Weekly status update [0054/????]

Beep boop.

  • I finished up Russian Doll on Netflix, which was absolutely fantastic and should be watched by everyone reading this. Yes, even you. I also started on season three of The Expanse now that it’s free on Amazon Prime and have been enjoying it quite a bit.
  • As rambled about at length earlier this week, I finished up the last of the Ezio Trilogy games this weekend and am not touching another Assassin’s Creed game until the remaster of III comes out in March. I’m not really looking forward to it–III is not a very good game–but I’ve already decided that I’m not going to be platinuming it, so the experience will at least be mostly casual rather than the completionist torture that the last few ended up being.
  • Most evenings have continued to be filled with playing Earth Defense Force 4.1 online with friends, which is actually a quite pleasant way to fill the time. I’ve even started streaming it on occasion, and several people have tuned in that aren’t personal friends. Exciting!
  • Time spent not on the television has mostly been devoted to reading. I finished up The Prestige, which was fantastic, then moved on to Wonder, which was a nice light read. Then I read In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, which was so good. Like, seriously. So good. It’s a LGBT coming-of-age portal fantasy novel that’s way, way more than the sum of its parts, and I liked it so much that I did something I don’t know that I’ve ever done before: I read it twice. (I did read another book in the middle, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon, which sadly was neither part of his Mars trilogy universe nor particularly memorable.) I mean, I’ve re-read books plenty of times in my life; Greg Egan’s Quarantine is basically falling apart due to how many times I’ve read my copy. But twice in the span of three days? Never that I know of. So good.
  • Still puzzlin’.
  • There were mysterious clanky noises coming from the heat pump outside. It took a long time (too long) for my landlord to get someone out to check it, and by that point it was no longer making mysterious clanky noises. We shall have to see if it starts up again. I hate this particular song and dance.
  • Despite the fact that it was Valentine’s Day, I still managed to play a bit of Tabletop Simulator with a friend Thursday night. Won at Dominion, lost at Lost Cities.

Boop beep.

Here’s a videogame thing: The Ezio Trilogy

This weekend, I finally got the last trophy in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy. I promptly deleted the collection off of my PS4, and sincerely hope to never play them again; it was my second time through the three games, having played them on the PS3 before.

As the above paragraph might imply, I have very mixed feelings about the games. Not so mixed that I didn’t sink the ~100 hours into playing them all over again, mind–although some non-trivial part of that was platinum chasing, given that the second and third games were basically impossible to plat by the time I played them, thanks to online-only trophies–but they are deeply, deeply flawed games, and playing them again on the PS4 only heightened those issues for me.

So let’s talk about the good stuff first. For those of you not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed games, they’re third-person open-world adventure games, with the core content set at some time period in the past; you’re experiencing that past through some hokey “DNA memory” machine that we’ll talk about in the “bad stuff” section, but basically it’s an excuse to run around in Ye Olde Times and do cool stuff.

The Ezio Trilogy consists of three games: Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. All three games star Ezio Auditore de Firenze, a Florentine from a wealthy family who gets pushed into the stealth-stabby lifestyle due to a series of unfortunate events that occur to his family. One thing this trilogy does that is, I think, unique: you play Ezio over a long period of time, from his late teens until his fifties. During that time, he grows as a person (and an Assassin) in ways that are interesting and genuine. The voice acting is uniformly excellent across all three games, and it’s hard as hell not to empathize–and sympathize–with Ezio as three kinds of hell break out around him and he struggles to do the best with the situation. In terms of game protagonists, he ranks in the highest of tiers, fascinating and nuanced.

The settings of the three games are also fantastic. ACII mostly takes place in Florence and Venice, with a couple of smaller towns as well, and they all look and feel fantastic. AC:B ups the stakes by shrinking the core locations down to a single one… but making it Rome, and doing a really, really good job of making you feel like you’re in Rome, with crumbling monuments and creepy crypts everywhere. AC:B‘s Rome is one of the few videogame worlds I’ve spent hours just running around in, looking at stuff (and I look forward to doing the same eventually in Origins’ Egypt and Odyssey‘s Greece). AC:R is also (mostly) singly-homed, and that home–Istanbul–is almost as fascinating as Rome, and a welcome change from the aggressively Italian locations of the previous two games. There’s nothing like perching on top of the Hagia Sophia and looking out across all of Konstantiniyye in terms of feeling the scope of what almost feels like a living, breathing city.

