games


Everything I’ve read about No Man’s Sky makes me think it’s not a $60 game, so I haven’t picked it up. I tried Elite: Dangerous, but less than an hour of flailing around convinced me that a flight simulator in spaaaace wasn’t for me. Then PC Gamer had a rave review of Empyrion: Galactic Survival, which sounded just right at $20.

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Scaring the natives with my motorbike

 

I’m about nine hours in, and it took about seven of that to get to the point of having a spaceship. Which is fine, because there’s a fairly substantial crafting/survival basis to the game, and it takes awhile to learn all that.

You start by crash-landing on a planet, only you start out with quite a load of stuff… apparently people from your civilization crash-land on alien planets all the time, so you’re prepared. You build a constructor which can make stuff from simple ingredients, and then you’re off gathering ingredients, mining, destroying the local flora and fauna, and building a base. You have to stay fed, but this is not particularly hard… well, at least not on easy mode.

You can walk around, or you can build and ride a motorbike, because of course you have a motorbike. (Fortunately it fits in your Bag of Holding when you’re not riding it.) You’re on a small planet– I don’t know the exact size to compare with other open-world games, but let’s say “comfortably large”. It’s big enough that you wouldn’t want to walk the whole way around.

To mine, you use a big drill and make a big stonking hole: the whole world turns out to be editable. (You also have a terrain shaping tool for minor adjustments.) With some effort, you can even trap yourself in your mine.  (Your drill runs on biofuel, and you can run out. You can make more if you happen to have a constructor and a bunch of seaweed with you.)

My base consists of a bunch of big steel cubes with various devices piled on top (constructor, ammo box, turret, food processor, generator, etc.).  I thought it looked pretty good until I checked out the Steam Workshop; people are designing insane bases.  You can also, of course, make bases in spaaaaace.

So anyway, it’s a space game too, so eventually I got around to making a spaceship. My design, again, was “just enough steel blocks to stack all the spaceship things on.”  Amazingly, it flew.  (The only controls you need to fly are WASD plus Q/E to roll.)  I flew about a third of the way around the planet and did some silicon mining.

Then, on the way back, I got attacked by drones.  You see, drones attack you sometimes. I was not prepared for this and died.  You respawn near your ship (or near your base if you prefer); I was still under attack, but managed to down the drone this time.  My ship was on its side, but I could still get in and fly it, only something was wrong.  No Q/E controls.  I flew toward my base like this:

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Hint: sky should ideally be above you

 

If you look closely at the data in the lower right, you’ll notice that I also had only 2.2 minutes of power left.  That was… not enough.  I managed to land without crashing, and got out to see what was wrong.

What was wrong was that the drone had shot away half of the spaceship.  Most of my steel superstructure was gone, also the fuel tanks and RCS, which is the thing that lets you steer in any direction.

But I’d managed to get reasonably close to my base, so I pulled out my motorbike, rode it home, constructed the components I needed, and rode back to the ship.  I fixed it, it flew just fine and I landed it nicely right next to the base.

And that’s when I realized: this is actually a pretty fun game.  Being able to flit around an open world with no problems is barely a game.  I was inordinately proud of myself for not only building this unholy contraption and flying it, but rebuilding it and getting it home safely after it got shot up.

Next task: get the thing into spaaaace.  There are apparently hostile aliens out there, so I’ll have to learn how to fire the guns, too.  Building a base in spaaaace sounds like fun, and then there are moons and other planets to check out.

My friend Stav described No Man’s Sky as a trillion miles wide, but a millimeter deep, and Elite:Dangerous as a million miles wide, but a meter deep.  In that spirit, I’d say Empyrion is a thousand miles wide, but about ten meters deep. At least, if you measure depth by how much you can do in one location.  You can go crazy building nice bases and ships (including capital ships where you can land smaller ships); you can go hunting or mining; you can pester the aliens and take over their bases; you can explore the ten or so planets that are currently available.  There’s also multiplayer, so you can do all this with your pals.

The game has been in Early Access for over a year, though it’s certainly playable now. It doesn’t have any story, really, unless it comes in when you meet the aliens.  But it seems pretty clear that it’s a game for messing around with planets; I don’t know that it needs a story.

If you try it, I suggest going through the tutorial, which will introduce you to all the elements you need– though not always in the best order.  I got messed up, or thought I did, when drones destroyed the core of my base.  I started over, but later I learned that I should probably have created a multitool, so I could get all the components back from my destroyed base.  But I was content to just redo things better the second time.

