as it stands, is an experiment in sustained long-form writing on very specific topics in games, and if this proves to be worthwhile I’ll consider expanding the project into perhaps putting together a book or two. That would be exciting. As longstanding readers well know, I firmly believe that there’s an absolute ton of scope for thoughtful, interesting, meaningful analysis of games beyond what the current clickbait model of games journalism focuses on, and longform articles not beholden to advertisers or honest-to-goodness books are clearly the way to go for this sort of thing.

Other people out there are already doing this sort of thing; Boss Fight Books is a particularly interesting project, though it takes a somewhat scattershot approach to which games are noteworthy for one reason or another, and many (though not all, thankfully) of the authors involved are members of “the clique” of games writers and developers that has made viewpoints that deviate from the standard (and fallacious) “everything is sexist and gamers are awful people” rather unwelcome. In other words, I don’t see them publishing a book exploring the satire of Hyperdimension Neptunia or the meaning carried in the sexual content of The Fruit of Grisaia any time soon.

Basically, now I’ve made the decision to, at least for the immediate future, stay at home for work, I can start looking at ways to 1) pin down a reasonably secure monthly income and 2) start pursuing passion projects in earnest. Because for all the noble intentions in the world, the last thing you want to do after coming home from a 9-5 is sit down at the computer and do something else that feels like it’s “productive”, even if it’s something you do genuinely really want to do. I’m going to have to make some decisions on how to proceed from here — do I keep attempting to promote my Patreon, or look into something like Kickstarter to fund a book series? Do I look into monetising MoeGamer’s content somehow, or share it across some other channels such as video? (I kind of hate video for anything other than TV shows and the occasional Zero Punctuation; give me some nice words any day, millennials’ attention spans be damned.) Do I attempt to pitch some articles to mainstream games press sites? (Probably not.)

There are lots of things to think about and it’s both exciting and scary. I want everything to be all right, as it emphatically isn’t right now, but at least I have options to explore, so everything isn’t hopeless quite yet. I hope, anyway.

Now, I’m off to bed to hopefully sleep soundly, and then I’m going away for the Bank Holiday weekend to play some board games with friends and probably get attacked by a dog. I sincerely hope this coming weekend is as relaxing as I need it to be, as the last few… weeks, months, I lose track… have been pretty hellish stress-wise, and I’d rather have just one weekend where I can just enjoy myself without having to worry about anything.

Thankfully, I don’t see anything standing in the way of that happening, so expect suitably enthusiastic reports throughout the weekend, and be prepared to commiserate with me on my inevitable losses at games that involve any sort of strategic thinking.

2291: Alienation: Loot, Guns and Unobtrusive Multiplayer

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I’d been umming and ahhing over whether or not to give Housemarque’s latest PS4 game Alienation a go, but I eventually decided to take the plunge and try it out this evening, even feeling the trepidation I already did that it would have too great a focus on online multiplayer for my liking.

Thankfully, it turns out to be an excellent game that looks to have a decent amount of depth — and best of all, while it does have an emphasis on online co-op (as well as optional Dark Souls-style “invasions”) it can be played solo or with friends only if you so desire, though I don’t doubt that soloing the game will prove to be an exercise in frustration.

But what is it? Well, it’s basically Diablo with guns, with a touch of competitive arcadey high-score systems added for good measure. It’s not an out-and-out arcade game like previous Housemarque titles Resogun and Super Stardust in that there’s a persistent campaign with character levelling, skill trees and all that good stuff, but it does feature mechanics such as score multipliers, powerups, bonuses and the like. Plus apparently once you finish the main campaign there’s a whole host of more arcadey stuff to enjoy — randomised levels, harder difficulties, special mission types — and so there’s clearly a fine pair of legs on this game.

The moment-to-moment gameplay is satisfying. The guns feel suitably powerful, and the interface reflects your interactions well, with health bars being chipped away, damage numbers flying around and overdramatic pyrotechnics punctuating every firefight. The destructible environments are both impressive and hazardous, and there’s a good variety of both enemies to contend with and weapons with which to dispatch them. Objectives are simple and straightforward — usually “go here and interact with this” or “go here and blow up these things”, at least in the first few levels — but allow for game sessions to run smoothly with minimal aimless wandering and backtracking, and minimal need for voice communication, for that matter, which is the aspect of the online multiplayer I was most concerned with. (I hate voice chatting with strangers.)

