Better Lucky Than Good

I had an idea for a Fallout 4 mod, and wanted to see the intro a second time from the “other” perspective, just to see. It meant that I have a second character, and having figured out some of the systems from the game, I decided it was time to get silly.


Kodra was breaking down how some of the stats worked, and I’ve been looking at some of the perks. My current character is reasonably evenly balanced, and has a pretty strong “stealth sniper” thing going. I wanted something insanely min-maxed. With the starting spread of points, you can get two stats to 10, and another to 4. It should make for an interesting character.

I considered a few possibilities here– the all-strength and all-endurance, with just enough Intelligence to make fancier weapons, but that strikes me as playing things a little too straight. The ridiculous intelligence and ridiculous perception, with a hint of Agility is kinda close to my existing character, just more extreme. I’d wanted to try out Charisma, and stumbled upon an idea (edit: looks like someone else also had this idea). We’re going full on 10 points in Charisma and Luck to start, and the remaining 4 in intelligence. 1s in Strength, Endurance, Perception, and Agility. I’m going to rely wholly on the Intimidate perk and the various Lucky perks to stay alive.

I have no idea if this idea is going to work, but it’s going to be funny either way. I think there are enough options for me to be functional, although certain situations are going to be something of a problem. Hopefully anything I can’t talk my way out of will be escapable; I suspect I’m going to be running away a lot. I’ll be playing this character as kind of a break from other stuff, so I won’t be updating often, but I’ll make comments as they come.

Thus far, some mosquitoes have nearly killed me and I’ve been brutally savaged by a bloatfly. Hopefully I catch a lucky break.

The Personal Touch

I’ve recently come to realize that I don’t really care to play most board games more than a handful of times. It’s something I’ve spent a bit of time mulling over, because I feel like a board game is the kind of thing I should really enjoy, but it very rarely is after the first couple of playthroughs.


I really like to leave my personal touch on a game when I play it. I like to really dive deep in a game and own, customize, and play a strategy. I get this in a minis game– my minis are, at the very least, chosen by me strategically before I start the game, and to a greater extent they have customized assembly and paint schemes to match my interests. Even if I didn’t paint or assemble them myself, they’re still unique to me. I’m reminded of this while I play Fallout. My settlements are incredibly bare-bones, nowhere near the lavish affairs Bel spent hours working on. I spent hours today pursuing a silencer for my weapon, seeking out new places to explore simply to find the components necessary to put it together. I’m playing a stealthy sharpshooter (quelle surprise), and I have been since the very start of the game.

I pursued a specific in-game reward to supplement the strategy I’d chosen from the very start. It’s analogous to selecting a particular deployment zone or chasing a particular objective in a game of Infinity, or choosing a particular perk as I level up in an RPG. I’m able to choose what I want to do strategically before I play, and the tactical choices I make as I go along align with that strategy (or adapt it to a changing situation).


It’s a thing I seek out in games, especially ones without a strong narrative to keep me interested. I want to be able to express myself from the start, and make decisions based on a strategic choice I made, rather than making purely tactical decisions. In most board games, I don’t get this choice. The board is set up to a particular exacting static standard, and either starting positions are doled out randomly (as in Agricola) or are undifferentiated (many other games). Most of the time, I don’t get to pick a long-term strategy before the game begins. There are a few games that let me do this, but they’re extremely rare (and often picking that strategy is a minigame itself, as in Galaxy Truckers).

Most of the choices to be made are tactical choices, not strategic ones, and there’s very little personalization available when those are the only choices you’re making. There’s “selecting the optimal tactic”, which can vary somewhat based on your ability to execute, but it’s not really a form of self-expression, or doesn’t feel like one to me. It’s an optimization game rather than a customization one. What I like about strategic choices is that they give me the opportunity to alter the optimal tactical choices over the course of the game according to preferences that I’ve set beforehand. I have made a choice to have an aggressive Lieutenant in Infinity with a support network in the list, and so I make the choice in the game to play forward and daring with my Lieutenant. Alternately, I’ve chosen a vulnerable lieutenant, who I need to hide during the game and potentially take pains to protect. My overall strategic choices change the valuation of my tactical choices, so the optimal course in any situation has been customized by me.


That layer of strategic customization makes the game deeper and richer for me, and can make two otherwise identical matches feel very different. In most board games I’ve played, if you were to completely remove randomness in two consecutive games; play twice with the same die results and same card draws, you’d have an incredibly boring second game. There’s no change you could make (other than potentially a different tactical choice, if you played the first game suboptimally) that would change the outcome. By comparison, if I can alter my strategy at the start of the game, I could have absolutely identical variables elsewhere and the importance of those variables would change. I can play the same minis game on the same terrain (and honestly, could have the same exact die rolls) and if I came into it with a different list it would be a wholly different experience.

