Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Royals

Hey, I’ve been playing more Lord of the Rings Online! I’ll break with tradition and present a link to my screenshot album at the top of the post instead of the bottom.

This period covers my time in Enedwaith, followed by a backtrack to Eriador to complete the Level 50-51 climax of Volume I of the epic storyline. Along the way are some adventures with Bingo Boffin, a trip to the Yule Festival, and a few other random quests. As usual, there are tons of spoilers and ramblings in the album notes. A few things that felt worthy of more detailed exposition are in this post.


One thing I’ve felt mildly but consistently disappointed in has been the lack of choice in the game. As noted in earlier posts, I’ve been spoiled by BioWare, even their own MMO of Star Wars: The Old Republic, in being able to chart my character’s course. I get why this is the case: to their great credit, Turbine is creating a game steeped in Tolkien’s values, so there’s no option to join the “dark side” or aid Sauron’s forces or any nonsense like that.

MINI SPOILERS

Recently, though, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the introduction of a few choices. They’re minor, but significant to me, and presented in a thoughtful way. One came during the early part of the Grey Company’s epic storyline, where you travel throughout Eriador to summon the various Rangers to travel to Rohan. Most of this is completely rote: travel to a spot, talk to a ranger, do a short quest for them, and then move on to the next. The interesting one, though, came with a ranger who was stationed in the Shire. He’s fallen in love with the people there, and wonders aloud whether he should leave. In either case, he wants you to bring the news to a hobbit who has been asking after his plans: one Lotho Sackville-Baggins.

Lotho? That rang a bell… wasn’t he a bad hobbit? I did a quick wiki search, and was confirmed in my suspicion: during the Scouring of the Shire, Lotho (aka Pimple) seizes control of the Shire, and his thugs enforce “Sharkey’s” (aka Saruman’s) malevolent designs.

Now, I don’t expect that my choice here will affect the ultimate outcome of the story - it isn’t like they’ll decide whether to scour the Shire or not based on one decision way back at Level 50. But it’s exactly this type of choice that’s perfect for the game and the story. There isn’t a “good” or a “bad” choice here. In one direction, you urge the Ranger to fulfill his duty, travel to the aid of his liege and kin, and trust that the hobbits can look after themselves. In the other direction, you urge the Ranger to follow the direction of his heart, and lend his sword to the people who need him most. While there may not be a major gameplay consequence, it’s a decision that will resonate as the story continues. Whenever the Grey Company faces obstacles, I’ll wonder if they would fare better with one more talented warrior by their side. Whenever I travel back through Brockenborings, I’ll feel a little happier knowing that at least one Dunedain remains to look after the little folks.


The second choice was even more interesting. The Yule Festival is pretty different from any of the other ones I’ve been to before. The Spring, Summer, and Harvest festivals have all taken place at the standard fairgrounds for the four races. Yule, however, is a bit more like the Treasure Hunt in that it takes place in an entirely new area. This new areas is considerably more developed, though, with a mayor and economy and traditions.

You tour the village on your arrival, and get a sense for its purpose. This is, to put it bluntly, a tourist town. They host festivals to attract out-of-towners like yourself. As you speak with more of the inhabitants and explore off the beaten path, though, you realize that it isn’t nearly as idyllic as it initially appears. The Mayor, in his quest to make a picture-perfect town, has quietly swept the undesirable beggars out to the far reaches of town. He squeezes the workers to work harder for less pay, so he can put on a bigger show for the visiting patrons.


Many of the yule quests have the same structure as the other seasonal festivals. There are quests to collect things (parts to build a snowman!), quests to defeat things (collect branches from ambulatory trees!), and entertaining bits of busy-work (bake bread! clean up dirty trash!). My favorite is a new innovation: the GLOBE theater (Green Lily Orators, Bards, and Entertainers), run by an enterprising troupe of hobbits. Impressively, the game recruits actual players to play roles within the play, while other players watch and show their approval or disdain by tossing rose-petals and rotten fruit respectively. (I gave an exemplary performance in my role as Partygoer!)

Now: I tend to say that you don’t have a choice in quests in LOTRO, but there really is one choice in every quest: whether to take it or not. For the most part, that isn’t really a choice at all; or, if the answer is “no”, it’s for mechanical rather than story reasons (it would take you too far out of your way, or take too much time, for too small of rewards). In the Yule festival, though, there are some quests that you’ll think twice before accepting. One quest, offered by the striking workers, asks you to give your hard-earned tokens to the unemployed. There aren’t any rewards to speak of for this; it effectively undos the rewards you would get from one of the other “real” quests. The only benefit is you feeling good about yourself. Conversely, there’s also a quest to shoo the undesirables off of the street. This is an easy job, with good rewards, and no negative consequences, other than possibly thinking less of yourself.

After the first day, I returned to the town, to find that the game had now progressed to presenting an actual mutually-exclusive choice. The Mayor asks you to infiltrate the workers and find information that would embarrass them into ending their strike. The workers, in turn, ask you to help uncover malfeasance in the Mayor’s administration and ultimately convince him to re-hire the proletariat at their original wages.

This was FASCINATING. For starters, it’s an asymmetric choice. The rewards you get from siding with the Mayor are MUCH better than siding with the workers; the poor only offer you shabby clothing and a unique title. This dynamic reminded me much more of the choices that Failbetter Games offers, where you feel compelled to take the “good” choice despite knowing that it offers fewer rewards; and the fact that it offers fewer rewards, curiously, makes you feel even better about taking it, as if it’s saying something positive about you as a human being rather than as a character in a game.

It was also surprising for its on-the-nose portrayal of inequality. I’m curious to see what year this was added to the game, but it must have been sometime after the 2008 financial crisis. LOTRO is a fantasy game, but in this one scene it feels a little like a small metaphor for the very real problems that people in the real world are facing.

It’s a delicate thing to present, and I’m a bit surprised that they attempted it at all. Tolkien isn’t particularly interested in poverty in his books, and in real life he was fairly anti-socialist (particularly later in life). But he was even more irritated at the factory-owners and industry titans, and you can sense that deep-rooted antipathy in (e.g.) his descriptions of Saruman overseeing the “factories” of Isengard or the Shire. Tolkien would have preferred that the factories be shut down entirely rather than turned over to the workers, but it isn’t necessarily out of character to offer this kind of story in Middle-earth.

Okay! So, yeah. That’s a grand total of two interesting choices in, uh, about ten months of gameplay. I’m curious to see if this pace continues in the future.

MEGA SPOILERS

As I noted before, one of the difficult things about playing this game as an MMORPG is how fragmented the storytelling can be. I think the epic storyline is probably good, but since I only experience it in short chunks separated by long periods of time spent doing other things, it’s hard to keep it all straight.

I’m a bit happier with how the conclusion of Volume I went. Part of this might be that it was just more memorable: you spend a lot of time with a handful of characters, rather than the constantly-changing cast that was featured earlier. But I think a big part is also because I was overleveled enough to just blow through it all. By this point I was level 67, far above the level 50-51 it was originally created for, so I didn’t have to waste any time discovering new fast travel points or while moving from point A to point B, and wasn’t distracted by on-level quests along the way. I could just do story after story and see how it all ended.

And there is a LOT of story! I was a little surprised by that. Because there’s so much STUFF in an MMO, I’ve tended to assume that it was filling out and covering up an anemic central plot. It’s complex enough to be the central thread of a single-player RPG, though.

I’ll probably go into this in more detail in the album, so I’ll refrain from the blow-by-blow recap here. But here are some musings on how well it worked for me big-picture:

The final conclusion to Volume I was very affecting. I was a little gun-shy at first after the Lorniel episode; I worried that Amarthiel was getting more development just to get shot down. That was… kind of true, I guess, but I ended up sort of loving how it was handled.


The whole arc with Laerdan and Amarthiel/Narmeleth is such a wonderfully Tolkienesque story. Its tragedy feels very much like something out of The Silmarillion: most of the tales in that book are stories of things getting worse and worse, of hopes being betrayed, of pride destroying chances of happiness. And yet, its conclusion rests on some of the values that Tolkien held most dear. It’s a story of confession, of redemption, of mercy, of sacrifice. Amariel can’t undo the deeds that she’s done, but her soul is saved, thanks to the hard work of others and her humility in accepting her own limits. (I hadn’t thought of it in these terms while playing, but it’s a very Catholic story as well.) Part of me wishes that Amariel had lived and could do more cool things, but as it stands she’s the most memorable original character in this game, and I’m happy with the emphatic conclusion to her story.


