Outer Wilds

I am on an indie kick recently, and woo boy are there some good ones.

Outer Wilds is about a month old and I’d be lying if I said I had paid much attention to it.  Really, the case for a ton of indie games as there are not enough sticks to shake.  This game is a real gem.

Combine exploration, puzzle solving, time travel, aliens, and a sweet set of art/music (Syp would love this) and you got yourself a game!  It’s like a combination of Witness, Return of Obra Dinn, Heaven’s Gate, Majora’s Mask and a few more bits and bobs.   Every nook and cranny here is placed with some purpose, and the brains behind the science/story really went into overdrive.

The premise is somewhat simple.  You’re part of a explorer race, trying to find some lost folks and determine the source of some odd signals.  That takes you (and your ship) across 5 planets to uncover the mysteries of a lost race.  Except against trope, this lost race isn’t really lost, and they act like you would act.  Each location you pick up some interesting clues that lead to other locations.  The locations themselves change with the passing of time – one may decay into a black hole, another may fill with sand.  This time gating mechanism either opens or closes puzzles to you, so there’s a lot of back and forth trips.

The core mechanic here is that each session lasts 22 minutes before the world ends and you restart anew.  All the puzzles reset, but you keep notes in your computer about what you discovered.  The final “steps” to complete the game are therefore done within 22 minutes (I think it took me 12, after a miserable failure) and theoretically you could complete the game on the first pass.  I could also theoretically win the lottery.

The sci-fi hook is quantum mechanics.  And the actual science version of it, not some fantasy kick.  Things both exist and don’t exist at the same time.  Things travel through time – or rather against time.  You even come equipped with a little camera robot that can travel through the various quantum nodes.  Yes, it sounds complicated but it’s a testament to the game how simple it become.

The downside to an open ended puzzle is that it’s quite probable you end up at a place where you are missing the hints to move through, or that you do get through and things make no sense past that point.  That does make the 2nd hour or so a bit of a head scratcher if you find yourself at a wall and nothing is working.  Take off, explore another world and a bunch of new clues will show up.  Things that didn’t make sense before will become second nature (like flying).  I was amazed at how effective I became at piloting through difficult terrain with 3D thruster; of course it took a dozen deaths by giant spacefish to learn.

Took me about 12 hours to get through the whole thing.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it goes into 2001: Space Odyssey territory.  It seemed a bit strange compared to the more aloof humor, but it does make you pause to consider.  Not too many game endings do that now days.

Outer Wilds is a solid recommendation.

I Am Mother

Good but not great.  **SPOILERS**

 

 

There’s a very old sci-fi trope of the twisty story on who’s the bad guy.  The Simpson’s had a super take on this with their Treehouse of Horrors bit on “How to Cook Humans”, taking it to the nth degree, which itself was a riff on the a Twilight Zone episode.

The beats are simple.  An innocuous setup, a set of new data that changes your perspective, another twist, and then so on… until it’s over.  You get this emotional swap of who is actually the bad person in the story, and as the elements are gradually uncovered you come to your own conclusions.  Usually the final step of the story is some sort of ethical commentary.  When these stories are well done, the characters move the plot forward.

I Am Mother hits all these notes and takes an insanely frustrating turn at the mid point because it’s the plot that moves the characters forward.  There’s a much-too-thick amount of foreshadowing, where nearly every scene from 25% to 75% feels like it was written over a box of donuts, and filmed for a class in high school on exposition.

The concept that a sheltered (but not smothered) individual would swatch allegiances with the drop of a hat makes little sense.  The backstory for the stranger makes little sense.  The idea that no one thought that a robot would record audio is baffling.  When they do decide to run away and fall into a massive cornfield, never pausing to wonder why this exists on a desolate planet…Why is there a dog a few hours away from this robot farming operation?

When it reaches the summit of tension, the explanation provided seems insanely obtuse.  Like one of those elaborate Rube Goldberg machines, but spread over what appears to be centuries.  Things have to happen perfectly as planned, or the thing just falls to pieces.  And that the Mother robot somehow thinks that now is the time for the child to lead the next advent of humanity… after what appears to be 2 days of pure chaos.  What?

This is one of those sci-fi short stories where it’s better to have many more questions than answers.  Cut an hour from the film, put some scars or soot or something on Hillary Swank so that she doesn’t look like a CLONE of the protagonist, and there’s a solid idea here.

Main Issue

All of those details are things a lot of people will look over, but the purpose of sci-fi is to explore an idea.  And the idea here is that meritocracy is a valid form of government.  Many utopias are built on this concept (Star Trek TNG took this argument to the extreme).

The main problem with a meritocracy is that the people within the system must absolutely believe in it, and anyone who doesn’t has to be removed.  In this story, Mother did just that by killing anyone who wasn’t in that mindset.  When Mother leaves, the Daughter apparently has to maintain that mindset as it’s pretty friggin’ clear that if she doesn’t, Mother will just wipe everyone out again.  This infers that the Daughter will need to either teach, convert, or kill every new human.  Alone.  Where a perfectly programmed robot could not achieve that over many, many years of effort.

