2408: Turn Down the Heat

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It’s hot. I don’t like it when it’s hot, as I may have mentioned on one or two previous occasions in the past.

Actually, I’ll be a tad more specific: I don’t like it when it’s hot and humid, which it most certainly is right now. It’s the kind of hot and humid where just sitting still for five minutes causes sweatiness, let alone actually attempting to do anything.

With hot air’s somewhat pesky nature of rising, too, this means that the top floor of our house is an unbearable oven of sweaty nightmares, even with fans running all day every day and the windows open at every opportunity. Except at night, to prevent cat escape scenarios, which is kind of frustrating because night-time actually seems to be the time it’s the worst.

This combined with my wife being on night shifts isn’t particularly helping my sleep patterns, which are absolutely completely and utterly fucked up right now. Still, with little I “need” to wake up for on most days, I guess it doesn’t really matter all that much — though contemplating that too much tends to lead to a cycle of anxiety about my continuing unemployment that keeps me awake anyway, even if it’s not the temperature of the Sun in my bedroom.

I while away these pre-dawn hours watching some TV, penning yet more job applications (as if that’s going to do any good) and wondering what I should do next.

I’ve even been considering my options for how to actually do some formal study to change career. I’m sure I’d be a much more attractive prospect to a potential employer with an actual Computer Science degree or similar — assuming, you know, I was going for a job in IT, which would seem to make a certain amount of sense — but the costs of pursuing such a course are prohibitively expensive, especially as from what I can make out, it seems you can’t take a new Student Loan to cover a second degree’s tuition fees if you already have a degree. Probably fair enough, I guess, but it does make that English and Music degree I’m stuck with feel even more like useless dead weight than it already does.

The Open University seems like one route I could investigate, but there are still pretty high fees to deal with there along with the fact that studying a degree part-time takes a very long time indeed.

Still. It’s something to consider. I don’t know. I’m feeling kind of “trapped” in my current situation at the moment, and I feel like I need to do something more drastic than “apply for lots of jobs” to be able to get out of it, since that clearly isn’t working out all that well.

3:40am probably isn’t the best time to be thinking about this, though. I’d sleep on it if it wasn’t so damned hot.

2407: Looking Again at World of Warcraft After a Good Few Years

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I last played World of Warcraft in the Wrath of the Lich King era. I played it off and on ever since launch, to be honest, but it was Wrath of the Lich King that saw me finally get to the level cap, although looking back on my time with the game through the eyes of an experienced Final Fantasy XIV endgame player, I now realise that I barely scratched the surface of what WoW had to offer.

World of Warcraft is one of those games that I consider to be part of the ill-defined, amorphous “gaming canon” — it’s a game that I thoroughly believe everyone should play for at least a short time to understand what an impact it’s had on the games industry as a whole: its importance to popular game design, the influence it’s had on other games, and the aspects that it’s drawn from its successors back into itself to evolve and adapt.

Like most MMOs, it’s fascinating to chart how WoW has changed over the years because it’s virtually unrecognisable from when it first hit the market. This most recent time I’ve been taking a look at it represents probably the biggest change I’ve seen to the overall game structure and experience, and among other things it’s put certain aspects of my Final Fantasy XIV experience into a broader context.

My time with Wrath of the Lich King was spent primarily playing PvE (Player vs Environment) in the game’s open world. This is still an entirely viable way to play World of Warcraft right the way through until level cap, unlike something like Final Fantasy XIV, which gates significant portions of the main story behind group content, albeit only of the most casual, straightforward variety right up until you reach the original level cap of 50.

The pacing of WoW is also very different to Final Fantasy XIV. While Final Fantasy XIV is relatively slow-paced with an almost turn-based feel thanks to its long “global cooldown” — the period of time between which you can use most of your abilities — WoW is relatively fast-paced and frantic. This comes at a slight cost, though: whereas Final Fantasy XIV’s encounters are, for my money, much more interesting thanks to their strong emphasis on dodging and being in the right place at the right time — a distinctly Japanese approach to encounter design — World of Warcraft appears to be, to my limited experience, much more about gearing up and overpowering your enemies as much as possible. There’s still an element of “don’t stand in the shit” at times, but not to anywhere near the same degree as Final Fantasy XIV.

The two approaches are both valid, although the fact that it’s possible to WoW-style overpower some of what used to be Final Fantasy XIV’s most formidable encounters leads to a certain feeling of dissonance at times; there’s always that feeling of conflict between the beautifully paced and choreographed encounter that the designers of Final Fantasy XIV put together, and the players’ desire to bulldoze their way through it as quickly as possible. It’s sort of a shame to see what a mockery modern groups make of fights like Garuda Extreme, although when you take this in the context of Final Fantasy XIV being a JRPG at core, it could simply be likened to the experience of level-grinding to a ridiculous degree, then steamrollering everything that once gave you grief into oblivion.

