Not just one of our many toys

I hope Google Stadia crashes and burns. Hard.

For those of you not in the know, Stadia is Google’s cloud-based gaming platform. The idea is that you can take advantage of their super-powerful computers sequestered in datacenters all over the globe to stream digital delights to your TV or computer. No need for a console or high end dedicated gaming PC; as long as it can run Chrome, or is a modern Chromecast, it’ll be able to run Stadia.

There are a lot of genuine technical problems with the model. I beta-tested Stadia, and even on my desktop PC I couldn’t get consistent frame rates in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Never mind that I live less than three miles from one of their datacenters; the game would regularly hang for seconds at a time, and even when it wasn’t acting super glitchy the control lag was enough to make it feel floaty and disconnected. A large portion of the US still doesn’t have usable high-bandwidth Internet connectivity, making this sort of thing a non-starter for most rural areas.

But, no, that’s not why I want it to fail. I want it to fail because Stadia is the culmination of the “you don’t actually own the content” trend that’s been getting stronger and stronger over the years. Not only do you not own the game, you don’t even have access to the hardware the game’s running on. Once Google inevitably shuts Stadia down–and for those of you who fervently believe that this time, this time, Google won’t turn down a service prematurely: have I got a bridge in New York to sell you!–every game you “purchased” for Stadia will evaporate, turned to digital dust, never to be experienced again.

I’ve talked a bit about the Memory Hole here before. Sony and Microsoft and even Nintendo continue to move further and further away from physical media, from the ability to actually hold the thing you bought. One could make an argument that this console generation has never really had that ability, thanks to the ubiquitous nature of Day One patches; no one ever actually plays the game that’s on the disc any more, because the moment you pop it in your console downloads some 10 gigabyte patch to fix all the crap they didn’t have time to finish before the game got shipped off to mastering. I have extensive PS3 and PS4 digital libraries, and I know for a fact that some day, in the not too distant future, all of those games will simply no longer be available to me.

At least, some of them. Thanks to the hard work of emulator developers and pirates, some (but not all) of the digital storefronts have been cracked a bit, so that people can actually archive these games before they’re sacrificed to oblivion. The WiiWare store is done and dusted, which means that the excellent Rebirth series of Konami remake/reboots would be lost to the mists of time… except that pirates managed to crack it all and make them available for download. Yeah, you can tell me that we don’t have the right to those games after their market has been taken down… but I don’t care. I’m going to value preservation over corporate-mandated obsolescence every time.

It’s not just defunct systems that have this problem. Mojang, the Microsoft subsidiary that develops Minecraft, sent out a notice last week that their collaboration with Telltale Games, Minecraft: Story Mode, was going to start disappearing at the end of June. It’s not just going to become impossible to buy, which is one thing; it’s actually going to be removed from people’s libraries. The game will become an un-game, never to have existed.

That’s bullshit.

At least with my PS3 I can pull it off the network and play all of the games I’ve bought digitally, until the hardware finally fails. With Google Stadia, you can’t even do that. They control the horizontal and the vertical, the method of pay and the method of play. You are explicitly paying for ephemera when you buy a game on a cloud service, and I don’t like it one bit. One bit at all.

(Here’s where I politely remind you that GOG.com, which is unfortunately part of a company that makes some pretty terrible social and business decisions at times, at least has DRM-free direct downloads for any and all games you buy from them. As long as you have a backup scheme, you can actually keep these games. What a pleasant change.)

Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done about this ephemeralization. Physical copies are, by and large, a mental sop more than an actual solution; most games “log in” to master servers nowadays even if they’re single-player only. And the trend only seems to be getting worse.

Time to break out the SNES, I guess?

The decline and fall of a written empire

I finished reading The Long Sunset yesterday, the eighth and final (for the moment) book in the Academy series by Jack McDevitt.