And, when the action works, Ezio really does feel like an amazing bad-ass. He leaps across roofs, jumps down from high perches to stab the evil Templars in the back with his hidden blades, and disappears in a cloud of smoke to live to fight another day. It’s easy to see how the AC games set the tenor for Rocksteady’s Batman games, because in many ways you feel like a Renaissance Dark Avenger: hiding in the shadows (or amongst groups of civilians), waiting for the perfect moment to strike unsuspecting foes.

Buuuuuuut…

All three of these games’ controls could politely be described as “cantankerous” and impolitely described as “intermittently controller-throwing terrible.” Ezio will take flying leaps off of buildings in the wrong direction in the middle of long chase scenes, he’ll fail to assassinate people even when the text is RIGHT THERE ON THE SCREEN OH GOD, and your right thumb will be just as sore as your left over the course of a long play session thanks to having to adjust the camera all the time. Many failures in the game will not feel like your fault at all, but just the game randomly deciding, “nope, you’re not gonna make that jump this time; sorry, bub.” And that feels bad.

The designers also got the terrible idea for the second and third games for each mission to have an “optional” (read: required, if you want the trophies) additional goal. Sometimes they’re trivial, but both games have several levels where those “full synchronization” goals are basically going to force you to replay the mission ten to twenty times until a combination of luck and skill let you succeed. That’s not good design; that’s torture.

Also torture: the hot mess that is the framing story. You’re not actually Ezio Auditore in these games; you’re Desmond Miles, a dude in the modern day (well, 2012) who is experiencing Ezio’s life thanks to a machine called the Animus and, uh, DNA race memory? Also there are ancient aliens, everything major that ever happened in history is part of a secret war between the Templars and the Assassins (yes, even that), and the Apple of Eden is an actual artifact in the game. It’s all awful pseudoscience claptrap, impossible to take even the least bit seriously, even in the context of “it’s just a videogame.” (Thankfully the Desmond stuff is closed out with the next game, Assassin’s Creed III, although the secret-war and ancient-alien crap is too baked into the series for them to ever remove it.)

(As a side note, apparently someone looked at the janky mess that is the engine these games use and went “you know, we should make a puzzle-platformer out of this.” That shows up as an extensive set of side-content in Revelations, and it is awful to the max.)

Lastly, other than the setting and story, these three games are essentially the same game, all using the same engine. I ha-ha-only-seriously refer to them as Assassin’s Creed 2, 2.1, and 2.2, because they really do feel like nothing more than expansion packs to the original game. Huge expansion packs, mind you, but mere iterations rather than anything seriously new.

(I could also rant about some terrible trophies that all three games have–particularly Revelations–but I think I’ve said enough about why trophies are bad here in the past.)

Looking back up, it sure seems like I have a lot more to say on the negative side than the positive. That’s a bit of a shame, because I really did enjoy playing through the games again… about 70% of the time, and not counting the last N hours of stupid trophy hunting. If you play them completely casually, ignoring all of the dumb things you have to do to get 100% synchronization, I think they’re solid, charming experiences with janky controls; in particular, I think just about everyone should give Assassin’s Creed II a spin, as it’s both the easiest and the most plot-driven of the three, and Ezio really is one of the best characters in videogame history.

But I’m glad I’m done.

Now to replay Assassin’s Creed III next month… sigh.

Weekly status update [0053/????]

To misquote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “It’s just some week, you know?” With one major exception, which I’ll put at the end even though it happened early in the week, because I like drama.