I’m really interested in a board game that gives me that kind of strategic depth. I find that most “strategy” board games are actually tactics games, with very little strategy involved. You might be thinking multiple turns ahead, but you’re still mostly reacting to the board, not planning. I’ve played a few that touch on it, some of the Arkham games, City of Thieves, and to some extent the Shadowrun board game, where you select a character which changes your approach, but these tend to be fairly insignificant choices in the long run (Arkham games being something of an exception here).


Returning to Fallout 4 (look, I’m playing a lot of this game), it’s really exciting to me that the various people I know can take extremely different strategic approaches– make strikingly different characters– and not only have a very different set of experiences in the same game, but all be equally effective. As a stealthy sharpshooter, I’ve mostly eschewed my power armor, using it only when stealth isn’t an option. I’m pretty sure Bel and Kodra are wearing theirs constantly. Some of my friends are playing melee characters, others are playing characters who are looking for the biggest guns possible. All of us are looking for different things but are all supported by the game. Bel has made his mark by tearing down his entire starting settlement and building anew; Kodra has made his mark repeatedly, with a metal bat. I make my mark once, with an exquisitely crafted implement, and once is enough.

Strategy is, for me, a form of creative self-expression. It’s something I’ve kind-of known for a long time, but the implications are a lot more significant than I’d realized. It helps me better understand why I don’t like certain games and why I like other games that are ostensibly very similar. It helps me make better decisions, and it’s nice to be able to put words to a feeling.


Here comes the first of what will probably be a LOT of posts about Fallout 4. I’ll try to curb things, since other people are playing it. Full spoilers to come in the Aggrochat podcast.


In general, I don’t love post-apocalyptic settings. They’re kind of a study of what happens to people when civilization is totally destroyed and everything sucks, and honestly the answer is “nothing all that great”. It’s really easy for your post-apocalyptic setting to just become a joyless, bleak world, and without joy, there’s not a lot of motivation to do much of anything. It’s the same problem I have with the Warhammer 40,000 universe– it’s a massive, joyless universe and I’ve never heard anything convincing that explains what anyone in that universe is fighting for.

For the most part, I like my futuristic games to be a bit more optimistic. I tend to believe that the future is pretty much going to be better than the present, and a terrible post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t really mesh with that. I don’t even necessarily have anything against post-apoc per se, I’ve seen the occasional dark future where things are actually pretty okay, even if the world has been ravaged. Maybe we’ve got a cool colony on the moon, or some nice high-tech living spaces away from the devastation. Something to point at and say “this is worth fighting for”.

So, Fallout. I played through Fallout 1 and 2, but they don’t make my list of favorite games, and I didn’t really explore them much; I didn’t feel motivated to. Fallout 3 didn’t grab me– it felt like the exact sort of joyless future that I’m not interested in experiencing. It made things worse by making most of the actual civilized settlements pretty villainous, with Megaton, the Town of Terrible Ideas, being this sad bastion of hope. New Vegas was the first Fallout game to really capture my interest. It showed me the same dark future, but there was civilization, and the civilized people weren’t all utterly awful human beings. There was technology, and places I might actually want to live. It wasn’t just all suck all the time. Indeed, one of the big things I did was rebuild, and establish a bastion of actual civilization in the desert. It felt good.

Fallout 4 feels like it’s continuing the trend. It’s now the second area I’ve lived in that’s been the focus of a Fallout game, and truth be told I’m more partial to Boston than Washington DC. It also lets me rebuild, not just a little bit, but actually put together my own settlements and build real homes. It’s satisfying, and exciting. I’m also operating in real cities and towns. Damaged, certainly, but recognizable as places that people live.

Fallout 4 is a post-apoc world that isn’t scrounging the remnants of a technologically advanced society– it’s possible to get new, fancy technology and not just hope that the one working laser pistol I’ve found stays functional. I don’t have to hope that I run across a place that seems like a decent place to live– I can actually build one from scratch.

It’s pretty exciting, and lets me enjoy the Fallout world without the crushing pessimism that I see in other settings. Now, time to find some aluminum so I can build a new reactor core (!) for my laser pistol (!!).

Junk Food Games

I am distinctly in the minority when it comes to games where “you can turn your brain off”. Per this week’s podcast, I’m probably at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum as Bel, who, as he puts it, tries to “get to a point where playing a game requires no thought”. Pretty much everyone on the podcast other than myself had some kind of “relaxation” game, something they’d mastered and find relaxing to play because it doesn’t really require them to be engaged.


It’s something I find hard to wrap my head around. It’s one of the blind spots in my ability to recommend games to other people and understand what they find appealing; I mostly go off of what I hear other people talk about rather than my own feelings. It strikes me as similar to people’s descriptions of cilantro– I’m aware that some people find cilantro appalling, “like eating soap”, but it’s hard for me to visualize because I don’t taste the same way. The best I can do is remember that some people really don’t like cilantro, and remember that some people relax through unengaged gaming.