It was dire. The prose felt like it was written by someone with only the most basic grasp of English, full of repetitive sentences and “of course”s that were anything but. I toughed it out, because I’ve read all of the previous books in the series. And because the book I read before it, Starhawk–book seven in the series–was actually worse.

This was all prompted by the fact that one of my old coworkers had finally gotten around to one of my recommendations: The Engines of God, the first book in the series. That spurred me into checking on if there were any new books in the series, and hence the two novels sitting on the Library Stack next to my oversized recliner.

My reading of Starhawk and The Long Sunset, along with a comment by that friend about the repetitive way McDevitt introduces characters, prompted something of a crisis of faith: were these books always bad? Did I just read the first few when I was less of a critical thinker, not as prone to actually judge the quality of the prose I consumed? Because if the most recent books were anything to go by, I never should have recommended McDevitt in the first place.

My copies of the early books are hiding in a box somewhere, but this morning I managed to find excerpts from the first few books in the series on HarperCollins’ website. My current conclusion: they may not be perfect, and still show some signs of that later decline into third-grade reading material, but there’s no question that Deepsix and Chindi are much better written than the more recent books.

So: what happened? Has McDevitt lost the command of the language he once had, or does he simply care less about carefully crafted sentences now that he’s published twenty-plus novels, or is it something else entirely? I don’t know, obviously. But it’s made me think about this sort of decline, and how it is very much not limited to this one author.

Another series that I loved to pieces at first, then got deeply saddened as it went on, is Stephen King’s Dark Tower sequence. The first three books are some of the best horror/sf I’ve ever read. The long-delayed fourth novel barely fits in the sequence at all–it’s mostly an extended flashback–and the fifth through seventh novels rush through a bunch of important plot points and resolve the story in what may be the most unsatisfying ending I’ve ever experienced1. It’s so bad that I strongly recommend people simply stop reading after the third book, because everything after it is fundamentally not worth the time.

Now, I think that some of Stephen King’s best works are his earliest; The Stand is one of my favorite novels of all time. But he’s managed to write interesting, vital stuff much later in his career too. I actually reviewed the Mr. Mercedes books last year on this blog, and while they were hardly his best, they were perfectly enjoyable tales. The same for The Outsider. So: is it something about long series, specifically, that causes this problem?

I could give many more genre examples. Dune. Harry Potter. The Wheel of Time, although most of my knowledge of that series’ decline is second-hand. As much as I love the Culture series, there’s no question in my mind that its best books were early in its run, although the dip in quality across the series as a whole is much more shallow than the list above.

Counter-examples are hard to come by, even with series that were written in rapid succession, rather than dragged out over decades. I’ve heard very good things about N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, and all three of the books won the Hugo Award (with the last also snagging the Nebula), so I should probably add those to my reading queue tout suite. And I wouldn’t say that Charles Stross’ Laundry series has gotten better as it’s gone, but I would say that it hasn’t gotten worse either; they’ve been impressively consistent throughout. I’d be curious if any readers can suggest other series that actually get better all the way to the end, because I’m mostly coming up blank.

This ties into the theme I wrote about last week: endings are indeed hard. But it’s not just that. Maybe it’s simply authorial fatigue of writing in the same setting, over and over again? Maybe it’s the writing equivalent of the sophomore slump, where most of the great ideas get shoved into the early books, leaving only dregs for the later stuff? I’m not sure, and the fact that we read series because we want more, more, more makes that decline only that much more bitter.

Anyway, this kinda-sorta review mostly-really rant is already way too long, so I guess I’ll finish it with this: stop reading The Dark Tower after The Waste Land. Stop reading Dune after, well, Dune, although you can read Dune Messiah if you absolutely must. And if you read McDevitt’s Academy novels at all, you should probably stop after Chindi. Don’t let the long fall of the series bring you down.

On endings

The last thing the Internet needs is another think-piece on the last season of Game of Thrones… but that’s not to say that I’m past using said event as a jumping-off point1.

Endings are hard.

