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.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Ayo!

I talk about my "gaming queue", but the reality is that it's often more like a stack. I'll start playing a game, then be interrupted when a must-play new release comes out. I'll play that for a while, then suddenly get the urge to play a short and fun game. I'll wrap up the fun game, then finish that new release, and finally continue with the original game... at least until the next one comes along. It's even more common with books, but happens plenty with games.


My current game might have had the longest interruption period relative to the duration of the game. My total play time of The Next BIG Thing clocked in at 10 hours, according to Steam; a not-inconsiderate chunk of that time was spent being flummoxed by unintuitive puzzles. I played about 7 of those hours in late June, took a break for a few months while playing 150 hours of Divinity Original Sin 2, then played the final 3 hours in a single night in September.


It was fun! It reminds me strongly of the classic LucasArts point-and-click adventure games. There are lots of puzzles, mostly organized around inventory items (acquiring, using, and occasionally combining). This is a very zany world with lots of silly characters, funny dialogue, extremely creative visuals. The overall experience is light and fun, though with a few frustrating puzzles. There's one particular music-based puzzle that's one of the least enjoyable things I've ever encountered in an adventure game, and I've put up with a LOT of BS puzzles over my decades in the genre.


I haven't played anything from this studio before, but the game received solid reviews, and the few details I immediately gleaned sounded very promising: a politically-themed comedy with a spunky female protagonist and lots of puzzles to solve!

MINI SPOILERS

The setting ended up being a bit different than I had expected. Based mostly on the cover art, I had thought it was focused on politics, but that's actually a very minor aspect of the game: it's set in an imaginary version of Hollywood where monsters are real, and are very popular actors. There are journalistic and political threads that come out of this, but the core storylines are very much based around the Hollywood studio system.


The developers are from Spain, and it does feel like you're seeing a European conception of America, which isn't necessarily wrong but has some odd emphases. It's a more-or-less-loving tribute to the Howard Hawks era, with a hefty dose of Citizen Kane sprinkled in.


And, y'know, random stuff too. This felt very much like a game where people had a bunch of different ideas and decided to cram them all into a single story. So there's a lengthy sideplot where you're infiltrating a replica Egyptian pyramid for dubious reasons. But there's also a wonderful stretch where you're exploring your own mind and dreamscape, which I absolutely loved: I'll gladly gobble up any game where my character can plumb the depths of their subconscious.

MEGA SPOILERS

There is one major thing that gives pause to my generally positive impression of the game. It's really weird and offputting that one of the two playable protagonists sexually harassed the other in the immediate backstory. This is purely played for laughs and never treated seriously. It's even grosser that the incident ends up being whitewashed as OK because the protagonists end up together. I know that things have moved quickly in recent years, but this was a dicey storyline in 2011, and is almost unimaginable in 2019. I think I get what they were going for - a bantering screwball romantic comedy - but ugh!


To be fair, though, something may have been lost (or gained!) in translation from the original script. Not to excuse the content or dismiss the effect it may have on people, but given the generally positive and fun tone of the rest of the game, I'd like to think this was an oversight of some sort.


The main plot was pretty fun and twisty without ever getting overly complex. Partly because of that aforementioned history of harassment, I vastly preferred playing as Liz instead of Dan. I didn't expect William A. Fitzrandolph (a perfect parody of William Randolph Hearts) to become the villain, but it made sense and flowed well. I did feel like the game spread itself a bit too thinly across multiple characters; people like the Immaterial Man are introduced and don't really do much. But, again, all of these characters are unique and creative, and I think a big part of the motivation of the game was to stir all these wacky elements together, which also helps with the "whodunnit" feel of the first half of the game.

