May 2018


I’ve been revisiting Conan Exiles again since it left Early Access. It’s definitely way improved, and worth trying out if you like survival games.

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Somebody looked at a bunch of reference pics of Indian/SE Asian temples

First, what’s different?

  • The map is way bigger. (Also, the in-game map is actually useful now.)
  • Combat is revamped; there are multiple actions, and a punishing stamina meter.
  • Animals have been redistributed (for some reason).
  • A lot of the crafting is different. In general there are more things to build.
  • There are a fair number of interesting locations, side quests, and boss monsters.
  • I’m probably forgetting a lot. There are more religions, for instance, and they’ve added a climbing mechanic, and achievements, and pointers (in lieu of a tutorial).
  • You can actually meet Conan in game.
  • Many of the things I complained about in the first review are fixed; e.g. you can loot enemies now.

Now, I still have no interest in PvP.  I think Exiles might be a great co-op game, but I don’t have any friends who play. So I’m evaluating it as a single-player game.

As such, it’s an interesting, kind of weird experiment. I’ve put about 130 hours into it, so I’d say there’s plenty of fun to be had.  It also falls short in some also weird ways.

Why is it weird? Well, mostly because it’s so undirected. This is the exact opposite of games that have a voice in your ear telling you what to do next, and puts map markers all over so you know where to go. Besides the new pointers (things like “catch a fish”), there is no direction at all. You could easily miss all the more interesting locations and monsters; you have to go in search of them.

Which is a really interesting design decision! Most games, though treating you as The Prophesied One, don’t trust you to know how to have fun on your own. Exiles relies on normal curiosity: what’s in that big temple? where does this river go? what new resources might live in the jungle?

Also, the map is immense, and large parts of it are nearly empty. This is unusual too: Skyrim, say, is also huge, but it’s dotted with dungeons and towns and in general feels unnaturally full. The Exiled Lands feel big. There are long lonesome vistas, and you can easily get lost.  I have two main bases, which aren’t far apart on the map, but it’s a fair walk to get between them. I like this; it really gets past the usual video game convention that a tiny tiny area stands in for an entire city or wilderness.

(Of course, the huge area is there for people to fight over on multiplayer servers. But it gives a particular feeling to the single-player game.)

So what do you do?  Well, survival, combat, building, thralls, and monsters.

As a survival game, well, it’s not really hard. You have hunger and thirst, and you start in the desert… but you’re a short walk away from a freshwater river. You can subsist on slugs and bugs if you like, but you can quickly make stone weapons and kill and cook animals. You very quickly get to the point that you have way more food than you can eat. About the only tricky bit is making sure you have enough water if you take a long trek to explore.

Combat involves four basic actions: light and heavy attacks, block with a shield, and dash-evade. All of these take stamina, and you have to kite your opponent frequently while your stamina rebuilds. The blocking isn’t very satisfying, especially as shields break easily, but maybe I’m just not good at it. You can make combos by alternating light and heavy attacks.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but, well, it’s not great. It’s no Arkham, or Bayonetta. (Funcom, if you’re listening, here’s one idea that’d make it far better: reward successful combos with stamina.)

Building: I like that you can get started with nothing but trees and stones. You can quickly build a mini-base in a new territory. (Getting up on a foundation block is useful in avoiding combat, especially useful at night.) You can go really far with this, building increasingly elaborate castles.

The problem here, I think, is balance. If you really want to build a castle, it will take a shitload of resources. And the finer tiers of building material require multiple crafting cycles of their own: mine ironstone, turn it into iron bars in a furnace, make “steelfire” from tar and brimstone, make steel bars from iron and steelfire, make steel reinforcement rods, make brick from stone, finally put it together into building pieces. Plus, this all requires several different crafting stations.

Empyrion did this right: make building easy enough that you can easily construct ginormous spaceships and bases, only going out now and then for more ores. That’s how you get huge interesting buildings. Exile’s process is just way too tedious.

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Queen of all I survey 

But, there’s a solution– cheat! Excuse me: use the admin menu.  I try to only half-cheat: I only build things that I know the recipe to. Some huge portion of that 130 hours consisted of banging on rocks and trees; it’s OK for awhile, but I’m kind of tired of it now. So the admin menu allows me to build a nice base and go play the fun parts of the game.

One of the advertised features is thralls. You can knock out a human NPC instead of killing them, drag them to your base, and break them on a “wheel of pain”– a kind of millstone they have to push around till they’re docile. Then you can move them to a crafting station to speed it up and add recipes. Some thralls can fight for you, or dance for you… which turns out to be the only remedy for fighting “corruption”, a magical disease that saps your health, acquired in certain ruins.

Interesting idea, but again kind of tedious to really take advantage of solo. The problem is, most settlements consist only of fighters, and for the crafting stations you need specialists. So it may take quite a few raids to find the one you want. Plus it takes a long time to break thralls, which slows the process down. At least I found a dancer this playthrough, so I’m not pissed at the corruption thing.

Finally, monsters. These are basically your side quests, the rewards for finding the really interesting locations. They are unfortunately balanced for multiplayer games– they are huge HP buffers and take forever to whittle down; but they drop the better loot. Honestly, I find it best to just cheat again and turn off damage. (Again, it’s a balance issue. When you die, you go back to your base, and you’d have to make your way to the monster again, who of course will have regenerated at full HP.)

There’s also bits of lore scattered around, and plants you can use to recolor your clothes, and there’s a town of non-hostile NPCs… at this point, in fact, I’m mostly interested in wandering around finding all the strange stuff they’ve put in.