One of my favorite authors is Neal Stephenson. Cryptonomicon is an amazing book, packed full of details and fascinating characters and interesting twists. And then, about thirty pages from the end, it just sort of… becomes something else? And ends, kinda sorta? Given that it’s a 700+ page novel of itty bitty print, the ending doesn’t feel so much abrupt as it does not an ending. Similar problems plague several of his other otherwise-excellent novels, like Snow Crash and Anathem. Amazing writer, Stephenson, but he has more than a little trouble sticking the landing.

And, hoo boy, so do I. Most of my novels aren’t even complete, really; I just write until I hit 50K, because I’m doing it during November, and then finish the sentence or paragraph and leave it there. I recently went through all of my own novels to see what my “actually wrote an ending” ratio was: it’s either seven or eight out of fifteen, depending on how you want to count a book that was intentionally written as the first of a trilogy (and, no, I never wrote the other two). And several of those endings are, to put it mildly, utter trash. In one case it was a rushed summary of what should have been more of the book, and in another it wasn’t the ending that’s the problem so much as the missing third of the book right before the end.

So, yeah, endings are hard. They’re particularly hard when the ending is of something that has a deep cultural resonance, or heavy buy-in, or however you want to describe the couple-of-times-a-decade phenomenon that has people tuning in like Game of Thrones or reading like the Harry Potter series2. We as consumers of media hate to see a thing we love end, so we are already predisposed to dislking however it is the author or writers’ room or whoever actually goes about wrapping things up. We all have a mental map of questions we want resolved, characters we want to see succeed–or get their comeuppance–and when the ending inevitably doesn’t address All The Things we feel disappointed. It’s only natural.

I’m not justifying the (myriad) issues with the ending of Game of Thrones, mind you, although I think a lot of the problems with the show are covered by this excellent thread on Twitter that explains the difference between pantsers and plotters and what that meant for the last couple of seasons3. I think that, with more breathing room and some showrunners that were more interested in the show they were making rather than the shows they’d rather be making, we could have gotten a better ending. But it was never going to be a great ending, the sort of thing we’d smile and feel smug about and go “yes, that was exactly what we wanted.” There was too much investiture into the show to be happy about its end, no matter how well done it was.

So, yeah, endings are hard. Look, I’m even struggling to come up with one for this ramble. I think I’ll just let it trail off… like… yeaaaaaah…

Eat Your Peas: Notes

(If you missed it somehow, the story is here.)

A thought started nagging at me on Friday evening. What if I wrote a short story, or at least a vignette… live on Twitch? I tried to ignore it, particularly given my current sentiments when it comes to actively streaming, but the idea just wouldn’t. go. away. So I figuratively threw up my hands and succumbed to the concept on Sunday evening.

It turns out, surprising no one, that the theory of doing it was considerably better than the practice, but isn’t that life?

Back in 2010, I tried to write a million words. I didn’t come close, but I did manage to crank out over three hundred thousand words over the course of that year. One of the ways I came up with ideas for stories, or at least short little blips, was to hit the Random article button on Wikipedia’s sidebar and hope for the best. One of the rules was that I wasn’t allowed to just keep hitting it until something interesting popped up; I had to write about whatever dumb thing the database threw up at me.

I actually got some relatively nice short stories out of the process. One, “The Calendars of 2008,” was from just that: a page with nothing more than a big list of the days in 20081. The story was about a mall kiosk–you know the ones–that sell calendars, and time travel, and love and loss. It was short and bittersweet.

“Eat Your Peas” followed the same process. I ended up here, and while I had no interest in writing a story about a comedy duo, the title of the article sent me down some interesting paths. I should note that the story that resulted is workmanlike at best; I probably wouldn’t have bothered posting it if it weren’t for the experiment at all. But the experience of writing it was rather different than I expected (not that I was really expecting anything too specific), hence me writing this too-long-for-a-footnote side article.