That kind of devotion to Tolkien’s themes is even more important to me than their admirable respect towards Tolkien’s lore. They bend over backwards, for example, to explain that Narchuil is NOT one of the Nine, or even one of the Seven (which I personally would have been tempted to do), but still manage to connect it to Sauron via the oblique passages describing the various other rings he crafted. And his appearance as the Gift-Lord is chilling and subtle, all the more ominous for how innocuous it appears.

END SPOILERS

As usual, the thing I love most about LOTRO is the feeling of physically inhabiting the space of Middle-earth. I’m glad that I’m now able to engage even more with the feeling of actually living there, making choices and inhabiting the emotional universe Tolkien created.


That sense of identification is strong, so much so that every once in a while I’m pulled up short by some quest I’m doing. I’m currently traveling through Enedwaith preparing the way through the Grey Company. Much of this is agreeable work - gathering allies, scouting roads, gathering supplies - but every once in a while there’s a quest like “Collect 8 Dunlending Cloaks”. Which must be done by killing Dunlendings. Which then plunges me into a miniature crisis - Dunlendings are people, too. These PARTICULAR Dunlendings are part of an army that seeks to overthrow the Free Peoples and plunge Arda into darkness, but does that mean that they can’t be reasoned with?

While the details sometimes make me question the game I’m playing, the larger picture stays clear. This is a game that presents the nuance and complexity in tribal societies, the mixture of good and bad people everywhere, or even in the same person. I was briefly annoyed recently by the revelation that a particular character wasn’t just a dwarf, but a Dourhand Dwarf. In the shorthand of this game, Longbeards = Good Dwarfs, Dourhands = Bad Dwarves. Every time you see a Dourhand, you kill it.

Except, this time, you don’t. Dourhands are rational, thinking, social creatures, just like you or me. This particular person was unhappy with the actions of several of his comrades, and works with you to undo the damage done. That really touched me - it’s just a single character out of the thousands of faceless foes, granted, but one is all it takes to show that genetics aren’t destiny, that you can’t dismiss a tribe or a race as being evil because of their ancestry.

And then I remembered that, of course, this isn’t some amazing new insight that Turbine has injected into the game. One of my favorite moments in the theatrical version of Lord of the Rings is probably when Faramir comments on the Easterling slain by his forces. Up until this point, we’ve known the Easterlings as members of a faceless evil “other”, the “evil men” who are supporting Sauron and so much be stopped. But in the midst of very real suffering, he ponders this man. He had a family, and people who loved him. He didn’t think of what he was doing as evil. He had accepted the call to raise arms, just as the brave Gondorians on the western side had done.

I can’t watch this scene without thinking of Tolkien’s time as a soldier at the Battle of the Somme, when he witnessed first-hand the awful waste of war. He saw bravery and sacrifice, and made those virtues in his books; but he avoids glorifying killing and battle. After the victory of the Battle of Morannon and the destruction of the Ring, Aragorn focuses on rebuilding, and creates a stable peace that endures beyond the end of his reign.

That’s the endgame. Not total victory and raising your side to supremacy, but removing the essential threat facing you, and then using the gifts of wisdom and diplomacy to raise everyone around you. That’s the moral universe that Tolkien created, and it’s one that I love inhabiting.

Talk Softly...

Like basically anyone who plays PC games, I have a ridiculous backlog on Steam. And, like most people who play RPGs, mine is particularly daunting: RPGs easily run to dozens of hours in duration, with one hundred hours not out of the question. Even a handful of RPGs can represent a year's worth of commitment of gametime, creating a weird feeling of obligation or burden.

Fortunately, now that my work on The Caldecott Caper is winding down to bug-fixing mode and the holiday break is affording more time for leisure, I'm finally able to start playing through some of these games that I've meant to play for ages. First up on the list: South Park: The Stick of Truth!


Some background: In my entire life, I've probably seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 episodes of South Park. That's scattered over the entire duration of the show: it made a big splash when it premiered during my high school years, was an occasional staple of late-night dorm TV watching in college, and every once in a while I'll sit down and watch a particular modern episode which has entered the zeitgeist. I have a weird relationship with the show: I enjoy it, but only in tiny morsels. It's so deliberately gross that I can feel physically ill after watching more than one episode, even if I do find it funny.

I've always enjoyed their marquee events, from the musical movie Bigger Longer and Uncut to their epic storylines riffing on Lord of the Rings, the capture of Saddam Hussein, or... heck, there's way too much to cover here. The game received positive reviews, and I tend to really enjoy Obsidian's games. This one was particularly interesting because, unlike many of Obsidian's earlier games, they didn't have a publisher pressuring them to release it in an early and unfinished state.

The end product was fantastic: both as a South Park episode, and as a video game, and as a South Park role-playing game. It has lots of great references that fans of the show will enjoy, but they aren't just trotted out as signposts: an original and engaging story is built up around them, and the writers bring new dimensions to previously-told events and characters.

What I personally enjoyed even more, though, was the way the game plays with RPG tropes. Obsidian is uniquely positioned to do this; these developers started back in the days of Interplay, and are not merely familiar with the tropes of the genre, but helped create many of those tropes in the first place. The sparkling combination of irreverence and complete mastery of the subject matter is a hallmark of South Park. Even when it feels like the show is viciously attacking something dear to your heart, you can't help but admire them, because they clearly know everything there is to know about what they're criticizing.

MINI SPOILERS

One of the very earliest examples comes near the beginning, when you need to choose a class for your character. Like every fantasy RPG ever, your choices are Fighter, Mage, and Thief. And, because this is South Park, the fourth class is Jew. Needless to say, I chose the latter. It was awesome. It isn't just a one-off joke, but has an entire (ridiculous) fully-developed progression track, with upgraded abilities and items and cosmetic equipment. You can attack enemies in a sensitive area with your imzel, call down plagues upon them, grow out your forelocks, and wear a variety of blue-and-white garbs.


The part of the game that made me laugh most was probably a segment on a space ship. As part of your exploration, you come across audio logs. But all of the audio logs are from a guy complaining about all of the audio logs he's finding on the ship. "Oh, God, they're coming, why am I standing here making this audio log?" "I've looked everywhere but I can't find anything to eat or a clue to get me off the ship. Just more audio logs! They're everywhere! For some reason I listened to every minute of every one of them, thinking there'd be some useful information but...it's like they're just filler! Useless filler! This filler is driving me into madness!" "Okay, I did find one audio log that was mildly amusing. A woman trapped on this ship left an audio log about some paper she had left in an alien cabin and she told me the code was 776. That was kinda cool, because I didn't know the code before that... But when I opened the cabin there was only some kind of power up I didn't really need."

The whole time I was listening to those and laughing, I kept thinking about System Shock 2. It is one of my all-time favorite games, but also the game that single-handedly initiated the use of audio logs as this kind of ancillary story-telling device. Again, it's such a perfect South Park thing to do: it feels a little like they've ruined part of System Shock for me, but it's also kind of hard to disagree with their analysis, and it's presented in an extremely funny way.

Not everything is polemical, though: a lot is just straight-up goofy. There's a fantastic sequence late in the game where you travel to the distant land of Canada. I was delighted to see the country presented as a terrific top-down 8-bit game, like The Legend of Zelda. It's perfectly in keeping with the show's well-developed antipathy towards primitive Canadians, and perfectly expressed in this video game medium. The overall concept is great, but so are all of the little details: smashing pots to collect maple leafs and Canadian gems, sailing in a boat to an island, wandering into people's houses.


They also do a fantastic job at fully embracing the tropes they're echoing. 90% of RPGs feature you as a special person with unique abilities who is responsible for saving your land/world, and Stick of Truth follows in that tradition. But they just go for broke here, revealing that you are the "Dovakiin" whose "Dragon Shout" is a unique power that everyone wants. (In case you aren't familiar, that is exactly the plot and terminology of Skyrim, the most popular and best-selling FRPG of the current generation.)

END SPOILERS

So, the story and humor are great. How is the gameplay?

Pretty good! From a pure mechanical level, I'd say it's one of the better modern RPGs: there are things about it that slightly annoyed me, but those are mainly issued with the genre more than this specific game. The overall progression is very well done, with you gradually learning more abilities and techniques as you progress throughout the game. Leveling is very fast with absolutely no grinding necessary. (And maybe not even possible, though I never tried exploring the forest.) I do feel like leveling might have been too fast, or more specifically that you outlevel your equipment VERY quickly. After pretty much every major story beat, you've gained a level and new gear. I kind of would have preferred a smaller amount of equipment (items and/or slots) to minimize time spent futzing around in the inventory screen; but again, that's a key element of RPGs, and South Park is far better than many other modern games I could mention in that respect.


