Weekly status update [0059/????]

Let’s just get to it, shall we?

  • Had my appointment Wednesday morning with the surgeon that will likely be removing my gall bladder. The consultation was short but informative, and I have an ultrasound scheduled for next Thursday to verify that I have gallstones, after which the actual surgery can occur. I’m bummed that it’s taking that long, because this is already messing with my plans to travel back home in April, but “getting healthy” is obviously more important than “fun retirement travelling.” Still: sigh.
  • Still reading Guns, Germs, and Steel. It’s excellent, but like most non-prose non-fiction I’m finding it a slow read. I plan on concentrating on it more this weekend, though, in the hopes of knocking it out.
  • I finished up all of the puzzles in Penpa 2019 that I plan on doing (there’s a type, Number Link, that I just don’t like at all). My total time for the puzzle book was over 3000 minutes, or fifty hours. Not bad for a $14 investment. The longest individual puzzle was a Ripple Effect that took me nearly two hours and still had some errors in it, with a Heyawake–probably my weakest of Nikoli’s commonly published types, not counting Number Link–coming in a close second. I also did a smattering of other random puzzles from various books and magazines, but I’m taking a bit of a break after the brain-squeezing pain that those last puzzles in Penpa 2019 gave me.
  • An extended game night on Tuesday led to me playing El Grande for the first time ever, which I wrote about here.
  • We beat Earth Defense Force 4.1, and have moved on to Earth Defense Force 5, which is excellent so far, and different enough that it doesn’t feel like “more of the same” immediately after its predecessor. That said, I’m planning on taking it a bit slower than EDF4.1, which I came close to burning out on several times over the last few weeks.
  • I still watch Twitch on the regs (and I stream most evenings as well). I’ve been staying away from Landail’s channel for a variety of reasons, but I had to come back this past week, as he was playing Mario Golf for the Gameboy Color. It’s a game I convinced him to add to his list of RPGs, and I felt an obligation to watch him play it. The number of people who wandered into his channel and were baffled that he was playing a golf game was… impressively high. He beat it just an hour or so ago, as of the time of this writing, and seemed to really enjoy it despite the fact that he had never really played a golf videogame before. Mission accomplished, as they say. Now I kinda want to play through it myself…
  • “Classic recipe” Honeycomb: still nowhere near as good as when I was a kid. Cookie Crisp: mediocre. Chocolate Marshmallow Mateys: probably the best cereal I’ve ever had? Being off of the keto diet due to my gall bladder isn’t all downside.

I’m unsurprisingly apprehensive about Thursday, even though an ultrasound is no big deal, because of what it is likely to result in. That said, I want all of this to be over, one way or the other. I’ll post an update here on Thursday (or whenever I hear the news), one way or the other.

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.

Weekly status update [0058/????]

It’s been a bit of a rough week, if I’m being honest, albeit (mostly) a quiet one.

  • The roughness: I woke up early Tuesday morning in pretty serious pain radiating throughout the lower right side of my body. This had actually happened the week before, and again a bit over a month ago. Three times is “something serious is going on” land, and I called my mother to commiserate; she agreed with the assessment I had already come to, which was that it was likely I was having an issue with my gall bladder. I scheduled an appointment at a local clinic, and the PA who saw me there immediately agreed. I’m scheduled to see a surgeon next Wednesday, who will probably do some sort of CT scan to determine next steps, and in the meantime I’ve switched from the high-fat low-carb keto diet to a low-fat high-carb one. No attacks since, which is good, but I’m expecting to have to have surgery, which is… y’know… not so good.
  • Other things have been more mundane, thankfully. I finished up Watch Dogs, as mentioned earlier this week, and although I started on its sequel I couldn’t actually play more than a bit of it before having to put it down; it’s definitely a better game, but it’s still too similar to the first one for me to jump immediately into its world. We also played a bit of EDF4.1 and some Overcooked! 2.
  • I read a lot. The Lynburn Legacy books are done and dusted; they were perfectly readable, but not all that special or memorable, I’m afraid. Monstrous Affections, an anthology of “relationships with monsters” book that I checked out just because it had the original short story that spawned In Other Lands, turned out to be excellent from beginning to end, with a bunch of great little stories. Some of them I would love to see expanded into full-length novels, which is always a good sign for a short. I also read Connie Willis’ Crosstalk cover-to-cover today, which was good but not great, and definitely had some creepy behavior/Idiot Ball plot issues that I would have thought Willis would be past at this point in her career.
  • I also continued banging on Penpa 2019; I’m down to only five puzzle types left in the book, and that’ll soon drop to two, although the difficulty of those five types definitely continues to escalate as I reach their hardest sections.
  • Up until the issues Tuesday morning, I was actually super-proud of myself diet-wise, having knocked off quite a bit more weight thanks to very careful eating. Sadly that’s out of the window for the moment… but I’d be lying if I said I’m not happy to be eating cereal and milk for most of my meals now. (Chocolate Marshmallow Mateys are still amazing; the “back to the old recipe” Honeycomb still taste nowhere near as good as the version of my youth. Get Honey Buzzers instead.)