When I’m working on longer-form stuff, like NaNovels, I keep a “notes” file open with ideas that I want to incorporate. I don’t usually bother with shorter stuff, but in this case I figured it’d be helpful as a way to expose my inner thought processes to anyone viewing the stream. And then I thought, well, shouldn’t those notes be available the entire time I’m writing? So, in classic yak-shaving form, this led me to learning at least the rudiments of tmux, live on stream, since I couldn’t find my old writing-specific screen configuration. Conclusion: I could probably switch to tmux pretty painlessly, and probably will the next time I reboot my computer2.

That’s well and good, but what about the actual act of writing? Turns out that it involves a whole lot of staring silently at the screen while you’re thinking about what happens next. Ceci n’est pas compelling viewing. I wrote quite a bit slower than I do during NaNo, partly because I kept checking chat (and finding it a useful-slash-shameful distraction) and partly because I did way more “in the act” editing than I usually do when I write. I’m very much a “blast out a zeroth draft” sort of guy, but I knew that I was going to be posting the story immediately after finishing it, so I took a little more care than usual with wording, flow, and the like.

The story’s still a first draft, and I don’t think it’s good enough to warrant another pass, so it’ll be a first draft forever. And I doubt I’ll write on-stream again. But it was an interesting experiment, and it shut that little voice in my head up for the time being, so I’m going to call it a qualified victory. Plus, hey, an extra non-blip blog entry for the week! It’s been a while since I’ve done that.

Of course, that little voice is already piping up again for a different story idea… -sigh-

How can you have your pudding

I finally, finally finished reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius today. It was really good, absolutely deserving of the plaudits it received, and by the end I really, really just wanted it to be over already. I kept checking how many pages I had left, closing the book so I could compare “distance before the bookmark” to “distance after the bookmark,” and in general feeling like reading it was much more of a chore than anything I really wanted to do.

And yet.

I’m actually happy that I read it. Not in a “I’m glad I made it through that tortuous ordeal” sense, although there’s definitely a bit of that; as difficult life situations go, reading a book that you’re just not really feeling ranks very low. It really was good, and had a lot of interesting things to say about life in the nineties and the genuinely tragic situation that Dave Eggers found himself in. My life is better for having read it. But it was also clearly not the right book for this moment in my life, which made it painfully slow going. For someone who has been known to read three or four novels in a day, taking weeks to read a single normal-length book is a sign that there’s some deep mismatch between the two of us1.

I tend to be one of those people that like to finish novels I start, or at least ones where I get past the first ten pages or so. Part of it is because the majority of fiction I pick up I know is good; I’m basing my picks off of recommendations or reviews, and I’m a pretty easy-going reader in the first place, perfectly content to read a popcorn novel if it’s fun, so surely it gets better, right? Surely by the end I’ll be happy that I stuck it out. Honestly, though, most of it is just sheer cussedness. I have a habit of dropping projects once they get tough, but damn it I’m gonna finish this stupid novel even if it kills me. Figuratively.

I wrote a bit, ages ago, about how many of the novels I’ve tried to write during NaNoWriMo over the years end up discarded somewhere around the 4,000 word mark, when I realize that they’re less interesting (or harder to write) than what I’m willing to tolerate during the accelerated churn-out-as-much-as-you-can time period of November. My hard drive is littered with these “4K corpses2.” A few years ago I forced myself to finish one despite the overwhelming feeling that I should scrap it and write something else instead; the resulting novel is a hot mess, filled with boring anecdotes from my life (with various levels of fictional-ness slathered on top) until I hit the 50K mark and could put the damn thing away for the year. In that case, the pride of finishing is basically all about making it through the tortuous ordeal, and nothing to do with the “pleasure” of writing. It’s garbage and I know it.

But other people’s books are different, thankfully. If I still bought novels with any regularity, I’d just set it aside for some other time, but nowadays I try to get most of my reading material from the library, and keeping a list of “stuff I tried but couldn’t get into” would extend my already-near-infinite backlog that much further. So I force myself to eat my vegetables3 sometimes, and for the most part it works out for the best. Even though I feel the pain of having that backlog pushed back further and further, as days that could have contained me reading a book or two now see me barely making it a tenth of the way through some difficult work.