The money curve isn't great, although again it's much better than (e.g.) any of the Elder Scrolls games. There's some stuff worth buying; I picked up a couple of Speed Potions (coffee drinks), and occasionally some gear. There's so much money available that there's no reason not to buy stuff, which I guess is good, but also makes money feel a bit pointless. What's great about the economy here, though, is the Junk category. Like many RPGs, a lot of the stuff you pick up only exists to be sold. Where most RPGs feature things like "broken scabbards" and "agate gemstones," though, the Junk category here is hilarious: hundreds of items referring back to prior events on the show, such as copies of "What Happened To My School?" and Mr. Twig and blobs of stemcells and a Sarcastaball trophy. The money itself might be boring, but reading the item descriptions while you sell them is not.

One really fantastic element was that this isn't just an RPG; it's more of an adventure-RPG. The most enjoyable part of the game was probably the various environmental puzzles. Many of these are linked to combat: while you can fight your way through enemies, you can often discover alternate ways to defeat them by using the level to your advantage. You can knock over lanterns, ignite fireballs, electrify puddles of water, topple obstacles, and so on. Sometimes figuring out these alternate solutions took longer than just fighting them would have been, but it always felt much more satisfying to solve the puzzle and beat them that way.


Character personalization is really interesting. There's a mix of slots. Some of them directly impact gameplay as well as your appearance: weapon, shirt, hat, glove. Others are purely cosmetic (except for a handful of brief quests): face makeup, wig, eyeglasses. You end up getting a huge range of appearances available, in addition to the skin tone you select at start. Because of South Park's 2D cartoonish look, these go a huge way towards creating a unique character. I mean, keep in mind that Stan and Kyle look exactly the same, but have significant personality differences, based entirely on their clothing.

I felt briefly sour at the very start of the game - despite the choice to pick my race (real race, not fantasy) and class (or, in my case, religion), you always have to play as a male. That's been one of my hobbyhorses lately, and I thought it seemed particularly dumb to restrict you to being a boy in a South Park game - since you're an unvoiced protagonist, and boys and girls look basically the same anyways, why not let people choose to play as a female?

By the end of the game, though, I was happy with the way they played with gender. First, as noted above, the cartoonish art style makes it really easy to present as whatever you want: take a boy, slap a long-haired wig on him, and poof, you have a girl! This is explicitly explored within the game multiple times. As on the TV show, Princess Kenny has embraced her feminine side (and, it must be said, the rest of the friends are surprisingly serene about the transformation - the reaction is "This is Kenny's thing right now, I don't claim to totally understand it, but it seems to make her happy," which seems remarkably progressive for someone like Cartman). Later in the game, an entire arc revolves around your character disguising himself as a girl in order to infiltrate The Girls, making textual something I had been idly playing with the entire game. (And culminating in a makeover that would have been amazing if it were not for some unfortunate interactions with darker skin tones, but that's probably better to discuss in the album.)


Speaking of which: yes, of course I have an album! Here it is. Lotsa spoilers, and much more detailed ramblings about the game's plot and whatnot.

Yeah. South Park: Stick of Truth is a great game for any fans of the show, and most fans of roleplaying games. It probably would also serve as a decent introduction to the genre for people who aren't already steeped in the arcana of creating, leveling, and equipping characters. It's an RPG which perfectly captures my modern criteria for gaming: unrepetitive, with your character always learning or doing something new, progressing through an engaging story as you master the mechanics of the game.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Countdown

It's been a little while since I've written about television. Here are the shows I've seen in the second half of this year, sorted roughly from favorite to least! This list is very Netflix-heavy; per my plan, I canceled HBO Now after "my" shows were over and returned to the cheaper Netflix, which had a ridiculous number of long-awaited comedies come out in a short span of time.

Master of None might be my favorite show of the year. It feels like Aziz Ansari made an entire series about my life: what it feels like to be a single guy in your 30s, with some outward measures of success but lots of ambivalence about what you're supposed to be doing with your life. He nails modern relationships... actually, "nails" probably isn't the right word, since what Aziz does best is ask questions and explore things in a really thoughtful, funny manner. The show sometimes feels like a sunnier counterpart to Louie, and is unafraid to go for long stretches of time without jokes in order to explore something meaningful.

Jessica Jones is just ridiculously good. It solves a lot of stuff that has been irritating me lately in television and film, and does so while telling an utterly harrowing story. It's a superhero show that doesn't feel like a superhero show at all: it's a noir mystery, whose heroine just happens to have superhuman strength (which doesn't do her much good at all - we admire Jessica for her quick thinking and improvisational skills). I want more. More!

First Day of Camp accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of reviving a 15-year-old cult comedy. A lot has been written about the stunning accomplishment of bringing back all of the original cast (Bradley Cooper! Amy Poehler! H. Jon Benjamin!), but I think the more impressive deed is how well they incorporate brand-new actors and characters into the story while maintaining Wain's goofy vision. Jason Schwartzman, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, and more blend perfectly into the story, creating perfect chemistry with the rest of the cast. (My favorite part, though, still might be the stand-along David Hyde Pierce scene.)

If the three shows above did not exist, I would have no hesitation in putting W/ Bob and David at the top of the list. Like First Day of Camp, it pulls off the incredible challenge at reviving an iconic, beloved touchstone of comedy after fifteen years' absence, and manages to simultaneously bring us more of what we enjoyed and also make it feel fresh, new, and exciting. The thing that surprised me most about this was how great David Cross was in it: his performance reminded me of why I fell in love with Mr. Show in the first place. I haven't seen that voice from him in the stuff that he's done since, and I'd assumed that it was just no longer a part of him, but characters like his Some-Nonsense Judge showed that he just needed the right environment to bring it back out. And sketches like Salesman pushed the show into interesting directions, exploring unusual comedic territory.

As I always tell people, it takes a few episodes to get into the swing of Bojack Horseman. The show didn’t really start clicking for me until maybe the fifth episode or so of the first season. Fortunately, the stellar voice cast and the amazing background gags eased me past the seemingly-awkward storylines until I started to get what the show was doing, and it evolved into one of the most raw, amazingly emotionally honest shows ever. People often say that cartoons make it difficult to break outside of juvenile storytelling and audiences, but Bojack inverts that: it’s able to get away with stunning depictions of depression that would be utterly unpalatable if performed by live-action actors. The second season is even better than the first: there’s no ramping-up needed, and starts off at the same high level of performance that the first season culminated in. The show continues the best stuff from the first season (Vincent Adultman!), improves things that were already good (Mr. Peanut Butter that’s one word don’t write one word), and soars to astonishingly new highs of comedy. Hollywoo Stars And Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? just might be the funniest thing I’ve seen all year, and it still manages to plumb surprisingly deep and fraught territory in the complex rivalry between two putative friends.

Man. I really should have written an entire post on Sense8, I have MANY OPINIONS and THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about it. As with everything the Wachowskis do, it’s insanely ambitious. Like most of their works, it falls short in a lot of ways, but it’s trying to do more than just about anything, and the successes more than make up for its failures. The core idea is really fascinating to me; it seems like a perfect companion piece to The Bone Clocks, to the point where I wonder if the Wachowskis and David Mitchell were comparing notes on the transmigration of souls while collaborating on the theatrical adaptation of Cloud Atlas. The storylines were really interesting, although I kept waiting for them to all cohere in a way that they never did; the Chicago, SF, and Iceland stories formed a coherent core, while everything else felt like a detour. But they were all beautifully shot and acted detours. Occasionally the show seems to spill over into over-the-top melodrama, but it’s melodrama about topics that the Wachowskis care deeply about, and because of that it never felt manipulative or cynical. There’s a moral urgency to the show that’s incredibly rare, and while I’m not especially curious about the metaplot behind it, I AM looking forward to more expressions of radical empathy.

Orange is the New Black continues to be great. I miss seeing Lauren Lapkus, but the ensemble continues to be really strong. This is one of those rare shows that manages to surprise me: I had expected Piper’s deception towards Alex to drive the season, but it gets handled in an unexpected way. Speaking of unexpected, I defy anyone who claims that they predicted how the season ended. It is impossible! The show continues to be subtly humanist in the way it quietly grows its universe, showing who these women are and how they came to be. Who would have thought that the meth ladies would grow so sympathetic? Or that we’d learn what makes Big Boo tick? I am a little curious how they’ll keep the show going - I think that Piper’s approaching the culmination of her original term, so I wonder whether they’ll have her commit (or get accused of) a fresh crime to keep her in the slammer for longer.

