2214: Blue Estate: A Love Letter to Lightguns

0214_001

The lightgun shooter is a genre of gaming that has been pretty much dead for a long time — at least partly because the tech that made lightguns work doesn’t work with modern LCD or LED TVs. That said, there have been a few attempts to bring it back using alternative methods, most notably motion controls which, while not quite the same as pointing a gun at the screen and pulling the trigger, at least have the “aim and fire” aspect handled nicely, and arguably in a more accessible manner than traditional light guns.

A while back, I picked up a game on PlayStation 4 called Blue Estate. It was on sale for something ridiculous like £2, so I thought I’d take a chance on it as it sounded interesting. It’s based on a comic, I believe, though I hadn’t heard of it, and it doesn’t appear to be necessary to be familiar with the comic to enjoy the game.

That’s because the game is very much an old-school arcade-style lightgun shooter. And it’s cracking fun.

In the absence of a next-generation GunCon peripheral, Blue Estate uses the motion sensors in the DualShock 4 controller to move a gunsight around on screen, coupled with the L1 or D-pad up buttons to recentre the crosshairs if they drift off a bit as a result of you moving your hand position. They drift off quite frequently, but the ability to snap them back into position means that this isn’t really an issue. (This wouldn’t be an issue with the Wii Remote, which recognises its position relative to the television rather than just responding to movements; the DualShock 4, however, doesn’t work in the same way, and thus this method is necessary.)

Playing Blue Estate is extremely simple. You point with the motion controls, you shoot with a squeeze of the R2 button. Occasionally you’ll be tasked with swiping the DualShock 4 touchpad in a particular direction to perform an action like a melee attack or dodging an incoming projectile, but for the most part this is a game about blasting hordes of goons as quickly, accurately and efficiently as possible in order to rack up 1) a big combo and 2) a big score.

Shooting games of various descriptions were often maligned in the early days of gaming as being the most simplistic, mindless types of games, but this absolutely isn’t true; even Space Invaders taught players the importance of performing quick quasi-mathematical calculations in their heads in order to fire their shots at an appropriate position to intersect with the moving aliens as they descended the screen. In Blue Estate’s case, the quick thinking required is less mathematical and more observational: it’s about prioritising targets and responding to things quickly.

One thing lightgun shooters used to struggle a bit with is how to handle presenting a risk to the player without looking silly. Older lightgun shooters tried several methods — enemies not shooting particularly quickly to give players time to hit them before they got a shot in; enemies focusing on melee attacks; in more advanced games like Time Crisis, a cover system — but it could still sometimes seem a bit convoluted. Blue Estate goes for a hybrid approach of these techniques: as you proceed through each level, sometimes you’ll have the opportunity to pop in and out of cover Time Crisis-style, while at others you’ll simply have to prioritise your targets appropriately to avoid taking damage. The latter case is handled reasonably elegantly with an on-screen “warning” system showing which enemy is going to score a hit on you next, allowing you to pick a suitable order to blow your foes’ heads off.

Blue Estate is, despite its extremely silly story, which I won’t go into here, a surprisingly skilful game that has a ton of replay value for score attack enthusiasts. The combo system rewards accurate, skilful shooting, and star ratings in various categories at the end of each level encourage you to try and better yourself in various ways. The basic blasting action is also broken up with several challenge-style objectives in the middle of each level, which task you with everything from quickly shooting enemies that pop up from one of several marked locations to killing a group of enemies in the correct order. There are also some rather wonderful boss fights, which are heavily pattern-based but a ton of fun to fight your way through.

The whole thing has the feel of an old-school arcade game: one that you can “learn” in order to get better at. Learning the position and order of the enemies that show up in each level; learning the bosses’ attack patterns; practising your ability to prioritise and quickly respond to targets in order to chain an entire level together — all of these things prove rewarding and fun, even once you’ve seen the story through to its conclusion. And the story provides good incentive to play through the whole thing at least once, even if you have no intention of score-attacking: it’s genuinely amusing but convincingly written with some solid, fun characters and sufficient justification for each of the game’s characters to blast their way through scores of henchmen.