  • Most of which I spent playing video games. Most evenings involved the B-movie joys of Earth Defense Force 4.1. Late Thursday night I played Overcooked! 2 with a pair of friends who were couch co-op-ing it in Portland and a third friend back in Louisiana, and it works… amazingly well. So few games support a mix of same-room and different-room players, but Overcooked! 2 makes it seem easy. I’ll likely have more to say about the game later, but: it’s great, assuming you have at least one other person to play with. Lastly, I apparently got over the samey-ness of Assassin’s Creed very quickly, because I reinstalled The Ezio Trilogy and spent, like, sixteen hours yesterday playing Revelations. (That’s why this isn’t going up until Saturday; I was up until 6am playing.) It’s… fine? The controls still suck, but Istanbul makes for a fascinating setting.
  • Somewhere between board games and videogames lies Tabletop Simulator. We had the first of what will hopefully be many scheduled game nights with it on Thursday; only one other person showed up, but that’s fine, because there are plenty of excellent two-player games. (If you’re likely to be available at 6:30pm Eastern on Thursdays, hit me up and I’ll send you the appropriate Discord link.) TTS continues to be an utter mess to control, but the ability to play board games every week again makes me put up with its jank.
  • I’ve also been watching a bit of TV; specifically, Russian Doll on Netflix, via a recommendation from an old coworker. It is very good, at least to the halfway point. I should have finished it by now, but see above as to why I haven’t.
  • I picked up a book with a tiny bit more regularity this week than in several months prior. I’m about halfway through Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, which was made into one of my favorite movies of all time (and possibly my favorite Christopher Nolan movie). It’s a very different beast from said film, but quite good so far, even if not very far in I think I would have figured out one of the big twists in both works. (Of course, I know it from the film, so it’s a bit cheaty to say that.)
  • I’ve done puzzles again too. I’ve been working through a Japanese variety book from my favorite puzzle company, Nikoli, doing one of each type of puzzle before looping back to the start of the book. I’ve done 17 of each now, and the difficulty progression is real. When I started, the dozen puzzle types took me a total of around thirty to forty-five minutes to finish, or three to four minutes a puzzle. The last loop was over three hours, breaking fifteen minutes a puzzle, although really it’s one or two types that take me 30+ minutes along with some that are still pretty quick to solve. This is my regular reminder that puzzles are crazy cheap entertainment; I’ve put something like 20-30 hours into the book, paid ~$14 for it, and still have another 10+ hours to go.
  • The diet’s been very swingy recently, and I decided that–at least for the moment–the positive-feedback parts of having a scale outweigh the negatives of becoming a numbers-driven beast. So I bought one, and promptly got back on the wagon, and apparently lost 10 pounds in four days. A lot of that is excess water-and-waste weight, but still, it was the shot in the arm I needed to get back on the stick more consistently. And I have no compunction about putting the scale in the closet if it starts being a bad influence.
  • The major exception to the not-much-new: I did my taxes last Saturday, and was pleased to see I’d be getting money back from the federal government for the first time in years. And then… I got another W-2 on Monday, for a deferred compensation plan that apparently is tracked in a completely different way than I expected. Oops. Now I have to file amended tax returns for both the state and the IRS. I was in a flop-sweat panic for a while on Monday, until I did the numbers… and realized that it means the US Government owes me another thousand dollars because of the second W-2. With them owing me money rather than the other way around, I’m a lot less worried. I’m gonna wait until March to file the amended returns, just in case something else comes in… and I’ve learned my lesson about doing my taxes early, I guess. Bleh.

I’ve said before that I’m pretty change- and surprise-averse, and this week epitomizes that sort of thing: a lot of “much the same” along with one “oh sweet merciful deity what I have I done?” moment that makes the whole thing stick in the mind. At least for now. I’d say that a little variety is a good thing… but I’d definitely have preferred this been a dull week from start to finish.

The pleasures of mediocrity

I’ve been playing a lot of Earth Defense Force 4.1 recently.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Earth Defense Force games are about alien invasions of Earth. And also giant ants and spiders and bees? This particular one is very insistent that all of the animals are “giant insects,” which, y’know, spiders aren’t… but, mostly, the enemy list in the game runs on the Rule of Cool more than it does on any semblance of coherent design. You fight said aliens and creepy-crawlies with a wide assortment of guns, rockets, artillery strikes, tanks, and even giant mechs, across a series of enormous sprawling maps littered with destructible terrain.

