Farewell to Shamus

I’ve mentioned Shamus Young a few times. A couple of months ago I was shocked to read that he had died, of cardiac arrest, at the age of 50. I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t say much about him as a person, except that 50 is way too young! I knew him from his site, twentysidedtale, which is full of stuff related to programming and video games, and interesting enough to be permanently in my bookmarks bar. I thought the best tribute to him would be a little tour of things I liked.

If this is your first glimpse of his site, note that you may not escape for awhile. The dude wrote a lot. Grabbing links, I noticed how much I haven’t read. So check it out, this is by no means all the good stuff. There’s also podcasts and music and even a novel.pixelcity2_lighting7

Pixel City, Shamus’s procedurally generated city builder 

I first ran into his site with DM of the Rings, his retelling of Lord of the Rings as a D&D game… a game with flaky players, an incredibly pedantic DM, way too many orcs, and way too few opportunities to go into town to sell loot. It’s a brilliant idea and very funny, at least if you like both LOTR and D&D.

He then more or less extended the idea in Chainmail Bikini, with cartoon art this time (by Shawn Gaston). The idea was that this was the same DM and players from DM of the Rings, but a new campaign. Sadly, it petered out after about 50 strips, but it’s good D&D humor, and anyway Shamus will explain how it would have ended.

He also reviewed video games, in depth. In much depth. No, way more depth than that. This Mass Effect retrospective is in 50 installments. I kid, but if you like a game, it’s a pleasure to see it analyzed in detail, with attention to gameplay, art, and above all story. Shamus loved a good plot, and hated a bad plot, and would take all the time it needed to explain what went wrong. This element doesn’t bother me as much as it did Shamus, but it’s still interesting critical work; he’s pretty insightful about what does and doesn’t work and what a game can and can’t get away with. Other series of note: Arkham City; Saints Row 3, Jade Empire, Oblivion, Borderlands 2, Black Desert Online. And there’s more; I focused on games I’ve played, though I’ve also read through some of his entire series on games I never played, like Spider-Man.

He also made programming projects— they rarely turned into finished games (though Good Robot is an exception; you can buy it on Steam), but he knew what he was doing and his progress reports are fun. I liked his Pixel City project, his blocky world, and his terrain builder, among others.

I didn’t always agree with him on games, but his opinion was always interesting, and he was a kindred spirit, in terms of just putting out content on the web for years and years just because you want to. I’m sad that we won’t get his careful, acerbic dissection of future games.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

I love the big dumb fun of Borderlands, so I picked this up as soon as it was on Steam. My friend Ash (an indispensable part of the series) and I just finished our second playthrough. It’s very Borderlandsly.

My relatively normal Spore Warden. Ash likes to randomize his appearance

First, the rapturous parts. BL2 had a D&D parody– Bunkers & Badasses– as a DLC, which turned out to be a big hit. Tiny Tina, the explosive(s) expert, turns out to be a great dungeonmaster… sorry, bunkermaster, and it just works to add a light fantasy overcoating to the BL formula– a very light coating, you still mostly use guns. Wonderlands expands the idea into a full game.

There are lots of quality of life improvements. You can customize your character’s appearance and sex; you can multiclass. The basic mechanic of examining loot and deciding what’s junk is pretty streamlined by now. Though the Gearbox formula for deepening encounters is always “add more monsters”, it’s never as out-of-control as in BL2; things are rarely overwhelming even in boss fights. Three classes at least add companions, and these can revive you– a nice touch since it’s easy not to notice if your co-op partner is down. As in BL3, you can either divvy up loot or let each player have their own uncontested stuff. The game doesn’t wait too long to give you your full gun slots, and it’s generous with ammo.

The game is extremely pretty… also it highly taxes my machine. They’ve toned down the hard-edged cartoony BL look: it could be almost any fantasy game, and has some really beautiful environments. (As something of a joke, the game has you blow up the ocean, which allows half the game to be set in a very unusual post-undersea environment, full of weird coral blocks and sunken ships.)

You can read guides on how to develop your character… but really, just put your stats where you feel like. I liked the classes with companions, but do what you think is fun. (Oh, and don’t bother with sniper rifles: the levels are rarely large enough to make them worth it.)

BL’s humor is always hit or miss– if one joke doesn’t land, maybe the next one will. Some of the best bits are direct parodies of the D&D situation– the game even provides you with two advisors, fellow players who don’t actually appear in your game but provide commentary and annoy Tina with their complaints and bickering. There are callbacks to previous games– e.g. Brick appears as the “Fairy Punchfather”, and Claptrap is there at his most annoying level. Some nice bits, in flashbacks, show how Roland taught Tina the game. Other quests are parodies of various fantasies from the Smurfs to the Witcher to Don Quixote… these are kind of Mad Magazine level at best, and interminable at worst. (The joke of the Witcher parody is that the Witcher is an insufferable jerk; the joke gets old fast.)

I was surprised to read in a review that some people find Tina herself annoying. I like her a lot, especially with Ashly Burch’s performance… she’s intended to be an over-the-top hypermanic teenager, and it fits that she is really obsessed with Bunkers & Badasses, and capricious as a DM.

The main quest is, well, also hit or miss. The villain, the Dragon Lord, sometimes talks to you– mostly to complain about Tina. He’s better than the horrible Calypso twins from BL3, but the story arc makes little sense. Spoiler:

He’s Tina’s own former character, turned into a villain, and he resents it and wants to take over. “NPC realizes he’s an NPC and resents it” would be a good one-off joke, but the artificiality of the concept makes it a big miss.

Now for the biggest complaint. You defeat the Dragon Lord, you get a big bunch of loot, and… that’s it. There is no True Vault Hunter mode: you can’t replay the game with your equipment and high level; the loot-and-shoot loop just shuts down. This is baffling and kind of enraging: didn’t they realize that that continuing loop is what makes BL what it is? The whole idea is to use your new loot for enhanced pew-pew. If anything this made the second playthrough more annoying, as toward the end you start to realize that the looting, grabbing coins, and levelling up wasn’t going to pay off any more.

I’ve put 66 hours into the game; I’d happily double that if there was a Vault Hunter mode. I’d also feel a little better about the $51 price. And that’s with a discount, it’s normally $60. I don’t feel like a third playthrough from scratch would add much.

And the second-biggest complaint: the levels are beautiful, but also repetitive. Too many encounters are just “enter a generic area and pew-pew everyone in it.” Instead of Vault Hunter mode, there’s a “Chaos Chamber” which is… one randomized encounter after another. Not the same thing, Gearbox. (We didn’t do any of the DLC, partly because they are apparently just more quick dungeons.)

Not quite a complaint: some side quests are really really long. Like, you get the four doohickeys, and then you need to get the five foobars, and then you get a boss fight. And then maybe another boss fight. It’s fine, a little unpredictability is good, but if nothing else, sometimes we’re starting to wrap up the evening and want to just knock out a side quest, and it takes an hour instead.

(I should add, if you play it, do explore the side quests; all of them are worth playing at least once, and doing them puts you in a much better place for the final boss fights.)

Now, in a lot of co-op games how much fun you have depends a lot on your co-op partner. My longtime BL partner is Ash; we are exactly on the same page in terms of how many loot chests we open, how much time to take messing with inventory, what side quests to do, what jokes to make along the way, etc. In short, try to play with Ash and you’ll have a good time.