WoW also feels a lot more “free” than Final Fantasy XIV thanks to its diminished focus on storytelling — something which I always used to regard as a bit of a drawback to Blizzard’s game, but which with more seasoned eyes I can see allows it to feel much more explicitly “game-like” than Final Fantasy XIV. This may sound odd, but it’s true: FFXIV very much likes to put everything in some sort of narrative context, necessitating unlocking everything manually by completing various quests, whereas modern WoW simply unlocks things automatically and organically as you level up; you can jump into a dungeon as soon as you hit level 15 without having made prerequisite progress through a questline, whereas Final Fantasy XIV brings you to your first dungeon as part of its main scenario.

Modern WoW also features something I like very much, but which further contributes to its “game-like” feel: the Adventure Guide. This screen can be popped up at any time after level 10 and gives you suggestions of what to do next, allowing you to automatically start questlines without having to manually go to the location first, jump into dungeon queues the moment you’ve unlocked them, and even review strategy guides for dungeon bosses to save the tedious cries of “go watch a youtube video, noob” when a more inexperienced player enters group content for the first time.

WoW also seems to have taken some inspiration from Final Fantasy XIV’s FATE (Full Active Time Event) system in the form of its pre-expansion Invasions. These are events that occur in the open world and require the cooperation of multiple players (albeit not in an organised manner) to accomplish various challenges. WoW’s Invasions are much larger in scale than FFXIV’s FATEs, however; an Invasion typically encompasses an entire zone, with objectives scattered around the place, whereas FFXIV’s FATEs are constrained to a smaller area.

WoW also makes use of an incredibly elegant scaling system for these Invasions, where the monsters that appear as part of the event appear at different levels according to each player’s own level. For example, I was participating in one earlier tonight as a level 12 character, so the enemies were appearing as level 12 with appropriate amounts of health and damage. Meanwhile, my friend Cat came to join me on her level 100 character, and the enemies appeared to her as level 100, with appropriately inflated amounts of health and outgoing damage. The higher-level characters still have an advantage due to better gear and a wider selection of available abilities, but it’s nice that it’s so simple for people of different levels to be able to cooperate on something and get meaningful rewards from it — it’s a bit more elegant than FFXIV’s slightly clunky Level Sync system in that you’re not artifically gimping yourself to participate; the encounter gimps itself to lower-level players.

One thing where I’ve felt WoW has always had the edge over Final Fantasy XIV is in terms of gear. FFXIV has a strictly vertical gear progression system, with very little in the way of variety within each tier of equipment. As you’re levelling, you get a new set of gear roughly every 5 levels or so until you reach level 50, at which point a few dungeon runs will allow you to purchase gear that will take you to about level 58 before you need to replace it. Once you hit 60, there are generally two or three “tiers” of gear that are “relevant” at any one time — one that is available with the endgame currency that has no weekly cap on it, one that is available with the endgame currency that does have a weekly cap on it, and, depending on what stage in the patch cycle the game is at, one or more tiers of raid gear from either the 24-player “casual” raid or the 8-player super-difficult “Savage” raid. In other words, everyone at an equivalent gear level in FFXIV will be wearing the exact same stuff as other people playing that class, though the last set to be introduced did at least encourage the insertion of Materia for limited customisation of secondary stats.

WoW, meanwhile, has a huge variety of gear right from the get-go. Shitty grey gear, poor white gear, slightly more exciting green gear, very exciting blue gear, mega-exciting purple gear and OMG I GOT IT Legendary gear. (And possibly some more tiers besides.) WoW throws a lot more loot at the player than FFXIV, particularly during dungeon runs, with green gear in particular taking an almost Diablo-esque approach to itemisation with prefixes and suffixes denoting variations on a particular item level’s gear.

FFXIV does have an item “rarity” system along these lines — there are white, pink, green, blue and purple items — but in practice, getting a blue item simply means that you’ve acquired some level-cap gear, and purple items are, so far as I know, exclusively for the grind-tastic Relic and Anima weapons at levels 50 and 60 respectively. The only items that have any real variety to them are the pink items you find in dungeons while levelling up; these have standardised basic stats for the item level, but randomised secondary stats. In practice, though, it never really feels like the secondary stats make that much difference; perhaps this will change at higher item levels, but at the moment, adding 5 points of Determination on to your armour doesn’t feel like it has a big impact on how powerful you are, and this is, I feel, a real weakness of FFXIV that should be addressed in future expansions.