If you haven’t given it a shot — no pun intended — and you’re a fan of the more arcadey side of life, I recommend Blue Estate highly. It may not be a game you’ve heard of, nor may it be a game that many people are talking about, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and worth your time.

2213: Paying Not to Play vs. Games That Let You Break Them

0213_001

I’m currently grinding my way through to the Platinum trophy on Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 2, and in the process I’ve unlocked a considerable number of the “Plans” in the game’s “Remake” system. For those who haven’t played any of the Re;Birth games, these are essentially a crafting system that allow you to bolt various bits and pieces onto the base game. These bits and pieces range from a boost to the amount of experience points you gain from battle to new items being available to purchase in the shops.

Re;Birth 2 goes further than its predecessor did with the Plans by pretty much allowing you to break the game altogether. Between the Plan which allows you to automatically defeat enemies you outlevel on the dungeon screen without having to actually do the battle and the “Symbol Attack Gains” Plan, which allows you to still get experience, credits and items as if you had done the battle, grinding to the game’s various endings is arguably a little too easy, particularly if combined with boosts to experience and suchlike.

At least, I’d say this was a little too easy were it not for the fact that I’ve played a bunch of Compile Heart games now, and their endgame is always like this: characters continuing to level after the usual cap of 99, stats increasing to ludicrous levels, superpowered equipment boosting them still further. In Neptunia’s case, the exaggerated power levels of the endgame is arguably all part of the satire and parody that the series is based around: RPGs are known for having big numbers in them in their final hours, so here are bigger numbers than you’ve ever seen (outside of the Disgaea series, that is) popping out of enemies as you batter them around the face and neck repeatedly with various sharp implements.

In the case of the Re;Birth games, how much you break the game is entirely up to you. You don’t have to turn any of the plans on if you don’t want to, but if you do so, it makes working your way through the alternative endings considerably easier — and manages to remain fun in the process, since there’s more to the game than just battles. It’s inherently satisfying to see Nepgear closing in on level 400 as I approach the “True” ending on my third playthrough, and I’m fully intending on blasting through the other endings after this too.

Hyperdimension Neptunia U allows you to completely break it, too, particularly in its endgame. As you clear various components of the game, you unlock various cheats which range from having infinite EXE Drive power for super-special moves to not actually taking any damage from enemies, essentially making you invincible. And yet that game managed to remain fun despite the option to completely break it; testament to its overall charm and the fact that it had a metagame structure that I found enjoyable to grind through in the name of a Platinum trophy.

As I play these deliberately broken games, I can’t help but compare them to what a lot of mobile games do. In the case of mobile games — free-to-play ones, anyway — you generally have the option to pay real money to break the game in some way, be it eliminate grinding, get an overpowered new character/item/weapon or somehow otherwise break the usual rules of the game. Some games are more aggressive than others in trying to convince you to part with your cash, with the most egregious technique being the vile “Energy” bar that throttles how much you’re allowed to play in a single session without either waiting or paying up.

In essence, by paying up to get an advantage in mobile games, you’re more often than not paying not to play the game: paying not to have to collect things, or grind experience points, or earn money, or fuse cards to make better cards, or whatever. Most well-designed free-to-play mobile games do have a means of earning the premium currency required to do most of these things, but in many cases this is painfully slow — fast enough to give you a taste, but just slow enough to make you think it can’t possibly hurt to pay 99p for 15 gems or whatever. And once you do that, any sense of achievement is gone, because you know you didn’t really “earn” whatever you got from it: you just bought it.

Contrast with, say, the Plans in Re;Birth 2, which are also providing the opportunity to not play part of the game — battles with enemies much lower level than you — but demand that you earn the right to do that before you’re able to take advantage of it. Or contrast with Neptunia U’s cheats, which unlock by completing aspects of the game: again, you have to earn your right to make the rest of your grind easier.

In the latter cases, it’s still a player-friendly move that helps save them some time while still being able to explore and enjoy everything the game has to offer, but it carries with it a sense of achievement: the feeling of having earned and unlocked something, rather than just reaching for the credit card when things get a bit tough.