After falling in love with Jessica Jones, I craved more, so I watched Daredevil. It was fine, but I really wish I had watched them in the other order. Virtually everything that JJ did right, DD does wrong, so I had to fight back a constant sense of low-grade irritation throughout the series. That said, there are a lot of things it does well. The fight scenes are absolutely amazing, some of the best choreographed conflicts I've ever seen on TV. (This is one area in which JJ falls short, though the contrast is completely believable. Daredevil isn't really a superhero. He doesn't have super-strength or super-speed or invisibility or anything: he's just a guy with better-than-average senses, who has trained ridiculously hard for his entire life. He needs to be incredibly skilled to do what he does, and his fighting style is extremely graceful and assured. By contrast, Jessica has never really needed to try hard to beat anyone: she has immense physical strength, so she just gets fights done by brute force. It isn't as interesting to watch as Daredevil's ballet, but perfectly in keeping with the character.) Daredevil's villain is extremely well-done, too. I like how you can see his evolution, how his environment helped turn him into who he is; many of his motivations and relationships are sympathetic, even while his methods are reprehensible. It's telling that he has a more honest friendship and love-life than any of the heroes. Killgrave is infinitely less sympathetic, but he is still well-developed, and ultimately the more terrifying of the two (particularly within the context of the show).

And that's it! Uh, in retrospect, when I said that this list is "Netflix-heavy" I should have said "completely dominated by Netflix". They've done an amazing job in just a few short years at realizing their ambition of becoming a competitor to HBO. And, needless to say, there's much more good television on the service that I haven't watched, not to mention the vast number of shows off the service. Who has the time?!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Road Goes Ever On and On

I’ve finished the four extant books of The Steerswoman Series. I really liked them! The series isn’t yet complete - at least two more books are planned - and there are some delicious mysteries remaining. I wanted to jot down my speculations, hence this post. Please skip if you intend to read these novels, as much of the fun comes from understanding the larger plot threads underlying the story.

I should mention that I have done exactly zero research on the series, so there’s an equally good chance that all of my conclusions are already well-established fact, or are wildly off-base.

MEGA SPOILERS

As I alluded to in my earlier post, by the end of the second book, I had narrowed down the planet’s overall situation to one of two scenarios: either we were witnessing a post-post-apocalyptic Earth, with the survivors of humanity rebuilding from a heavily mutated and irradiated wreckage; or we were witnessing the colonization of a foreign planet, with human life slowly replacing the native fauna.

Given the focus on stars and space at the end of the fourth book, I’m now fairly firmly in the second camp. My current working hypothesis is this:

A star-traveling race (let’s call them the Krue) discovered this planet. It’s perfect for supporting life, but unfortunately its native biome is too well-developed and hostile. So, they develop a vast, millennia-spanning plan to transform it to become more habitable for themselves. They create the four Guidestars and send down a small population of people to oversee the work.

Now, because the project would run for hundreds of generations, they couldn’t just leave a set of instructions or create some machines to run everything on auto-pilot. Machines break down over time, language shifts, power struggles would inevitably depose some leaders and raise others. So, the original architects focused on establishing cultural traditions that would endure over time. Oral histories, legends, creation myths, songs. These guide the people, most notably the Outskirters, to continue doing their necessary work. They do not understand (having either forgotten or never known) the purpose behind their lifestyle, but it no longer matters: it is the core part of their identity, and drives their entire society.

(This is, of course, a fascinating idea [assuming it’s right]. I’m reminded of some interesting studies on comparative religion, which observes that many aspects of religious texts that seem bizarre today make perfect sense in the context where the religion first arose. Hence why faiths from the Middle-east, where people were surrounded by hostile tribes and which required large populations to survive conflict and oversee sprawling herds, seem almost obsessed with fruitful procreation; and why native religions on remote islands, where overpopulation can lead to extinction, are more likely to embrace virgin sacrifice. Millennia-old cultural traditions exert a powerful pull on people’s actions today, extending much further than the influence of any political leader.)

I’m a little unclear on whether the original Outskirters knew what they were getting into or not. They were founded by one man who had no children and communicated with a distant lady from the stars. The original lines may have all been Krue, perhaps of a different order than the wizards. Or maybe only the founding figure was Krue, and the rest a separate population. The link is pretty strong, though. The way they tell time and distance is identical, and it seems like their original purposes align perfectly.

(Random shower thought: I wonder if “Seyoh” [the title for a chieftain of the Outskirters] is a corrupted form of CEO. That might hint at the original organizational structure of their tribes. It also fits nicely with their council/executive form of government.)

The “wizards” are the elite of the Krue: descendants of the original officers and engineers. Their responsibility is to keep the Guidestars operational and oversee Routine Bioform Clearance. Over time, though, they have waned in their stature. Corvus and Willam seem to believe that the wizards are less powerful than they were before. I suspect that they have become comfortable and stagnant in their ways. They enjoy being the elite of the planet, and have largely lost sight of their original purpose.

As for the Inner Landers… my current working theory is that Bel is right, that the Outskirters came first. After the first few cycles of Routine Bioform Clearance and Outskirter despoliation was completed and arable land was available, some people left the nomadic Outskirter tribes and started “civilization”. That explains the similarity in names used between the two cultures. I suspect that the elite Krue have been living in hidden cities (possibly bunkers or remnants of the original spacecraft); once civilization had advanced far enough, individual Krue implanted themselves as wizards. To do what, exactly? I’m not sure. Possibly to guide their society and keep them from interfering with the overarching terraforming project. Or just to get out of their bunkers and experience a different kind of life.

I’m still unclear on the internal workings and politics of the wizards. Ever since the beginning we’ve heard about the two major factions, “red” and “blue,” and the wars fought between the two. However, we’ve also since learned that Slado is a chief wizard who can command all the others. How can this be? For a while I thought that their division might just be a sham, an excuse for the Krue to start meaningless wars; this might be to keep the population in check, or to introduce new technology into their world, or to cover other actions of the wizards. But after the revelations of the fourth book, it seems very clear that (for example) the rivalry between Jannick and Olin is very real. Why, then, does everyone need to obey Slado?

I’d mentioned in my previous post that I suspected Slado wasn’t a wizard at all, but instead the name of a guiding council or a powerful artificial intelligence. That was mostly based on Corvus’s very cryptic statements about Slado, which made me think he wasn’t a real person at all. But the fourth book seems to make it very clear that he is real, and has both authority (the ability to command others) and power (the ability to destroy). My current theory is that Slado has the credentials necessary to control the Guidestars: it would explain why he was able to crash the first one, and the power he holds over the others. He’s essentially root or the sysadmin; if any wizard crosses him, he can simply cut off their access, at which point they will lose access to their most important “magic”. So he may not care about or guide their day-to-day activities very much, leaving them to fight amongst themselves; but when he makes demands, they must obey him.

So what, exactly, is Slado up to? If my theory about the extraterrestrial origin of the “humans” is correct, then the original Krue are still out there somewhere, planning to return. Kieran saw something in the sky that changed him: a star that became four stars and then one again. This seems like it must be a signal of some sort. What does it mean? As I see it, possibilities are two. Either it was a signal that the original Krue were returning; or that they would not return. (In the former case, the “star” was most likely a beacon, perhaps from an approaching ship; in the latter case, it might have been a distress signal, or perhaps a supernova.)

In either case, that knowledge changed Kieran. Perhaps he thought that, since the difficult work of rebuilding a planet was on its way to being completed, the wizards could loosen their grip on the people and let them evolve naturally. Or perhaps he came to realize that their project was hopeless, that the original architects would never return, and so it was up to them to model the sort of society they wanted to have.

Why did Slado crash the guidestar? If the ur-Krue are returning, then it may have been an act of sabotage. Perhaps he wants to rule this world, where his people have worked for so long, rather than return it to long-absent overseers. The purpose may have been to disrupt Routine Bioform Clearance, to abort or delay the project so the planet will be less desirable. Or perhaps the far Guidestar was an important element in transmitting information from the planet to the space-travelers, and by ruining it, he makes it difficult to be found or gives them concern about returning.

On the other hand, if the ur-Krue are NOT returning, then he may want to hide that fact from the other Krue. He seems to have been worried about Kieran disseminating whatever knowledge he found to the Steerswomen; if the Krue learn that they’re on their own, it may call their authority and methods into question. In this scenario, the fallen Guidestar wipes the records of Kieran’s discovery, and also makes it difficult for other Krue to learn this information themselves.

All of my speculation so far has mostly focused on the revelations in the 2nd and 4th books. The third is pretty weird, right? You could skip it entirely and the rest of the series would still make sense. But I’m sure it’s going to be crucial to the conclusion of the series.

The biggest revelation is that demons are intelligent creatures: social, with language, and some capacity for empathy. This suddenly makes the whole prospect of Routine Bioform Clearance much more complex. Humanity isn’t merely clearing out matter and native plant life; they’re committing xenocide. Xenocide against a deadly race, to be sure, but the total damage done by humanity (through the Krue and RBC) probably vastly outweighs the humans killed by demons.