Do I like one better than the other? No, I actually like them both for different reasons, and can quite feasibly see myself playing both, since they’re both enjoyable and distinct experiences from one another. Oddly enough, spending a few hours playing WoW and getting to level 20 has made me appreciate the things that FFXIV does better, and also given me a certain amount of understanding as to why some players are the way they are. That doesn’t excuse their behaviour at times, of course, but if you look at how they play in the context of having had previous experience with how WoW does things, certain behaviours like the desire for speedruns or overpowering encounters start to make a little more sense.

All in all, it’s been a positive experience — and if you’re a lapsed WoW player who has been thinking about checking out what the game looks like in 2016, I’d encourage you to do so. The experience for new players has been made a whole lot smoother, and the whole package is significantly slicker than it once was. Plus, regardless of whether or not you bought any of the previous expansions, all WoW players now get all the expansions up to Warlords of Draenor completely free, with only the impending Legion requiring you to spend any additional money. The game as a whole seems much more friendly to short, casual sessions than it used to be, and that can only be a good thing — though naturally once you hit endgame, it doubtless won’t be long before the desire to raid kicks in… and that’s when things get a bit time-consuming!

2406: Getting it Across

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The worst thing — well, one of the worst things, anyway — about being depressed and anxiety-wracked is the perpetual feeling that you are not getting your feelings across properly, and the companion fear that people around you are just thinking that you’re “a bit down” or, at worst, being irrational and unreasonable rather than suffering from crippling bleakness and an impossible desire to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.

I, at least, have this blog as a means of expression as well as words I say face-to-face to people, words I write in email messages or words I say down a phone. (The latter is particularly rare, since, as those of you who know me well will already know, I do not like speaking on the phone at all.)

So, feeling particularly bleak and hopeless as I am at nearly 4am on this stuffy, sweaty August evening, it behooves me to try and be as frank as possible within the confines of the medium.

I am not doing so great.

I’ve not been doing so great for quite a while now, partly as a result of my own meandering, directionless life and partly due to external factors I have no direct control of. But at the moment, I feel like I’m doing especially not great.

It’s true, I wrote a while back that the new meds I’ve been taking have had a positive effect, and I stand by that, but I’m having one of those times where I feel like everything is getting on top of me, and that’s causing a domino effect of everything else in my mind to collapse, leaving me a mostly useless mess for a considerable proportion of the time.

I quit a job I had a while back that had the possibility to be if not particularly well-paid, then certainly reasonably secure and possibly even enjoyable. I did so because I was extremely worried about my wife, who was suffering especially ill health at the time. I was a little hesitant to do so, because I was afraid that I would end up in the exact situation I am now — seemingly unable to get another job — but ultimately I knew that it was the right thing to do, and I stand by my decision.

However, my wife, while not fully recovered as yet — still waiting on the NHS to do various bits and pieces, which will hopefully get into motion in earnest next month — is now back at work, seemingly getting on just fine with her new job, while I am reliant on erratic freelance income and sending out swathes of job applications every week that are probably never even looked at by cynical HR departments. While I know I’m not being completely useless, as I am getting work and getting it done to a good standard, there’s always this feeling at the back of my mind: why?

The question that comes after “why” varies from moment to moment. Sometimes it’s asking why I didn’t stick with teaching. (Because the stress of teaching in two particularly “challenging” schools was a strong contributory factor to the depression and anxiety I’ve been suffering since 2010.) Sometimes it’s asking why I didn’t fight for my USgamer job when I was unceremoniously told one morning that I didn’t have it any more, sorry. Sometimes it’s asking why that job had to end at all — and this one is usually accompanied by furious anger and resentment towards several people involved in the situation, whom I believe were responsible for me being shown the door. Sometimes it’s asking why I couldn’t just have knuckled down at SSE and been a good little corporate drone, nodding and smiling at their primary school-level Health and Safety “exercises” that they foisted on even the office staff at every opportunity. And sometimes it’s asking why I made choices back at the beginning of the Millennium that now feel like massive mistakes altogether: studying English and Music, pursuing the PGCE, going into teaching.