I sincerely hope free-to-play games don’t become the norm, simply for this reason. Paying to skip things or acquire things without having to earn them makes the whole thing feel rather meaningless to me. I know not everyone feels this way, but so long as there are still full-price premium games that don’t want to keep charging me to keep playing — or to not play — then I’ll keep buying ’em.

2212: The Stat Connection

0212_001

“Go to your Stats page and check your top 3-5 posts. Why do you think they’ve been successful? Find the connection between them, and write about it.”

Daily Post, February 9, 2016

All right. Let’s have a look, then. Since we’re not that far into 2016 and WordPress doesn’t appear to have an “all time” function to search top posts, I’ll provide the top five posts (excluding the homepage, which makes up the majority of pageviews but doesn’t tell me much) for both 2016 so far and 2015. In other words, these are posts that people saw the title of (probably on social media or via a search engine) and directly clicked through to, rather than simply checking my front page each day.

Here’s 2016 so far:

blog2016.png

And here’s 2015:

blog2015.png

All right. So let’s get analysing.

Since I write about a wide variety of topics on this blog — regular readers will know that it’s my personal outlet for venting about whatever is on my mind on any given day rather than any attempt to provide a coherent editorial experience — it’s perhaps not surprising that not all of the entries in these two lists have something in common, but there are a few common themes along the way.

How to Do Stuff

Let’s look at 2016, first. Both How to Win at Omega Quintet and Helping your Squad in Xenoblade X were written in 2015 (indicated by them not having the orange bar next to them), yet have remained consistently popular since I wrote them. The reason for this is that they are instructional content: guides for video games. Instructions or guides are consistent traffic magnets, regardless of the subject matter of your site, because one of the most common things people search the Internet for is how to do something. Video games sites often use guide content for current popular games to attract visitors to their site and guarantee a baseline of ad revenue, then cross their fingers that readers will click through to other, less “baity” content. It doesn’t always work like that, of course, which is why we’ve seen a rise in deliberately provocative “clickbait” content across the board, not just in games journalism.

Anyway. The reason that my guide content for both Omega Quintet and Xenoblade X proved popular is that these were both games that had a specific audience, but neither of them were “big” enough for a commercial site to want to devote time and column inches to them. In other words, those searching for help when playing Omega Quintet and/or Xenoblade X would be out of luck when searching the big video games sites, but a cursory Google search would doubtless throw up my posts here fairly early on — indeed, at the time of writing, my post on Omega Quintet appears sixth in my (admittedly personalised) Google search results, embarrassingly with a typo in the preview text which I have now corrected:

omegaguidegoogle.png

It’s for this reason that a couple of my other previous posts have proven popular over time: my post on How to Play Pocket Academyfor example, detailing the baffling and frankly illogical mechanics of Kairosoft’s mobile-based school sim, rode high in my rankings for quite some time. I tell you: if you want traffic, write posts that tell people how to do stuff, and preferably how to do stuff that mainstream sites haven’t covered.

The Power of Sharing

My most popular posts are always several orders of magnitude more popular than their nearest rivals, with perhaps the most impressive example being 2015’s An Open Letter to Paul Glass, Slimming World Consultant, Upper Shirley. This post was pretty far from my more regular subject matter on popular media, particularly video games, and yet it was my most popular individual post for 2015. Why? Because it had the absolute shit shared out of it.

Paul Glass was the consultant at our local Slimming World group when I first joined, and his enthusiasm and belief in the programme was and is a big part of why I’ve stuck with it and had so much success over the course of the last year — I’ve lost six stone in a year, hopefully with more still to come off. When he revealed that he would be leaving the group to spend more time with his family in far-off climes, I felt it important to express my feelings about what he had helped me accomplish in such a way that I could be clearly understood. I’m shy and socially anxious by nature, and at the time I wrote this I’m not sure how confident I would have felt saying all those words in person, but writing them down on paper is no big deal: I can “fire and forget” that way.