END SPOILERS

Playing this game reminded me that the adventure game genre never really died. Like a lot of people who grew up on the genre, I tend to think of the 90s as being the bright heyday of these games, then it dying and disappearing by the early 2000s, and only recently being revived on Kickstarter. But really it was only Sierra and LucasArts that went away, and both of them abandoned adventure gamers, not the other way around. Even before the retro indie wave started, the torch of classic point-and-click games has been carried by mid-sized European studios. I think those games are just as good as the classic ones; the big difference is that adventure games used to be the most expensive AAA games of their day, while today they command a fraction of the budgets of today's AAA games, but on their own they're just as long and involved and fun as the classic games. Which is exciting! My horizons are broader now than when I was a child, but it's a genre that remains close to my heart, and I need to remember that there are lots of people still making new games out there.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

There's Bodies In The Streets! This Place Isn't Free, Not Any More

And I'm done! It's been a lot of fun to dig my teeth into a big ole' RPG again; I think the last major RPG I played through to completion was Torment: Tides of Numenara, nearly two years ago. Divinity Original Sin 2 is a ton of fun, and also feels nicely distinctive in many ways from the other major western RPG franchises I've played and enjoyed in the past.


I've got a lot to say, but let's start this off with a quick run-down of what I liked and didn't liked.

The Great


Challenging and finely-tuned combat. I've mentioned this in every post before, but it bears repeating. They're always interesting and significant and worthwhile.


Creative variety in combat. It took me a while to understand that every single fight in this game is unique: it's honestly shocking how many special enemy abilities only appear in a single encounter and never after. They're much more like puzzles to solve than traditional resource-based battles, which is all the more impressive given the vast number of potential solutions. All those useless water balloons you picked up over the course of the game? It turns out that they're incredibly useful for one specific area!


Beautiful environment design. You can move through some of these areas very quickly, but I always enjoy pausing and sweeping the camera around to look at my gorgeous surroundings.


The Good


Music. I was particularly attracted to Lohse's theme and the Hall of Echoes theme. There are beautiful and haunting variations that develop over the course of the game; Lohse in particular culminates in a mesmerizing and surprising performance. The songs take on more emotional import as the game continues and your relationship to the themes strengthens.


Humor. I kind of hated the [JESTER]-specific lines, but in general I appreciated the gentle fun the game indulged in from time to time, which kept things from getting too dark and didn't undercut the drama of the game.


Plot. It's complex and weavy and interesting; I don't know that we need another "Save The World From Total Destruction" storyline, but they did some original things within that framework, and I stayed curious about and engaged in the steady trickle of revelations.


Characters. Malady is a particular highlight, super well-written and fantastically voice-acted. She's intriguing and mysterious, really funny and engaging. She shoulders a lot of exposition while making you feel like you're in on the joke. For most of the major characters in general, you get a good and distinct sense of their personality, can predict how they will react to certain situations, and feel some level of investment in their fate (but note my comments in spoilertown below). Minor characters run the gamut from intriguing to aggravating, but nobody significantly outstays their welcome.


Puzzles. I occasionally had to resort to wikis to figure them out, but usually could solve them myself. The last puzzle in the game is one of the best I've played in any RPG and has prompted me to reflect on how to better handle puzzles in any future games I work on. Too often, puzzles are just something that confuses you until it snaps into place and you've suddenly got it; this is a great multi-stage one where you can try stuff out, see how things work, fail but make progress, partially succeed, and gradually work out how to do everything you need to do.


Voice acting. I often read ahead of the dialogue and skip before the line is delivered, but none of the voices are actively annoying, and some of them (Sebille, Malady, etc.) are fantastic.

The Medium


Crafting. It's a deep and vast system, it's worthwhile, resources are limited and useful but not excessively scarce, and the UI is pretty friendly; I particularly appreciate being able to learn recipes from both books and experimentation, and having those permanently recorded. But there's paralysis with having thousands of items in your bags and not knowing whether anything has multiple uses. I would have loved some way to see what known recipes a given item is used for, and then I could more confidently decide whether to sell it, use it, or save it for later.


Sharing teammate skills. This is a really cool idea, and I wish it was more widespread. It's very helpful to share Lucky Charm when opening containers so I can do that with any character instead of always switching to Beast, and it's a great quality-of-life to not need to switch to Sebille every time I want to identify something with Loremaster. It would be nice if I could use my highest character's Wits to highlight loose objects on the map. As it stands, I feel like I'm forced to explore with my Wits character in the lead, then hand off loot items to my high-Strength character to carry, then spend time in the inventory screens dragging all the high-strength character's Wares items into my high-Bartering character's inventory before selling it. Doing all that stuff doesn't make it any more fun.