I really don’t have a good set of terms to even talk about the concept. The ones that come to mind– “mindless”, “unengaged”, “requires no thought”, even “junk food” have hugely negative connotations for me, and I don’t necessarily like ascribing such negative language to what is essentially a difference in opinion. Other than that I personally get bored, I don’t have a fundamental problem with these kinds of games. I’ll get frustrated when that’s all anyone seems to want to play and I find it boring, but that’s true of anything where I’m not interested in what everyone is playing.

Spoons and Banana Split --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Spoons and Banana Split — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

What I’m more interested in sussing out is *why* I don’t have the same craving for low-stimulation games. I really do get antsy and bored when a game isn’t keeping me engaged enough– I’ve nodded off while playing all kinds of games, mostly at points where I’m just not interested in them or I’m not learning anything new. At the same time, even slow- or variable-paced games like Civ, Anno, or Crusader Kings all keep me alert, just because I’m juggling so many things in my head and managing my territory. A friend of mine suggested a possibility to me: I’ve played a lot of games, so I reach a comfortable point with them a lot sooner. She pointed out that while my threshold for boredom is a lot lower, my threshold for relaxing is a lot higher, so it’s easier for me to hit a point where a game “requires no thought”, and do with a lot more games.


I’m not convinced by that explanation, but as was (sharply) pointed out to me, I have a history of disbelieving any explanation of something that speaks to my own abilities. It’s possible that I simply learn games quickly and that I’m really doing the same thing as everyone else when I play. I don’t have a good way of knowing if the way I play most games is the way that other people play their “most relaxing” games. I do know that I don’t have any particular game I return to over and over again; I almost never play a game more than once unless it’s been long enough for me to forget significant amounts of it (and thus, relearn them while playing). I get bored quickly when playing a game I already know, even if there are little tidbits for me to still pick up. New Game+ is REALLY hit or miss for me. As a result, there aren’t really any games I can claim mastery over, but there are a lot that I feel comfortable with.

Now I really want to plug myself in to an EEG while I play and compare my results with my friends’ over various games.

Language Studies, Continued: Rosetta Stone

I keep working on Japanese, though my pace has slowed down a little bit. Not having the weekly tutor to force me to keep up means I study less, and with classes having started up again, my focus is going there first and foremost. I have, however, started supplementing my use of the Genki textbook with Rosetta Stone, which has been interesting.


Before I talk about Rosetta Stone, I should recap my studies thus far. I started studying Japanese about twelve weeks ago now. The first two weeks were me memorizing kana, specifically hiragana, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can just read them now. I’m not fast, but I don’t need a reference anymore. I spent the third week on katakana and some basic vocabulary and phrases. I really need to spend a lot more time with katakana, because it comes up a LOT in writing, and I really didn’t give it the same amount of time as hiragana. I find it a lot harder to memorize, because the syllables are visually very similar, and as a result my ability to read katakana is HORRIBLE.

After the first three weeks, I took about a month’s worth of lessons with a tutor, during which time we were able to blaze through the entire first Genki book. It was a whirlwind, and while I picked up concepts extremely quickly and can suss out grammar, the pace was too fast with too many new words being introduced for me to keep up with the vocabulary. After the last tutoring session, I took about two weeks off to process, which in retrospect was a horrible mistake. I didn’t lose much if any of the structural stuff I learned, but my already limited vocabulary atrophied, and my pronounciation suffered. I also lost my tenuous grasp of katakana, though I’d ingrained hiragana enough that I didn’t lose it, I just got slower.

Since then, I’ve been working with Rosetta Stone, and am going to return to doing exercises from the Genki workbook as well. Rosetta Stone is a very different structure for learning, and it works pretty well for me, but I’ve read a LOT of criticism about it. Since a few people have commented that they’ve liked to see my learning process, I kind of want to break down how I feel about Rosetta Stone, in case it’s helpful for anyone eyeing it but concerned about the (rather high) price.


The teaching method appeals to me, as I’ve mentioned before, because it avoids using English entirely. Pretty much everything is kana and images that you match or speak. I like this, because it removes all of the English-language distractions and forces me to connect concepts with Japanese directly, rather than using English as a go-between. You can pick up a free app that has the first handful of lessons for a variety of languages on mobile devices, to see what I’m talking about, and it’s what gave me my initial foothold into Japanese.

One of the interesting things about Rosetta Stone is that it doesn’t at any point explicitly tell you what you’re saying or what the pieces of the sentences are. It slowly becomes clear as you work, but you’re looking at hours of work before you can see the shape of a sentence, because you may or may not be picking up which words mean which things, and how they’re all fitting together. It won’t stop you from progressing in the lessons, but it’ll make it difficult to feel like you’re making tangible progress until you’ve put a few hours into it. It’s an intentional bit of design, it forces you to process the sentences as a whole and work to make sense of them, so you retain the information better. Rather than telling you how to say something, it has you say something and forces you to figure out what you just said from context clues. If I wasn’t aware of that style of teaching and how effective it is, I’d probably find it very frustrating. Certain critical reviews describe it as “nonsense”, which to me sounds like frustration with the style; everyone learns differently, and while this works for me, it likely doesn’t for other people.