There aren’t answers to many of those questions, and they tend to lead on to bleaker thoughts. The question about my time at SSE in particular is almost always accompanied by an exaggerated combination of flashback and imagination where I recall my traumatic last day at the company, dragged over the hot coals by an unsupportive management who just wanted to get me out of the door and wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. In reality, I yelled “fuck you” at them, stormed out and slammed the door, wishing to God I had the courage to say or do something more coherent to make my frustration known. In my imagination, I do everything from throw the phone on the table of the meeting room at my “opponents” to flipping the table, ripping the door off its hinges or smashing every computer I walk past on the way to collect my things. Each time I have this flashback-dream, it gets more intense and unpleasant, and it leaves me short of breath, panicking, begging for sleep to claim me, because it’s always when I’m trying to get to sleep that my mind sees fit to dredge it up once again.

And the bleakness these endless questions leave me with make me more vulnerable to all sorts of other things. A simple request to play some online games with friends becomes an unimaginably frustrating and infuriating slight when I can’t pin anyone down due to their (rationally speaking, perfectly reasonable) commitments to family or suchlike. I have difficulty focusing on anything, feeling like I “should” be doing something, anything other than what it is I am doing at the time, and this often leads me into a cycle of just doing nothing at all.

One of the most frustrating things is that I’ve fallen back into old habits with food. We stopped going to Slimming World when my wife was particularly unwell, as I was finding the weekly weigh-ins and Syn-counting an unnecessary stress on top of all the other things I was thinking about. Consequently, with little to no control over what I eat each day — plus a predisposition towards eating as a means of “self-medicating” anything from boredom to depression — I’ve put a bunch of weight back on again, so much so that I’m terrified of stepping on a set of scales, going back to the same Slimming World group I once attended or even trying on certain pairs of trousers.

All kinds of adjectives float around inside my head when I reflect on myself and how I might be able to get out of the situation I’m in. Hopeless. Worthless. Useless. Failure. I know none of them are true, but when you get this far into the darkness it’s hard to see the light of hope. I vacillate between burning hatred for the people who have directly or indirectly contributed to the position in which I find myself, despair that makes me want to curl up and cry for the rest of time, and guilt at all the people I feel like I’ve let down with my inability to have made anything worthwhile of my life by this age.

I don’t know what to do. I feel like I’ve exhausted all my options, tried all the things I’m supposed to try, and I don’t know what’s left. I’m sure in life it’s pretty difficult to back yourself into a completely unwinnable situation, but I was designed in the ’80s, after all; to continue the analogy, I feel like I’m in an early Sierra game and I’m finding each and every single place it’s possible for King Graham to fall off something, trip over something, get crushed by something or get eaten by something. Eventually I might find the right path without tripping over Manaan’s cat (yes, I know that was Gwydion, not Graham) or falling off a cliff, but right now I can’t see it. And, sadly, life has no GameFAQs.

I should probably go to bed. Reflecting on this further isn’t particularly helping me, but looking back over these 1,400 words I am a little glad I put pen to paper to express these things ticking over in my mind. Perhaps someone will read them and understand me just a little better. Perhaps I’ll look back on them one day and wonder what I was worrying about. Or perhaps I really am a useless waste of space with no future whatsoever? Who knows.

Either way, bed beckons. If you read all this, thanks.

2405: Revisiting One Way Heroics

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Upon realising that the Spike Chunsoft enhanced remake of One Way Heroics was, in fact, coming out in just three weeks’ time, I decided to revisit the original game, which has long been one of my favourite takes on the roguelike genre thanks to it being quite unlike pretty much any other game I’ve ever played.

For the unfamiliar, One Way Heroics places you in a randomly generated world map that continuously scrolls, like those old Super Mario World levels that everyone hated. This being a turn-based roguelike, however, One Way Heroics only scrolls when you take an action, be this moving, attacking or fiddling around with something in your inventory.

The aim of the game is ostensibly to defeat the Demon Lord and save the remaining part of the world from being consumed by the mysterious darkness that is just out of shot on the left side of the screen. More often than not, you will fail in your task, either by yourself being caught in said mysterious darkness by miscalculating how many turns it would take you to cross the mountain range you found yourself stuck in the middle of, by dying embarrassingly to a nearby feral dog who gave you a nasty nip right in your most sensitive areas, or by forgetting you had a bag full of highly flammable (and explosive) items and then going toe-to-toe with a fire-breathing imp.

It’s not an insurmountable challenge, though. In fact, defeating the Demon Lord is more a matter of persistence than anything else; she (yes, spoiler, she’s a she) appears at regular intervals throughout your journey, sticks around for a few in-game hours during which you can either attempt to do some damage or run away from her, then she disappears again for a bit. Damage you deal persists from encounter to encounter, though she does have the chance to heal a few HP and erect a few magical barriers in between your various clashes. As such, so long as you can keep yourself alive, you can eventually wear her down bit by bit rather than having to defeat her all in one go.

