Friday, November 08, 2019

Burst Into Song

A quick note: the crowdfunding campaign for Chorus, an upcoming musical adventure game, has just a little over one day left to go. It's already funded, yay! They recently achieved their first stretch goal, adding two more character romances. There's time left to reach more goals, and as with all of these crowdfunded games, you're essentially pre-ordering with a significant discount on the final game. So if this seems like the kind of game you might enjoy, this is the perfect time to chip in.



If you're on the fence and have a PC, you might be interested in the proof-of-concept demo Summerfall just released, which lets you play through an early version of one of the song/battle encounters in the game. There are some familiar elements to it that should make it feel intuitive to people who have played Telltale Games-style dialogue-heavy adventures, but I can already see some new mechanical systems that make it more potentially interesting, plus, y'know, singing!

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Necrolord Prime

I forget now exactly how Gideon the Ninth came to be on my radar - I think I first heard about it in a tweet from Felicia Day, and it immediately piqued my curiosity. Necromancers... in space?! How does that even work?!

 
MINI SPOILERS

Very well, it turns out! It's a weird book on every level: very macabre setting and gruesome struggles, united with a fun and quippy narrative. Space ships and skeletons. Communicating over the radio or with undead spirits. Blasting your enemies apart with monstrous blood creatures, unless you're in outer space, in which case necromancy doesn't work, so then you'll need to use your rapier or a good old-fashioned laser rifle.

The world-building is really fascinating, but one of my favorite things is how little weight the book gives to it. This is almost entirely about the plot and characters, and so we only get occasional, intriguingly suggestive nuggets that suggest exactly how this empire of the undead works, and then immediately jump back into duels of honor and occult studies.

I'm not confident about this, but based on one almost-throwaway line, I have at least a speculative idea about why this is all happening. Suppose that Einstein is right and faster-than-light travel is impossible. How, then could we possibly ever visit and colonize other galaxies, which are tens of thousands of light years away? The traditional hard-sci-fi answer is something like a generation ship: build an interstellar ark, load it up with a genetically diverse population and replenishable supplies of food, water and air, set them off to their destination. One day their great-great-great-great-great-great-etc. grandchildren will arrive and set up house.

Suppose that, instead of all that, you instead sent some necromancers? Powerful undead lichs, who could stare into the void of space for an eternity? The original crew may wither and die, and then be raised again into immortal servitude, dragging their lifeless bones to and fro across the spaceship. Or they live on as zombies, their flesh wrapped tightly around their bodies, staggering on to their destination. Once they arrive, such a ship could deposit its dead, then raise them once more, restoring the first generation back to life and carry out the will of their dread lord.

Regardless of how this all got started: the system is now ruled by the Necrolord Prime, the God Emperor, the supreme source of all authority, in life and beyond the grave. Most of the book takes place during a sort of combination graduate seminar, haunted-house dare, and reality-game tournament to select the Emperor's new Lyctors, his highest-ranking lieutenants and powerful lords in their own rights. There is a little bit of a Hunger Games vibe to some of this, as the various participants react with curiosity or hostility to one another, creating informal alliances or rivalries; but it's a lot more diverse and less structured than the Hunger Games, with a big age range and not as strong of a "there can only be one" vibe.

The main protagonist, the eponymous Gideon the Ninth, is definitely my favorite, thanks mostly to her voice: I laughed a lot while reading this book, particularly in the earlier sections. Her backtalk is next-level, her running commentary delightfully sarcastic, her quips are quick and dead-on. The dialogue is very contemporary, and I'm not sure if it will age all that well - this is the sort of book where the necromancer's cavalier mutters "That's what she said!" under her breath multiple times - but it feels very fresh and vital now, and that's what matters. I was a little concerned when Gideon took her "vow of silence," but fortunately we're still privy to her inner dialogue, which is just as great as her outer one.

MEGA SPOILERS

The book seems to slightly shift genre as it goes along, making it hard to categorize, but by the back half or so it settles into being a really satisfying whodunit murder mystery. I really enjoyed how this all played out, with lots of clues and suspicion and betrayals. There are a couple of revelations that depend on information you don't know in advance, but nothing felt unrealistic, at least given the bounds of the bizarre world we're inhabiting.

I was kind of surprised that it ends up being as happy of an ending as it does. I mean, yeah, almost everyone dies, but the Emperor turns out to be a really nice guy, and things turn out well for Harrow and Gideon, all things considered. Up until the end I was prepared for it to turn out that, say, the whole thing was a ruse to kill off the Houses, or that Harrow was the main villain, or that the challenges had been infiltrated and subverted by an enemy or something.

I don't know where else to put this, so I'll say it here: most of the blurbs promoting the book make note that these are particularly lesbian space vampires. That is compelling, but overstates things somewhat: Gideon as the primary narrator does have an eye for the pretty ladies in her vicinity, but never really acts on anything. Emotions are high, meaningful glances are exchanged, but everything is very chaste through to the end. Which is fine, of course! It's still a cool and vital perspective, and ends up being less seedy than one might suspect.

END SPOILERS

The book is nicely self-contained and stands on its own, but I was pleased to see at the very end that it's actually the first entry in a planned trilogy. The writing style here is so fun that I already hunger for more, and those tantalizing morsels of backstory leave many possibilities for the plot to continue. It seems like this is the first book by the author Tamsyn Muir, which makes me all the more impressed at how ambitious and satisfying it is. I look forward to reading many more!

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Storytime

It's probably appropriate for such a twisty series like Dreamfall / The Longest Journey that I would finish in the middle. I started by playing the last entry, Dreamfall Chapters, followed that up with the first game, The Longest Journey, and just now wrapped up the connecting piece, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.


I enjoyed it a lot, but it's definitely the roughest entry in the game. That's almost entirely due to the technological limitations of its era: if I'd played it when it was first released in 2006, I probably would have been impressed by its visual design and cut-scenes; seeing it for the first time now, I'm instead mostly focused on the low polygon count and low-resolution textures. I'll complain about the tech for a while, but I should note up top that all of these issues are very easy to get past, and the underlying story and game is still great!