I’m obviously more than a little apprehensive about this coming Wednesday and what I’m likely to learn, but them’s the breaks when you have a body that steadily refuses to age any slower than one year per year. Sigh. Until then, I’ll mostly be curling up with books–I finally started Guns, Germs, and Steel about twenty minutes before sitting down to write this–and enjoying my cereal.

Not so super heroics

[Mild spoilers for the game Watch Dogs below, although I don’t name names.]

At the very end of Watch Dogs, a mediocre Ubi-like I beat last night1, you are given agency in the story for literally the first time in the entire game: you can choose to shoot a man in the head or walk away.

I was streaming the game at the time, and I said: “Well, if it were up to me, of course I wouldn’t shoot this guy. But Aiden Pearce is such a raging asshole that there’s no way he doesn’t shoot him.” And then proceeded to put a (virtual) bullet in the character’s head.

By this point I had already completely disassociated myself from the actions the main character was taking, something that doesn’t happen very often in games. Hell, I’ve played a ton of Assassin’s Creed titles, all of which involve high-to-extreme body counts, and even there I could empathize with Altaïr and Ezio far more than I could Aiden. There’s a difference between an anti-hero and a villain protagonist, and in my mind Watch Dogs crossed that line early on and kept cruising further away like it didn’t matter.

It does matter, though.

I watched all of The Sopranos with my mother. We enjoyed it immensely, but the entire time I was watching I honestly couldn’t stand the main character (or most of the cast, to be honest, with Dr. Melfi as the obvious exception). Years later, I watched the first season of Breaking Bad, swayed by the plaudits and the recommendations of my friends. As the final episode of that season ended, I went “nope.” I had no desire to see what happened to anyone else in the show; as far as I was concerned, Albuquerque could have been nuked from orbit and the world would have been a better place2.

Apparently The Sopranos basically tapped out my willingness to watch shows with villain protagonists. Conflicted characters are fine–I love me some Firefly–but when my gut reaction to the main character’s actions is mostly “someone should stop this person,” that’s a good sign that I’m not going to enjoy it.

Part of getting the platinum in Watch Dogs3 involves doing a certain number of online missions against other players. And I noticed something deeply strange to me when I was hacking these players scattered around the world, playing their own stories out in the game: so many of them were in gunfights with the police. So many. It was baffling to me, as someone who generally plays games in a way that minimizes conflict; the only times I ever got into trouble with the police in-game were when the plot forced me to, or when I was getting the last couple of stupid trophies that necessitated that antagonizing. But clearly I was the exception to the rule.

Then I thought of the game’s characterization of Aiden Pearce. Of course most players would gravitate to maximum antagonism; that’s what the game all but spells out for you! No matter how good I was outside of the scripted missions, those missions relentlessly drive home the point that Pearce shoots anyone who gets in his way, police or otherwise. If anything, I had been playing the game strongly against type the entire time, acting like a do-gooder between the plot points then grimacing my way through the story where all my actions felt undone. I was pushing as hard as the game allowed against the villain protagonist role… up until the end, where I shrugged and said, “nah, this one time I’m going to do what the game has taught me it wants me to do.” Cue bullet.