I’m glad I have both the textbook and other translation aids available to me as well. It lets me see interesting things that Rosetta Stone teaches me how to use, then look up the structure, how they’re being used, and what they actually mean. It’s resulted in a lot of spin-off lessons, where I learn about the different ways to use pronouns because Rosetta Stone switched pronouns on me. A great example is when the book switched from using 男の人 (おとこのひと, “otokonohito”, man) to 彼 (かれ, “kare”, he), which changes the sound of sentences significantly but can be used functionally identically in a sentence. It uses a lot of the same basic sentences with various swaps to help build vocabulary while giving you a sense of structure.


For example, you’ll have one exercise where a sentence might be “The [boy/girl/woman/man] runs,” where the exercise is appropriately recognizing the words for “boy”, “woman”, “man”, and “girl”. The next exercise might be “The woman [runs/eats/reads/swims],” where the exercise is about recognizing the verb. It builds on the structure of the first sentence and swaps out a different part, so you slowly get a feel for all of the different pieces. The whole thing could probably use a tutorial, but once you realize what it’s asking you to do it’s pretty intuitive.

The real question is “is it worth $200+”? It’s not a question I can really answer for everyone, obviously, but I can explain my approach. I tend to look at how much content I’m getting and how valuable the content is. The demo for the software should give you a pretty good idea of whether or not the content is valuable for you; it may work well with how you learn or it might not. As far as amount of content goes, the program is structured in chunks. The smallest segments are called “lessons”, and range from quick, 5-minute items to 30-minute “core lessons”. There are a handful (six to fifteen or so) 5- and 10-minute lessons after each 30-minute “core lesson”, and after four core lessons and a final refresher at the end, you’ve completed a “unit”. There are four units, each comprised of four core lessons and numerous mini-lessons, all of which make up a “level”. The Japanese module for Rosetta Stone contains three levels. All in all, that’s 3 levels, 12 units, 48 core lessons. I tend to take slightly less time per lesson than the estimated time. By the estimated times for each segment, it works out to 60-120 minutes per core lesson+mini-lessons. If we lowball that and say it’s about 4 hours per unit (kind of a fast pace, but it’s close to the speed I’m going at), that’s on the order of 48-50 hours of lessons.


Assuming you don’t repeat any lessons (i.e. do each one once and never look at it again), for the currently-listed $209 for the software (Rosetta Stone site, cheaper on Amazon), you’re paying about $4.40 per hour. As a point of reference, an inexpensive Japanese tutor in my area is on the order of $30 an hour. It’s certainly not as personalized an experience as a tutor, and I’m really glad I spent time with my tutor because it let me focus on certain specific things, but as far as a time/money value proposition, it’s better than going to go see a movie. Whether that’s time/money well spent is probably up to the individual.

Currently, I’ve gotten to the point where I can watch subtitled anime and clearly hear sentence structure, though my vocabulary isn’t close to keeping up. I can tell when the translation is different from the audio, and I’ve started being able to pick up on nuances that enrich the experience for me. It’s really funny to me, for example, how in One-Punch Man, Genos’ speech to Saitama is hyper-formal and very precise, whereas Saitama’s responses are incredibly laid back and almost too casual. It lends a lot to both of those characters that I’d otherwise have trouble picking up on just from the text and the tone of voice.

I’m a little ways into the third unit of Level 1, so I’ve still got a ways to go. I’ll keep commenting here as I get to other interesting pieces.

Making (and Missing) Connections

Today I confused a friend during a conversation. The question was “what fictional weapon would you want to have, and why?” My answer was “a lightsaber”; she laughed, then looked confused when I said I wanted one so we could solve global warming. It made absolute sense in my head, a perfectly logical sequence, and it was jarring when my friend went “wait, what? That makes no sense.”


This happens to me a lot; it’s something I struggle with. I used to think it was a problem of me communicated badly, and while it is, it’s not poor communication in the way I thought it was. I’ve started calling it “skipping a few steps”. Here’s the full sequence of steps that led to my answer: a lightsaber is basically a ultra high powered electronic device that’s super compact. It’s power supply also lasts for decades at least without any real issues. Deconstruct one, figure out how to replicate the battery and however it recycles power/recharges, and you’ve got enough power to fuel a city in an object the size of your hand. It doesn’t seem to require fuel, it doesn’t seem to need frequent recharging, and it’s not fragile. Energy crisis is pretty much solved overnight, and the battery is small enough to power pretty much any device we currently have, with no emissions other than light, sound, and heat. That is AWESOME, and is way more exciting than having a glowy sword of dubious usefulness (as cool as it might be).