At this point, it seems most likely that the demons are the native lifeform on the planet, predating the arrival of the Krue. By extension, quadrilateral symmetry most likely denotes original, native life, while bilateral symmetry is a sign of imported species. It’s POSSIBLE that the demons and the others invaded Earth, and the Krue are native earthlings who are reclaiming their planet, but that seems less likely.

One random thought I have had, though: Rowan notes that the demons seem ill-suited to walking on land. She observes that their bodies would make more sense if you imagine them swimming through the ocean. That’s a possibility, but if they are invasive species, I wonder if they may actually be suited to “swimming” through SPACE. That would also explain their acidic attack glands; I’ve had difficulty visualizing how those could would underwater, but they would be useful in space both as propellant and to break up obstacles.

In any case, though, the demons are here now. Which brings up an interesting question about the endgame: SHOULD Routine Bioform Clearance be restarted? Rowan and Bel see that it’s necessary in order to prevent a massive war between the Outskirters and the Inner Landers; but completing the original project would mean the entire destruction of all native life. If it’s possible to co-exist, then an optimal solution might actually be the cessation of RBF, with each biome maintaining its own lifeforms. That would be interesting, since it implies that Slado’s actions MAY actually be for the greater overall good (even if not intentionally so).

And, along the same lines, I’m curious how Janus’s story will end. He’s one of the better villains I’ve read lately, and Kirstein does a fantastic job at presenting his deception and treachery in stages so you’re fully horrified by his actions (capping with an over-the-top-but-thrillingly-deployed confession of cannibalism). He doesn’t show up at all in the fourth book, but he’s been too well-developed to disappear entirely. It seems likely that he has gone in search of the wizards, with the goal of restarting RBC and annihilating demons from the planet. Which, interestingly, may put him in opposition with Slado, the putative archenemy of the series.

END SPOILERS

Okay! That’s what’s bouncing around in my brain now, anyways. I’m off to read other posts and blogs on the series and see what I’ve missed!

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Steering Wheel

I've been greatly enjoying the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. In some ways it seems like a fairly traditional fantasy series, but there's some really interesting stuff going on below the surface that greatly elevates it.



MINI SPOILERS 

The overall arc of the first book, and the series as a whole, is pretty refreshing: it's a pure quest for knowledge. The goal isn't to slay a villain, or collect an artifact, or unite a kingdom. It's to understand the world better.

The titular Steerswomen are an order devoted to acquiring and disseminating knowledge. They travel throughout the world, studying the land, questioning its people, drawing conclusions from what they find.

The Steerswomen have two basic rules that define their relationship to the rest of the world. They must truthfully answer any question that anyone asks of them. And, if anyone refuses to answer a Steerswoman's question or lies to her, no Steerswoman will answer one of their questions again. Because of this, Steerswomen are generally welcomed everywhere: they have good stories to tell, can provide news, and are continually mapping the known world; navigators in particular enjoy meeting with Steerswomen, since it gives them a chance to update their charts.

Opposite of the Steerswomen are the wizards: reclusive individuals who hoard knowledge of magic, using it to advance their own power and comfort rather than to share with others. Most of the series deals with Rowan, the primary protagonist, gradually discovering the secrets of wizards, eventually surpassing their own knowledge.

One of the reasons the series was recommended to me was its refreshing presentation of gender. The world of The Steerswoman is similar to the vaguely medieval lands that are common in fantasy, with a fairly significant difference: it isn't patriarchal. This is never commented on by any characters in the book; to them, it's perfectly normal, and not something that they ever think would be different. Over time, though, we as readers are struck by how perfectly natural the Steerswoman's world seems. Women are just as likely to be fighters as men, just as likely to be leaders, just as likely to offer their arm to escort a companion.

There's been some occasionally heated back-and-forth in various fan communities about misogyny, in video games and fantasy and other cultures. One common debate revolves around the use of gendered slurs. In a typical exchange, some fans will state that those slurs make them uncomfortable and they wish they weren't part of the game/show/movie/book. Others will state that such language is important to make the work "realistic" or "gritty." And then, inevitably, someone wonders why, in a work filled with dragons and magic and time travel, are people suddenly concerned about the realism of misogynistic attitudes. Shouldn't that be one of the great options available in fantasy (or speculative fiction in general), to show what a different world would look like?

Well, The Steerswoman is that book, or at least the best example I've found of it yet. Critically, it doesn't mean that this world is a utopia where everyone is happy all the time and there is no conflict. There is still plenty of struggle and mystery and violence. But it still feels like a more equitable world, with not just legal rights upheld, but healthier fundamental attitudes between individuals.

MEGA SPOILERS

The more splashy "twist" of the book, though, is the discovery of what magic is: it's science. These books closely follow Asimov's famous maxim about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. This is very pleasurable to read in two ways. First, we as readers get a little shock of recognition once we realize what scientific principal is underlying some "spell" that the characters encounter. One of my favorites was a magically-locked chest that will hurt anyone who attempts to open it, except for Steerswomen and sailors. From the description of the chest, you can tell that it's delivering an electrical shock to people who try to open it. Why are Steerswomen unaffected, though? I puzzled over this a while, until some time later when Rowan casually notes that her boots, like those of most Steerswomen, have a gummy sole. Answers click into place and a mystery is solved: Steerswomen and sailors both wear rubber-soled footwear, and so electrical current can't conduct through to the ground.

The greater pleasure, though, is reading about the characters figuring these things out for themselves. Kirstein is a little like Neal Stephenson in the great way that she shows smart characters at work. Lesser authors will present the characters with a problem, then show how smart they are by having them immediately know the answer. Rowan isn't like that, though. Rowan will study the problem, then try something, see that it doesn't work, incorporate the details of the failure back into her understanding of the problem, consider alternatives, produce an alternate theory, try that, see that it works, then repeat and verify. You get to see every stage of the process, from pure bafflement through to mastery, which is incredibly fun to follow.

There are still mysteries to solve; I haven't finished the books yet, and the main thing I'm curious about is exactly what the relationship is between the "normal" life of the inner lands and the hostile life of the prairie. As I see it, possibilities are two. Either this is an alien planet, being colonized by humans or human-like creatures; or this is a post-post-apocalyptic version of our planet, with massively radiated land everywhere that is slowly being reclaimed by its original inhabitants. In either case, I suspect that the wizards are directing the overall effort. And part of me thinks that "Slado" isn't a real person at all, but either an AI or some sort of council.

END SPOILERS

I'm currently getting close to the end of the third book, The Lost Steersman. (Yes, there are Steersmen as well, although they're rather rarer). Each book continues to evolve in really surprising ways; I never imagined that Rowan would be where she is or doing what she's doing at the moment. The books have been really gripping reads; I happened to pick these up as ebooks instead of my standard paper books, and have been Kindling like mad, even if it's just a few pages on the phone while I stand on the BART platform or wait in line at Trader Joe's. Ordinarily I would try to space the books out to savor them more, but at this point I'm just too eager to see how it ends.

I have another book and a bit to go before finishing the original series, and it sounds like there are a couple more books coming up. I'll probably make one more post when I wrap it all up. So far, though, this gets two very enthusiastic thumbs up from me.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Meanwhile, in Middle-earth

I haven't kept up with writing about my ongoing adventures in Lord of the Rings Online, but I have kept up with taking a ridiculous number of screenshots, so I wanted to share those here while I was still thinking of it.


First, a fun concert from way back in the summer: Rockfest 2015! This was held at the Bree festival grounds; it's much smaller than the more famous Weatherstock, but was at least as much fun. All of my favorite bands from Weatherstock performed at this one as well, the crowd was great, and there were zero server crashes! I even learned about some new real-world songs that have now entered my personal library of favorites.


As for adventure, I have two mega-albums that cover my journey from level 50 to 60-ish. First, Oh That's Pretty Part 4: this is mostly focused on the Level 50 epic quest line, including more developments in Angmar, Evendim, and other regions of Arnor.


Next, Oh That's Pretty Part 5, a frankly ridiculous album that covers my time in Moria, and then doubling back to the parts of the epic quest line I had initially skipped, most notably Forochel. It ends with me working my way south, through Lorien and towards the Great River.

That isn't even what I've been doing lately - I'm currently in Eregion, helping the Grey Company prepare the way for the northern Rangers to head south and join forces with Aragorn in Gondor. It's the first time in a while that I've been on-level for content, and I've been enjoying it a lot. Plus, I can pick up some fantastic new emotes here, including dancing, spinning, and jumping moves that will help me be an even better concert-goer!

Post-Mortem

 Part of a series on The Caldecott Caper

It’s been about two weeks since I released The Caldecott Caper into the world, and while the development is still fairly fresh in my mind, I wanted to reflect on the process of making it. I think I’ll do two post-mortems: this one, about the development process itself, and another, perhaps in early 2016, about the reception that the mod gets after more people have had a chance to play it.