Pathing is kind of inconsistent. Followers will automatically stay out of dangerous surfaces like flames, electricity, or poison. (Nicely, undead followers prefer to walk through poison to pick up the free heals.) They will walk around the surface if they can, or just stay put if there's no safe path; sometimes that's good and sometimes it's not, but on the whole it's much better than them always dumbly crossing. Given that smartness, though, it's perplexing that party members will happily walk right over a trap after you've discovered it and shouted "I've spotted a trap!" And even with high Wits, your lead character typically doesn't spot a trap until you're almost on top of it, and you don't automatically stop moving when you spot it, so very likely to hear "I've spotted a [CLANG] [FWOOSH] ARGH!" On the plus side, though, traps are normally clustered in an area, so once you see your first trap, it's usually worthwhile to slow down and explore more cautiously; if you haven't seen any traps lately, it's usually safe to run through an area without worrying about traps.


Activating Spirit Vision. I had to resort to wiki lookups several times in Act 2 to figure out how to proceed, and almost always it was because I had to use Spirit Vision in a particular place. After a while I got used to it, and would automatically tap the icon as soon as I came across fresh corpses, which is usually (not always) what Spirit Vision is good for. I do kind of wish that Spirit Vision was just always on, so I wouldn't accidentally miss content; but it is probably more gameplay-y to have it be something you actively do than just a passive story-based power. I dunno.

The Annoying


Vast inventory. I keep harping on this, and it's by far my least favorite aspect of the game. One specific annoyance: finding a particular item, like the blackroot I needed for one of my quests. You can search for recipes, and I really wish there was a similar way to search your inventory, both when crafting and just in general.


Containers. I'm still confused why Alt highlights loose items and corpses but not containers, which is the opposite of how Infinity Engine and similar games work. It's been that way since Original Sin 1 so I'm sure it's intentional, but I'm not sure why. I feel like I'm getting too old to play hunt-the-pixel.

Repeating ambient dialogue. If you stand in the same spot in a town, you'll hear the same dialogue over and over and over and over again. This is particularly bad in places like the Driftwood Square, when you're spending what feels like hours managing inventory and keep hearing "How are you holding up, Bree?" "All right, so long as I don't think about it." AAAAARRRRRRGGGGHH.


After-combat DOT effects. There were a whole bunch of times when I would win a fight, but surviving party members would still be on fire or poisoned or bleeding or whatever, and they would die after winning and before I could heal them. It's pretty frustrating to be shoved right back into non-pausable real-time mode after so carefully and successfully managing everyone during a long turn-based fight. I eventually started addressing this by keeping a bedroll in my quick-action bar and tapping it after combat, but this doesn't always work. If the party is too scattered, or if the one carrying the bedroll died, then I won't be able to quick-heal. The worst is when you're forced to talk at the conclusion of a fight and your party bleeds out while you're stuck in the conversation interface.


Okay, I have a lot more stuff to talk about! Let's jump directly into the

MEGA SPOILERS


Let's talk about romance!


I mentioned in an earlier post that I wasn't sure if this game had "real" romance arcs, or just the occasional option to flirt. Welp, it turns out that there is true romance. It feels a little underweighted, particularly early in the game, which I think is at least partly because of the sheer scope of the game: if you're playing for 100+ hours, romance will necessarily just be a small fraction of that. Early on I often wished there was more content. At least in my romance (playing as Lohse, romancing Sebille) it was pretty much just saying occasional nice things when the opportunity presented itself, then eventually reading about some kissing. That said, it's a recurring complaint of mine for any RPG: I always want more, more, more romance. Which does seem like an unfair burden for a roleplaying game to bear; I should probably play romance games if I want more romance!