This is a (semi-)logical chain of thoughts that I went through in about the time it took for me to say “A lightsaber. I could solve global warming!”

I don’t think of this as particularly clever. It isn’t, to me, a particularly refined train of thought, and an assumption that I’ve had– that I’ve held onto for most of my life– is that anyone and everyone else is having similar trains of thought at similar speeds. They’re easily capable of making the same connections I am, and if they don’t, it’s because they didn’t think of it, not because they weren’t going to get there eventually. I wrote, a while back, about “being smart“, and in retrospect I can see that assumption in the text. When I make a connection quickly, my immediate assumption is that anyone around me can make the same connection, and to me it often feels like people who don’t are either disagreeing with me or questioning my mental capabilities. It leads to a lot of insecurity on my part, and a reticence to speak my mind, especially in person. It sometimes manifests as deep arrogance, when I’m convinced I’m right because I’ve followed a logical train of thought to its conclusion and just assume everyone else is on the same page as me.

It makes it hard to know when I’ve explained my train of thought adequately. A pet peeve of mine is having something I already understand explained to me, and I make a particular effort not to do the same to other people; it feels patronizing to me and I try to avoid it. As I wrote about above, I’ve spent a long time fleeting from the idea that I might be “smart”, because I fundamentally don’t believe I’m anything special. Some conversations and introspection over the last year, particularly as I’ve worked on becoming more open and communicative, have forced me to accept that, if nothing else, I make connections faster than some other people. It’s a testament to how ingrained my avoidance is that I’m conscious as I type this that the phrase I should be saying is “I have to accept that I’m simply smarter than many other people”, but the closest I can get is putting it in quotes, detaching myself from the statement and trying not to own it completely.

The avoidance harms my ability to communicate effectively with people. Denying my own aptitude makes it harder for me to communicate with people and connect with them. It’s a work in progress, but it’s hard to figure out feedback. I’ll occasionally have a spark of inspiration and share it, and I have a tendency to inundate people with text or words as I work my way through the thought process. Most of the time, what I get is silence, even among close friends. In my head, this resolves to “there goes Tam again, babbling about something or other”, and since it tends to kill conversations, I avoid sharing a lot of the time. The reality is that I spend a lot of time in my own head, and external feedback keeps me sane. It lets me continually ensure that what I think are logical trains of thought actually are.

For my entire life, I’ve tried very hard not to be that person who “thinks he’s so smart”, to the point where I’ve gotten really good at denying any evidence to the contrary. Impostor Syndrome is real and present for me, and haunts literally every single thing I do. As I’m forced to actively re-evaluate myself, I realize that denial is just as harmful. It’s hard to know where to go from here. Work in progress.


I’ve laughed with a lot of games lately. It makes me realize how high the writing bar for games has risen over the past few years. Whereas I’m seeing a lot of indie titles and smaller games play with fourth-wall meta-humor, at the other end of the spectrum I’m seeing a lot of high-production-value AA and AAA titles really focus on the quality of their writing, and branch out in different directions. One of the directions I’ve been most impressed by is humor. I actually had to step away from Tales of Zestiria today because I was laughing so hard at a particular scene.


Something I’m seeing a lot more of is topical, in-world humor. There are, broadly, two ways to get a laugh in a game. You can set up a joke that’s funny for the player but isn’t actually a joke in the context of the game, and you can set up a joke that’s funny in the context of the game and makes the player laugh, too. The second one is much, much more difficult to write, yet I’m starting to see it more in games.

As an example, KOTOR’s HK-47 is an example of the first kind of humor. HK-47’s thinly veiled menace and explicit, utter vehemence can be pretty funny, for you as the player. As the character standing right next to HK-47, he’s concerning at best and outright horrifying at worst; there’s no laughing along with his lines without being an utter psychopath. HK-47 separates you from the game world, and nods to you as the player while ignoring the character representing you in the world. In a similar vein, pop-culture references and other, similar in-jokes are another example– funny to you as the player but meaningless or tasteless for the character. Both are a LOT easier to write than jokes that are funny in-context.

In-context jokes are the kind of thing that would legitimately make a character in the game world laugh if they heard them. A lot of times these are one-liners, but you can get a more deliberate setup. They’re a lot more difficult to write because you have to have spent a lot of time setting up the game world’s environment and character personalities and, in general, laying down the ‘rules’ for how the world works and what social mores exist before the joke makes sense. Even then, it can fall flat if the player isn’t invested in the setting, or if you get the timing wrong and have an NPC laugh just a bit too early, or the wrong way, or deliver a line anything less than perfectly. It’s pretty rare that you laugh alongside an NPC in a game, because getting that timing down is not easy.