Except, if you look a bit deeper into the game, defeating the Demon Lord isn’t the only way to finish the game. In fact, it’s arguably the easiest way to clear the game, since the other endings mostly require all manner of convoluted requirements and lucky rolls on the ol’ random number generator. That said, the game’s “Dimensional Vault” system does at least allow you to carry useful items over from playthrough to playthrough, so you can effectively prepare for the more complex conclusions a bit at a time, much like preparing to fight the Demon Lord, only over the course of several playthroughs instead of just one.

The other ways to beat the game vary from defeating the Darkness itself (which requires a Holy weapon, a very rare find indeed) to reaching the End of the World at the 2000km mark. The subsequently released One Way Heroics Plus expansion also added a number of other ways to clear the game, including finding your way into a whole other dimension to discover who or what is really behind this whole creeping darkness thing, and then either surviving until the end of that dimension or defeating said ne’er do well once and for all.

On top of all that, there are character-specific endings, too. During each playthrough, you have a chance of encountering a number of different non-player characters who, assuming you meet the prerequisite requirements to recruit them (usually some combination of cash and charisma levels) can join your party. As they fight alongside you and you meet various conditions (different for each character), they gain affection for you, and after having had three separate conversations with them, revealing their backstory and the truth about themselves — including, in many cases, why there appears to be a version of them in each and every dimension out there, more than aware of what you’re up to — clearing the game gives you their unique ending on top of whichever particular finale you went for.

These little stories that are attached to the party members are one of the most interesting things about One Way Heroics, because they elevate it above being a simple mechanics-based roguelike and give it a touch of narrative. Not enough to be obtrusive — the emphasis is still very much on preparing your character to clear the game in whichever way you deem most appropriate — but enough to give you a real feel for who these people are and what their place in the entire mystery of One Way Heroics is.

One particularly interesting thing about them is that you can go a very long time without encountering any of them at all, and thus assume that One Way Heroics is entirely mechanics-based. Another is that their storylines are all pretty dark in tone right up until the end, which is all the more effective due to the fairly breezy tone the rest of the game has going on. I defy anyone not to shed a tear at Queen Frieda’s ending in particular, though I shan’t spoil it here.

Replaying One Way Heroics over the last few days has reminded me quite how much I like this quirky little game, and I’m extremely excited to see how the new version pans out in comparison. From the looks of things, it takes the basic mechanics of the original and gives it a fresh coat of paint along with a new setting and storyline, plus a number of guest characters from other games including Danganronpa and Shiren the Wanderer.

All being well, I’m probably going to devote next month on MoeGamer to this game, its expansion and its new version, which will be out partway through the month. It’s an underappreciated gem, for sure, and one which everyone the slightest bit interested in the more unusual side of RPGs owes it to themselves to check out.

2404: No Man’s Sky and the Case for “Games for Grown-Ups”

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Back in the ’90s, MicroProse, a software company that already produced a number of the most complex computer games on the market thanks to their near-exclusive focus on military simulators, launched a spin-off label called “MicroStyle”. MicroStyle’s “thing” was that they produced “games for adults”. This did not mean “adult” as in “porn”; rather, it meant games about things that — supposedly, anyway — older gamers would be interested in. No cutesy platformers with rainbow colours here; MicroStyle was all about motorbikes, fast cars and, err, Rick Dangerous, the latter of which perhaps erred a little more towards the side of cutesy platformers than its stablemates.

The reason this largely pointless piece of gaming history trivia is at the forefront of my mind right now is due to the recently released No Man’s Sky, and the bafflingly negative reaction it has received from many online commentators. I had been asking myself why there was so very much whining going on about this game, when it occurred to me, partly after a bit of reflection on my own part and partly after a discussion with my friend Chris.

No Man’s Sky is a game for grown-ups. And some people don’t know how to deal with that.

The reason I say this is that there’s a very obvious dichotomy when it comes to this game between those who have sat down and spent time with it — and then, crucially, reflected on the experience — and those who take it at face value, judge it against the frankly unreasonable expectations they set for it in their head and consequently respond rather negatively towards it.

There are two particularly good pieces on the subject of No Man’s Sky that I invite you to read right now before we go any further.