I’ll report back later once I get into space…

Edit: And here is Part Two.

Here’s a good example of why the world needs my (upcoming) India Construction Kit. At left is a picture from a new expansion for The Sims 4.

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What the fuck is that girl wearing?

It looks like it’s supposed to be a sari, but it looks crazy. Compare to the actual sari to the right.

  • You don’t tie a sari with a big bow. In fact the cloth is about a yard wide; there’s no part of it that could be made into such a thin bow.
  • The part of the sari that comes down over the chest doesn’t go into a knot; it’s draped gracefully around the body.
  • The part that goes over the shoulder (the pallu) hangs down behind the back— you should be able to see it behind her.
  • It looks like the girl is wearing a (one-sleeved??) qipao. You wear a sari over a bodice and pettiskirt. It doesn’t have to be as revealing as the woman at right, but you’re supposed to see some midriff.
  • You can certainly have a monochrome sari, but patterns are much more popular. It’s a weird choice to have a pattern only on the undergarment.
  • The most common style is to wrap the sari over the left shoulder.

It’s so bad that one may wonder if it’s supposed to be something else, like a dupatta (scarf) and skirt.  A shalwar kameez can look like the yellow dress and you can wear a dupatta over it, but…

  • It’s not normally that tight.
  • You don’t wear a skirt over it, you wear trousers under it. (Technically, as part of it: that’s the shalwar.)
  • That knot and bow: No.
  • Anyway, the dupatta would normally be draped over both shoulders.

(If you’re wondering by now if the dress is even supposed to be Indian, note that she’s got a bindi.)

It’s possible that the outfit is imitating something I don’t know about. But it seems more likely that somebody attempted a sari without really knowing how one works. Admittedly, it’s hard to figure out even from pictures, which is why I provide diagrams in the book.

 

As an amuse-bouche, here’s a fun article about a guy who set out to be the worst player in Overwatch– “I Hanjo”.

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Nice legs, Jim

 

Now, playing to lose is pretty much a dick move. But the fascinating thing is the sociology he unearths along the way. Players in the 40s– just south of average– are on the whole good players, know the game, they just happen to lose more than they win. People in the 30s are “the angriest people in the world”. They think they should be doing much better, and they’re eager to blame their teammates, the game, anything but themselves.

In the 20s, he’d run into people who just couldn’t play– Pharahs who couldn’t fly, Junkrats who blew themselves up– but they were all incredibly serious. This was competitive mode, after all.  It was full Dunning-Kruger: these were people who had little skill, but thought they were pretty good.  And even in the single-digits, among the world’s worst players, the game was full of people incredibly mad at him for not playing well.

This all reminds me of my friend Ash’s comment about League of Legends– that a lot of people don’t adjust well to the game, because they don’t like losing. They expect to win more than 50% of their games, and that rarely happens.  (If you’re good at a competitive game, the game will raise your rank and send you harder opponents.)

In single-player games, you never really lose.  You can die, but that just means cursing a little and then respawning.  You always win the game, unless you get bored or it gets too hard (which most of us will rationalize as it being “unfair”).

Also worth reading: this post on MMR (matchmaking rating) in Overwatch by an informed player, followed by Jeff Kaplan, actual development head of the game, adding more information. At one point Kaplan divides matches into four types:

  1. My team won. We beat the other team by a long shot.
  2. My team barely won.
  3. My team barely lost.
  4. My team lost. We lost by a long shot. It wasn’t even close

He comments that most players, if asked, will say they prefer 2 and 3– close matches that could have gone either way. But most players act as if their real preference was 1 or 2– i.e., only winning.  A series of losses is psychologically difficult, even if they’re close.

I’d add that rolls (case 1) almost never feel like rolls to the winning team.  They still feel close. You just feel like you’re playing really well, that your teammates are doing the right thing, that you’re just staying ahead of the enemy.  If you talk to your opponents later (e.g. because they’re your friends), you may be surprised to hear that it was a frustrating match where they felt like they couldn’t get anything done.

(A complete walkover, where you win without expending much effort, is rare and not satisfying. Last week in one of my placement matches for competitive, half the enemy team quit. We had to play out the game to get credit for it, but we felt bad about it.)