Mostly, this is the result of witty banter between characters, but sometimes it’s even subtler than that. Recently, I played a game where the characters ran across a landmark and, while looking at it, one of my party members made an absolutely awful pun which was followed by another character firing off a snappy quip, which made me chuckle. What got me was having yet another character, randomly while walking a little bit later, pipe up with “OH! I just got it!”, sparking another snappy quip that I (alongside some other party members) laughed at. A little bit later, that character pipes up AGAIN, having just gotten the original snappy comeback, and I found myself waiting for the other (third?) shoe to drop as we caught up to the last joke made at her expense. Just as I’d nearly forgotten about it (this is minutes later, as I wander through a dungeon), the character making the quips checks in: “Did you… not get that last joke?” as other party members (and I) snicker. The game actually waited until I was in combat, fighting for my life, to have the character go “OH! THAT WAS THE JOKE!” in response to the boss saying something vaguely reminescent of a previous quip.

Put another way, any time you “had to be there” for a joke to work, it’s probably an in-context joke. They’re a LOT harder to pull off, yet I’ve seen them in a bunch of games lately.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a bunch of credit not only to Tales of Zestiria for making me laugh, but also Knights of the Fallen Empire, the new SWTOR expansion. The writing team really nailed the humor in that expansion pack, and it really works through a lot of the content. It manages to balance serious characters who I legitimately look forward to bringing down with moments that crack me up or just make me happy in general. Pacing is really important, and having some laughs throughout the experience really helps.


It’s something I really notice when I go back and play older games. The writing quality just isn’t there, most of the time, and the sense of timing and pacing is much, much poorer, when it exists at all. I suspect a lot of it has to do with modern games’ shift towards voice acting, which helps deliver comedy a lot, but it isn’t just that. We’ve gotten better at writing, for the most part, and so when writing isn’t quite as good it’s really noticeable. I do a lot more laughing *at* older games than laughing *with* older games.

All of that having been said, I’m glad to be laughing as I play games. Delivering depressing sadness and yanking at heartstrings in all of my game releases has gotten a bit old; I can see the setups coming a mile away at this point, and I’m getting numb to them. A good laugh, though, catches me by surprise. It’s great.

Aggrochat GOTM: Secrets of Grindea

Secrets of Grindea is a great little jaunt through a Zelda-style world with a ton of RPG-style character customization and a lot of self-aware humor. It’s like Children of Mana meets A Link to the Past, and it’s frankly delightful. It’s probably the only Steam Early Access game that I haven’t minded playing before it’s finished, and for me that Early Access tag is often a great big warning sign: “Wait for a while to see if this actually releases before playing”.


One of the comments that came up on the podcast is that SoG is a retro-styled game that isn’t relying exclusively on nostalgia to prop it up. It’s a great description, and I pretty much completely agree with it. It’s the Zelda game that Nintendo will never make, because it’s designed for people who grew up on Zelda but have since moved on to more challenging, more complex games. Secrets of Grindea delivers on that– the bosses are MUCH more complicated and difficult than Zelda bosses, and progression is similarly advanced.

My two biggest complaints with the game are the animation delay when swinging your weapon– it’s a gorgeous animation but it stops you dead, so it’s very difficult to stay mobile as a melee character– and the lack of a reasonable “full respec” option. Ashgar says this has a lot more to do with the fact that we played co-op (did I mention this game has a perfectly reasonable co-op story mode?) and thus had XP coming in a lot faster than money, but this is the sort of thing that needs a rebalance pretty badly. Presumably that’s something that can be done in the Early Access phase. Anyway, I found it easy to get locked into a build that I couldn’t do much about and wasn’t as functional as I would’ve liked. On the other hand, I thought it was awesome being able to fill in party roles in co-op; Kodra was playing a character build that would have been entirely untenable had he been playing solo, but was both functional and awesome in a group.


The game cheerfully pokes fun at RPG and Zelda tropes without forgetting that both of those types of games are genuinely fun and awesome. A lot of parody games fall into the trap of just blasting away at a particular genre in the guise of “parody” and forget that there’s a reason people like those games in the first place. Secrets of Grindea hits a nice balance of both parody and genuine cheer, and it takes some jokes seen elsewhere and pulls them off extremely well.

The best part about this game, for me, is the co-op multiplayer. This is probably not a shocker to anyone– I’ve talked a lot about how much I like small-group multiplayer co-op, but SoG reminds me that I almost don’t care about the genre; running around a game with my friends experimenting is a lot of fun. One thing I want in Grindea (though it looks like it’ll be added, given some of the NYI progression options) is a stronger “support” playstyle, with some heals and protection. It would really round out the rest of the group, which is mostly super defensive or super offensive, but lacks terribly much in the way of force multipliers. Another thing I think would be interesting to see is some more battlefield control options, slows and binds and knockbacks and whatnot– possibly I just didn’t see them in our playthrough, but they seemed relatively rare.