Fortunately I already have some delicious popcorn reading lined up next, ready to be torn through at maximum speed. At least until I hit the next weird roadblock and once again slow down to a crawl…

(Seriously, though, if you haven’t read it, you should read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s good!)

The lessons of ludology

This evening, I’ll be teaching a group of people how to play Dominion. This is something I have done many, many, many times before; I suspect that I have introduced the game to somewhere between fifty and a hundred people over the years. When it comes to that first game of deck crafting goodness, I have the patter down cold.

In general, though, I feel like I flounder a bit when it comes to showing people how to play new games. This may come as a surprise to some folks reading this, as I am pretty much always the Designated Teaching Authority™ if I have even the slightest passing knowledge of the game at hand. It’s not that I think I’m a bad teacher, really; it’s just that I think I could be a lot better.

Education is a hard problem in general1, and teaching people how to play comes with its own set of additional complexities that can make it even more of a challenge. Let’s go over some of those in convenient bulleted form:

  • People are being taught how to play a game because they want to play a game, and so every minute spent explaining is a minute spent not actually playing. This encourages glossing over important details, makes it easy to forget steps when you’re just trying to get to the end of the explanation, and brings in all of that “I have to keep their attention so they don’t decide to just bail” tension that makes teaching a new thing extra fun and exciting.
  • Gearing a teaching session appropriately given a mixed group can feel impossible. This is obviously a problem all teachers face, but most educational milieus have a relatively captive audience: the kids are in a structured school system, or are paying for their education, and so have incentives to stick around during an explanation they already understand–or ask questions about ones they don’t–so that they can come out the other end with, well, an education. You can always just throw your hands up, say “it’s too much,” and walk away from a board game. And there’s almost nothing more distracting to a teacher than someone pulling out a phone and poking at it because they’re finding the explanation too simple… particularly when said person asks questions because they weren’t really paying attention. Not that I’m referring to specific instances. Cough.
  • As a leisure activity, it’s not uncommon for some people at the table to not really care that they’re “doing it wrong.” Other people at the table can take this very, very poorly2. Since the majority of board games are shared experiences, different levels of engagement in terms of absorbing how the game works can have a large impact on how other people experience the game session, so finding a way to teach “the right way” without ruffling feathers or sounding insulting is something that has to be navigated constantly even once the game has started3.

Teaching something well requires a solid grasp on the subject, which means I often spend a non-trivial amount of time poring over rulebooks before first plays, but if it really is my first time playing then there’s a whole lot of guessing as to what bits need emphasis, what rules will turn out to be the most confusing or relevant, and so on. For a game like Dominion or Hanabi where I’ve played hundreds of times and seen all the common mistakes over and over again, those details are easy to incorporate, but for a big-box Eurogame I’ve only played once or twice it often feels like shots in the dark.

Still: I try. I watch facial expressions and try to gauge comprehension, I stop and ask if people have any questions, and I work on my explanations of situations both simple and complex in an attempt to make them both educational and engaging. I think I get a little bit better each time, although I can’t be sure; I try to see what parts went over peoples’ heads, what I didn’t explain well enough, and incorporate that into the next time. The proof, as always, is in the play, and I can only hope that I can keep playing to find out.

The tyranny of choice

I bought a subscription to Playstation Now yesterday, because it was only $60 for a year. And as I started to browse the games available, my overwhelming feeling was one of stress, of trepidation, rather than pleasure. Here’s another several hundred interesting games to go along with my existing PS3 and PS4 libraries, never mind the thousand-plus games I have on Steam, and all the game systems I don’t have hooked up right now! My DS and 3DS sit at arm’s length from me, both packed with even more experiences.