You can’t play a lot of PvP games without realizing that a lot of gamers are, well, insecure and nasty.  It would be interesting to get real research on this, but my experience is that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies in spades to the saltiest people.  That is, whenever someone goes off in chat, berating their teammates or complaining about the game, they’re likely to be the least skilled.  Really good players don’t waste their time on verbal attacks; they do their best, and even if the team loses they’ll bring devastation upon the enemy.

Now, you can’t make a PvP game where everyone wins, but Overwatch has a lot of clever little design bits to emphasize the team nature of the game, and to reduce the psychological toll of not doing well:

  • The game doesn’t distinguish kills and assists: everyone who helped kill an opponent share the “elimination”.  (It does display your share percentage, but only momentarily.)
  • You can’t see your teammates’ stats for the match, eliminating a lot of intra-team rivalry.  (You do see if you’re leading in a statistic, but not who’s losing.)
  • Nor do you see stats after the match, except for highlights. The emphasis is on who did well; who did poorly is glossed over.
  • Losing treats you to a killcam movie of your death– which sounds like it could be humiliating, but a) it keeps you entertained during the respawn time, and b) it often teaches you how to do better.  E.g. you can see when you were extremely exposed when you thought you weren’t.
  • In the new season of competitive, you never lose a tier once you’ve achieved it, even if your skill rating goes down. Plus, the game makes a big deal of the skill rating increasing, and not of it decreasing.
  • The game keeps a little showreel of your best moments in that play session.  Again, losses are quietly ignored.
  • If you lose to the same team too many times, the game will find a new set of enemies for you.
  • This one might take it too far: if you look at your Statistics for Quickplay, you can’t even see how many games you’ve lost.

Even the character design fits the overall goal: though there are a lot of characters, each one has a limited skillset. Mastering Soldier in TF2 requires, now, knowing a bunch of weapons; Pharah has just one.

Also, so far as I can see, it’s quite possible to play and have a good time with friends who are higher in level than you. In League, it’s almost impossible, because they’ll drag in opponents you can’t handle and it’ll be a pretty miserable experience.

Anyway, Blizzard hasn’t made losing painless, but they’ve done a lot to make the game fun as a whole whether you win or lose.

Curiously, I had a pretty bad experience with Competitive last season, and have had a pretty good one this season.  I feel like I play better, of course, but in both cases the game should have been matching me with people of the same level.  (And my initial skill rating was about the same.)  Maybe it just has more data on me, I don’t know.

In your review of Overwatch, you said that you appreciate the fact that characters speak appropriately in Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French. However, I have read some complaints that the French accent of Widowmaker sounds fake. Since I have heard similar complaints about Leliana of the Dragon Age series, and since both are voiced by French people, I would like to know if this perception comes from actors deliberately exaggerating their pronunciation, or if Hollywood or something similar have misled people into what constitute a true foreign accent.
Cordially,
Antonin BRAULT

Standards are changing, so I think this issue is in flux.

I can tell you what isn’t acceptable any more: mangling foreigners’ accents as in this book.

That is, it would be completely offensive if instead of having a Korean-Japanese-American woman (Charlet Chung) voice D.Va, they’d had a white American attempt a Korean accent.

So far as I can judge, Chloé Hollings, the voice of Widowmaker, pronounces the French perfectly— as she should; she’s French.

Is her French accent exaggerated? Yes, of course; Hollings is bilingual and speaks excellent English. I don’t have any inside knowledge of Blizzard’s production, but one can imagine for many of these voices a scene something like this:

Voice actor: (pronounces a line perfectly)

Director: Great! Only… can you make it sound more French?

And the director does have a point! If they’ve gone to the trouble of hiring bilingual voice actors, they kind of don’t want perfectly unaccented English. The characters are supposed to be cartoony, so they want to reach the sweet spot where the accents communicate the character but remain attractive. (Americans, at least, react negatively to a heavy foreign accent, but find a light accent enchanting.)

With Dragon Age, I saw a page that noted that Corinne Kempa (voice of Leliana) simply didn’t have the type of French accent Americans expect to hear. Again, American viewers aren’t very sophisticated here; few could even identify different varieties of French. (I liked Leliana— it was nice to have a fantasy game that didn’t over-rely on British accents.)

It’s hard to make everybody happy, but I think Blizzard took a pretty good approach. I also like the fact that, except for the two ninjas, the characters aren’t defined by their nationalities. E.g. Mei is a climatologist, who just happens to be Chinese. Zarya is much more defined as “butch power-lifting soldier” than as Russian. They do paint with a broad brush, but they’re nodding much more to media images than to ethnic stereotypes— e.g. McCree is a version of Clint Eastwood; Junkrat refers to Mad Max.  One character they could have done better with, in my opinion, is Pharah, who should speak some Arabic.