Secrets of Grindea 1

All in all, though, the game is a lot of fun and I have no problem recommending it, even as an Early Access title. Even the unfinished story was fun enough to be worth the price of the game, and there’re updates coming apparently fairly regularly.


I don’t get to talk much about the games I’m playing anymore. I’ve gotten very good at talking around them, being suggestive but vague, so as to avoid the constant concern about spoilers. It’s not very satisfying. Some of the most impressive game experiences I’ve had have been reduced to “it’s really neat!” and a desperate hope that someone else I know plays through it so that I can talk about it openly. It doesn’t happen much, but there’s always the possibility that someone is going to play whatever game, so I still can’t talk about it.


It’s frustrating for me, because games are a social space. I may have mentioned previously that I don’t watch TV on my own, and the quick, flippant explanation I give is that years of interactive media have made me fidgety when just watching a show, and I like to have someone else around to talk to and share the experience with. That latter part is very true, but it’s also because what I want is someone to talk to about what I’ve experienced, who I know is in the same place I am. The delicate dance around spoilers runs extremely deep, and I catch myself shushing people who are a little too open about them, and hating myself for it. As before, games are social for me, and if I can’t talk about them, what’s the point?

I get similarly antsy when there’s nothing my friends and I are playing together. Without someone to share the experience with, games and honestly, most media feel someone empty and uninteresting. This doesn’t necessarily mean multiplayer, and in fact often doesn’t– it just means we’re in the same place and experiencing the same things, so we naturally have something to talk about.


It calls to mind the experience of playing Heavensward. Twenty or thirty of us were hanging around regularly, NOT talking about the game we were all playing together, dancing delicately around spoilers. By the time we actually talked about it (relegated to a specific Aggrochat episode, where the reins were off), the exciting glow of the experience had dimmed somewhat. The Aggrochat Game of the Month has a similar effect– we all play the game together but often pointedly avoid talking about it until “it’s time”. I’ve started playing the GotMs a lot closer to time, just so they’re fresher in my mind when we talk about them.

My game is coming up for our Game of the Month, and I’m hoping I can talk the rest of the crew into a) not keeping mum about it until the show and b) keeping the muzzle off for spoilers. It’s going to be a big enough game that we can all go our separate ways and do different things; in this case I think spoilers might actually add to the experience we all have rather than detract.


Really, though, I just want to talk about the experiences I’m having without worrying that someone is going to jump down my throat about sharing them. I’ve long since passed the point where I find experiences for their own sake terribly compelling; my experiences have meaning when shared with other people. I respect other people’s wishes to keep said experiences pristine and fresh and new, but I’ve realized that in so doing, I’m denying myself a huge part of the enjoyment I get.

I don’t know of a good solution to this. I know that it’s lately left me listless about various games I’m playing, even the compelling ones. Maybe I’m just waiting for a kickstart.

Something Completely Different

I talk a lot about MMOs, and what I see as their slow decline. I really don’t want to give the impression that I’m down on MMOs as a medium, or that I don’t think a lot of the entries into the genre have been great games. I just look at the horizon and see fewer and fewer notable MMOs coming out, and that concerns me. It reminds me of adventure games back in the ’90s, as fewer and fewer with higher and higher budgets would come out and, if not flop, not set the world on fire. It makes for a saturated market and a very Red Ocean effect. Red Ocean is really bad for MMOs, because the advantage lies with the established games. I haven’t seen an MMO push really hard into the Blue Ocean side of things in a long time, and a lot of the rest have followed a pattern: launch, lose a ton of staff after the first month or three, slowly rebuild until you either lose relevance or slowly build back to something stable and growing (usually this takes a year or more).


From the standpoint of someone who wants to see the games industry move forward and be more stable and secure to work in, this is a really bad loop. It means that MMOs lose key staff right at the end of a project, people who (often rightly) assume that there will be big cuts and move on before they happen. It means that turnover is huge, and games lose tons of talented people right after launch, driving up that month-or-three player dropoff statistic. It means that the thing everyone talks about when making an MMO is minimizing risk, because they’re already seen as insanely risky endeavors, so the “safe bet” is to stick close to the experience people expect and make the Red Ocean even redder.

There’s a particular experience you can get right now in an MMO, where you level up your character through a largely static world and get more abilities (to put on your bar) while collecting loot and probably, at the end, raiding some dungeons. It’s a great experience, and I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit. There are a LOT of options for that right now. There’s a notable MMO offering that kind of experience in pretty much every major genre, often multiple times, and they’re still updating and healthy. I know a great many people who are still enjoying that kind of experience, and they’re getting it. I think that’s awesome, and if you want that kind of experience in an MMO, I think you’re spoiled for choice. Many of the ones that have stuck around are quite good, and if you didn’t like one previously, it’s probably worth your time to go back and take another look, years on, because it’s probably been fixed up and updated since then.