I do need to say, though, that that was a great sex scene! It's maybe one of the best I've come across in a game. Visually, it's weird and laughable: you're reading text about sexy stuff going on with your naked bodies while visually the two characters are silently staring at one another while wearing full suits of plated metal armor. But that text is terrific, way more explicit than I was expecting. In some ways it's an opposite presentation from BioWare, which is visually much more ambitious in attempting to animate sex scenes while being very light on the actual sex content, while Larian doesn't even try to do something visual but really delivers sex well (without making the encounter just about the physical connection). Oh, and there are interior choices where you can guide and respond to the action, and good attention to all of your senses like touch and taste and smell, utilizing all of the tools at a game-writer's disposal to make the experience as vivid and engaging as possible. It's so good!


Let's talk about choices!


Some of the big choices in the game feel a bit muddled, such as the part on The Nameless Isle with the conflict between the Shadow Prince and the Heart Tree. It's a big choice, and was kind of hard to make, but I felt pretty adrift and unsure about the world and the context in which it occurs, as opposed to unsure about my choice. Can I really trust these people? What are the consequences to my actions? I think the game periodically dumps new information on you right before demanding you decide something, which is probably intended to raise the stakes and make it more exciting, but generally just makes me more baffled about what is going on and why I should care.


To me, the gold standard of choice in an RPG remains Caridin's Forge in Dragon Age: Origins. I agonized over that decision for what felt like an hour precisely because the stakes felt so clear: you've spent days fighting alongside the dwarves, can viscerally feel the helplessness of their eternal battle against the Darkspawn, you've witnessed the impassive tenacity of the golems as both friend and foes, you've spoken with many dwarves who've lost loved ones, you've pieced together the horrors of the sacrifices Caridin demanded. You've really felt and experienced the stakes directly, as opposed to having them related to you through exposition, as happens in many of the significant plots of DOS2.

As another example, I'd been moderately intrigued by Beast's long-running personal arc with Justinia. Conceptually it was one of the more compelling dynamics in the game, a revolutionary uprising to overthrow an oppressive monarchy. I wish more games would feature revolutionary struggles! It would have been significantly more compelling to me if Beast wasn't himself a royal by blood, but whatever. Anyways, though, we never see any of this: we never witness Justinia's rule in action, we never spend time with Beast's comrades, we never see the dwarven homeland or get a sense for the class structure there: the entirety of the scenario is based on Beast's conversations with us. And then when it's time to make The Big Choice, Beast is just like "I don't care, do whatever you want." And Justinia is all, "I sorry :-(". It just feels really toothless. We haven't met any victims of her reign, and the choice is kind of re-framed as "vengeance or mercy?", which is a far more conventional and thus less interesting choice. I ultimately chose mercy once it's framed that way, and it doesn't really seem to matter at all: she's still deposed in the closing slides and nothing changes in the rest of the game. (Contrast this with, say, DA:O's choice of supporting Prince Bhelen or Lord Harrowmont, which had profound repercussions that affected Orzammar during your time there and significantly affected the Darkspawn threat long after the end of DA:O.)


BUT, there are other cases where the stakes in DOS2 feel significantly more vivid than in most RPGs. One is Gareth's ongoing plot. It seems like there's a clear "good" path to his storyline: you need to pass Persuasion checks to convince him to show mercy to his enemies and remain true to his calling. But this has enormous consequences! His parents get murdered as a direct consequence of the mercy he showed! There's follow-up, too, where he's understandably pissed and you can talk him down again... but by this point I was seriously questioning my own counsel to him. Why is it so important that he remain loyal to an order that we now know is thoroughly corrupt and evil? Why are we making him endure such suffering? Aren't our short-term virtuous decisions causing greater long-term evil? These stakes feel very real because we're in direct contact with these people, like Gareth and Jonathan and his parents' home and other magisters and paladins, so there's a big resonance to this storyline that (for me) was missing in some of the ostensibly "bigger" plots.