Edit: The new character, Ana, does speak some Arabic.

I saw this on Twitter, and decided that this was an important phrase to learn in Chinese:

CliN-G-UgAA8dB_

網上虛擬交心不宜

wǎng-shàng xūnǐ jiāoxīn bù yí

web-above virtual entrust not should

You should not make virtual commitments online.

 

While we’re at it, my Overwatch pals have been quoting D.Va’s comments in Korean, so let’s look at those in more detail.

안녕하세요!

a̠nɲjʌ̹ŋ ɦa̠sʰe̞jo

Annyeong haseyo!

peace you.have

Do you have peace? = How are you?

That first word is a borrowing from Chinese 安寧— Mandarin ānníng ‘peace, tranquility’. You will undoubtedly recognize the first character from 西安 Xī’ān, the ancient capital of China; also Heian, the ancient name for Kyoto.

D.va is very informal and also from the future, so she just says Annyeong!

감사합니다

ˈka̠ːmsʰa̠ɦa̠mnida̠

Kamsa hamnida!

thanks have.assertive

I am thankful! = Thank you!

Again, the first word is a borrowing: 感謝 gǎnxiè ‘gratitude’; the common way to say “Thank you” in Mandarin— which you can hear Mei say in Overwatch— is 謝謝 xièxiè.

And again, D.Va informally says just Kamsa!

Mei’s “Hello” is 你好 Nǐhǎo, literally “you good?”

 

Well, someone had to make Team Fortress 3.  I know that it’s is the obvious comparison, but if Valve ever got around to making TF3, I’d want it to be pretty much exactly like Overwatch: up to date graphics, clever and more diverse characters, good maps, some fun new abilities.  And good riddance to TF2’s accumulated cruft and moneymaking opportunities.

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I’ve been playing it every night since release, and having a blast. Naturally I have my favorite characters:

  • D.Va, the Korean girl who pilots a mech suit. She can take a lot of damage and gets a second life when killed (she ejects from the suit and runs around with quite a good gun). I’m learning her basic combo: use the jets to rocket into an enemy or two, hit Melee to stun them, and finish them off with the guns.
  • Tracer, cheeky English girl who is pretty much Scout, only trollier. She has a short-range teleport which can make it very hard for enemies to get a bead on her, and a low-cooldown ability that recovers her location and hit points from a few seconds ago. She’s exhilarating if you play a team that can’t quite handle her.
  • Pharah, who is pretty much TF2’s Soldier– though Soldier is harder to kill. As Pharah you have to get used to hiding a lot. Her ultimate (a rocket barrage) can be a game-changer, if you choose a time and space such that you’re not immediately shot down.
  • Lúcio, the Brazilian D.J. medic. He can either speed up or heal his nearby teammates, plus he has a sonic blaster that does pretty good damage. Best of all he has an alt fire (RMB) which pushes enemies back. Often you can send them off the map, which never gets old.
  • Mei, the Chinese girl, is hard to play but amazingly versatile. She has a freeze ray; if she can freeze an enemy she can finish them off with an icicle. She can project an ice wall in any direction. And if that’s not enough, she has a self-heal. Getting all this to work smoothly in the intensity of combat is tricky, though. She is an excellent counter to Tracer.

I’m also trying to learn McCree, the gunslinger, because his stun + empty gun combo is extremely effective against Tracer and other interlopers.

As a linguist, I appreciate the fact that characters speak appropriately in Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French.

One of the great things about the game is that almost all of the characters have little health. No, really! It means that it’s not hard to get kills, and feel like you’re achieving something. One problem with MOBAs is that it can take minutes on end to whittle someone down. And even in TF2 kills can take a fair amount of effort.  In Overwatch, if you’re on the ball (and up on abilities and ammo) you can take out an isolated enemy, and there are plenty of maneuvers for breaking up a clump.  In TF2 the whole match can be dominated by a long-lasting sentry farm.  In Overwatch you can usually take care of it with a Roadhog tire, a rocket barrage, or D.Va’s ultimate (blowing up her mech).