Are they fun to play? Yeah. But, to put it bluntly, every game in the series is a bit of a mess. I’ve been playing the series since I imported the second one from for my backwards-compatible Japanese PS3, which could play PS2 games, and a decade-plus on the series is very much evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and said evolution is something of a dead-end of design. Aiming still stinks, navigating the too-large levels with the default soldier-dude class (the Ranger) is slow and tedious, and the upgrade system is basically “play a level with lots of drops over and over and over again,” which is never a great sign.

And yet.

I’ve actually played EDF4.1 every evening for the last three nights, for several hours, with a friend online. And it’s been a ton of fun. I laugh a lot, make fun of the uniformly terrible voice acting, and then proceed to wipe the battlefield of the hordes of ants–they come in two colors, because why actually expend effort on new enemy designs?–and flotillas of weird spaceships. And then I do it again, and again, and again.

There’s something deeply pleasing about the game despite the fact that it is, objectively, mediocre at best. The upgrade loop is a compelling “ooh, what’d I get this time?” version of a gacha machine, the plot is so ridiculous it almost loops back around to awesome, and it is just so damn satisfying to mow down hordes and hordes of weak enemies with laser guns and automatic rifles. (Also, it has a sense of scale unrivaled by just about any other video game I’ve ever played.)

The long-running Dynasty Warriors series scratches a similar itch, mowing down hordes of mooks in an otherwise very bland game design, but for whatever reason it’s never quite resonated with me the same way that the Earth Defense Force games do. I actually spent quite a bit of time playing through the Xbox 360 version of the game (the third in the series) on the couch of an old college friend, playing split-screen multiplayer all the way through the campaign. It was a lot of fun then, and it’s still a lot of fun now. And I think I know why… or, at least, a part of if.

When you play a game like, say, the most recent God of War, or a perfectly-tuned modern indie game like Celeste, you need to be on in terms of engagement. They’re carefully considered experiences, to be savored and enjoyed and appreciated and noticed. Because of that, I’m not always in the right frame of mind to play those sorts of games. Playing them half-asleep is doing the games, and myself, a disservice.

But a game like EDF, exemplar of “just good enough” design? Who cares? You’re just going pew-pew with the lasers and getting even better lasers. It’s perfectly fine for me to be only 70% present when I’m playing, because the designers were only 70% present to begin with. It’s not a guilty pleasure, really, so much as it is a guiltless one. The game says: “I am perfectly happy to be a near-mindless time-filler with lots of explosions. If that’s all you can handle right now, I’m here for you.” And sometimes, yeah, that’s all I can handle.

I wouldn’t want every game experience to be the interactive equivalent of a B-movie… but I’m glad that such games exist, to fill the same sort of hole. Sometimes you just don’t want to have to pay that much attention to what you’re doing, and it’s those times that mediocre games are here to fill.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to go destroy another three million, six hundred and twelve thousand, three hundred and fifty-five giant ants before they take over the planet.

Pew pew.

Reeling, in a year

Today marks a year since I retired.

Here’s one of the questions I get asked the most: do you have any regrets about retiring so young?

I have to bite back the glib answer, which is, man, do you even know me? I have regrets about everything. I’m pretty sure that there’s no major decision in my life I haven’t questioned furiously before, during, and after making said decision, for hours, days, months, or even years. I still feel bad about the way I answered some Very Important Questions1 when I was sixteen, and those were twenty-three years ago. Regrets? Yeah. Yeah, I have them. I have them all the time.

Another common question is this: does being retired make you happy?

(It’s worth taking a moment here to note that, while I’m never angry with people who ask me these things, they seem to be coming from a place of mild bewilderment that someone can retire before the age of forty without the excuse of being makes-cigar-wrappers-out-of-hundred-dollar-bills rich2. The world at large is still very confused by us lean-savings early-retirement types.)

And, to be honest, sometimes I’m not happy at all. I lead a pretty lonely life, and one of the biggest things I lost when I stopped having a job at a vibrant company was a large, easily-available social circle. Getting people together to hang out when outside of work is hard, and I still haven’t cracked that particular code a year in. I went from always having a person or two I could chat with in a moment of downtime to sometimes going for a week or two where the only people I speak to face-to-face are the cashiers at Walmart. They’re nice and all, but it’s not exactly high-level social interaction.