Likewise, one of the first villains we defeat is Kniles in Fort Joy. He seems like a straight-up baddie: he was responsible for creating the Silent Monks and is a gruesome sadist. In the next act, we meet his mother, an innkeeper in Driftwood, who talks proudly of her boy. Errrm... Suddenly it becomes an awkward social encounter. Do you blame her for the monster her son became? And of course you start thinking about how everyone has a mother, there is a human network around every opponent you come across. But it isn't over yet: the situation becomes even more complex once you encounter the mother's soul inside Adramahlihk's dimension. You discover that she knew her son wasn't normal, that she felt guilty and worried. She didn't want those bad feelings, and over time she instead grew proud of him. This is all really messed up and interesting! This probably wouldn't be nearly as compelling if we only had some random person delivered by exposition in the demon's dimension; it's fascinating because we've met and interacted with these people over a long period of time.


So, yeah, despite a few plots feeling underwhelming, DOS2 shows that it can strike powerful emotional and thematic notes. One of my favorite parts of this game, and something many other franchises don't do well, is reminding you of the complexities within an organization. By the time you arrive in Arx you know Dallis's plot and all the bad stuff the Magisters are up to; but, as you meet individual rank-and-file Magisters outside the city, either escaping or deceased spirits, of course most of them have no idea of the faction's true aims. Should you hold them accountable for the evil they unwittingly help commit? I appreciate the options for mercy shown here, without feeling like it's the slam-dunk right choice.


I've chatted a little about Beast above: On paper, I really dig his "fight the power!" storyline, but in practice he was honestly the most boring PC to me. I'm not entirely sure why. It feels like he has less banter and dialogue in general than the other characters. It probably also doesn't help that he has a super-boring and super-predictable Scottish Dwarven accent; the voice acting definitely isn't bad, but it feels like such a tired and hackneyed presentation of Tolkienian dwarves by now. 

In contrast, Fane really grew on me over the course of the game. Particularly in the early acts, interactions with Fane are mostly about his personality, which is really vivid: he's prickly and arrogant and condescending, which sounds awful and at first is awful but becomes surprisingly endearing over time, and it feels very earned when he finally begins to pay attention to you and value you as an individual. That's a nice change from Beast, whose interactions are always talking about people you haven't met and things you don't care about. Unlike Beast's arc, which takes place almost entirely off-screen, Fane's arc is extremely closely tied to the main plot of the game, which was surprising and makes him even more compelling of a character.

Sebille was awesome, really scary and intense. I smacked my head during the closing credits when I realized she was voiced by Alix Wilton Regan, who did a brilliant job voicing the Inquisitor in Dragon Age Inquisition: I hadn't recognized her voice during this game (acting!!), but it's the same high quality, being brought to a considerably more troubled person. Anyways, since I was intent on romancing her I constantly supported her in everything, which felt a little weird ("No, no, it's perfectly normal that you dream of stabbing out peoples' eyeballs with your needle!") but I enjoyed it. As I noted above, the romance arc felt a little abrupt or even thin early on: the gap in meaningful dialogue between "Sebille, I think you are not a terrible person" to "Lohse, you are the eternal love of my life and I will sacrifice everything to be with you" was razor-thin, but the actual content once you're in the romance felt really powerful: unlike other RPG romances that peter out or vanish after the initial sexual encounter, the arc here has some nice and meaningful development; I particularly enjoyed that at the end of the game you don't spend the rest of your lives together and happily agree to go your separate ways without turning that into a tragedy.


I liked playing as Lohse, but honestly had a difficult time getting a lock on my interpretation of her personality. Sometimes I was a straight-up "good person", other times I was like "I've suffered through a LOT and I'm gonna get some POWER around here so I can FIX ALL THESE PROBLEMS." It is a little weird to be such a semi-voiced character in the midst of full VO; unlike Origins, where you're silent, and DA2/I, where you're fully voiced, most of Lohse's lines here (with me as the PC) are silent, but some lines are still spoken. Anyways! I murdered the Doctor and that's what's important.


It's... interesting that two of the six playable characters are women, and both of their personal plots are about them being mind-controled by evil men. I'm not sure how I feel about that... it isn't necessarily a bad plot, but it does seem gendered. (n.b.: Maybe the Red Prince and/or Ifan have mind-control-based personal plots as well, in which case I withdraw my observation.) It seems particularly weird that, while Sebille and Lohse do occasionally have dialogue, they never talk about them having a similar struggle in common.