The game was originally released on the Xbox, and I think that drove a lot of the limitations. The game is technically more advanced than The Longest Journey: in particular, the characters are much less blocky-looking and are capable of nuanced facial expressions. The first thing you notice while playing Dreamfall is just how small each zone is, which means lots and lots of loading screens as you move around. On modern hardware, the load times are also very quick, so it isn't too annoying, but it does make the game feel really dated, and also draws more attention to how many of the quests have an annoying back-and-forth cadence: talk to a person, get the quest, go to the place, learn a thing, return to the person, get an item, return to the place, use an item, return to the person, learn a thing, return to the place, do a thing. None of that is hard or puzzle-y, and you'll see several dozen loading screens en route.


The console heritage shows itself in many ways, and Dreamfall feels like a fundamentally different type of game. The Longest Journey used a 3D engine, but was firmly in the legacy of point-and-click adventure games: there was always a fixed camera, often with a fun and unique perspective on the scene, you moved to a destination by clicking on it, and you used your mouse extensively to examine the environment and interact with items. Dreamfall (like Chapters) has a fully 3D environment and uses a behind-the-shoulders third-person camera that follows you around. The setting is still detailed and often beautiful, but does not feel nearly as artistic as TLJ did.


The controls were clearly made with a gamepad in mind, and can feel really awkward for a keyboard-and-mouse player. I had to invert the mouse axes to even make the game playable; I don't remember the last time I played a game with a third-person camera where dragging my mouse left would cause the character to look to the right. You can look up and down, but only like ten or fifteen degrees in each direction; frustratingly, particularly late in the game you're often up high above roaming enemies, and it's literally impossible to pan the camera down and see where they are. The game also has some unusual and obscure controls, like a "look at a distance" mode, which seems superfluous, up until the moment many hours later when it's necessary to proceed with the game.


Probably the most bizarre evolution from TLJ is the addition of a combat mode: every now and then you get a health bar and spar off against a series of attacking enemies. This is not done well: it's clunky and unresponsive, with you often left facing the wrong direction. The principle behind the combat seems to be a perfectly fine rock-paper-scissors design: blocking lets you bypass light attacks, light attack land before a heavy attack, and heavy attacks can break through blocks, but there doesn't seem to be any telegraphing of moves that would make the system compelling. Fortunately, the designers seem to have realized that combat isn't great, so it isn't a major element of the game. There isn't much to start off with, you can bypass much of it by sneaking or dialogue, and when you do get into a fight, it is inevitably kind of easy: just make sure you're facing the enemy and then mash heavy attacks until you win. I'm very glad that they decided to drop this element from the sequel.


The puzzles themselves also felt frustrating. I don't recall ever getting stuck in Chapters, and I only had to look up two or three things in TLJ, but I frequently needed to consult walkthroughs for Dreamfall, despite it being shorter than either of the other games. Oftentimes it turned out that there was some dumb mechanical thing I needed to do, but there were also many times when the actual puzzle was just baffling; some particular offenders included a puzzle that requires you to replicate a melody that you heard once before but can't re-listen-to without reloading a previous save, and a frustrating puzzle built around wheels and statues that I still don't understand even after following a walkthrough.


Let's see, I think that's all I have to complain about. On to the good stuff!

As with TLJ, the character animations seem ahead of their era and more than make up for the technical deficiencies in polygon count. Voice acting is also superb and helps you fall in love with these people. The music is done well, though I do kind of wish there was more of it; I do like how the music is integrated into the storyline and becomes interesting in its own right.


The inventory system is a lot lighter than in TLJ, which was also pretty light in comparison to classic 90s adventure games, which I think is a good thing: there are long stretches of the game where you don't have anything at all in your inventory, so there isn't even the temptation to start randomly combining items and using them on every possible thing in the environment to try to advance. Speaking of combining, I think there are just like one or maybe two times in the whole game when you need to combine inventory items, and it's pretty obvious when you need to do that.


While the combat system is tedious, stealth is pretty good. It's generally sensible, based on you crouching, moving in shadows, staying out of characters' line of sight, and being mindful of loud surfaces like broken glass. I also enjoyed the hacking and lockpicking minigames; these sorts of minigames are never great, but I thought these were better than most, particularly the lockpicking one. Hacking did sometimes get tedious in the later game when the puzzles get long and the timer felt too short, but there's no penalty for failure and eventually you'll get a successful run.


Of course, the big draw of this series isn't the technology or even the gameplay, it's the story and characters.

MINI SPOILERS

Here too there are some big changes from TLJ. Instead of playing as a single protagonist for the entire game, you control a variety of people. Slightly more than half of the time you play as Zoe Castillo, a bored but compassionate rich girl who get caught up in a whirl of events. I enjoyed playing as Zoe quite a lot, which I'm sure was helped by having played as her before in Dreamfall Chapters: she's extremely likeable, fairly low-key but determined, honest and resourceful. I don't think she's quite as interesting or compelling as April was; she's slightly more bland, less opinionated, funny but not as sharp as April. Continuing with my eternal mission to compare everything to Life Is Strange, I felt some echoes of the Max->Chloe transition in the April->Zoe transition; Zoe is nothing at all like Chloe personality-wise, but visually they do seem to echo each other, appearing early on in a hoodie, and donning a beanie after coming into their own; both of them are also rather lanky and confident.


We do get to play as April too, which is fun and interesting. Her life has been hard since the end of TLJ, and we're seeing the end of several years of bitterness: she still has the old spark, but is much angrier now, with an unfamiliar ruthless edge replacing her earlier wide-eyed wonder.


We also get to play as Kian Alvane, the Azadi Apostle from Sadir. Here too it was interesting to pick him up at the beginning after seeing his story end in Chapters. It feels intriguing to play as an adversary of another player character, and really compelling to operate from another literal perspective and point of view; this is played off to some great intense effect, particularly in scenes where you alternate control between two foes as they debate one another, or when you witness the same events from multiple sources.