There’s a lot of careful game design to make it easy and fun to play. The basics are simple: one gun per character, plus a special ability and ultimate. Reloading, but no need to find ammo. The path of the payload maps is indicated for the defenders during setup. The game saves a set of personal highlight movies for you.

Surprisingly, you can’t easily check everyone’s stats, though you see your own. The game tracks “eliminations”, not kills– basically kills plus kill assists. The effect is, I think, to emphasize teamwork: you’re not distracted or overwhelmed by who has the most kills; you just focus on taking down enemies.

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Plus I appreciate the care spent on the maps. In the first screenshot, for instance, the broken railcars obviously came off the broken bridge… it’s not just a mess of props. Another map has an old-timey cash register with a holographic display, a nice futuristic detail. All of the maps are firmly grounded in place, but with a rich s.f. overlay– giant mechs wandering the streets of St Petersberg, a utopian city in Africa (Numbani is basically Wakanda). Plus of course all the spawn rooms have plenty of stuff to shoot up; my favorite bits are the oxygen tanks and the popcorn tubs.

The designers apparently have an overall story, but from the game it makes even less sense than TF2’s: if they all belong to Overwatch, why the hell are all these heroes fighting each other in endless, pointless bouts?

There are some frustrations– mostly related to whatever happened in the last game I lost. It can be frustrating if six of your friends are playing, as that’s the limit for a game… still, at least my friends are playing; I’m so used to buying games long after release that I often miss the window where they’re playing the same game. As in any team game, it’s irritating when your teammates spend the game doing the same thing that isn’t working, rather than mixing it up or countering properly… but on the plus side, matches are over in minutes.

Pity about Battleborn, though, isn’t it?  I want good things for that studio so they develop Borderlands 3. But it looks like it was too similar to Overwatch and less appealing.

 

 

 

A game based on Philip K. Dick is either going to be great, or horrible.  From reviews, it seemed that Californium at least looked great, so I picked it up.

Basic idea: a failed writer, Elvin Green, starts finding holes in reality. So he starts to seek them out, and see what happens.

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Bubbles of alternate reality

And you gotta admit, that’s a pretty Dickian idea.  The implementation is pretty neat, too: when you open a hole, it expands into a sphere, changing everything inside it.  There must be some interesting engine work going on there– see in the picture how nearby objects get a perfect circle cut out of them.  And this is a dynamic process– once a bubble has opened, it even wavers back and forth.

You can figure out most things by yourself, and should, but here are some things to know that may avoid frustration.

  • You will find TV sets that indicate the number of holes you still have to find in that area.
  • There’s a bug in level 2, which you can avoid by going into the police station last (i.e. when you’ve explored every other area).
  • Some of the holes are only visible from certain angles.  You may have to walk around or change your angle.

I’ve seen some reviews that chafe at that last bit, but really it’s part of the point.  The idea of a glitch in reality that may hide when you look directly at it is just part of the existential nightmare.

There is a light puzzle aspect to some of the holes.  I think it’s best to just give in to the spirit of the game here, even if it means walking around trying to find that maddening last glitch.  If they had made the puzzles harder then the story would perhaps have felt intrusive, and if they had made them easier (e.g. adding audio cues or a compass) you’d be done in half an hour.

There are NPCs scattered around the level; they are 2-D models that turn to face you, and talk at you when you’re close, not unlike Jazzpunk. This is not my favorite design technique, but I understand that for a small studio, 3-D human models and animations would be a huge effort that wouldn’t improve the game greatly.  The voice acting is all good, however.

The best thing about the game, besides the hole-in-reality mechanic, is its feverish level design.  You start out in a supersaturated, cartoony 1970s Berkeley, California, and it’s fun to walk around the street and a half or so that you’ve given to explore.  You see other worlds in the course of the story, and they’re all fun and thought-provoking, plus they have a thematic relevance to Elvin Green’s story.

It took me a little over 4 hours, which is probably about right for what the game mechanic can support.  I mean, they could have added three more worlds, and it would probably be tedious more than exciting.

The ending is a little abrupt, and not as mind-blowing as one might hope… but honestly, Dick doesn’t usually succeed in wrapping things up nicely either.  He creates this hallucinatory blend of religion and paranoia, and just being there is the point.   So it’s probably just as well that the developers didn’t overdo the ending.  I’d say they capture the atmosphere of a Dick novel very well (though they’re not aiming at any one novel in particular), and if that sounds like the sort of atmosphere you’d like to breathe for awhile, check it out.

 

 

 

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