The first, from The Guardian’s Keith Stuart, explores the game from the perspective of someone who grew up playing the original Elite on 8-bit computers. Stuart describes how invested he was in the virtual galaxy that Elite allowed him to explore; how he went so far as to buy a particular joystick to play it with because it looked suitably futuristic, and to make copious notes about profitable trading routes and sectors to avoid. His prose reminded me of my own youth with computer games, when I’d actually go so far as to dress up in a bomber jacket, home-made “oxygen mask” (made from a bit of cardboard and an old vacuum cleaner hose) and balaclava (the closest I could get to an actual crash helmet at the time) when playing games like F-15 Strike Eagle II and F-19 Stealth Fighter on the Atari ST. The use of imagination was key; these games were thrilling not because they presented the most impressive visual spectacles on screen, but because they truly allowed you to become someone else for a short time. The idea that you could sit down in front of your computer monitor and become a space traveller or fighter pilot was intoxicating, and even though at the time I was far too young to really understand those games properly, those experiences still stuck with me.

Stuart describes No Man’s Sky as an Elite for the modern age. He also notes that we already have an Elite for the modern age in the form of Elite: Dangerous, but makes the crucial distinction that Elite: Dangerous has gone heavily down the path of complex simulation, while No Man’s Sky eschews some of the more “unnecessary” aspects of realism in favour of providing an experience that stokes the fires of the imagination.

Stuart’s piece is complemented nicely by this piece in Rolling Stone/Glixel from Star Wars novel author Chuck Wendig. Wendig describes No Man’s Sky as “boring”, but notes that this isn’t actually a bad thing.

“We often play games for the destination,” says Wendig, “but I don’t think that’s why we play No Man’s Sky. We play it for the journey. There is an eerie calm to this game. A utopian serenity. A pleasant, alluring boredom that draws you along the journey – but not too fast. This is sci-fi that doesn’t ask you to kill, kill, kill. It asks you only to wander. To discover. To catalog your findings and sell your wares and move onto the next moon, the next space station, the next world, the next star system. All in pursuit of whatever it is you wish to pursue.”

He’s absolutely right. While there is combat in No Man’s Sky, it’s a rare occurrence — rare enough to make every time you switch your multi-tool from mining laser to boltcaster mode feel significant. The emphasis instead is on exploration, discovery and, above all, imagination. You’re given very little context or explanation for the things you are seeing in No Man’s Sky, and I have a strange feeling that even if you “finish” it by reaching the end of one of the narrative paths and/or the centre of the galaxy, it still won’t answer all the questions you might have.

My friend Chris also describes it as “a game for people who like books: you have to have a bit of imagination, and have your sense of wonder still intact, and understand that there are breeds of sci-fi that aren’t about action.” I can’t help but feel that the fact the whole game looks like an Asimov cover is entirely intentional.

The trouble is that this style of play is the exact opposite of what a lot of younger gamers expect from their games these days. They don’t expect their space sims to be quiet, contemplative, artistic affairs that minimise action in the name of cataloguing flora and fauna on diverse alien worlds. They expect their space sims to be more along the lines of the Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare trailer we saw at E3: all action, all explosions, all bodies floating off into space. And No Man’s Sky isn’t about that.

I can’t help but feel that the loudest complaint of all — the fact that the game isn’t the synchronous massively multiplayer title that a lot of people had come to assume it would be — also ties in with this. Fundamentally, No Man’s Sky is a game about being alone in a vast galaxy, and occasionally coming across traces of evidence that other people have been there before you — whether it’s long-forgotten ruins, from which you can learn snippets of the various alien languages in the game, or star systems, planets and species of flora and fauna named by other players. The fact that you can’t see other players flying around is entirely intentional; the game hasn’t been designed in that way at all, and “true” multiplayer would add absolutely nothing to the experience other than the opportunity to be griefed by players who fancied a career in virtual space piracy.

No Man’s Sky is a game for grown-ups. Specifically, it’s a game for grown-ups who grew up with games in the ’80s and ’90s; it realises the dream of being able to freely fly a spaceship around a vast universe, land on planets and explore them at our leisure; it gives us enough fuel to stoke the fires of our imagination, and withholds enough to allow us to let those flames flare up as much as we want; it’s a game that is the exact opposite of something like Mass Effect’s grand space opera, in which nothing is left to the imagination. (This isn’t to put Mass Effect down, mind you; there’s a place for both the quiet contemplation of No Man’s Sky and the dramatic bombast of Mass Effect in this world.)

Perhaps most tellingly, all the most interesting, thoughtful and sensible commentary on No Man’s Sky has been by people over the age of 30. And the negative comments very much come across as being written by much younger people. (I obviously can’t say for certain how old many of the naysayers are, but their words certainly come across as being less… seasoned, shall we say.)