Oh: At the end of the game, I was thrown yet again by the final choice. I was expecting to be able to pick between ruling as the Divine (getting immense power and influence over Rivellon, at the cost of keeping the world vulnerable to the God King and the Voidwoken) and purging the Source (sacrificing yourselves and upending the religious hierarchy but saving the world from the Void). I was startled to see a third choice: to return the Source that Lucian had been hoarding to all the people of Rivellon. I was kind of flummoxed by this, as I don't remember it being floated as a possibility earlier in the game. As with earlier choices, I was baffled by what I was being asked: What would this mean? What were the risks? I did really dig the democratic/egalitarian sound of dispersing Source equally, so I did it.


I thought the ending was very well done. By now I feel like there's a gold standard in how to wrap up a long RPG: Have a cool final battle, have some big final choices & big final reactivity, have time to say goodbye to the most important people you've spent time with, and then have a ton of slides that describe how your various choices have affected the world. DOS2 adheres to this formula with aplomb, and I was highly satisfied with how everything wound down. (I should admit here that I know very little about the broader Divinity universe; it's my understanding that these games span over a thousand years, and they aren't told in consecutive order, so there are necessarily some limitations on how much of the world state you can alter at the end of a given game. That said, it does feel like a big impact.)

END SPOILERS


Phew! This game has been a big part of my life for months and months, and for the most part it's been a very welcome part. I can't think of another RPG whose combat I've enjoyed more, and it told a compelling story with some memorable characters. I complained at length above about some of my mechanical irritations with the game, but none of those are remotely fatal: many have to do with my own personal preferences for more streamlined gameplay, others are just nitpicky interface quirks. Playing a game this big is an investment, and at least for me, that investment paid off well. And, while this is certainly not the main point, it makes me more confident than ever that Larian will do a good job at ushering my beloved Baldur's Gate franchise into the future.

Edit: Just remembered I forgot to include my top-level stats. According to Steam, I've spent over 150 hours in the game; that does include time when I had it backgrounded while looking up wiki articles or whatever, but I think I'm definitely over 140 hours. I was playing on Classic difficulty. I had a pretty completionist playthrough, closing out almost all of my journal quests and doing every fight I could find, including optional ones; I probably could have squeezed out a bit more XP from a few places but not much. I finished the game at Level 20, hitting that value shortly before the end of the game. I had something like 250k gold pieces left at the end of the game, and I was much more generous than I typically am in RPGs when it comes to buying equipment and supplies from shops. The end!

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Take Your Stations

Most of the post-apocalyptic fiction I've consumed, particularly in recent years, features zombies. There are lots of potential apocalypses, of course: nuclear fallout, biological warfare, the rapture. No matter how you get there, the end results look similar: a much smaller remnant of humanity, struggling to survive within the carapace of the much larger race that preceded it. Easy access to the fruits of civilization; no more worrying about whether you can afford something or need permission to enter a building. But the factories are silent, the grid has powered down, and there's no way to replenish those things once they are consumed.



One of the more distinct and haunting post-apocalyptic visions I've seen lately is "Station Eleven," a novel by Emily St. John Mandel that my brother Pat gave me for my birthday. As I was reading it, I found myself making (positive) comparisons to The Walking Dead: that offered a singularly grim view of human nature and famously makes its people more monstrous than the zombies. Station Eleven's future is definitely a challenging one: besides the obvious hardships that come with the collapse of civilization, there are still dangerous people out there, using guns and violence to take what they want from the few remaining survivors. But those are the exception rather than the rule; most of the people we meet are wary but optimistic, working together for common goals, holding grudges against one another that would never boil over into bloodshed.