But.

Let’s change these questions around a bit, starting with the last one: are you happier, now that you’ve retired?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. I had a rough time at work the last couple of years. The social aspects were great, never mind the food and the board games, but I didn’t find the job itself very satisfying, and could feel myself getting unhappier by the day. There were times when I had to take vacation for a week or so, not because I actually went anywhere–if you’ve read much here you know I’m not much of one for travel–but because I needed to get back the energy required to actually be able to show up for work again.

(There was a coworker of mine, a younger person who I regularly chatted with in regards to our careers. They were unhappy with their position, and I told them that they needed to grab hold of one of the many opportunities the company offered to move upwards and outwards, that being unhappy in a job was one of the most exhausting places to be in life, that they had years of working professionally ahead of them and they needed to make the best of them. Their usual response was: great advice, buddy, but have you ever thought of taking it for yourself? And they were right, of course. I was one of those jerks who didn’t practice what they preached.)

So, sure, some days I wake up and feel like I’ve made a poor decision… but most days I wake up and go: Yeah. Yeah. This is right. This is what I want to be doing right now. Am I happy? Maybe. Maybe not. Am I happier? Abso-freaking-lutely.

Let’s go back to that first question now, and take another stab at it: Do you have enough regrets about retiring early that you’d choose not to if given a chance to do it all over again?

And the answer to that question is as easy as the answer to the last: Absolutely not. I made the right decision then, and I’d make it again in a heartbeat if I had to. Retirement’s not regret-free, but nothing is, at least for me. That doesn’t mean I won’t change my mind in the future, of course, and one of the things I intentionally planned for is the ability to change my mind if I need to3. But regrets are a part of life, and every decision made is another decision unmade, every road traveled a path not taken.

And my footing is firm.

Weekly status update [0052/????]

Fifty-two weeks. Not gonna lie: I’m more than a little surprised at myself that I’ve managed to stick to writing this for one day short of a year. I’ve always had a bit of a problem with sticking to long term projects, but somehow this one’s survived so far. I’ve toyed with shutting this down in the next week or so, given that the low readership makes it feel a little too self-aggrandizing to write this stuff… but I think I’m going to continue for the time being.

Anyway, I’m writing this one a bit earlier than usual because I want to write up a full-year retrospective this weekend. Fortunately, it’s been a quiet week, so there’s not a ton to say.

  • I’m most of the way through the third season of The Man in the High Castle. The first two were passable but not great, and I mostly watched thanks to my love of alternate history; this third season, though, has been jam-packed with Big Stuff Happening, and I’m genuinely excited to see where it’s going.
  • I finished up Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood on the PS4, netting a Platinum trophy I was forever denied back on the PS3 due to stupid online requirements. It had a whole bunch of terrible design bits that continued to prove my previous take on achievements is correct. I booted up the third Ezio game, Revelations, and after about fifteen minutes went “nope” and deleted it off of my PS4. I’ll probably come back to it in six months or a year or so, but right now I’m super burnt out on that particular flavor of game.
  • A dreadful discovery: Walmart now carries cookie butter, both store-brand and Biscoff. This is really unfortunate for my future diet.
  • Totally unrelated (I hope), I spent most of Wednesday with a combination of a bad stomach-ache and back trouble, which meant I spent basically the entire day in and out of the bed, failing to get any quality sleep. I finally managed to wake up with some verve… a few minutes past midnight. Ugh. Sometimes the wacky sleep schedule I have thanks to being retired is nice, and sometimes it’s kinda awful. This was definitely one of the latter times.
  • I have several books checked out of the library and have been busy ignoring them, instead reading Chokes McGee’s Let’s Plays of Final Fantasy Legend and its sequel. It’s the sort of things that probably mean nothing if you didn’t play games in the late ’80s or early ’90s, but the LPs were impressively well-written, funny and poignant throughout. I have no regrets having spent hours on them.

Fifty-two weeks. Crazy, man. Crazy.