If all you can do is rant and rave about how Hello Games’ Sean Murray “lied” to you about the game being multiplayer… well, then you’re missing the point. Spectacularly. And you should probably go and play something else. Something with more guns in it.

2403: My First Dragon Quest

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I had my first Dragon Quest experience recently. As a big fan of RPGs, particularly those of the J-variety, Dragon Quest was a gaping hole in my knowledge that I’d never gotten around to filling. Until now!

I’ve been giving the DS remake of Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen a go first of all. (Technically I’ve also played about half an hour of the Game Boy Colour version of the very first game.) So far my feelings are a little mixed, but overall leaning in a positive direction, though I will happily admit I am very early in the game so far and thus haven’t had an opportunity to see all its systems at work.

From what I understand about Dragon Quest from speaking to others, its main distinction from its longstanding rival Final Fantasy is that there’s less emphasis on characterisation and plot — at least as far as the main playable characters are concerned — and more in the way of mechanical and strategic depth. Thus far in my time with Chapters of the Chosen this would at least partially seem to be the case: the game features a number of different chapters focusing on an individual or small group of characters before the plot “proper” gets going in the final chapter, and these playable characters never speak a word. Nonetheless, you do get a decent sense of who they are through a combination of their character art and the way other people react to them.

The first real chapter of the game focuses on a soldier called Ragnar who is called in by the pseudo-Scottish king to find out what’s been happening to a number of children that have gone missing recently. The actual solution to this issue isn’t all that complicated, but Ragnar’s roughly hour-long quest acts as a good introduction to what Dragon Quest appears to be all about. There’s a bit of world map wandering, a bit of dungeoneering — and Dragon Quest dungeons aren’t at all linear, featuring numerous branching paths and secret areas filled with treasure — and lots and lots of fighting.

So far so RPG, though I did find Ragnar’s quest a little lacking in mechanical depth: as a straight fighter-type character, he didn’t have access to any interesting abilities whatsoever and his main role in the party appeared to be exclusively confined to hitting ATTACK every turn and dealing damage. Things got mildly more interesting when he recruited a friendly Healslime called Healie into the party, but there still wasn’t a lot to it.

I understand that the “chapters” of Dragon Quest IV are primarily intended to act as an introduction to the characters and their mechanics, but starting with the barebones simplicity of Ragnar isn’t the strongest of openings. Combat wasn’t interesting with just Ragnar and the entirely automated Healie in the party, and boy is it frequent in Dragon Quest; for many people I can see that being a turnoff. That said, it’s worth remembering that we’re essentially dealing with a remake of an NES game here, where the main overhaul the DS version received was with regard to its visuals rather than mechanics.

I’m also not one to write off a game after an hour of play, either, so I fully intend to continue my Dragon Quest adventure; I’m just hoping the characters that come after Ragnar are a bit more interesting to play, and I’m confident that once all the characters are together in one big party with the “real” protagonist, things will get a lot more interesting.

Mixed feelings aside, it’s been an interesting experience so far. It has a markedly different feel to Final Fantasies of the same era, giving it its own distinctive identity. There’s a pleasant air of whimsy about the whole thing, helped along by a humorous localisation featuring lots of regional accents and dialects. And the focus on the ongoing story — as compared to the focus on the main characters as in most Final Fantasies — is a noticeable shift in perspective.

I’m looking forward to getting to know the series a bit better. I feel it may have a slightly stronger barrier to entry than Final Fantasy, but I also know that people who love Dragon Quest really love Dragon Quest, so I’m intrigued to see what gets them so passionate about this long-running series.

2402: The JRPG Protagonist as a Sign of the Times

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Playing Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force this evening, I was struck by a thought about JRPG protagonists over the years and how they often tend to reflect some of the prevalent attitudes from the time in which they were first written.

Perhaps more accurately, JRPG protagonists often tend to reflect some of the prevalent attitudes in the games industry rather than in society at large, but nonetheless, it is clear that things have changed somewhat over time.

Consider the early days of JRPGs: the first Final Fantasy, the first Dragon Quest. These games featured protagonists that were silent and had no story or characterisation behind them save for “you are legendary hero”. They were intended primarily to be an avatar for the player: a means for the player to put themselves inside the game, to inhabit the game world, to become that legendary hero. This reflects how many computer and video games were marketed at the time: on the basis that they allowed you to live out fantasies that were impossible — or at the very least unlikely — in reality. Where games had narration, it was in second-person; marketing materials put the emphasis on “you” rather than the name of the protagonist, if they even had one.