MINI SPOILERS

The structure of the novel is interesting too; in every piece of apocalyptic fiction that I can think of, the action starts during or after the collapse of civilization. Station Eleven, though, alternates between telling what happened in the week leading up to the catastrophe, and what is happening twenty years after. And what we're reading doesn't directly have to do with the Georgian Flu itself; we aren't following officials reading reports of the pandemic and marshaling their doomed response. Instead we follow a quiet, beautiful, mundane story about the aging actor Arthur and the constellation of people around him: ex-wives, estranged friends, adoring fans. What's especially poignant about this is how, as we return again and again from the bleak future, those mundane actions become extraordinarily meaningful. This will be the last time he argues with her, because in a week they'll both be dead. That cup of coffee will be an unimaginable luxury once international shipping breaks down. That uncomfortable airplane ride is an extraordinary achievement of man's ingenuity over the force of gravity.

The future feels somewhat familiar, as we're following a band of survivors who travel the roads on their caravan. But what's beautiful about Station Eleven is that they aren't hard-bitten mercenaries staking out territory or scientists searching for a cure. They are artists: musicians and actors. They travel with their musical instruments and costumes and props and backdrops. We learn that, after the early anarchic bloody years that immediately followed the Georgian Flu outbreak, survivors have started forming small villages and settlements: a roadside motel, a big-box store, a ranch house. The Shakespearean acting company and orchestra travels between these hamlets, putting on plays and performing symphonies. It's strange and wonderful.

I think what I ultimately love about Station Eleven is that it doesn't just answer the "what" and the "how" of surviving the apocalypse, but the "why". One recurring message in this novel, quoting Star Trek, is "Survival is insufficient." There's a primal hunger for art, for stories, for producing and performing for others, for witnessing the art that others create. The nihilistic message of works like The Walking Dead is that we're all ultimately animals, that when you strip away the trappings of civilization you uncover the ugly truth beneath. Station Eleven makes it clear that we're not animals, that we carry within us the spark of beauty and creation, and it's that spark that helps drive us towards creating society, towards building civilization, that gives us this impulse and lends us the motivation to do the hard work it requires.

MEGA SPOILERS

Part of me almost wishes that The Prophet wasn't in the novel; at first it kind of seemed like he was shoehorned in for the sake of creating a conflict to overcome, which felt more traditional and less exciting than the general sweep of the novel. But by the end of his arc I was pretty happy with it. I'd figured out who The Prophet was after the flashback with Elizabeth and Clark making the emergency landing and realizing that his age lined up to be Arthur's son. I am kind of curious if his time in Israel helped fuel the religious "savior" mentality that eventually took hold.

I did really like how the surviving characters from the earlier section of the book were only gradually re-introduced in the aftermath and belatedly learn of each others' continued existence. It's interesting how the book so forthrightly reveals future events and strips away potential tension; early on, it reminded me a little of Kurt Vonnegut when Mandel would end a scene and say "Alice would die in two days, Bob in a week. Carly would last ten whole days." Perhaps because of that sense of candor, I was genuinely surprised to learn that, say, Elizabeth had survived.

Jeevan is a bit of an odd case. He's the first viewpoint character in the novel, the first one we know who hears about the Georgian Flu, and the only person taking specific actions to prepare for the onslaught ahead. It's strange how he just disappears for much of the book, and then pops up in Virginia, far removed from the other survivors we've been following in the Great Lakes region. He's such a major connector character, particularly illuminating every phase of Arthur's career, but also crossing paths with the major survivors. It seems a little odd to have him missing from the big reunion at Severn City Airport at the end, his only real contribution to the post-apocalyptic storyline being to receive some narration on how The Prophet operates.

But... I dunno, I ultimately like how things end up sort of messy and incomplete. There are some wonderful connections, like Clark seeing himself in the Station Eleven comics; but it's also kind of cool that he doesn't see the paperweight again, even after we've traced its very long journey through the decades. The world of the future is vast and largely unknowable, the maps filled in with lots of darkness and question marks, and those enduring mysteries make all the discoveries feel more significant.

END SPOILERS

I'm pretty sure that this is a stand-alone novel and we won't be returning to this world, but it is a pretty wonderful piece of worldbuilding. I was reminded of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, and while this book speaks to the powerful hold these devastating scenarios can hold on our imagination, it's also a startlingly hopeful book, one that focuses on our resiliency and capacity for creation. I'm really glad to have it as an example of the other sorts of stories we can tell in these kinds of worlds.