Don’t play Watch Dogs, by the way; it’s not a very good game. You can fairly ask why I played it, and I can only say that I really want to play Watch Dogs 2 and have a stupid compulsion to play games in sequence, hence putting up with its aggressively mediocre “Assassin’s Creed meets Grand Theft Auto, only worse than both” design. That’s separate from the villain protagonist problem, which may or may not be an issue for you personally.

As for me, I think Watch Dogs tapped me out on that front, the same way The Sopranos did for television years ago. Playing the villain is just not for me, I’m afraid.

I’d rather nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

Weekly status update [0057/????]

What is it about “Reelin’ in the Years” that makes it get stuck in my head all the damn time?

  • I wrote a thing that I’m pretty proud of earlier this week. I’d appreciate any thoughts you had upon reading it; it’s pretty intensely personal, and (as one person pointed out) it has a few too many adverbs, but life-as-prose is surprisingly difficult to write and right now I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.
  • I gave blood for the first time since retiring on Tuesday. (The first scheduled drive after I signed up was at the beginning of January, when I was still back home visiting family.) It took too long, but I suppose burning an hour-plus every two months is small potatoes if it helps someone, and I definitely felt better after doing it.
  • I started on the second Lynburn Legacy book by Sarah Rees Brennan. They continue to be fine but not great, not nearly as gripping as In Other Lands, but they’re not terribly long either so I’ll finish all three of them for sure.
  • I finally finished the Platform Studies book on the SNES: Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware. It was very heavy on the non-technical “culture and processes around the platform” side, which tend to be my least favorite PS books, but it was probably the best of that ilk so far. After the utter brilliance of I am Error, though, I can’t help but see it as something of a disappointment. With it, I’m fully caught up on the series, and have started reading The Friendly Orange Glow, which is all about the PLATO system. I’m only about twenty pages in and am already pretty fascinated by the book; I wasn’t expecting it to start with B.F. Skinner, that’s for sure.
  • Most of my game time has been with Watch Dogs, which continues to be aggressively mediocre to bad. I have That Thing where I have to play games in order, though, so I’m toughing it out so I can get to the (supposedly) much better Watch Dogs 2. Ugh.
  • I finally, finally made it under 270 pounds at my weigh-in this morning; this has taken entirely too long, and I still have quite a ways to go, but it felt like some sort of major accomplishment, so: yay!

If the weather stops being so miserable this week, I need to take my car in for an inspection. That just about sums up how much adulting I’m willing to manage these next seven days. I am, indeed, stowin’ away the time, it appears.

Eyes shut, lungs empty

The pool glitters below me, bright summer sun dancing off the waves. I take one deep breath, two three four, and jump off the end of the diving board. No elegance in my fall, no style, as I pinwheel through ten feet of air into the water. It smacks me hard as always, a flash of red across my vision. I sink.

I only know this because I was told the story so many times as a child: when I was a toddler, I nearly drowned. It was at some sort of gathering at a doctor’s house, a birthday or a graduation or just the sort of summer shindig that was part of the upper middle class upbringing. Apparently I was playing too close to the pool; perhaps it was one of those setups where the hot tub area drains down into the deep end. And it was the early eighties, before the Era of Helicopter Parenting, when children were simultaneously watched and studiously ignored. Whatever the circumstances, I fell in and sank to the bottom like a stone. One of the (many) doctors there had to jump in, fully clothed and save me. Did I have water in my lungs that they had to push out? How close was I to dying, there at the bottom of the captured sea? How much of a part does this play into my mother’s deathly fear of water?

It was surprisingly hard to force myself down to the bottom. Twenty feet of water, and while I was still a scrawny little thing, the discovery of the joys of junk food still several years in my future, I tended to float more than sink. I couldn’t just swim to the bottom. It had to look real. I pushed every ounce of air out of my lungs, waved my arms ever so slightly in an attempt to push myself down further. My eyes were shut tight; how much further? How much longer? And then, finally, the rough scrape of concrete against my back. I had hit the bottom.