There’s an experience that’s faltered in the meantime. It’s been a really long time since I played an MMO that made me feel wary about pushing forward, as fast as possible. I haven’t been lost in an MMO in more than a decade. I haven’t felt like I’ve been exploring for any purpose other than to fill in a map. These worlds carry no secrets anymore, or they’re so rare that only a precious few lucky players get to enjoy them before they’re known by all.



I don’t feel like the kind of game I’m talking about is forever lost. As you may have heard on this week’s podcast, Ash is cynical, and suggests that the rise of datamining and information sites have killed the idea of MMOs with secrets stone dead. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, it just requires that a development team build their world with secrets and adaptation in mind and not immediately throw up their hands and say “nope, everything we do will be on the internet in a matter of minutes”. I think that it’s possible for a game to continually surprise you and keep you guessing, even if a lot of the variables are known. Our data collection in MMOs is good enough that we could come up with a lot of very interesting procedural content just by plugging in the data streams.

Consider a situation where the mobs you fight in various areas “learn” from how players kill them. As time passes, they change their ability sets and their behavior to better answer the ways players approach them, forcing the playerbase as a whole to change its tactics on a regular basis. It’s somewhat similar to the Diablo escalation, where mobs start getting new and varied “types” that make you change how you approach them, and as I understand it it’s one of the most compelling parts of that game’s replayability. Provided it’s possible to quickly alter your approach to combat (which I think is also important to keeping an MMO fresh), you’d turn a lot of “trash mobs” into legitimate encounters without a lot of overhead. Even if players know every ability a mob COULD have, which ones they’re using at any given time are going to constantly change. You can even tie this to mob types, so you learn to look at mobs and determine how much and how fast they’d learn. I harp a lot on the concept of “trash mobs” vs “encounters”, and I feel like there’s space for a game where the ratio of those two things is a lot more even. There’s very little reason other than a kind of “me too” mentality that you couldn’t run into more interesting encounters on a regular basis.


As another example, you’re probably familiar with “zone sweepers”. They’re the Holly Windstalkers, the Sons of Arugal, and the Fel Reavers of MMOs, big, powerful monsters that severely outclass both the other monsters in the area and the players that are expected to be around. They exist for you to run from, die to, and come back for revenge. It’s a really simple but effective way to break up your otherwise unchanging play loop of “go here, kill things, turn in”, but mostly it does this by frustrating you. I like friction, and I think a certain amount of frustration is good for an MMO experience, but zone sweepers amount to a DM saying “haha, gotcha”. I’d rather these be scaled appropriately for your level but be dungeon- or raid-boss complexity. Make them scary and punishing but beatable, and not just by getting your numbers higher than theirs. If they become genuine encounters, rather than random punishment, they become more interesting, even if you still die to them a lot. You know you had a chance. With the above system in place, those zone sweepers could simply learn faster than the others, and be more inclined to surprise you. If you want to get fancy about it, you could have them “pass their knowledge” to other mobs, updating them as they path nearby and allowing you to target them to prevent the entire area from evolving. For a player farming a space, it adds a layer of meta-gameplay, and if the space is crowded, it would periodically get thinned out by a smart, predatory zone sweeper, keeping things fresh and a little bit scary.

I talk a lot about the “world being scary” as a direction for MMOs. I think there are a couple things contributing to the current state of the genre. PvP is, in theory, a continually fresh, continually challenging gameplay feature that takes very little work to maintain and keeps players interested. Making a game more “hardcore” tends to gravitate towards adding more PvP. I think that’s a mindset that doesn’t really take into account how the MMO audience has evolved since WoW. PvP players were already a minority in MMOs before WoW, and things like UO’s Trammel should have made it clear that players want compelling PvE. WoW has made PvP players even more of a minority, yet there’s this strange, lingering mentality that PvP is a magic button for players who want a compelling, fresh challenge. I also think there’s a sense of worry that if the PvE game is too difficult, people will leave. I can hear the Creative Directors scoffing now: “If you make a game with hard, scary PvE all over the place, you’ll have players leave before the end of the first month!” To that I say: it was going to happen anyway; that’s a risk I think is worth exploring.


There’s space, I think, for an MMO that breaks from the usual approaches and tries something radically different for the genre. The success of Destiny should speak volumes to that– despite all of its issues, which would have absolutely crippled a more “standard” MMO out of the gate, it still was fresh enough and interesting enough to bring a wide group of players in and stay interesting long enough for the team to work through and fix/stabilize things, and what I know of The Taken King is that it’s great. In a similar vein, Guild Wars 2 broke heavily from the usual MMO mold, and while some of the things it tried didn’t work terribly well, it still managed to be different enough and compelling enough to keep players while they made changes and stabilized themselves, where other studios would have laid off half their staff.

I’d like to see more “different”. I want to see MMOs launch that I think are neat but don’t want to play, the way I do with shooters and action games and other genres– it means that the genre is healthy and continually evolving.