And the last is the first: at the very start of the game's prologue, you get to play as Brian Westhouse, and witness the event that kicked off so much. This is yet another case where knowing the revelations of Chapters adds more tension to what we see in the previous entries, and makes me feel impressed at how much of this far-flung series was planned out at the start.


Several other characters return from the first game, almost all on the Arcadia side: the innkeeper, and even Roeper Klacks, delightfully transformed as a result of his defeat in the first game. It feels really nice to return to Marcuria, even though the section of the city we can now explore seems far smaller than before, and there are far fewer lands beyond the city wall to visit. Politically, the Tyrenese horde that threatened Marcuria in the first game has been defeated by the Azadi, who then set up military occupation of the city and began to proselytize their faith.


The Azadi are really interesting for many reasons. Visually, it's striking that the main Azadi ethnic group from Sadir seem to be dark-skinned, a literal contrast with the lighter-skinned inhabitants of Marcuria. My knee-jerk reaction is to go, "Yikes, you're making the 'bad guys' all black?!" But of course it's more interesting than that. When's the last time that a fantasy race of technologically superior empire-building imperials were depicted with dark skin? (Which, of course, has plenty of precedent in our own world, particularly in places like Egypt and Mali.) And Kian in particular helps us see that the Empire is complex and heterogeneous, with various factions vying against one another and using the resources of the state for good or ill.


The Azadi are also interesting in that they are very pro-religion and simultaneously very anti-magic; I think that in most fantasy those two things are usually depicted as directly correlated. They believe deeply in their goddess and their faith propels and motivates them, but it doesn't, like, give them access to clerical spells to cast lightning at their foes or anything.


The occupation in particular is a very fraught and loaded dilemma. It's impossible for me to hear April chastising Kian without me thinking that this is an allegory of America's occupation of Iraq. Yes, the Azadi defeated an evil oppressor, liberated the people, brought their superior technology and built new infrastructure. But they worship a foreign god(dess), have removed their subjects' sovereignty, and look with disdain on indigenous practices. There's a tension that cuts both ways, with the Azadi feeling that the Marcurians are insufficiently grateful for all that the Azadi have done, while the Marcurians just want the Azadi to leave and let them pursue their own destiny.


There have also been big changes in Stark: Ten years have passed since the first game, which seems to have kicked off what's now known as "The Collapse", a brief period where their equivalent of the Internet went down for some time, there was widespread chaos and death, and then society came back online, now under the firm control of an omnipresent law enforcement group called The Eye. We still have a couple of familiar faces and locations, almost entirely in the Newport neighborhood of Venice. It looks a lot grimmer and grimier now; it never really recovered from the Collapse, and the streets have been claimed by gangs and the drug trade. But it looks really cool, in a down-trodden way, with the sleazy neon signs lending a cyberpunk air to the proceedings.


I was kind of surprised by just how happy I was to see Charlie again; I didn't have strong opinions about him one way or another in TLJ, but in Dreamfall he comes off as such an incredibly good guy, and I was really pleased to see him doing so well for himself. I also had a befuddled and embarrassed reaction when I met Emma: for some reason, I had played through all of TLJ somehow thinking that Emma and Zoe were the same person! Looking back through my old post, I even mis-identified Emma in my writeup. I'm not sure why I thought that; they don't really look alike, but the graphics are different enough between TLJ and DF:C, and I knew from DF:C that Zoe and April had previously met, so my brain somehow wrangled those two together. This had all confused me earlier in DF when Zoe first hears the name "April Ryan" and doesn't seem to know who that is, leading me to speculate whether Zoe's memory had been erased or something. Anyways! Emma isn't all that crucial to the plot, but I deeply enjoyed the conversation the three of them share, and it was nice to get that character-identity problem out of the way.


It feels like a lot of this game is centered in relationships, which are fluid and evolving. It's great to see how quickly and naturally Zoe can build up a rapport with the people she meets, on both sides of the divide. There isn't a whole lot of opportunity to influence how those relationships develop; this game doesn't yet have anything close to DF:C's reactivity when it comes to expressing your feelings and having others respond. Most of the dialogue is much closer to TLJ, a more traditional flat tree where you just exhaust every prompt and then proceed. But there are a few places where you can make more meaningful choices, and while the effects are very limited, it is nice that the game recognizes those choices and offers some reactivity.


MEGA SPOILERS

The big one I noticed comes near the end, as Kian confronts April on the bridge in the swamp. In my game, I'd had April speak honestly to him during their earlier encounter outside Friar's Keep, and it was neat to hear Kian acknowledge it. I'm sure that events go down more or less the same no matter what tack you take, but just a few lines like that go a long way towards making it feel like your choices have been acknowledged.


As with all of these games, I am left with a lot of questions at the end. A big one is what the deal is with Faith's reported exhortations to "Find April Ryan - save her!" Especially since at the end you're told that you succeeded in doing such, when all the evidence within the game points to the contrary. Narratively and thematically, I think it makes sense that "save her" could mean "redeem her": we aren't meant to protect her body from harm, but to rescue her soul from the bitter and angry path it's on. But... I don't think that happens in the game, she's just as stubborn as ever at the end.


Or, was it all a trap? I do kind of like the idea that the protagonists were manipulated into carrying out their foes' goals while thinking they were doing good, which is something that happens in the other games as well. In trying to find and save April, Zoe brought her out of hiding and into more attention, and indirectly set off the chain of events that led to her being trapped. I don't think we can really ascribe that motivation to Faith, though; she's extremely isolated. Is it possible that Faith was being manipulated, by this "white woman" she references? My immediate thought was that the white woman is the white dragon, which would make sense (the dragon cares for her "sister" and has a great deal of insight); but if it is Helena Chang or someone else, then we might be witnessing multiple layers of manipulation.