When my parents first told me that they wanted me to go to summer camp at the local park, I pitched a fit and tore up the application. Hearing this now–I have no memory of this event, either, memory that most fickle of friends–I am simultaneously surprised and not surprised at all. I have always been terrified of change, comforted by routine, and going from the quiet summers spent bouncing back and forth between my parents’ and the house where my aunt and cousins lived, doting women less than a minute’s walk from our front door, to the impossible-to-know wilderness of other people was the sort of thing that would have inevitably led to hysterics. (Just thinking about it now stresses me out slightly.) But: I tore up the application? That strikes me as the sort of embellishment that comes with the re-telling; I was never an assertive child. And yet I can see myself doing it, yanking the papers out of my father’s hands and tearing them to shreds, not even thinking of the immediate consequences, the talking-to or the spanking. No, just thinking: Not that. Not change.

When they quietly pulled aside a couple of trusted kids and asked for someone to do this, the criteria were simple: we had to be willing to jump off the high diving board, we had to make it look like we landed badly, and we had to be able to hold our breath for twenty seconds once we sank to the bottom. I had only just worked up the gump to use that board the year before, mild acrophobe that I was, and I still had a few moments of flop-sweat terror as I’d launch myself off the springy surface and plummeted through the air, thinking of all the ways that it could go wrong. But here, here was a chance to show that I was brave, that I could Do A Thing. I volunteered immediately, before I could second guess myself. Making it look bad? Not a problem. I could barely dive anyhow.

His name was Kenny, and he was one of the three or four camp counselors that spent all day with us, a group of forty or so kids ranging from eight to twelve. I don’t remember the names of any of the others. I had a crush on him almost from the start, one of those innocent childish infatuations that bloom and wither in the pre-teen years before we hit the utter hormonal confusion of puberty. He was smart, he was funny, he was just a bit of a nerd too; he taught us a game that we played on the basketball court with those red bouncy balls, a modified version of dodgeball he called Wizards and Warriors, just like the NES game. I probably followed him around like an adoring puppy that first year, ten years old and scared of the other kids. The fear wore off over time; I begged my parents to sign me up for another two-week session. I was having the time of my life, swimming and bowling and running around in the park and playing Wizards and Warriors on rainy days. And there was Kenny. Were we friends? In my mind, we were. I’m sure to him I was mostly just an annoying little boy that was under foot entirely too much, but if that was the case he never let it show.

I counted slow. I think I counted slow. I knew, even at that age, that this wasn’t going to be exact, that this was part of a drill, that one of the lifeguards had to see me drowning. So. Slow. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. My eyes were still shut tight, my arms drifting loose above my head, my back bouncing slightly up and down against the rough texture of the bottom of the pool. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. I was glad I had taken several deep breaths before jumping in, but the impact of the water always shocked the breath out of me anyhow, left me gasping and flailing at the surface when I managed to come up. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three.

Despite having nearly drowned as a child, in my mind I have always been obsessed with water, with swimming. But. My uncle took me to Water Babies as a tot, and apparently I completely forgot everything there; my mother had to sign me up for swimming lessons when I was seven, another change-in-routine I’m told I pitched a fit over. Was it residual fear of that near-death experience? I don’t know. What I do know is that once I got a taste of the water I wanted nothing so much as I wanted a swimming pool. We ended up getting one of those above-ground jobbers, a pale imitation of the real thing, and only kept it for a few years, but I swam every chance I got, at home or at a friend’s house or, at summer camp, the once-a-week trip to the city’s public pool. You couldn’t keep me out of the water.

My lungs felt like they were about to burst; the charade was up, I was going to have to swim back up to the surface, to breathe breathe just breathe nothing in my life have I wanted so much. I nearly inhaled water in an attempt to silence the screaming in my chest, that seemed eminently reasonable in the moment. But finally, finally, rough hands around my waist, pulling me up up out. It took all of my will not to gasp like a fish as we surfaced.