Advance a few years as RPGs started getting a little more comfortable with storytelling. We have the early days of the Ys series, for example, where protagonist Adol Christin was still silent, but he had a certain amount of personality about him that could be understood through the way people reacted to and communicated with him. While the Ys games have their dark moments, the overall tone of them is rather light-hearted, being all about the joy of adventure and discovery; once again, the player was brought along for the ride, but this time, they were a companion to the protagonist rather than being the protagonist.

As we moved into the 16-bit era, games started to become more sophisticated and the increased amount of storage capacity available to developers allowed them to be a bit more ambitious with their storytelling. From Final Fantasy IV onwards, we started to get much more well-defined characters in the main cast, and the same, too, was true for longtime rival Dragon Quest. We still had our silent protagonists — our Adols and our Links — but where our protagonists had a voice, they often had noble intentions or goals: to help people, to save the world, or sometimes simply for the joy of adventure. This overall air of positivity about many of the games of this time was a reflection of this period being regarded as something of a “golden age” for games: everyone was excited about what the 16-bit consoles could do, and as rumours started to leak out about the upcoming 32- and 64-bit offerings from Sony and Nintendo respectively, it was an exciting time to be a gamer.

This air of positivity continued throughout the PlayStation/Saturn/N64 era, and can be seen throughout the numerous role-playing games that graced these platforms — although Nintendo’s console, being cartridge-based, often got left behind due to developers having grand ambitions that often required the extensive storage capacity of CD-ROM to fully realise. At the same time, though, a hint of darkness started to creep in. With Final Fantasy VII, we had the beginning of the “moody protagonist” trope with Cloud Strife, which was subsequently continued with the sulky Squall in Final Fantasy VIII before reverting to form with Zidane and company in Final Fantasy IX. The arrival of moody, angsty heroes on the scene corresponded roughly with a sharp rise in teens expressing themselves through music and counterculture; Cloud and Squall hit the scene around the same time many of us were listening to Nirvana and contemplating slitting our wrists to Radiohead.

That seed of darkness took root, but didn’t flourish just yet. The Dreamcast and PS2 era saw a continuation of the overall air of positivity and the joy of adventure in role-playing games, with a few notable exceptions. Ryudo from Grandia 2 on Dreamcast stands out in many players’ memories as being a bit different from the norm. He wasn’t all “let’s adventure!” like more traditional RPG heroes, but he wasn’t really angsty like Cloud and Squall. His attitude erred more towards the bleaker side of things, though; he was cynical and pessimistic on many occasions, but ultimately he did the right thing. I highlight Ryudo in particular here as the starting point for an increasingly common trope we’re seeing these days.

In the PS3 era, we started to see JRPG protagonists diverge in two different directions, more often than not distinguished by gender as much as attitude. Female protagonists tended to be lively, energetic, positive and full of life, but often inexperienced or incompetent, at least at the start of their adventures — the Atelier and Neptunia girls are good examples of this — while male protagonists weren’t necessarily tormented or angsty as such, but the air of cynicism which Ryudo had introduced in Grandia 2 started to become increasingly apparent with every male-fronted JRPG.

How this connects to Fairy Fencer F is simple: protagonist Fang is a cynical, lazy lout who is primarily out for his own gratification, at least at the start of the story. As the adventure progresses, he does naturally start to think about others as much as — or even more than — himself — but his intense cynicism, his unwillingness to be bothered with anything that sounds too troublesome, feels very much like a response to prevalent attitudes in a lot of gaming today. Many people can’t be bothered with anything that’s difficult or troublesome; if something’s supposed to take a long time they need to find the most “efficient” way, even if that’s also the most boring way; and if the opportunity comes up to bypass hard work for the same rewards — paying up to skip content or get overpowered equipment, watching YouTube videos of endings — then many people will take it.

Of course, there’s a kind of delicious irony about Fang as commentary on the laziness and cynicism of many people in modern society in a game by Compile Heart, which will inevitably be hundreds of hours long and filled with lots of grinding and busywork. But given the company’s history with using games as satirical works — primarily through the Neptunia series, but Fairy Fencer F has, so far, despite a darker, more serious tone, dipped its toes into satire too at times — this irony is doubtless entirely intentional, and Fang’s growth as a character over the course of those hundreds of hours is symbolic of those people who aren’t cynical, who are willing to put the “work” in to fully enjoy a game. His development, then, mirrors the player’s own journey in many ways: breaking through the endless cynicism, laziness and grumpiness that pervades the modern online sphere to find that stepping out into the wider world is rewarding in its own way.

Or perhaps he’s just a grumpy old sod. It’s nearly 3am. Humour me.