Speaking of which: who is Faith? The house she occupies in the lab and in dreamtime reminded me a bit of Saga's house in Chapters, which made me wonder briefly whether they are the same person. I don't think those storylines line up, though.


I remember a lot of Chapters, but it has been over three years since I played it, so my memory is definitely fuzzy; in particular, I'm sure I overlooked some things that would have felt much more significant if I'd had the background of TLJ and Dreamfall while playing it, such as judging Na'ane's betrayal. One particular thing that struck me a lot is near the very end of Dreamfall, when Zoe's subconscious flatly (and ineffectually) warns her father, "That's NOT Reza." That was chilling! I don't remember that being followed up on in Chapters... if I recall, Reza kept watch over Zoe while she was in the coma, and they got back together once she woke up. For years I've been kicking myself for choosing to break up with Reza in Chapters, but now I wonder if I may have extricated Zoe from a tricky situation, and whether I might have missed out on a subplot that would have explained Zoe's warning.


And, casting back to TLJ: The dude at the end of Dreamfall who rescues Brian is Cortez, the guy from the first game who taught April to shift, right? I always thought that he was a "good guy," but given the disruption in the Balance that Brian brings about, maybe he's not.


Speaking of the Balance: the visual design of the Guardian (nee Gordon Holloway) in Dreamfall reminds me a lot of the First Dreamer in Chapters: they're all nude, glowing, and blue with green veining. It is interesting to think about how the Balance is related to the Dreaming. I think that the Balance is contained within the Dreaming, but the Dreaming itself is part of Storytime? I feel like I can piece this together after knowing where Chapters goes. The villains' plot (nearly?) succeeds because the big institutional powers like the Guardian and the White Dragon assume that dreams are natural: dreams are an expected event that links Stark and Arcadia. They overlook this vector, much like the Empire neglected the thermal exhaust port or Khan failed to consider the Y axis. Because they aren't expecting a threat to come from dreams, the forces from Stark are able to infiltrate from there and disrupt the Balance. But, in the end, the dreams of Stark and Arcadia are contingent within the First Dreamer. So, uh, it all works out in the end!

END SPOILERS


As I speculated / threatened years ago, I think this series works quite well when played out of order. There's a circular, cyclic construction to it, and the events in any given game act as both foreshadowing and resolution to the other two. I do want to press ahead and take another crack at Dreamfall Chapters, hopefully sooner rather than later: it's a technically smoother and more attractive game than Dreamfall, while providing great new illumination of and exploration of the wonderful characters and plots that were lovingly developed over the decades. Dreamfall may be my least favorite single entry in the series, but it's still very lovable in its own right, and made even better as part of the whole.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Caffeine Cycle

FTL is one of those games that's been in the corners of my mind for ages, that I feel undeservedly familiar with despite never playing it. In my head it's become conflated with Kerbal Space Program and other games I haven't played, registered as Something Important but very hazy.

I received it on Steam as a gift from you-know-who, uh, [checks email archive] about a year and a half ago. It's been out for seven years now so I didn't feel particular urgency to start playing it immediately, and it finally came up in my queue.


Now that I've started playing it, though, I've become rapidly addicted! It's one of those games that blooms out and colonizes my free time. Do I have an hour before supper time? Let's play some FTL! Then eat supper, then play more FTL! Wake up early the next morning, squeeze in an hour of FTL before work! It's gotten so bad now that I even picked up the (very well done) iPad version, so I can play more FTL even when I'm not at my PC.


FTL is a roguelike, a genre I'm hot and cold on, but when I'm hot I'm very, very hot: occasionally something like Sil or The Binding of Isaac will really strike me and I'll dig deep into its systems, develop strategies, set challenges for myself, continually push myself to be better and faster. It's a delicate balance: most games rely to some extent on a Skinner box of stimulus and reward, which is necessary for the fun but becomes very offputting if the manipulation is too obvious. I need a solid hook to buy in to the treadmill. For Sil it was razor-sharp design (small numbers are important!) and a graceful honoring of a beautiful legacy. For TBoI it was the weirdly macabre setting and ridiculous variety of surprising items. For FTL it's the tactical/strategic balance and the morsels of story scattered through the game. It's a thin story, but manages to be very evocative and provides plenty of hooks for me to project stories onto.


That story: You are a member of the Federation that governs this part of the galaxy. The hostile Rebels are threatening to overthrow it. Just before the game started, you acquired the Rebels' secret plans, and now they are pursuing you. You must travel through the galaxy to reach the Federation base, staying one step ahead of the inexorably encroaching Rebels, and warn them of the threat.


As with every roguelike, the map is randomly generated with each game. Each sector has a number of beacons, which are connected in a graph, and from one beacon you can jump to a number of other ones. What awaits you at each destination is a mystery. You might find an abandoned shuttle and need to decide whether to risk sending someone on board to salvage it. You might find a quarantined planet and choose whether to help them. Often you will find a hostile space ship, but you may be able to sneak past them or pay a bribe, or even hire them to delay the Rebels. The theme of the game is "risk vs. reward": bolder actions risk damaging your ship and harming your crew, but offer greater rewards than the safer paths.


There's a good, manageable number of resources to acquire. Fuel is necessary to travel between beacons. Missiles let you unleash more powerful attacks against your enemies. Drone parts let you deploy a variety of useful robots to help you. And Scrap is an all-purpose currency that lets you purchase the other resources, as well as the wide variety of weapons, drones, systems, and upgrades that you will find for sale in stores and during special events.


Besides your physical ship and equipment, you will also need to recruit and care for your crew. They can man systems to improve their performance, like firing weapons more quickly or more effectively dodging enemy fire. They can fight enemies and repair damaged systems and extinguish fires and patch holes in your hull. And, as I've just recently started to experiment with, once you have a teleporter you can transport them onto hostile ships, wreaking havoc during a fight.