The rules for diving were simple. The deepest third or so of the pool was kept empty of kids, ensuring no one landed on top of some tot scrambling to get away from a cannonballing pre-teen. You couldn’t climb the ladder until the kid ahead of you actually jumped off the board; this seemed like a dumb rule to me, until I saw the kids who climbed all the way up, stood on the board for a moment, then quickly backed down again. I was one of them, the first time. I stood teetering over the brink, looking down at the pool like it was the tiny river at the bottom of the canyon and I was Wile E. Coyote hanging over the gulf that one moment before gravity reasserted control. I couldn’t do it. It was too much. I had to climb back down the ladder, shamefaced, tears in my eyes. I had disappointed myself. I had disappointed Kenny.

They had cleared the pool, and I could hear the shocked gasps of other kids, of adults, as they manhandled me onto the small wooden plank that they used to carry injuries away from the pool area and to the front of the park, where an ambulance would pick them up. I could hear Kenny, the shock in his voice. Wondering: what happened? Is he all right? I wanted to open my eyes, wanted to say something, but no; I had to wait until they set me back down, for an ambulance that would never come, before I could give up the secret. And part of me, some dark small part of eleven-year-old me, was secretly delighted: he actually cares. As I sit here and write this now, I wonder: was my willingness to volunteer, to fake injury, really an act of bravery, as I’ve made it out to be in the dim mirror-chamber of ancient memory? Or was it some sort of test, an attempt at validation, at answering that question that gnaws at the back of my mind on dark lonely nights: will anybody really care if I’m gone?

I’ve never been the most coordinated individual, and my first few jumps off the high diving board and into the water were sprawl-y splash-y affairs that turned my belly red. But the terror and the exhilaration and the thereness of the impact of water, of plunging into the depths of the pool, of surfacing with a laugh and a gasp, they kept me coming back. I got tips from Kenny, and others, as to how to actually dive into the water. I tended to overshoot, to slam on my back rather than my stomach as I arced too far, but those times when I actually managed to do it right felt like nothing else: a smooth, swift plunge into the cool clear water, fast and slim as a fish. Kenny was proud. I was proud too.

Finally they put me down in the concrete vestibule, the sound echo-y in my ears. I opened my eyes, sat up, looked around. Kenny was there, of course, and the look on his face was that of utter betrayal. Why would you do this to me? it said. Why would you fake this? I was a precocious reader, and had read about it before, but that was the first time I had ever seen a look of betrayal. He walked away, silent, while the head of our summer camp group and the folks in charge of the pool explained that it was all an exercise, that I had generously volunteered to be the guinea pig, to test the lifeguards’ reactions and their ability to clear the pool in time. I smiled, I’m sure, as the adults thanked me for my participation, but inside my heart broke.

It had been a test, and I was the one who had failed. Failed by taking the test in the first place.

He forgave me, and we were still friendly for the rest of that year’s summer camp, but my relationship with Kenny–clearly not as one-sided as I seemed to have feared–was never the same after that. I know I went to camp again the next year, but I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t a counselor then, and while it was still a lot of fun it just wasn’t the same as before. Part of it was me getting older, sure. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t benefit from being one of the counselors’ favorites, back before; I got picked as the wizard in Wizards and Warriors rather more frequently than was fair, and it’s always nice to feel special. But it no longer felt as special to me, as magical. Some fundamental innocence had been lost. I had betrayed someone I cared about, and that had consequences, consequences I was barely able to understand at that age. Consequences I still sometimes struggle to grasp.

But I still love the water. Love to sink down, to look up at the surface from the bottom of the deep end. It’s been years since I’ve jumped off a diving board–more likely that I’d break it, now–but someday, somehow, I’ll jump off a high board again and come splashing down into the deep end of a deep azure pool, sunlight glinting in my eyes as the terror of free-fall is replaced by the sharp shock of the water’s embrace.

No more pretending I’m hurt, though. Some things are too real to fake.

Weekly status update [0056/????]

The weather’s been pretty nasty here this week. So I guess it’s a good thing I almost never leave the house?