There’s also a main quest, which is, in the spirit of the game, hidden. You’re trapped in the Exiled Lands by a metal bracelet. If you beat monsters and find certain items, then read the flavortext, you learn that you can put those items together to undo the bracelet. So, eh, you can do that if you want. Or you can just lord it over the Exiled Lands.

If you do like resource extracting, base building, and beating up animals and NPCs, it’s probably worth checking out. I’d just add that if you stick around the river in the south, you might get bored without, well, actually seeing what’s in the game. You have to kind of make your own goals in this game, but one of them should be to explore as much as possible. A lot of the game content is quite interesting, but it need to be sought out.

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In your first essay on Asimov’s Psychohistory, you wrote:

Discussions of psychohistory usually turn into debates on the role of the individual: can one person significantly affect the course of history or not? We all have our pet cases proving one point of view or the other. I have a strong opinion on the issue– but I’m going to suppress it.

Ok, now what if you don’t suppress your strong opinion on the issue? What’s your take?

—Raphael

king-court-cards

That refers to the Great Man theory, most clearly articulated by Thomas Carlyle. the opposite poles of the debate:

  • History is made by  Great Men, and all you need to study in history is the sequence of great men– mostly kings and religious leaders, though to appear cultured we can throw in a writer now and then.
  • History is made by grand social forces, from the raw and specific (who has the oil or the silver) to the abstract (a widespread desire for national rebirth). Looking at Great Men is simplistic hero worship; social forces produce them, and if one dude didn’t come forward, another would have.

Very roughly, we might call these “old-fashioned” and “modern” ways of writing history. An old-style history was the story of one king after another. A modern history looks at a far wider range of actors, tries to find underlying causes, concentrates not on how leaders differ but on how societies do.

My position isn’t very exciting after all; it’s that both poles are obviously wrong. Or both true, if you prefer.

In general, the Great Man theory is silly. If you have a question like “Why did Europe spill out over the whole globe after 1500?”, then looking at key figures is virtually a waste of time. Even key abstract factors are subject to furious debate. But it’s hard to seriously maintain that that whole process would have proceeded entirely differently if a different set of leaders had won out.

In science and invention, it’s especially evident that very often an idea is just in the air, and we over-fetishize the question of who got it first. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus; the steam engine was a collaboration of a whole series of British and French inventors; the US and USSR were both in a position to develop atomic weapons and spaceships. The development of the Roman Empire, of capitalism, of the industrial revolution, of anti-colonialism, of the civil rights movement, would have gone about the same even if some of their particular founders were hit by a bus.

Plus, I do prefer modern histories! If I read about Ming China, I’d feel cheated by an account of the lives of each of the Zhu rulers.  I want to know about how the laws changed, why they sent out treasure fleets and why they stopped, how well the examination system worked, how the economy was developing, why Neo-Confucianism was so attractive, how administration differed from previous dynasties, how the environmental situation was growing more serious, how women and minorities were faring.

Yet, it still seems obvious to me that certain people change history. Most of Carlyle’s list— Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Pericles, Napoleon, Wagner— I’d actually throw out, except for one: Muhammad. Though he had intriguing forerunners, notably Zaid ibn Amr, there was no historical inevitability to a monotheistic religion appearing just then, uniting all of Arabia, and then bursting out to take over territory from Spain to Indonesia.

People can and have speculated endlessly about the US Civil War. I think an excellent case can be made that the Northern victory was not inevitable, but was largely due to three men: Henry Halleck, Ulysses Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. To wit: the war showed that in post-Napoleonic war, defense was far stronger than anyone imagined. The North had far more resources, but struggled for years to put them to effective use. The public, and most generals, believed in huge victories won by frontal assault, something that was simply not possible. Most generals could not comprehend or implement Halleck’s “anaconda strategy” of strangling the South’s production capacity, till Sherman and Grant did. If the plan had taken two or three years more, very likely the North’s will to pursue it would have faded. Lincoln’s assassination, of course, put the country in far less wise hands. It can be doubted if Lincoln could have charted a far more progressive path, but it seems likely that he’d have done better than Johnson.

In science, I’d suggest Albert Einstein. He was by no means the only thinker who could have come up with relativity and quantum theory, but no one else was likely to have come up with all this by 1905. Plus, his and Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb must be one of the most consequential documents in history.

I’m writing about syntax right now, so I have to mention Noam Chomsky. Again, his ideas weren’t unprecedented— Morris Halle had some similar approaches. It’s hard to explain, especially if you’ve actually read Chomsky’s books, but something about his work simply galvanized people. He created a whole field of syntax and has dominated it, for good and ill, for sixty years.

In short… the broad sweep of history would probably be the same without any particular individual. But the identity of entire empires, the spread of entire religions, the success of this or that nation, would be quite different. The timing of scientific discoveries could differ by decades or more.

And of course, once an individual has changed things, that creates a momentum of its own. Once an Islamic empire existed, that had immense impacts on Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, and that affected everything from the rediscovery of Aristotle to the spread of coffee drinking.

Stories, of course, can hardly avoid the Great Man syndrome. Probably no one wants to hear how Sauron was defeated by the superior industrial resources of Gondor and the greater appeal of elven ideology. They want to hear about how Aragorn and Gandalf and Frodo did it.

Asimov, whatever he was trying to do, couldn’t help reinforcing the Great Man theory although psychohistory was, in principle, its refutation. He keeps building up Hari Seldon and later R. Daneel Olivaw; he manages to capture the inevitable failure of the Empire without making the rise of the Foundation similarly inevitable.