You start with a small crew, typically 2-4 members depending on your starting ship, and can gain more in a variety of random ways: rescuing them from slavers, hiring them on, accepting deserters. There are a multiple alien races that each have their own abilities. Engi can repair systems quickly, but are weak in combat. Slugs have telepathic abilities and can detect enemies at a distance. Zoltan are made of energy and can provide power to the systems they man, but have fewer hit points. Mantis move quickly and fight well but are bad at repairs. Rockmen have lots of health and are immune to fire but move very slowly. And humans are all-rounders, with no drawbacks, and train skills slightly more quickly. The more a specific crew member works at a task, like running the engines or fighting, the better at it they will become. Over time I find myself getting attached to particular crew: even though they're just a small pixelated sprite, with maybe a skin tone and a hair style and a unique name, I become very invested in their well-being and concerned when they are at risk.


The gameplay of FTL is definitely the highlight, but I want to also praise its style. The music is extremely catchy and fun, and I find its various themes running through my head throughout the day; it's a retro chiptune-style sound, but higher-fidelity than you often find in the genre. The art is also retro, blocky sprite-based graphics, but not aggressively pixelated like other indie games of the era; I found it pleasant to look at even while running fullscreen on my large monitor, and the graphics on iPad look really crisp and clean. The user interface feels a little crammed at first, but I've come to love it: it's a function-over-form approach that gives you immediate hands-on access to everything you need, and secondary screens (like the Store or Ship interfaces) are uncluttered and easy to use.


One very minor complaint: It would be nice if the in-game achievements were actually Steam achievements. 

MINI SPOILERS

I had fun for my first several runs, all played on Easy mode without Advanced Edition enabled. I think I got to sector 3, then 5, then 8; that last one barely squeaked in and got stomped before even seeing the Flagship, but reaching the sector was enough to unlock some fun achievements. After that I buckled down and read some strategy, and my games have been going much more smoothly since then, with a couple of (Easy mode) victories.


Some of the principles I've found most helpful for my success have been, in rough order of priority:
  1. Try to maximize the number of beacons you visit in a sector. There's no advantage to leaving quickly, and you'll permanently miss out on the resources from beacons you didn't visit.
  2. When you enter a sector, take a look at possible routes towards the exit. You don't need to commit, but you do need to be careful of disconnected loops that will force you down a detour and then back the way you came, which will almost always result in getting caught by the Rebel fleet.
  3. Your biggest priority should generally be survival, which means disabling the most threatening aspect of the enemy ship. Generally this is their weapons, sometimes it's their drones, rarely it's their teleporter and/or medbay. Taking down shields and piloting will end the fight quicker, but it's better to fight for longer and take less damage by disabling their offense first.
  4. Very broadly, your goal is to collect as much Scrap as you can over the course of the game, so you can upgrade your ship enough to defeat the Flagship in Sector 8. As long as you aren't putting your ship and crew at undue risk, take the course that will maximize your Scrap.
  5. You have a limited amount of resources and won't be able to fully upgrade everything, so be very thoughtful and deliberate in how you spend your Scrap.
  6. But, stockpiled Scrap doesn't do you any good, so you should be periodically spending it to upgrade your systems and otherwise improve your chances.
  7. In the early Sectors, you will want to be flexible. Look for the random rewards and free drops you get, and see if there are ways you can work them into your playstyle.
  8. By the later Sectors, you should have a concept for your ship and should stay focused on it. Sell off equipment that doesn't contribute to your build, and invest in the things that will support it.
Other random strategy-esque thoughts that I've gleaned (mostly thanks to the many many years of online sources, supplemented by my own time in the game so far):

Resources

  • Killing the enemy crew and leaving the ship intact will give somewhat higher rewards than blowing up the ship. So strategies built around boarding parties can be lucrative. But you'll still need a way to deal with automated ships. (That way may just be "run away", but hopefully you have a backup weapon or something.)
  • The most expensive equipment is the Cloaking System at 150 Scrap. After I've purchased my essential upgrades, I usually like to keep this much on hand so I can buy one if it shows up in a store.
  • Trade events are profitable, so over the long run you're generally better off accepting them. Make sure you aren't dangerously short on a necessary resource as a result, though.
  • Blue-text events are usually the superior outcome, but there are a few exceptions: if they just offer escaping from a fight, you're generally better off choosing the battle and collecting Scrap.
  • Surrender offers are usually lower than what you'd get from blowing up a ship. Sometimes they turn out to be more, but over the long run you're usually better off rejecting their surrender. But if they offer a crew member or a unique weapon, and you can use them, it's usually worth accepting.

Power

  • You'll generally want to upgrade your reactor more or less in line with your systems.
  • But, you can squeeze some more power out by unpowering systems you don't need. I generally leave my Medbay inactive during a fight. You can keep Oxygen disabled for a while. Don't turn on your Teleporter if you won't be boarding, don't activate your Defense Drone if the enemy doesn't have missiles, etc. No one enemy should require you to have all of your systems fully charged. When you're tight, you can gracefully drop some Engine power.
  • So, you don't necessarily need to increase your reactor 1:1 with your system upgrades. I think I'm usually around 3 Reactor upgrades for every 4 System upgrades; during fights, keep an eye on whether you're regularly downgrading your Engines or if you are running surplus power (excessive shield bubbles, undeployed drones, unused teleporters, etc.)
  • Remember, a Zoltan is a crew member and a reactor upgrade all in one. A bargain at any price!