How exhausting it is to live in the Golden Age of content.

This golden age is part of why I’m always baffled when people tell me that they get bored. With hundreds of television shows, thousands of video games, and tens of thousands of books available at the modern consumer’s beck and call, how is it possible that you can’t find something to entertain you? People constantly inform me of shows on Netflix that seem totally in my wheelhouse–Mars is a recent example–that I’ve never even heard of, because there’s just so much stuff on there that hasn’t been surfaced to me by the app or my casual reading of websites like the AV Club. And that’s just one source of many.

But the golden age can be oppressive too. Where do you start, what do you dig into? I’m the sort of person who generally likes to commit to a thing, to play the game through to the end rather than just taking a nibble and moving on, to watch every season of the show or read every book in the series, and that makes picking content difficult. Thirty hours spent on thing X means that I’m not spending that time on different thing Y, which may be qualitatively better for me. Even though I’m retired, there are only so many hours in a day; there is a hard limit to how many more games I’m going to be able to fit into my life. The choice feels weighty, and there are too many to choose from.

I know I’m not alone with this problem. Being overwhelmed by choice is a common issue nowadays. I contrast it with when I was a kid; I had a Nintendo and a reasonable library of games, but a quick dig into my database tells me I have 36 titles for the original NES. That’s way less than I have for the Wii (66), a system I barely played at all, and a fair number of those 36 were acquired after the NES had gone off the market, from friends who had moved on or stores that were liquidating old stock, before the retro game boom. (I have a copy of Goonies II? When did I pick that up?)

And the Wii is old hat. My PS4 library has over 700 games in it, my PS3 one almost 600. That’s enough content to last a lifetime, but new stuff just keeps. coming. out. Television? With Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix, there’s already way more to watch than I’m willing to set aside time for, never mind HBO and Showtime and all the old broadcast standbys. And my stack of puzzle books grows way, way faster than my ability to complete them.

I’m most of the way through Guns, Germs, and Steel, which is fantastic and absolutely deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won, and I wish I had gotten around to it sooner. But there are so many books that still beg to be read, stretching back over a hundred years, and the rate of publication is far greater than any fan can possibly keep up with. I stopped buying the vast majority of my reading material several years ago, relying instead on the library, and that mediation helps quite a bit… but my list of “things I need to check out” is near infinite and expanding.

Any one of these venues for entertainment would be enough to keep someone going for years. Having them all available is exhausting, with that constant question in the back of my mind: what do I do? What do I do? Limiting my passive screen time to a couple of shows does a lot to reduce that particular space, but it’s a decision to basically write off 98% of a particular medium, which seems like a shame… even if that decision feels absolutely necessary to keep sane in this modern era. And I try to do something, rather than sitting and spinning my wheels making a choice, even if it often results in me switching between three or four puzzle books over the course of the day, with reading and videogames interspersed in between. A goldfish-like attention span at least gives me the feeling that I’m getting something out of all the various media available to me, even if it’s not sustained in any one direction for long.

And then there are the days when I pick up a controller in the morning and don’t put it down until 4AM, when I curl up with a book and only leave my recliner to go to the bathroom, when the tyrannical bleating of choices is silenced or at least quieted. This is the thing I’m enjoying right now, and everything else can piss off. But those days are rare.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to finish up this damn book. And then play a game… or do a puzzle… or watch a show. I don’t know yet. I’ve gotta make a choice.

Fair play in an unfair world

I played El Grande for the first time tonight, despite owning the game off and on for over twenty years. It was tense, highly strategic, and deeply intriguing the whole way through, and I’m angry that I had never managed to get it to the table before.

But it was clear, during the game, that one of the other players thought that I was picking on them. Specifically, there was a point where I gave a different player–someone new to this whole “complex strategy games” thing–some advice about what they could do; they followed that advice, and then a turn or two later it set up a situation where I benefited greatly1.