Thankfully, in the few games I played this evening, no-one was using voice chat; everyone was instead making use of the three preset stock phrases “Over here!”, “Wait!” and “Nice!” assigned to the D-pad. This was all that was needed for effective teamwork and coordination, and because the game doesn’t particularly reward lone wolves or trolls — it is a purely cooperative affair, after all, unless you enable the Invasion feature, which is strictly optional — there’s no real reason for someone to jump into a game and spoil the experience for everyone else. Consequently, while there wasn’t much in the way of socialising between me and the players I teamed up with for a few missions, I don’t mind that at all; it was a pleasant enough experience just fighting alongside them, and I don’t actually really need the social element to feel like playing with others is worthwhile.

This is what I mean by the game having “unobtrusive multiplayer”. The multiplayer is drop-in, drop-out, meaning that you can start playing without having to wait for hours in a lobby for three other people to be on the same mission as you, and once the other players are in there are no interruptions; they appear in your game seamlessly, and the action isn’t interrupted any time they want to access the menus to level up or change their gear. In a way it’s kind of just like playing with computer-controlled squadmates, only it’s actual humans from all over the world controlling them. You may wonder what the point of this is, but it just works, okay? And speaking as someone who is generally terrified of playing online games with other people — particularly cooperative ones, which, oddly, seem to foster some of the most aggressively perfectionist assholes in all of gaming — I found my brief foray into Alienation this evening to be most satisfying and enjoyable.

I’ll definitely be playing some more; the combination of loot whoring (with variable rarity items a la Diablo), upgrading weapons, cooperative blasting and high score chasing — with your “score” here doubling as the experience points you earn in a mission — makes for an addictive formula that I’m pleased and happy I decided to take a chance on.

2290: The Excruciating Accuracy of W1A

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The other night, I was randomly trawling Netflix for something to watch while I couldn’t sleep, and I stumbled across a BBC show I’d never seen before called W1A. I later discovered that this was the follow-up to Twenty Twelve (which I also haven’t seen yet), and is one of the most effective “fake documentary” series I’ve seen since the original British version of The Office.

W1A focuses on the BBC itself, which is a pretty ballsy move given how scathing the show is of BBC corporate culture. Casting Hugh “Downton Abbey” Bonneville in the role of Ian Fletcher, the BBC’s new Head of Values, the show follows Fletcher’s efforts to make sense of the waffling business-speak world that one of the world’s most celebrated broadcasters has become in the last few years. Fletcher is by no means a blameless character in all this, but he, by far, comes across as one of the most “normal” and relatable characters in the cast.

The reason for this is that the rest of the cast members are exaggerated parodies of various office archetypes. I would say that they are exaggerated to the degree of absurdity, but not far through the first episode I realised that I had met and interacted with each and every one of these archetypes at various points in my professional life — in education, in office work and in retail — and suddenly it didn’t feel quite so absurd after all. It was still amusing, but in a tragic sort of way; the realisation hit me that this is what the world has become these days.

One of the most frequent character traits on display is relentless, unnecessary positivity, even when it’s completely inappropriate. It’s not unusual to see serious issues being raised in meetings, with the only responses from around the table being a chorus of “Brilliant.” “Great.” “Well then.” “Marvellous.” and “Okay then.” Likewise, to my chagrin, I’ve caught myself using some of the character traits of intern Will, most notably his blind agreeing (and declaration that it’s “cool” and “no worries”) with everything that people say, only to admit that he didn’t actually hear what he just agreed to just a moment later.

While I find W1A pretty excruciating to watch — particularly when Jessica Hynes and her painfully millenial PR company “Perfect Curve” are on screen — it’s nonetheless rather compelling and almost reassuring in a strange sort of way: a viewer’s initial reaction to these seeming caricatures — their repetitiveness and their relentless, inappropriate cheerfulness — as them being absurd in some way is entirely deliberate. The writers of the show know how ridiculous and absurd the situation is, along with all the nonsense that goes on in modern corporate culture — which more often than not cares more about outward appearances than actually making life good for its employees and clients — and the show itself acts as a means of people who are tired of this aspect of modern life to come together, point and laugh, then perhaps go and have a little cry in the corner.

You’re not alone in hating the way the world has turned out, says W1A. We hate it too; we’ve just decided to laugh at it, because what’s the alternative?