Ship Combat: Defense

  • Lasers are the most common enemy weapon. You'll want to have enough Shields to at least absorb the number of Lasers an enemy can shoot in a single burst. That usually means getting to level 2 by the end of Sector 1, and level 3 by Sector 5.
  • If an enemy has two of the same weapons equipped, they will fire simultaneously, which is very dangerous. Prioritize hitting their weapon system at least once. This will disrupt their firing pattern and make them fire at different times, giving your shields time to recover between volleys.
  • Missiles are the most dangerous common weapon you'll encounter. In the first sector you won't have a counter. You should prioritize disabling the weapons on these ships, but they'll still get off at least one or two shots. A Cloaking Device has a long cooldown and may not protect throughout a fight, but it will let you dodge their first missile volley. A Defense Drone is a more reliable counter for missile attacks.
  • Bombs are rarer and less deadly than missiles. You can cloak to avoid these, but have much less time to do it than with missiles. Bombs tend to have long cooldowns and don't damage your hull.
  • Beam weapons can't damage you at all if you have at least one Shield bubble. If an enemy has a Beam, you can ignore it and just worry about anything that can hit your Shield. 
  • Ion weapons also can't damage you by themselves, but they can make Lasers and Beams more threatening.
  • If an enemy can't hurt you, consider keeping it alive for a while to train your crew. You'll get a small skill increase in Shields with each hit you take to your shields, and an increase in Piloting and Engines with each successful evasion. This only works for lasers and ions, not beams. You do gain skills against Missiles and Bombs, but those are dangerous so you should end those fights early. On the weapon side, consider setting an Ion gun to autofire and disable your other weapons and drones.

Ship Combat: Offense

  • If you have a Beam, you'll definitely want to disable Autofire. Keep your Beam on cooldown, pause the game whenever you attack with lasers or similar weapons, and use it the instant their shields go down. 
  • If you're just using Lasers, autofire is generally safe. I'll usually prioritize hitting the Weapons until they're red, then Piloting, and finally Shields. Enemies will probably repair systems, so keep an eye open and shift targets as they come back online.
  • I usually try and hold my Missiles in reserve for the Flagship. They can be very effective in knocking out a threatening system at the start of a fight, like if they have their own Missiles, but note than in later sectors enemies tend to have very high Evasion.
  • It is very handy to see enemy crew. I'll usually try to get a Slug early on for this purpose; upgraded Sensors are good too, but don't work in Nebulae. You'll generally want to focus your damaging weapons (lasers, missiles) on rooms that have crew inside: this can kill them, or force them to run to the medbay, in either case diminishing their systems.

 Hand-to-Hand Combat: Defense

  • When enemies board you, the most effective response is usually to vent. Turn off your oxygen and open all the doors between them and the nearest airlock. Move your dudes to a safer location if you can. The enemies will start to attack a system, but once the oxygen drops (and before they destroy the system) they will attempt to flee to an oxygenated area. If you have upgraded doors, this will take them some time. They may asphyxiate before reaching you, or at least be badly wounded. When you do need to fight them, try to do so in your Medbay with at least 1 power: you will heal just as quickly as they damage you.
  • If enemies teleported onto you, they will flee once they reach low health. You can trap them on your ship by ionizing or damaging their teleporter. If they make it back, they will try to heal in their medbay if they have one, and then return to your ship. You can slow this process down by damaging their Medbay, setting it on fire, ionizing it, etc.
  • Enemies on board your ship will travel with you when you jump. Usually you will want to finish the fight and heal everyone on your ship before jumping, but in certain cases (like during a solar flare or in the final phase of the Flagship fight), it can be better to jump to a safe location and handle them there.
Hand-to-Hand Combat: Offense
  •  Make sure you have enough crew left. I'll usually only start sending boarding parties once I have at least 5 crew members. You'll almost always want a 2-person boarding crew, although 1-person may be situationally fine if you can kill other enemies with weapons or they can't reinforce a position.
  • Rockmen and Mantis are probably the best boarders: Rockmen have lots of health and Mantis get a bonus to fighting. Engi and Zoltan are bad boarders. Everyone else is fine.
  • You'll want a clear view of the ship interior before boarding. Don't get into a situation where your crew will be overwhelmed and killed before your teleporter comes off cooldown. In particular, avoid boarding ships with multiple Mantis. If the enemy has a Medbay, don't board until you've disabled it.
  • You'll usually want to board into a 2-square room, which keeps the enemy from outnumbering you. The specific room doesn't matter much. An unoccupied room far away may be helpful as it will take the enemy longer to reach and leave their stations unmanned for longer; you'll almost never be able to destroy a system, though.
  • Have a clear objective for your boarders. If you intend to kill all the crew, disable any Offense Drones so you don't hit your own people (and, obviously, don't target lasers on rooms your guys are in). If you just want to wreak havoc, an Offense Drone is fine, just make sure your guys can take a friendly fire hit or two.
  • Remember that you can make multiple sorties onto an enemy ship. The timing usually works out well to teleport back, run to the medbay, heal up, return to the teleporter, and finish the cooldown so you can beam back. Enemies can't heal unless they have a medbay. So, even if they have 3 crew and you have 2, you can probably kill them over two visits.
  • If the enemy ship blows up or is destroyed, your boarders will be gone for good! If their hull is getting low or their drive is charging up, GTFO.

Upgrade Priorities

  • These will vary a lot from one run to the next depending on your starting loadout and early events.
  • Getting a second shield bubble helps a ton with survivability.
  • Save up enough for either a Cloak or a Drone System + Defense Drone to deal with Missiles.
  • Maintain enough damage output to take down enemy ships. This actually may not take very much! A single source of Hull damage is sufficient if you can keep their Shields down.
  • Upgrading your Medbay and Sensors aren't very important mechanically, but do unlock some very nice blue-text events, so they're worth doing.
  • Upgrading your Doors and Oxygen at least one level helps with enemy hacks, but you don't need to worry about this until later in your run.
  • You'll want to upgrade your reactor along with your systems, but not necessarily 1:1, since you'll situationally be able to power down and up systems.
  • Improving your Engines up to level 5 gives you the most bang for your buck. There's diminishing returns and increasing costs after that, so save those final steps for after you've upgraded everything else you want. 
  • Piloting upgrades are pretty much useless if you can reliably keep a crew member in the cockpit at all times.

MEGA SPOILERS

Not really mega spoilers; this isn't exactly a spoiler-heavy game, but whatever.