Something told me that I should probably share this post a little wider than just my Twitter followers, though, and so I decided to make one of my extremely irregular visits to Facebook to post a link to the letter on the Facebook group for the Slimming World group in question. That one simple action caused that one single post to absolutely explode in popularity, as it was shared by group members, Paul himself, and subsequently by other people I’d never met involved with Slimming World in various capacities, either as group members or staff.

You never can quite tell what the next big viral sensation is going to be, but there is one thing that all my popular posts do tend to have in common:

The Passion of the Post

It is, I feel, no coincidence that my most widely shared, most popular posts are those in which I feel most passionate about the things that I am writing about. I am a person who, I feel, can express their passion for something pretty clearly through my writing. And indeed, due to the aforementioned shyness and social anxiety mentioned above, I find writing to be the easiest means through which I can express that passion to an audience that can — hopefully — appreciate what I’m saying, or at least respect it.

2015’s most popular posts were all about passion, from my letter to Paul to Perhaps We Should Stop Insulting Fans of Japanese Games. Four out of the five posts above were about video games — four out of the five posts were pretty much about the same thing, in fact, which was critics’ regular dismissive and unfair treatment of both Japanese game developers and the fans of the games they make — but these posts all resonated deeply both with myself and with the circle of friends I’ve cultivated on social media, most of whom share the same interests as me.

Consequently, much as my letter to Paul got shared far and wide, so too did The Joyless Wankers of the Games Press (actually written the year before in response to an absolutely atrocious review of Fairy Fencer F on my former stomping grounds of USgamer), Some Thoughts for Critics (a response to Jim Sterling’s dreadful and ill-informed review of Senran Kagura 2), Hi Games Journalism, It’s Time We Had Another Chat (a response to Mike Diver’s equally dreadful and ill-informed review of Senran Kagura 2, a game which is a ton of fun but which proved to be a whipping boy for self-described “progressive” types on the grounds of the female characters’ big jiggly breasts) and the aforementioned Perhaps We Should Stop Insulting Fans of Japanese Games (a response to an extraordinarily narrow-minded editorial on USgamer by my former editor Jeremy Parish, and almost certainly the reason he has me blocked on Twitter). I saw these posts get shared and reshared, not only on Twitter, but also on Facebook and Reddit, the latter of which I don’t really use myself.

The things I had written had clearly got the strength of my feelings across, and other people felt like they could relate to them in some way — either agreeing or disagreeing — and this caused them to explode in popularity, at least in terms of numbers. The same, too, can be said for 2016’s Why It Would Be A Mistake to Not Localise Valkyrie Drive Bhikkunian impassioned plea for the progressive loudmouths not to stop Senran Kagura creator Kenichiro Takaki’s new game making it over to Western shores.

Bovril?

I’ll be honest, I have no idea why a post from 2013 about beef-and-yeast-extract black sticky substance Bovril is my third most popular post this year so far, but oddly enough this post has been consistently popular: it finished 2015 in sixth place, just after my various rants at the games journalism industry and also ranked sixth in 2014, but only managed 19th place in its original year of publication.

It’s not even a particularly exciting post: it simply describes what Bovril is and how I feel about it. It doesn’t even appear on the front page of Google results for Bovril. But I guess it meant something to someone somewhere. Perhaps not many people write about Bovril on the Internet, and my post offered a safe space for Bovril fans to convene and share in silent contemplation of salty beef drinks. Or perhaps it’s just one of those things that can’t quite be explained.

So what can we learn from this?

There are a few things you can probably see my most popular posts have in common. To my eye, these things are:

  • A clear, conversational title that makes it clear what the post is about — i.e. a simple subject line rather than a “title” that tries to be clever or funny
  • Passion for the subject — clear emotion, either positive or negative, is infectious and relatable
  • Scope for sharing — be it a topic that a lot of people feel strongly about, or something that is written in such a way that presents a strong argument in favour of or against something
  • Complete honesty — even at the expense of a few “bridges” if necessary
  • Instructions on how to do stuff — particularly if nowhere else has published instructions on how to do that stuff

Not all of my most popular posts have all of the above elements — although I do make a specific effort to apply the “complete honesty” element to everything I write — but these are, by far, the most common factors that all of my most popular posts have between them.