WHAT WENT WELL: TECHNICAL

This isn't my first Shadowrun rodeo, and I've definitely gained many benefits from my prior experiences. I was able to build on earlier successes and use certain habits and techniques that helped development move along smoothly and minimize bugs.

STICKING TO A SCOPE


The Caper was by far the most ambitious project I’ve done yet. It’s even bigger than all three parts of Antumbra Saga combined, and probably three times bigger than the single largest installment.

Still, I think I set a realistic (if ambitious) goal for myself. I called out the aspects of the game that were most important to me: offering a romance option, telling a story that mattered, and pulling off a heist. That gave me welcome clarity when deciding which specific features should go in or out.

The scope crept a little during development, but not by much. I think it helps that I conducted the development in secret, which helped me stay focused and not need to respond to well-meaning suggestions to make it bigger or better. I was also able to successfully cut a few things that I had initially planned, after reasoning that they would be too much effort for the marginal improvements they were made. These included an optional coda to the heist, where your runaway train would be chased down by elite operatives if your suspicion had climbed too far; and a system of spoils-sharing where your payout for each run would vary based on the negotiations you held with teammates during the grand council. Both of those were mechanically interesting ideas, but I realized that they wouldn’t add a lot of fun for players. (I recently heard a quote attributed to Sid Meier: “There are games where the player is having fun, games where the designer is having fun, and games where the system is having fun.” I try to recognize when I’m veering towards one of the latter, and focus on making the former.)

DIALOGUE-FIRST DEVELOPMENT


This has been consistent through all of my Shadowrun mods, and it continues to pay off. I can surface problems early on, get a sense for whether the story is working, and establish the tone for the rest of the game. If there are any problems or I decide to cut anything, the loss is relatively small.

The biggest single benefit here was probably the submarine mission. I kept the mechanics of this intact, but completely rewrote the story from my initial draft. I had always intended this to be a creepy story, a horror showcase similar to the Armory in Eclipse or the Crypt in Corona. But I was very unhappy with how the story turned out, so I ended up redoing it from scratch. I’ve already gotten some good feedback about how the revised mission, and I think it does a much better job at accomplishing my goals.

TELESCOPED TESTING


I’ve gotten very diligent about self-testing scenes as I develop them. This is the best time to fix bugs, while everything is fresh in my mind. I make sure to run through the scenes multiple times, taking different paths and choices each time. When I see a bug, I don’t just fix it, I test the fix; surprisingly often, there will be a problem from the fix.

My alpha tester, therefore, gets to play a somewhat-stable version of the game. This was probably the most stable build going into alpha testing, which is pretty impressive and surprising, considering how much larger and more complex it was than the earlier installments. I think there was only one true game-breaking bug that halted progress, though there were a ton of smaller bugs and other gameplay feedback that I was able to incorporate.

Due to the way Steam Workshop works, there’s a steadily escalating trickle of new players coming in, which is great for spotting and fixing new bugs. I’ve acquired a fair number of “watchers” who are automatically notified when I publish a new mod, so they can see it early. I also made a post on Reddit which added a good number of initial players. I can iterate very quickly on Steam, and push out fixes as new bugs are found, so they’re already fixed when following players start.

After a few days, The Caldecott Caper had reached the top slot in the Hong Kong Workshop, which means that it appears directly within the Steam launcher for the page. This brings even more players to the game; by this point things are quite stable, but I get a lot more smaller bug reports that help me polish things even more.

I’ve learned from Antumbra Saga that there is a very long tail to the mod lifespan. I expect to get a big bump when the Hong Kong mini-campaign is released; after that, it will just be a trickle, but since I’ve had eyes on my mod for a while, it should be smooth sailing for most.

DEBUG TRIGGERS AND TEST MAPS


I’ve been using debug triggers since Corona, and I highly recommend them. A typical scene might contain 10-15 minutes of gameplay. If you have a bug near the end of that scene, you shouldn’t have to play through the whole thing to test and fix it. Instead, write a trigger that updates the scene state and puts your team in the right place so you can iterate on the fix. As an extra bonus, this makes it much easier to switch a build between debug and release versions. Instead of needing to remember where your actor spawners and such were initially located, just disable your debug trigger.

Test maps were new for Caldecott, and worked really well. I created these to test mechanical things: crew advancement, special attacks, animations. A small test map will load much more quickly than a big hub map, so this really sped up my development cycle while working on those things. After I had validated them there, I could then implement in my real scenes and just do one quick final test to ensure they were still working properly.

COMBAT BALANCE


As with Corona, I restricted myself to using the existing enemy character sheets (typically Errant, though sometimes Triad Thugs or another variation). I also looked up the karma progression for the player character and crew members in Hong Kong, then set up my own progression and crew evolution to match the same. Combat balance used to be the most challenging part of development for me, but by mirroring HBS’s design, I ended up in a good place on Caldecott.

One thing that particularly helped was the larger crew size in Caldecott. You spent most of the game with a full 4-person crew, in contrast to the Saga, where you usually only have 2 or 3. That’s mostly a historical artifact; the individual episodes in the Saga were originally written for the original Shadowrun Returns engine, which worked well with small teams, unlike the newer combat system which really benefits from larger team sizes. That lends itself to a smoother difficulty curve: you have more bodies on the field, more choices, and can take more punishment before things get really bad.

WHAT WENT WELL: CREATIVE

There's an enormous gap between thinking "Oh, that sounds cool!" at the inception of a project and actually seeing it play out in front of you on the screen. This will always be subjective, but these are things that I, as an audience of one, enjoyed.

ROMANCE


It’s too early to call this a success, but on a personal level, I was very pleased with how this turned out. It’s something I spent a lot of time on, and actually watching it play out was very rewarding. I think I avoided getting too corny, making it emotional without being overbearing. It also feels like its own thing, and I think it has a nicely distinct voice from the BioWare romances that I love so much.

LEAN DESIGN


Also on a personal level, I like the slim design of the plot. Every mission you take advances you directly towards your goal. It takes away from the more open-world feel of Dragonfall and Hong Kong, but I like the focus: it adds urgency to the plot, and (hopefully) keeps players engaged.

FOUR-CHARACTER TEAM


This seemed to hit a sweet spot for content creation. I wrote a total of 20 banters to support the various team permutations; that was a lot, but not a ridiculous amount. Players still get a choice in selecting their loadouts, which they wouldn’t get with 3 or fewer. And it was pretty easy to write 4 characters with unique voices, goals, and skills.

PLOT TWISTS AND REVERSALS


These were fun to write! Again, I’ll be waiting for the public reception, but I think they kept the game engaging and helped it feel Shadowrun-y.

WHAT WAS MIXED


I’m reluctant to call these successes or failures, but they’re things I’ve been thinking about. I’ll be keeping an eye on the forums to see how people respond to them.

VILLAINY


I may have too many villains. I specifically wanted them for the added complexity, but in retrospect, maybe it would have been better to have focused on a smaller number of them. I probably wouldn’t have included Claude if he hadn’t already been established in the Saga, and I’m not sure if he really adds all that much to the story, other than just being a villain.

There’s also a pretty wide disparity in how developed the villains are. Claude is one-dimensional, almost cartoonish, purely hateable. Kroin is also a straight-up villain: his reveal may be unexpected, but once you understand him, he really isn’t sympathetic at all. In contrast, Ava, Eriana, and Zielor are all more nuanced and complex. I like the idea that different players will have different reactions to those villains: some will hate Zielor while others might appreciate his cold efficacy. Some might view Ava as the ultimate evil, others might see her as a woman who does bad things through no malice.

I’m undecided on whether this disparity is a problem or not. Maybe it is OK to have some bad guys who are straight-up awful and others who have something more going on below the surface.

CAMEOS


As with Claude, there are some characters who I brought forward because they were available and fit into the setting and story, but who aren’t really essential. Orion and Horatio are probably the two best examples. They’re characters who I enjoyed writing, and who let me explore the ork resistance and Halferville culture respectively. I hope I don’t make a habit of bringing back characters just because it’s easy. Brand-new characters like “Doctor” Tolar were also incredibly fun, and I might have made even more if them if I had needed to fill the shoes occupied by Orion and Horatio.

On the flip side, I did NOT bring back either of my two most popular characters from the Saga, Hailey or Norton; nor the longest-running character, Kali. This was an artistic decision that I feel somewhat confident in: each of those characters got a lot of time in the spotlight, and I feel like their stories were already told well. Bringing them back would have been diminishing returns, and might even have made them seem less special. However, I know that some players will pick up the Caper specifically because they want to spend more time with them. I dunno, maybe I should have accepted the challenge of figuring out something new and cool to do with those characters and extended their stories.