My first successful ship was the Engi Cruiser A. My crew was mostly Humans with a couple of Engi and a Mantis. It was a very Drone-heavy layout, with two Combat I drones and one Defense I drone. The drones were backed up with Burst Lasers and Ion Blast, adding an Artemis Missile for the Flagship fight.


My second victory was on the iPad with a Kestrel A. I got the achievement for many different races on board so had a diverse crew in the victory. This was my first run with a Teleporter and Boarding, though I was running every system as well (Easy Mode = plenty of Scrap). I selectively boarded the Flagship to kill off the Missile technician, "kidnapped" the enemy boarders in Phase 3, then boarded them and killed off everyone except their Laser crew.

I abandoned a Slug ship playthrough on PC; I made it to Sector 5 and was doing pretty well, but made some dumb boarding choices and lost much of my crew. I'm currently progressing with an Engi game on my iPad, which isn't going as smooth as my PC run did but still has a decent shot at victory. I'm now contemplating a Stealth-based approach for future runs: so far I've always prioritized low-cooldown weapons (misses are less crippling, can hit multiple systems in quick sequence, effective way to pound through shields), but I'd like to try a run with long-cooldown weapons and a fully upgraded Cloak so I can avoid damage while charging and then hit the enemy with synchronized volleys. In my current run I sold off Burst Laser 3 and now wish I'd held onto it and given that strategy a try.

END SPOILERS

I'm having a blast with this game, and I think I still have a lot more to go. I'm currently planning to get a few more victories under my belt, then start trying the Advanced Edition mode, which adds new systems (hacking! mind control!) and races and things. I'll probably try to get at least one victory in Normal Mode, but I don't see myself ever attempting Hard. We will see, though!


It has been really cool to see what an enthusiastic and dedicated community has sprung up around this game; any time I have a question, I can see spirited discussion and analysis from years ago debating the optimal strategies and outcomes. One small downside, though, is that my extensive wiki-trawling has caused me to inadvertently spoil a few secrets of the game. It must have been such a delight to be one of the early players of FTL, finding something out that nobody had seen before. By waiting so much longer, I'm now traveling a far more well-trodden path with few mysteries. But fortunately it's still an incredibly fun path to follow, and I plan to stay on it for a while longer.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Everything Is Political

It's been a few years since the last time I plugged a Kickstarter campaign on this blog. And... it may not happen again.

One of the more surprising and encouraging trends of the last couple of years has been a resurgence in labor organizing in media companies. Numerous newsrooms have unionized, and those labor protections have proven to be the best (perhaps only?) defense against the pillage-and-burn corporate raiders who have decimated local new sources across the country. Billionaires will buy newspapers, sell off their assets, load them up with debt, lay off experienced senior reporters, back-fill their jobs with temps and freelancers, and eventually declare bankruptcy after they have extracted all value from these once-prestigious organizations. For all this country's problems, we do still have some good labor laws on the books, and having a unionized newsroom halts that process in its tracks, as new owners cannot capriciously fire their employees, making those media companies less enticing acquisitions in the first place and limiting the damage they can do even if purchased. A century ago we relied on the benevolence of plutocrats to fund "independent" news as a matter of prestige and influence; these days, a mistaken belief that all institutions must be solely oriented towards maximizing profits will degrade and destroy news, and it's up to the workers at the bottom rather than the owners at the top to stop that slide.

What I actually want to write about, though, is video games! There's been an increasing drumbeat for organizing within these companies too. Such a move is long overdue: major AAA publishers are notorious sweatshops, and we've been reading horror stories for decades about how employees at companies like Electronic Arts are expected to work hundred-hour weeks while being paid for forty, enduring crippling psychological stress and damage to their physical health and family relationships. The underlying problem of broadly classifying white-collar workers in an "exempt" category initially intended for managers is not unique to the video game industry, but that industry is particularly egregious in abusing the system and its employees. This does seem like a textbook example of necessary industrial organizing, as the market cannot solve it on its own: there's a surplus of people who want to work in the industry, leaving little financial incentive for companies to treat their workers right. None of these pushes for unionizing have actually been successful yet, but more and more attention is being paid to them at developer conferences, in politics, in the media and on social platforms, and I'm optimistic that some changes may happen in the coming years.

The latest labor story in the games world isn't about a game developer, though: it's about Kickstarter, which has played a vital role in indie-game and small-studio development over the past decade. A month ago Kickstarter fired employees who had organized a (not-yet-recognized) union in a pretty blatant act of retaliation. Like a lot of stuff in the news lately, the story started out bad, and became drastically worse when management doubled down on it, speaking out harshly on the firings and attempting to intimidate their remaining staff.

The world today is a lot more fraught than it was in 2016, but one silver lining is that folks are more politically aware and engaged these days. I can imagine a story like this just being ignored and fading away years ago, but in today's more activism-oriented environment, it has swiftly caught fire. There were widespread calls to boycott Kickstarter; interestingly, the union specifically requested people to not boycott, as they still hope to come to terms with management and keep Kickstarter healthy and more ethical in the future.

I know that I personally am finding it difficult to make pledges on Kickstarter when I know the company will take a cut of my pledge, and those profits will ultimately reward union-busters. But, the world is complicated! Those pledge cuts also fund the salaries of the brave workers who are still fighting for their union. Unlike some other organizations out there, I definitely don't want to see Kickstarter destroyed, I want to see them redeemed.

Creators are in an even trickier position. Kickstarter is by far the most popular go-to funding site; but everything is political, and by launching a new project on Kickstarter today, creators are making a statement that they're OK with the anti-labor practices there.

Fortunately, there are other choices out there! We've seen a variety of alternative crowd-funding platforms spring up in recent years, as well as alternative funding models, and some mid-sized organizations with established fanbases have started doing their crowd-funding in-house.