  • My heating system completely failed sometime Sunday night. It took until Wednesday for it to get fixed; it was just a blown fuse. Fortunately my landlord loaned me some space heaters in the interim.
  • Played lots of videogames. Along with finishing Horizon: Zero Dawn, I’ve also made my way through Batman: The Telltale Series, which was quite good, and started on their Game of Thrones title. Plus there’s the most-nights EDF4.1 pew pews, and Overcooked! 2 on Thursday.
  • So far so consistent with Tabletop Simulator on Thursdays as well; we played Aeon’s End again this week. And Friday night was a “shorter games” game night at a friend and old coworker’s house; we played a bunch of different things. The highlight was an extremely tense game of Tempel des Schreckens where I had to do some of the most creative, wheeler-dealer lying I’ve ever had to do in a social deduction game. I also bounced hard off of Deja Vu, bailing on the game after a single round.
  • I’ve been slowly reading Sarah Rees Brennan’s first “Lynburn Legacy” book, Unspoken. It’s… fine, but definitely not the lightning in a bottle that In Other Lands managed to capture. I also read Auggie & Me, a collection of three short stories that paint in some gaps in the narrative of Wonder. Inessential but quite readable.
  • The third season of The Expanse was excellent through and through, and I am delighted to see that it’s been picked up by Amazon Prime for at least one more season. The only other thing I’ve been watching is keeping up with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which feels just as good after the network switch as it did before.
  • I actually did some puzzles for the first time in a while. I’m almost done with Penpa Mix 2019, having done all of several types of puzzles in the book. I suspect when it’s all said and done the slim volume will have taken me somewhere around 30 hours to complete (but I plan on doing the math to see one way or the other).
  • You know that annoying thing where you know you’re eating properly for, like, a week plus, but the scale refuses to budge even though there’s mathematically no way you shouldn’t weigh less given caloric intake? Yeah. That’s been this week for me. Fortunately I resisted the siren call of “screw this, buy some Biscoff cookie butter at Walmart” that rang in my head most days when I saw the numbers. We’ll see how much longer I can resist.

I’m going to try and finish that first Lynburn book today, even though I find myself putting it down for just about any reason I can devise. Then I think I’ll finally read Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book that has been “things Phil is interested in”-adjacent for too many years to still leave unread.

Here’s a videogame thing: Horizon: Zero Dawn

At a little past 3am this morning, I finished my second playthrough of Horizon: Zero Dawn. It was a New Game+ (“Plus”) run on Ultra Hard difficulty. I didn’t enjoy it very much, but, you know, achievements. And then I promptly deleted the game.

So far, so Ezio, am I right?

Thankfully, HZD1 is a much better game than Assassin’s Creed II and its two immediate sequels. It’s a better story, too, at least in the core “what is going on over the course of the game” bits… not that that’s exactly a high bar, given the ancient alien nonsense of the AC universe.

Don’t be fooled, though: it’s basically Assassin’s Creed in the hills and mountains of post-apocalyptic Colorado, although it has a considerably greater emphasis on combat than those games do. There are viewpoints across the map used to uncover the world (although just walking around defogs the area immediately around you, so you never have to trigger them), boatloads of side-quests and optional challenges that reward you with experience, resources, and skills, and a surprisingly tight main storyline; I beat the NG+ run in less than ten hours, and just watched a speedrun of it done in just a bit over two. On the other hand, my nearly-completionist first run clocked in at a hair over sixty hours, which included about ten spent doing the excellent DLC side-area.

Well, with one notable exception: robotic dinosaurs. (And other animals too, but c’mon: dinosaurs.)

Just like the AC games are gorgeous, HZD is absolutely breathtaking. When the snowy winds ripple across the open fields and you watch the grass wave, the glowing blue eyes of robots winking in the forest at the distance, you really feel like you’re looking at another, far stranger world. The central city of the game is rendered with a level of detail that is honestly pretty stupendous for how little time you actually need to spend there, and each section of the map feels distinct and unique and beautiful in its own, usually austere way.