I hope that’s proved as enlightening for you as it has for me: it’s certainly given me some food for thought with regard to what to write about going forward from here, so I’d say both as a writing exercise and an analytical investigation, this post has been a great success.

Thanks, Daily Post!

2211: On “Burn in Hell, Yarny”

0211_001

A videogame called Unravel will be released tomorrow. It may be a good game, and it is certainly a good-looking one, with a soft focus and hazy depth of field; tree leaves rustle convincingly and thick snowflakes pile up as the camera pans ever right-ward. It appears to make use of this tactile world for a series of physics-based puzzles, like moving rocks to get up on ledges and creating makeshift vines with which to soar across little ponds. These may be very clever puzzles, building toward a resolution that is very satisfying, but I will never know, because I will never play Unravel, and that is because its protagonist, a little red yarn-man named Yarny, can go fuck himself.

This was the opening to an article from Kill Screen, a site that originally positioned itself at the very spearhead of “new games journalism”, boasting both a print magazine and an online component that would offer something a little different from the usual consumer advice/PR/news, previews, reviews cycle that most games-focused sites had provided up until that point.

I remember Kill Screen launching; it was actually at the first PAX I went to — I even still have a copy of their “Issue Zero” that I picked up at the show somewhere. It looked like it was going to be a great read, and a bold new frontier for games criticism.

Look at that opening paragraph again. Look at the last half of the last sentence.

“I will never play Unravel, and that is because its protagonist, a little red yarn-man named Yarny, can go fuck himself.”

Needless to say, I do not feel the same way about Kill Screen as I did when it was first launched. I hadn’t felt the same way for quite some time, to be honest, since its take on intelligent criticism had started to veer rather too heavily in favour of heavily ideological-based arguments rather than actual analysis of the art on its own merits — a scourge that the entire games press has been afflicted with for the past few years — but this article today has cemented my feelings.

What I did want to talk about, though, is the staggering hypocrisy of some people — within and outside games journalism — when censuring this article, and it most certainly has received almost universal censure from all angles. Deservedly so.

The key thrust of the article is that the author has no plants to play Unravel because he doesn’t like the look of it. He doesn’t like the look of the protagonist, and he doesn’t like the fact that the game looks like it’s going to be a narrative-centric, emotional experience that emphasises artistry (in the traditional sense) over game design.

You know what? Those are perfectly valid reasons to not want to play a game. There are lots of games I don’t want to play because I don’t like the look of them, because I don’t like that type of game, because the subject matter doesn’t appeal or because I know people I don’t like love them. Rational or not, pretty much any reason you can think of not to play a game is an absolutely valid one from your own personal perspective: we’re already living in an age where it’s literally impossible to play every single game out there, even if all you did all day every day was play games, so everyone, consciously or not, has their own set of selection criteria for what they put on their plate at any given moment.

What isn’t okay, though, is then picking on something that 1) you confess doesn’t appeal to you and 2) you admit you have no intention of playing (and therefore speaking from a position of authority on) anyway — and then writing a critical article about how it’s symptomatic of everything wrong with modern gaming. The author has some fair points — that some developers believe emotional manipulation of the player is an end unto itself, and that this isn’t the same as creating something truly artistic — but they are completely invalidated by the position of ignorance from which he is speaking: he’s criticising Unravel and games like it without any knowledge of what they’re actually like — he’s speaking on the basis of assumptions, not taking the time to research it for himself.

Where else have we seen this happen? Oh, right, with pretty much every niche-interest Japanese game released over the last few years. We’ve seen series like Senran Kagura berated for having boobs in them, but little to no discussion of their more progressive aspects such as homosexuality, sexual kinks, forming friendships across ideological barriers and accepting people for who they are. We’ve seen my longstanding favourite Hyperdimension Neptunia all but rejected from any cultural significance for being “hypersexualised” and having characters that both possess breasts and breathe, with little to no mention of the series’ perpetually on-point satire of games and game culture, excellent writing and characters strong enough to carry games in a wide variety of styles. We’ve even seen people branding the “Amie” feature from the Japanese version of Fire Emblem Fates as “creepy” and expressing pleasure that it had been removed, despite displaying no understanding of its context, either in-game or within the Japanese cultural context of “skinship” or “naked association”. And I could go on. For pages.