The cameo I'm 100% happy with is Dorbi. I loved her in Corona, and was really glad to get more time to develop her. She never had the same sort of arc that Hailey or Kali got, and between these two games, she's become one of my favorites.

COMPANION FAVOR


Based on early feedback, this seems to be the system that people are most interested in - even more than romance!  I'm really glad to have it, but since people are responding to it, I wonder if I should have made it more complex or prominent. Its actual gameplay role is incredibly simple: people either quit, or don't, based on how much they like you. As I noted before, I want to avoid crossing the streams of character development and gameplay benefit, but if I make a similar game in the future, I might try something a bit more elaborate: maybe more opportunities to guide your companions' personalities, similar to the "hardening" system in Dragon Age: Origins.

NON-ESSENTIAL DIALOGUE


There are a lot of opportunities for filler in the game. I still might add some later, but I'm undecided on whether it would make things more fun or not. My main ideas are:

1. Adding more documentation in the world for your character to read and absorb in the course of their mission. The one place where this currently happens is on the sub mission. There would be great opportunities to do this in, e.g., the Shiawase infiltration. There's lots of great existing CalFree lore to draw on, and it would also be a great place to foreshadow some later plot developments. Or just to tell fun stand-alone stories. One of my favorite bits of Shadowrun: Hong Kong was the story of the possessed noodle machine during DeckCon 2056. It's completely unnecessary, but is a lot of fun.

2. Add a People's University terminal node that would function similarly to the Shadowland BBS in the official campaigns. This would structure the same as the BBS, with local runners chatting about various topics. Some of it could be general lore, others would react to runs and decisions previously made by the player.

Basically, I'm not sure whether "more is better". It helps flesh out the world more and provides more content; but I'm not making an open-world game anyways, so maybe it's better for me to stay focused on the main plot. I'm also not sure how tolerant players are for reading unnecessary information, although the answer seems to be "somewhere between the amount in Dragonfall and the amount in Hong Kong".

And, if more isn't better, maybe I should have edited out even more. I do think that the companion dialogues are valuable: even if they don't directly impact the primary plot, they're integral to the player's story. But the various merchants, like Orion, have a lot of dialogue that is really just for flavor. I think it's good to have, but am not completely sure.

TONE


The overall tone for Caldecott is very different from the official versions of Shadowrun we get from Catalyst (publishers of the current incarnation of the pen-and-paper game), and pretty different from that used by Harebrained Schemes. It's also slightly different from that used in Antumbra Saga; I hate using the word "adult", but for various reasons, it is. So far my subscribers seem pretty happy with it, but I'm curious if anyone will be bummed that I suddenly started swearing a lot.

Also, even the internal tone varies quite a lot over the course of the campaign. Areas like the sub are moody and grim; side-missions like the video-game creation are lighthearted and silly; some romance sections come dangerously close to being tender... I'm personally happy with the variation, since it's a lot more fun to write, and it also seems in keeping with HBS's own variations (comparing Glory's personal quest to Blitz's is a great example of their range). But I'm still waiting to see how successful I was - unlike HBS, I'm just a single writer, and I wonder if my own voice is unifying these things more than I intended.

WHAT WENT POORLY


These were things I did wrong, or obstacles I ran into, that resulted in an inferior outcome, made me lose time, or were otherwise frustrating to development. As part of this exercise, I'm trying to also identify potential solutions to those problems: I honestly don't expect to get the chance to follow any of these solutions, but they may be applicable in other ways to future projects of mine, and could also be useful to other Shadowrun modders.

DEPENDENCY ON HAREBRAINED SCHEMES


Honestly, this is the single biggest reason why I'm pretty sure this will be my last Shadowrun mod. The advantage of using the editor is that I get a ton of great stuff right out of the box: art assets, a combat engine, a scripting system, etc. The problem, though, is that they can break any of those things at any time, with no warning, with no fixes, and leave creators like me twisting in the wind. Major issues this time around included:
  • Dropping expected functionality. There was zero warning ahead of time that they would be removing all of the music from Dead Man's Switch and Dragonfall.
  • Not receiving expected fixes. Even when bugs are communicated and acknowledged, they are rarely fixed, unless they are causing problems in the official campaign (and sometimes not even then).
  • Absence of communication. Both of the above were bad enough, but if HBS had communicated up front that they would not be fixing these things, I would have bitten the bullet and released my mod a month ago. Or, if they had let me know that they would be fixed in January, I would have held off on releasing it so my first impression would be the game I wanted to release. Instead, I was left waiting and hoping for fixes that never arrived, until I finally released the mod, more out of frustration than out of joy.
And that's just the problems I've run into before releasing the campaign. Based on my experience with the Antumbra series, I can still look forward to a year of upcoming game patches breaking my mod, requiring me to strip out even more functionality or scramble to find work-arounds and fixes.

My personal solution to this will most likely be to just stop using the editor. There's a great ecosystem out there for Unity, and if I'm going to be spending this much time building something, I'd love to have it be something under my own control. (I do recognize that, like every developer everywhere, I'll still need to deal with bugs in my tools. But it will be huge to be able to choose if and when to switch to new versions of my tools, instead of having those forced on me during development and even after shipping.)

If I were to keep working in the Shadowrun editor, I think I would need to get more obnoxious about contacting HBS and following up on issues. Because of my personality, I hate nagging people, so even my monthly pinging about the availability of music felt like too much. But nothing else that I've done has seemed to work (emailing, chatting, posting in official forums, posting in unofficial forums), so more aggressive pestering of them might be necessary. Or, heck, maybe even organizing a larger group to do so - every modder is facing the same sorts of problems, so maybe a broader effort would be more successful than all of our individual ones have been.

LACK OF MECHANICAL PUZZLES


I had a bunch of these in Antumbra Saga: the statue puzzles in the caverns, the color puzzle in the crypt, and so on. They were a lot of fun to make: they break out of the standard "talk and shoot" design that dominates most of the game, and let me do some creative things with scripts. Players seemed to enjoy these... well, some of them did, and others complained, but I got more compliments than not.

In the design phase for Caldecott, I made some placeholders for where I could put puzzles: on the middle floor of Shiawase, in one of the Berkeley buildings. But when the time came to actually make those levels, I couldn't think of anything fun and cool to do. I ended up falling back on more traditional Shadowrun puzzles - finding items, using skillchecks, etc. That worked fine, but it felt like a missed opportunity.

Solution: In the future, I should decide whether or not mechanical puzzles are a priority. If they are not, I should just drop them and not waste time trying to figure out how to make them. If they are, then I should invest time during the design phase to figure out what they should be. If necessary, I can prototype during this time and experiment with puzzle types. By figuring out the puzzle type before creating the map, I can build the level around the puzzle, rather than trying to figure out what sort of puzzle will fit into this map I've already finished.

BOSS FIGHTS


There's really only one boss fight in this campaign, which comes at the very end; in contrast, Antumbra Saga had five (Site of Power, Shavarus on the docks, the Armory, Tophet, and the Battle of Shasta Dam). The one boss fight in Caldecott is good, but I really wish that I had more: boss fights, with unique mechanics and against powerful enemies, tend to be the most fun and memorable parts of tactical combat games like this. There's a lot of general fighting in Caldecott, but I suspect that most of it seems fairly rote.

I did have a half-hearted attempt at an early boss fight on the sub: there are powerful enemies, with a puzzle-style relationship between them, and some strategy about how to go after them. But, since this might be the very first mission the player can go on, it's a low-karma fight. It is interesting, but it isn't especially challenging.

Solution: Place boss fights later in the game, after players have mastered the systems and are comfortable with their party dynamics. Consider making test scenes particularly for boss fights, so you can iterate and experiment with the combat mechanics, independent of the rest of the scene's triggers.

ALPHA TESTING


I knew that The Caldecott Caper would be much bigger and more complex than its predecessors. I came up with what I thought would be a good plan: test it myself first, then give it to a single alpha tester, then share it with a larger group of people. The first two steps went great; the third step never really went anywhere. I'd made the mistake of assuming that, just because I had a fair number of watchers and followers, some of them would jump on the testing bandwagon. In practice, none of them did.

It all worked out okay in the end - as I noted in "Telescoped Testing" above, I ended up getting something like this effect after publishing. But it was a much riskier move - if there had been major bugs in the campaign, I would have much rather handled them in the quiet calm of a private alpha then the public forum of a release.

Solution: I should pro-actively seek out more testers. I'd mostly relied on Steam's watcher system, but I'm honestly not even sure how that works - maybe watchers don't get notified automatically, or maybe they don't get notified for non-public works. I made a single post requesting assistance, but it was on a low-traffic forum. In the future, I think I'd be better off recruiting testers in advance.