As for the story, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I only figured out about fifty percent of the core plot twist. One chunk of it is pretty painfully obvious to anyone who has ever read, like, any science fiction at all, but the central mystery–just what the hell happened?–has a considerably more interesting resolution than I was expecting. It’s pretty rare that a videogame plot surprises me at all nowadays; while games have come a long way from “save the princess in the castle,” they’re generally not exactly high literature when it comes to plotting or surprises or characterization. It’s nice to be shocked once in a while.

Aloy, the main character, is considerably more of a cipher than Ezio. She’s a strong, independent woman, which I like, but the combination of her sheltered upbringing and the lack of much interaction that isn’t about some major world-shaking crisis or another means that her actual depths as a person aren’t really very well explored over the course of the game. I know not everyone can be Mr. Auditore, of course, but I have to admit that I was disappointed that we don’t really get to see a whole lot of who she is rather than what she does. That’s despite the fact that, several times over the course of the game, you can make a choice between doing something via “brains,” “brawn,” or “heart.” The differences are generally very minor and still don’t really shine a lot of light on what it means to be a young woman in such a world, a pariah turned savior.

On the other hand, maybe I’m asking too much about a game where you shoot arrows into robotic dinosaurs.

I will say that the combat controls are way better than early- and mid-era Assassin’s Creed, but the movement is–somehow–terrifyingly worse. And that’s saying a lot, given how janky AC games can be.

The voice acting in the game is mostly solid, although they cast Lance Reddick of The Wire, Fringe, and Lost fame as, uh, himself, which is honestly always more than a little bit distracting in a video game. The dialog is pretty well-written, although the facial animations in the game tend towards the creepy Mass Effect: Andromeda end of the scale, which is unfortunate given how good it looks otherwise. I found myself skipping through the dialog as fast as I could read the subtitles by a couple of hours into the game, mostly to avoid the creepy facial expressions.

All of that said, am I glad I played Horizon: Zero Dawn? The once, absolutely; the second time, not so much. Stupid achievements. If you do play the game–it’s a PS4 exclusive–take my advice and play the game through on Normal rather than Story or Easy, which make the combat a little too trivial, and avoid Ultra Hard, which is ridiculous even with an over-leveled character. And make sure to snag The Frozen Wilds, one of the rare DLC expansions that genuinely adds a whole bunch of interesting stuff to the core game.

Weekly status update [0055/????]

Running a little late this week, but it’s for a good reason, honest.

  • Most of my spare time was spent playing videogames, primarily Horizon: Zero Dawn. I’ve been enjoying that game quite a bit. Its controls are (mostly) less janky than the Assassin’s Creed titles I’ve been playing recently, and although I thought I knew where the story was going, it took a couple of unexpected twists that I’ve quite enjoyed. And Aloy is a delightful main character, a smart, self-assured young woman who is supremely competent at beating the tar out of robot dinosaurs. More like her, please.
  • Evening EDF4.1 runs continue apace. I’ve still been streaming several of them… but no one comes to watch, so I’ll probably stop doing that sometime soon.
  • I’m a little over halfway through the third season of The Expanse, which continues to be excellent. It’s without a doubt the best “traditional science fiction” show I’ve seen in a very long dime.
  • Thursday night’s Tabletop Simulator play went quite well. The big game was Aeon’s End, a game I had only played once before. I still think it’s a very good game, if a touch slow… but presumably that slowness will abate as people get used to, y’know, playing the game.
  • The reason I’m running late with this: I spent most of Friday hosting Inverse Phase, one of my favorite chiptune musicians and an old online friend/acquaintance. He lives out of an RV now, and parked at my place while we went to JD’s Barbecue for some killer brisket and hit up several thrift shops looking for old tech. (The best thing we found was an original NES controller in good shape, alas… but those are pretty rare.) It was nice to visit with someone, for sure! And you should check out his music. I’m particularly fond of his cover albums; his Pretty Hate Machine song-for-song covers are amazing, and his version of “Drive” I find almost as affecting as the original.

Now to get back to HZD. I’m so close to the end. So close.

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.