Sound familiar? Why, yes, in all the above cases, the critics of these titles were speaking from spectacularly ill-informed, ignorant positions — in some cases not even playing the games, or barely playing them for more than a few minutes in the instances where they did bother to boot them up at all — and, thus, were speaking from a position where they were unqualified to offer meaningful, trustworthy criticism of these games. And yet because games journalism is very much a cult of personality, people who didn’t know about these games already take these critics’ words at face value — assuming they’re a high-profile critic like Jim Sterling, or at least from a site seen as “reputable” (i.e. big) by the masses — and don’t bother to question them. And this leads to these games being pushed further into the niches they’re already in, and to a lot of people missing out on experiences that they may well find themselves pleasantly surprised by.

The worst thing it does is contribute to the overwhelming air of negativity and cynicism that pervades modern games writing. Many members of the press are extremely burned out on the increasingly penny-pinching tactics of triple-A publishers — day-one DLC, preorder incentives, platform-exclusive content, betas-that-are-not-betas-they’re-demos-that-you-can-only-play-if-you-preorder — and this causes the exhaustion and cynicism to infect their explorations of anything that might be just slightly outside the norm. Oh, sure, there’s plenty of indie darlings that get elevated to “gaming Messiah” status — Undertale, The Witness and Firewatch all spring to mind in recent months — but poor old Japan repeatedly gets shafted by people who, like the author of the Kill Screen piece, have no intention of exploring them in sufficient detail to provide adequate comment and criticism on them.

Life is too short — and there are too many games out there — to waste time on negative articles about “why I don’t like this” or “why I don’t want to play this” or “why this doesn’t appeal to me”. So why does it keep happening? I’d much rather read a games press that is more positive in tone: willing to criticise where appropriate, but where the thing first and foremost in every critic’s mind is the celebration of this amazing, growing, constantly changing medium that shatters cultural borders into something the whole world can truly understand and enjoy together.

You don’t have to love everything. I certainly don’t. But how about we think about keeping our mouths shut about the things we hate, let the people who do love them enjoy them, and we focus on the things that we love, too. Doesn’t that sound much nicer than “I have no intention of playing this game because I don’t like the look of the protagonist”?

(Oh, and for the record, I have no interest in playing Unravel either; Braid and Limbo were enough to put me off arty platformers for quite some time. I would not, however, dream of attempting to offer criticism on it having not played it — and I wouldn’t even feel comfortable commenting on Braid and Limbo because I don’t feel I played them enough to be well-informed before tiring of them. Now, I’m off to go and play some disgusting degenerate pervert Japanese role-playing games and probably fap myself into a frenzy in the process. Or perhaps just enjoy the things I love rather than bitching about things I hate and have no intention of trying to enjoy.)

2210: Live to Eat

0209_001

“Some people eat to live, while others live to eat. What about you? How far would you travel for the best meal of your life?”

The Daily Post, February 7, 2016

Some time ago, I wrote about how I’m not a foodie. Things haven’t changed all that much, but I mention this now because it’s relevant to the Daily Post prompt for today.

For me, food is something I very much enjoy — hence my weight problems, to be perfectly frank — but not in the same way as people who really enjoy food enjoy it. No, I’m not one who is keen to have a delicate bouquet of flavours exploding on my tongue as I take a miniscule mouthful of something that looks more like a piece of modern art than an actual meal — I’m someone who likes to have a big ol’ gobful of something that tastes good, and preferably a lot of it. If the thing that tastes good is also reasonably not-awful for you, then so much the better, since if there’s one thing I learned since starting Slimming World, it’s that there are a lot of tasty things out there that you can eat completely guilt-free.