My first response to this was something close to outrage. Of course I wasn’t trying to game the system in my favor, and how dare they think that that was the case? But this person hasn’t played all that many games with me and isn’t aware of the precepts I bring to the table.

The first and most important precept is this: I want everyone at the table to have the best time possible. For newer players, this often means giving them suggestions as to what they could do, in an attempt to winnow down the often overwhelming field of choices that modern board games can provide2. For other players, it means keeping far away from their decision process. I tend to err on the “help” side, and try to keep myself in check if I feel like what I’m doing is steering too close to my alpha-gamer tendencies, but of course this sort of thing isn’t perfect.

The problem comes in a game like El Grande where just about every decision a player makes hurts someone else at the table. The game has very few “just good for me” moves; almost anything that improves your position on the board is messing with someone else’s plans, or even directly stealing points from them.

Now, I try to be scrupulously fair with my advice–and I’ll admit that there is almost certainly some unconscious bias as to the hints and tips I give, no matter how hard I try to make that not the case–but when anything I suggest is, by design, going to hurt someone at the table, I can understand why it might seem like I’m trying to inveigle some advantage under the cover of providing in-game suggestions3.

This is hard for me. I can of course just sit back and never provide any advice at all, but I know that for some people that would make for a quantitatively worse experience, and I’m definitely one of those “some people.” I like looking for the great move another player has lying in wait, even when they don’t see it themselves. I think a game’s more interesting when people are playing at close to the same level, and if I can help nudge it in that direction I feel almost obligated to do so.

But I think I need to be more careful when it comes to games like El Grande, where every move has deep and lasting consequences that can sway the game hard one way or the other. It’s a tough line to walk, given my propensity for advice, but a line I clearly need to get better at finding.

Fortunately, everyone seemed to really enjoy the game, even the person who felt picked on, and we had a discussion afterward that (I hope) cleared the air. I don’t like that that had to happen in the first place, though, and I’m going to give serious thought to how I should manage similar situations in the future. Hopefully it’ll result in even more fun at the table for everyone involved, which is right in line with my first precept4. And any game night with no hurt feelings is a better game night indeed.

Socializin’ and shootin’

For the last week or so, I’ve been playing Earth Defense Force 4.1 online with friends almost every night.

The game itself, as mentioned before, is kind of a mess. But it’s a ton of fun to play online, and I’ve found myself really looking forward to the nightly sessions. (I missed last night due to a very late nap, and was disappointed when I finally woke up to see that it was too late to get started.)

Part of that “looking forward” is definitely just the joy of running around and shooting giant insects with rifles and lasers, but a big part of it is the socialization that comes with the game.

Neither of the other two regular players are that chatty1, but there’s a certain amount of camaraderie that comes from playing a game together. EDF is the sort of game where, for most of the missions, we can work independently, running around on the map and doing our own thing. We call out the big events and talk about movies and television while we pew-pew our way to victory.

Sometimes, though, the mission requires greater coordination. I usually call the shots on those levels, and that engenders a completely different type of joy from socializing: working together on a thing, doing that thing, and coming out successful at the other end is the sort of results that we are biologically hard-wired to really enjoy, and a hard-fought virtual battle tickles most of the same bits of our brains that surviving the real thing did back in our just-past-the-primates distant past.

And, really, it’s just nice to hear other people’s voices for a couple of hours every night.

I’ve mentioned before that a lack of regular social interaction the biggest issue I’ve had since I retired. Maybe the solution is as simple as getting a regular online game group going. I’ve never had a lot of success with this over the long term; usually one or more of the people involved get tired of whatever game we’re playing after a week or two and the whole thing falls apart. The last game we stuck to with any seriousness was the original Destiny.

Fortunately for this group, though, Earth Defense Force 5 just came out, and is waiting in the wings for when we get tired of this one. Hopefully we’ll last that long, and if not, maybe we can find another game to play the same way. Goodness knows there are enough out there. Surely we can strike gold a second, or third, time?

I can only hope.

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.