This is all stuff that I've been following with interest over the last month or so, but I'm specifically thinking of it now because of a very recent announcement. David Gaider is one of my all-time favorite people in the video game industry, right up there with Sid Meier, Warren Spector and Richard Garriott. He's written extensively for many of my all-time favorite games, including Baldur's Gate 2 and the Dragon Age franchise; and like my other heroes, he's also written and spoken extensively about his experiences creating games and his evolving philosophy about making them.

Anyways, he's jumped around a little in recent years: he left the Dragon Age team to become the lead writer on Anthem in its earliest stages, then left BioWare altogether to work on a yet-to-be-announced project at Beamdog (who have most famously created the Enhanced Editions of the classic BioWare Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter games). He's been working in Australia recently, and at PAX Australia he announced the first game from the new studio he founded.



Yep, that's right: a video-game musical! Chorus is checking every single one of my boxes: narrative focus, characters bursting into song at dramatic moments, and, yes, references to romance.

From following Gaider and Summerfall's Twitter in recent weeks, I'd overheard (over-read?) their angst about funding: they had been planning to run the campaign on Kickstarter, but felt they couldn't morally support it at this time, which I appreciate the heck out of. That wasn't an easy decision to make! They already had marketing plans all lined up, with specific dates in mind to make the announcement for maximum impact, and it must have been really stressful to scramble and find an alternative. Again, fortunately, there are alternatives out there, and Fig looks like a great fit. Unlike many other crowdfunding sites, this one was specifically designed for games, and was founded by veterans of the first wave of Kickstarted games like Double Fine and inXile.

That rising consciousness about ethical behavior in gaming has really exploded in the last week thanks to the catastrophic events at Blizzard's Hearthstone tournament. For those who haven't already heard: Wai Chung Ng (aka "blitzchung") is a professional Hearthstone player from Hong Kong who reached Grandmaster rank and won thousands of dollars at the recent championships tournament. In a post-game interview, he concluded by donning a gas mask (worn by protesters in Hong Kong) and saying "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!". Blizzard, who created Hearthstone and runs the official tournaments, immediately banned him, fired the people interviewing him, took back all of his prize money, and put out a statement excoriating him.

Well. People, uh, noticed!

There was an immediate outcry, which has only intensified as the week went on. Players throughout the gaming community have blasted Blizzard's actions and called for widespread boycotts of their games. In recent days, more and more professionals are voluntarily cutting off their ties with Blizzard in protest of the action. The incident has spread significantly beyond the community, though, probably because it occurred during a time when people were already paying attention to American companies censoring speech to appease the mainland Chinese government. In the week before the blitzchung incident, the NBA came under fire after it punished the general manager of the Houston Rockets for speaking in support of the Hong Kong protesters; the NBA reversed course, and those basketball games are now banned in China. A recent South Park episode similarly drew the ire of China, resulting in all mentions of the show being banned within the country.

All of this attention has led to a curiously bipartisan alignment pitting corporations against the American public and citizenry. Both the liberal Democratic Oregon senator Ron Wyden and the conservative Republican Florida senator Marco Rubio publicly criticized Blizzard's actions, rightfully asking why an American company is kowtowing to an autocratic regime and censoring the free speech of its customers. I'm shocked to be in agreement with Marco Rubio!

The most baffling thing to me has been Blizzard's silence on the matter. At first I assumed that they were scrambling to come up with a response to defuse the situation without angering China. I now think that they're waiting for it to blow over, but that seems like a mistake. Players are following through with their threats to cancel subscriptions to World of Warcraft, to uninstall Hearthstone, to fully delete their Blizzard and battle.net accounts. Other innovative strategies have emerged, such as EU customers to issue GDPR requests en masse.

I have a ton of respect for everyone who is taking these actions. It's incredibly hard to delete an account that represents many years and thousands of hours of investment in building a character, and in many cases turning away from the friends you've made on that service. Many Hearthstone players have spent hundreds of dollars or more in creating decks that will now be lost forever. There's a real sacrifice of money and time that players are making to express their protest, and I think that's every bit as impactful as an earlier generation's boycotts of businesses or marches in the street. I've been very heartened to learn that friends of mine have followed through on these promises, voting with their wallets in support of human rights. And I'm also extremely encouraged to see that current Blizzard employees are internally airing their own dissent, with organized walk-outs and direct action to express their dismay at their employer's cowardice and greed.

As for me, I find myself in the same position I so often find myself when, say, the New York Times does something idiotic: "I wish I had a subscription to cancel!" Blizzard is a bit of an oddity for me as it as a company that I have profoundly respected while never really buying any of their games. I've admired their "we'll ship it when it's ready" ethos, the opposite of Electronic Arts and other finance-driven companies that idolize release frequency over quality, their internal high bar for quality that leads them to outright cancel games that don't meet standards rather than release disappointments, and their social awareness and community responsiveness that led to Overwatch being a spectacularly diverse and inclusive game. But, my sole experience with playing Blizzard games consisted of the Shareware demo for Warcraft II, a couple of weeks playing a dwarven rogue in the original release of World of Warcraft (after being gifted the game by a coworker), and a few weeks and no money playing the initial release of Hearthstone. So, yeah, I've paid Blizzard a total of $0 over the 20 years I've played their games. I wish now that I had invested more in them back when they were a good company!

It'll be interesting to see where they go from here. It's very likely that Blizzard is just calculating that the 1+ billion potential customers in mainland China far outweigh their fanbase in the rest of the world, and they're willing to accept even widespread desertion to retain access to that market. But, they can't continue making games if their employees refuse to do it. Once again, workers ultimately have power over the means of production, and those internal debates we can't hear may be what ultimately determines what morals the company chooses to hold.

Edit: Heh, this post got results! This is why I shouldn't try and be topical on this blog, the news just moves Too Darn Fast these days. I'm still processing the latest update; apparently Blizzard has returned the seized prize money, and reduced the ban from one year to six months. My immediate reaction is to wonder why they couldn't have done this back on Tuesday. It's definitely encouraging to see that a people-driven protest movement can affect change in a multinational corporation. I also think there's still a ways to go.