VIOLENCE


One thing that I'm personally a little bummed about is that, while the plot of the game is concerned with the dangers of hatred and the cyclical nature of violence, the gameplay is inescapably violent. At the end of the day, this is a game where you solve your problems by shooting your enemies in the face until they're all dead, which is at odds with the message of the story.

I really liked how Hong Kong worked in this regard - it had some mandatory combat, but you could complete many missions without firing a shot, and even the climactic battle could be ended without killing the final boss. Even better are the Torment games. The Shadowrun engine could support these sorts of games... it would be really hard, but the tools are all there.

Solution: Uncertain. This might be some soul-seeking I need to go through. Making combat-oriented games is much easier than the alternative, but that doesn't mean that it's how I should be spending my time and creativity.

HPF


(Did I mention that there are spoilers here? There are spoilers here.)

I started making this game nearly a year ago, and between its inception and completion my opinions have drifted somewhat. The biggest change is probably my opinion of the Halferville Protection Front. This is a meatier topic that I shouldn't dig into here, but essentially, the HPF was inspired by some real-world events and people. At the time I started writing, I thought it was important to separate the malicious people at the top who were driving the hatred and harm from the larger number of people at the bottom who were echoing and amplifying it. So I wrote things like the redemption story for the misguided HPF recruit in the depths who you can dissuade.

In the time since then, I've become increasingly pessimistic about "redeeming" members of hate groups. That isn't to say that we shouldn't try to do it, but I'm now more convinced that our top priority should be preventing harm, protecting the targets of abuse.

I dunno. From a story perspective, I think it works totally fine. I'm just personally more ambivalent now about the message it sends, which is kind of interesting, since that story was one of my biggest motivations in kicking off this project in the first place.

Solution: I could prevent situations like this by avoiding topical subject matter for inspiration. I technically could have rewritten this plot later to align with my current beliefs, but where do you stop with that? Would I rewrite it again in a year when my opinion evolves again? Beyond a certain point, the story takes on a life of its own: the HPF is now the HPF, and independent from its inspiration.

That's all, folks!


Phew! Thanks for indulging my endless ramblings. The Caldecott Caper was insanely hard to make, and insanely rewarding, and it feels so good to finally have it out in the world.

I'll probably release a final writeup later about the reception the Caper gets. In the meantime, I expect this blog to return to its regular pattern of half-hearted book reviews, absurdly long narratives of the video games I've played, and links to photo albums of video game screenshots. Speaking of which, geeze, I have literally over a thousand Lord of the Rings Online shots to clean up and caption. That game is so pretty!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Six Mods and a Movie

Part of a series on The Caldecott Caper.  

As I alluded to in my first Caldecott post, one huge change between Antumbra and now has been the difference in the community. I was pretty invisible in my earlier works, and never got any recognition in the various contests and featured modules and other community-level things going on. Over time, though, Antumbra Saga has held up really well and gathered a good following. I’ve also become more personally involved in the modder community, participating in forum discussions and crafting wiki articles and helping others troubleshoot their own content packs.

On the whole, it feels like the community is much smaller now than it was back in 2013. People burned out or moved on, many got discouraged after the clawback of the Dragonfall DLC, and lots were satisfied with their existing contributions. A couple of us have continued making and updating mods over time, and a small but decent trickle of new modders periodically join in, typically after major new releases.


One advantage of the smaller community has been that it feels more connected. Everyone who is active knows everyone else, at least by reputation and presence. I think that helps things feel more collegial, without the factionalism that occasionally cropped up in the early months.

It’s been really interesting to see the difference in skill sets and philosophies that people have brought. Many people are hyper-specialized. There are some fantastic artists who love nothing more than creating beautiful 2D art assets for others to include in their mods. Gearheads will obsessively work to create huge arsenals of weapons and items, without any particular purpose but in faith that someone else will find it useful.

And many people, like me, are generalists, who can work across a range of disciplines and pull things together. I still do solo work, relying on the assets created by Harebrained Schemes; but many of the biggest and most exciting mods are team efforts, with a mix of people contributing their strengths to make something great.

The philosophical differences are really interesting as well; in the early days those discussions would get rather heated, though there seems to be a greater sense of laissez faire now. I think much of the division comes down to those who primarily know Shadowrun through the pen-and-paper game, particularly the recent Cliffhanger incarnation, and those who know it from other media (video games, books, or old-school gaming).

The former camp tends to prefer an especially grimdark version of Shadowrun. They can be very strict in their interpretation, stating that every Johnson betrays the runners, that there are no heroes, that every choice should be between two bad alternatives. They often try to recreate the sort of breadth which is possible in pen-and-paper roleplaying, offering (or encouraging the development of) a staggering array of conversation reactions, mission choices, branching plot lines, etc.

I’m very much in the second camp. This group tolerates a wider range of interpretations of the Shadowrun ethos, with individual authors incorporating humor, horror, satire, drama, melodrama, or balls-out action as they see fit. Storylines tend to be more linear, sometimes using pre-made characters, other times offering a narrow array of choices.

Personally, I’ve been happy with the range of approaches modders are taking to Shadowrun. It would be incredibly boring if every user-created mod felt like a clone of the same voice and gameplay, so it’s great to see people innovating in both technical and tonal dimensions.

It’s been kind of nice to work in my own little bubble. Too often I see things over-analyzed to death, and I think design-by-committee runs the risk of sanding out the weird little personal touches that can make each UGC feel distinct and interesting. But, on the flip side, getting more voices involved in the process can introduce more new ideas and spark new creative energies. There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach, and we’ve seen good examples of mods from both solo creators and collaborative teams.

Finally, a little rundown of the structure of the community as I understand it today in late 2015:

The original gathering place for Shadowrun modders was the forums on the Shadowun Universe. This has declined a bit in stature over the years; the developers from Harebrained Schemes are almost completely absent now, and the forums have become increasingly buggy over the years. Still, it’s my personal favorite place to haunt when I want to keep tabs on the community or get feedback about something.

The Steam Workshop is by far the most popular distribution platform for completed UGC; I personally see 90% of my downloads come from here. There’s usually a huge spike in activity when Harebrained Schemes announces or releases new content, which will lead to fresh subscribers and, a few days later, a raft of new comments. People seem to have gotten much nicer over the years, with less outright trolling. It’s also a great source of bug reports.

On the modding side, the Steam forums have some activity, but much less so than Shadowrun Universe. The discussions here tend to be from completely new modders, and I think that over time most of them either drop out or move to one of the more established modding sites.

Nexus Mods hosts the DRM-free versions of mods, which are required for people who bought their game from GoG or Humble Bundle instead of Steam. It’s much smaller, both in terms of how many mods it offers and how many users it has. That said, individual users tend to be fantastic: they tend to write particularly helpful comments and are very pleasant to interact with, so I’ve been happy to continue supporting them even though it takes more time than on Steam.

Nexus Mods technically has forums as well, which are very active for major games like Elder Scrolls, but are completely defunct for Shadowrun.

The Shadowrun Wiki recently underwent a major move from the old Wikispaces site to the new Gamepedia one. A handful of people contribute, and it’s a handy reference for the data it has, but it’s far from comprehensive, and doesn’t facilitate ongoing discussion or development.

Finally, many of the larger collaborative projects have their own private sites for communication between members, such as private communities on Google Plus. I haven’t been very active in these, mostly because I’d rather archive my words someplace where everyone can see them. But I can see the appeal of these in group projects, where you would want to share a lot of information without spoiling key plot points.

My personal MO for development through Antumbra and Caldecott has been:
  • Working in a vacuum for most of the time. Scanning the forums to get a heads-up on relevant issues, and maybe posting an SOS if I run into something nasty. (This time around, it was a gross bug with crew advancement and manual saves.)
  • Once the game is close to done, using Steam to distribute a build to my alpha tester. It would also work well for a small team of testers, although I didn't find any takers this time around.
  • After I’m satisfied that the nastiest bugs are squashed, publicly publish to Steam. Stay prepared for the onslaught of new bug reports and try to turn them around ASAP.
  • Once I’ve gone for a few days without major bug reports, I determine that the build is stable enough to publish to Nexus Mods.
  • When I start actually having some free time, I’ll capture any particularly interesting or unusual knowledge and write up some wiki articles related to it. In the past this has been stuff like making a lightning storm, designing engaging combat encounters (pre-Gumbo AI), interacting with crew members during missions, and implementing crew advancement.
  • Throughout, look for people who have run into problems and try to help them to the best of my ability. (And deliberately staying out of conversations or bugs where I don’t think I would be helpful.)

On the whole, it’s served me rather well. I feel like I can give back to the community while never feeling like any obligations there are blocking me from cranking out my UGC. Lightweight contacts are the best kind!