I was particularly conscious of my feelings towards food when Andie and I were watching the recent series of Masterchef: The Professionals. I found the programme a bit tedious, to be honest, because every episode was very similar to the last, and very little of the food actually looked appealing to me. These chefs — who I’m sure are at the very pinnacle of their craft — were taking things that would have been delicious in their most basic forms, then complementing them with bizarre crap like “pea puree” and baffling combinations of herbs and spices. Even on desserts. If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s putting weird combinations of herbs and spices on desserts. Rosemary is for lamb in a pinch — though I prefer it without — not cake or ice-cream.

The most peculiar thing I think I’ve eaten and actually enjoyed was when my friend Tim — who emphatically is a foodie; you can tell this by the fact he has a favourite truffle oil — made a Heston Blumenthal (I think) bacon ice-cream for us to enjoy one evening. I wasn’t entirely convinced that this was going to be nice when it was first posited, but then I thought about it — and thought about how nice bacon is with sweet things like maple syrup and pancakes — and realised it might not be that bad. And indeed it wasn’t that bad at all — indeed, I’d go so far as to say it was genuinely nice. Would I have it in preference to a nice bowl of Cornish vanilla slathered in chocolate, caramel or strawberry stickies, though? Of course not.

So in answer to the question above, then — how far would I go for the best meal of my life? — I guess I would have to say “the kitchen”. Or, at a push, “the pub” or “Tesco”. Because although I enjoy my food, I can’t say it’s something I seek a life-changing experience from. And I know from experience that no amount of Michelin Star-winning chefs will make me enjoy nouvelle cuisine or whatever you’re supposed to call that bollocks now; give me a nice hearty chilli, or a lump of pork with some nice potatoes, or a rack of lamb, or anything that just makes you feel full and happy to eat, and I’ll be satisfied. And you can keep your pea purees.

2209: Exploring the Cosmos

0208_001

Been playing a bit of Elite Dangerous: Horizons this evening and realising the “dream” of something I’ve wanted to do since I started playing: hop in a ship, point it in a particular direction and just go see what’s out there.

I haven’t got that far yet, to be honest — I’m still in populated space, albeit getting down to the dregs of the tiny factions rather than the warring empires of the PowerPlay system — but I can see interesting things on the galactic horizon, and I fully intend to check them out and see what’s there.

The nice thing about Elite is that you can do this and it’s a viable way to play the game. Its exceedingly freeform nature — more freeform than pretty much any other game I think I’ve played outside of Minecraft — allows you to play how you see fit, and enjoy it how you want. If you want fast-action combat dogfighting, it’s there. If you want to run courier missions, that’s there. If you want to collaborate with other players to strategically expand the influence of one of the major powers in the galaxy, that’s there, too. Or, as previously mentioned, if you just want to hop in a ship, point it in a particular direction and just go see what’s out there… well, you can do that too, because the galaxy is one hell of a big place.

Exploration gameplay is relatively straightforward. Equip a ship with the appropriate scanners — basic versions of which come as standard — and when you hyperspace into a new system, you can scan for astronomical objects. Once you’ve located some, either via your scanners or visually, targeting them and flying close-ish to them allows you to run a detailed scan of them and record the information in your ship’s computer. You can then sell this information when you get to a suitable space station or colony that is at least 20 light years away from where you acquired the data — it’s assumed that most areas are familiar with the region immediately around them — and profit accordingly. It’s a valid career path with its own progression and the opportunity to make your own distinctive mark on the game universe: whenever someone visits something that you were the first one to discover, they’ll see your name there, proudly recorded for all time as the first person to find that thing, whether it’s a big burning ball of fiery sun, an unremarkable lump of rock or a spectacular planetary system.

I haven’t travelled far enough to be one of these pioneers as yet, I don’t think, but I’m already getting into a region of space that is less populated, both with the computer-controlled factions and players. The station my ship is currently parked at as I type this has seen just 12 player-controlled ships pass through in the last 24 hours, compared to the hundreds or thousands the more “core” stations in the centre of the populated area see every day.

I find the exploration aspect inherently satisfying for some reason, despite the fact that objectively speaking it’s quite boring and repetitive — although I did get interdicted by an unpleasant NPC called “Starquake” earlier, who battered my ship about a bit before I was able to activate my Frame-Shift Drive and jump away from him — but mostly I’m curious to see what’s out there, if anything. The original Elite had some strange things going on in the far reaches of the galaxy — most notably the spectacularly irritating Thargoids, who had a habit of pulling you out of hyperspace and killing you horribly — so I’m curious to see if there’s anything interesting hidden in the furthest reaches of the galaxy.

There are a bunch of places I’m just curious to see, too. The “Coalsack” area looks most intriguing, what with its ominous black cloudiness, and, of course, the immense density of the galactic core is surely worth trying to see. Of these places, the Coalsack is probably reachable relatively easily; the galactic core perhaps less so, but I’m interested to see how far I can go. Theoretically, my current ship has infinite range thanks to its Fuel Scoop hardware, which allows me to refuel by harvesting the gases of appropriate stars, so as long as I don’t get stranded in a region with crap stars and/or blown up by pirates or aliens who are hiding deep in “unpopulated” space, I should be good to go for quite some time. And think of the money I’ll make when I eventually get back to human space to sell all this exploration data.

Oh, God, I have to fly back as well, don’t I… Maybe I shouldn’t go too far…

2208: Am I Better Than This?

I’ve been wracked with anxiety recently, as the more astute among you may have been able to tell. Partly this has been to do with my work situation — i.e. the fact that currently I don’t have a regular job. Thankfully, I don’t have zero income thanks to some regular freelance work I’ve been doing, but that is a little too erratic to be able to rely on completely.

As such, I’ve been looking for regular positions elsewhere. Having genuinely enjoyed my stint with Game over the Black Friday-Christmas period, I was looking into other retail positions around the place. I’ve actually had a couple of interviews in the past couple of days, but today in particular I was hit with a crisis of confidence. This is nothing unusual for me, but what was a little more unusual was the circumstances surrounding it.

Basically, what happened was this: I was speaking with the company’s area manager about my application and my background. The way the retailer in question does things is a bit different from the retailers I’ve previously worked for (Apple and Game) and he pointed this out. He then said something that gave me pause.

“Your previous job,” he said. “That sounds like it was the ideal job for you. Just speaking to you now, I can say that I’d be happy taking your advice and buying from you; you seem authoritative, knowledgeable and trustworthy.”

He wasn’t wrong; were it not for the low wages — the curse of retail in most instances — then I’d absolutely agree; my stints with both Apple and Game have been the jobs I’ve enjoyed most and derived the most satisfaction from in my “career”, such as it is. And that’s because I felt like I knew what I was doing: I understood the job, I felt comfortable with my responsibilities and as a result, I exuded confidence and passion when speaking with customers.

And that’s where the problem comes in. While interviewing for the positions in the last couple of days, I just felt… uncomfortable. And it was more than the usual sort of discomfort anyone feels when faced with unfamiliar circumstances: I got a very strong gut feeling that I’m Not Doing The Right Thing. And, for the first time in quite some time I felt inspired to look for something more: to look for something that I know I’ll be able to do well at, and preferably be paid appropriately for. I will, however, settle for something I’ll be happy and comfortable doing at this point, because that can always develop into something with better hours and/or pay.

I have the weekend to mull things over a bit but I think I’ll be taking a new approach from the start of next week. Rather than casting a wide net and hoping something sticks, I’ll be pursuing things I know I’ll be good at more aggressively. At the same time, I’ll be upping the tempo on some projects I’ve had on the go for a while: the magazine I shared with you all yesterday, some ideas for non-fiction games books, and many, many ideas for fiction books. I may even look into editing and self-publishing some of the fiction I’ve previously written on this blog as an experiment, and perhaps into using a service like Patreon to allow people who enjoy my work to show their appreciation.

This route will doubtless be harder and take longer to get going, but I want to be happy and satisfied in what I do. I’m tired of constantly falling off the “ladder” and having to start climbing all over again. There has to be a better way. I have to be better than this. I know I am better than this.

Big words, I know. Whether I’ll be able to follow through on them remains to be seen, but I feel that anything is better than settling for something that is convenient but miserable rather than rewarding and fulfilling.