Which I suppose could mean this is a never ending cycle.  Which ARQ did excellently.

Summary

Decent film to watch if you don’t get invested in the concepts.  Otherwise, the film simply reaches too far without the ability to deliver.

 

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

This is a thing.  A good thing.  An actual game that originated from Kickstarter no less.

There’s a phase in the Castlevania series where a wide left turn was taken and the game turned from linear adventure into exploration-mode.  Symphony of the Night triggered a few “sequels”, but truthfully it just generated an entirely new genre.  That eventually morphed into the open world / icon-palooza games we have today.

Bloodstained goes way back to the roots, and plays like a prettied up version of Symphony.  The controls are slow, the movements deliberate, the difficulty all over the place, the secrets fairly well hidden, the dialogue extra-expository, and the bosses entertaining.  Oh – and there’s crafting, quests, exploration, and collection building galore.

bloodstained-ritual-of-the-night-reflector-ray-1

No sharks, but there are lasers

What I find most interesting about this genre is the development planning required to provide a smooth experience.  Sure, you get through and get bigger numbers but the game mechanics change too.  You start off with basic weapons, then unlock some interesting spells.  More enemies, different spells get unlocked.  Craft some new gear.  You need to choose your loadout for fights.  Make some food that provides permanent stat buffs.  Farm a few enemies to upgrade spells.  Upgrade some spells in the shop, and they become passive effects.  You eventually have this massive list of permanent effects (+xp,+gold, +drops, +damage, +resist, +movement,….) and the game turns into this blur effect of speed runs.  And you don’t even realize it.

I cleared up to O.D., got all the shards, a fair chunk of food, and a good set of gear (Rheva Valar is just insane OP).  I’ve played with a ton of skills and found a loadout that makes me feel like a tornado of ginsu knives.  I still have a lot of stuff I want to test out – and there’s some extra content I should give a shot.

There’s a solid 10 hours to get to the good ending.  Another 5 or so to clear all the rest of the content.  Another 5-10 to complete all the collections.  Super recommended.

Age is a Number

My eldest and I are a few days apart in birthdays.  I’m hitting a “milestone” year and I have to keep answering the same questions about feeling old.  Until you become legally eligible for something, there really isn’t a difference between the day before and the day after.

I’m in good shape and in great health.  I have the money to do what I want, though not always the time.  I’ve got a loving family.  Tons of stuff to be thankful for.  As an individual, the number doesn’t define me.  And really, it’s a time where you should have both time, money, and the wisdom to know what to do with both (in particular if you still have your health).

Yet, events do.

When my kids started school, I felt old.  When I started hiring students that were blank slates to my field ’cause the tech simply didn’t exist for them, I felt old.  When I realized there were more funerals than weddings, I felt old.  Seeing the kids ride bikes, learn to read, develop their own streams of thoughts… hell just grow a few inches…I felt old.  In the clearest of sense, age is relative.

I can relate to being not so much a kid, but living those same experiences when I was younger.  I did a lot of things, not always with permission but certainly with some guidance.  You learn from falling down and getting back up (or knowing when to stay down).

I am not suffering from some sort of existential crisis.  A wave of that has certainly hit the social circle… and in the wide majority it is with people who are still with the folks they were with at the end of their teens, and whose kids are now in the more self-sufficient block.  All of a sudden, they have much more time on their hands and they start looking around and wondering where the time went, looking at their biological clock.  More like regret than bitterness, but all are willing to take major steps for change to ensure primarily their happiness, and by proxy, others around them.  It takes a lot of courage to make big changes, and not expect some outside force to make you suddenly happy.  Not everyone is willing to make that change.

(I’m not immune to this phase.  The wife and I went through a hell of a rough patch a few years ago, but we put in a lot of effort at improving communication and I believe we’re better now than at any point prior.  Honest conversations open a lot of doors.  And once open, those doors open an entirely different world view.)

So as I edge all the closer to this magic number, I don’t think the date matters as much as my current state.  I would not have been able to get here earlier, and would not want to have waited longer.  I am happy, I am loved (with love in return), and I am content.  More than anything when I do celebrate the birthday, it’s about being thankful for what I have and being able to share with those I care about.  The larger step is taking that mindset an applying it outside of this single date, and trying to live it every day.  I’m not all the way there, but I’m trying.

This post certainly has a more philosophic vibe to it.  Feels good to write it out.  Hope you all find what makes you happy, and the right people to share it with.

Out of Midfield

I like sports.  I’ve played most of them.  I still play hockey at a “competitive” level.  Have for 30 years.  I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of a beating – more than enough times.  A few streams of thought.

The Women’s World Cup is underway now in France.  World’s largest sport, great stage, awesome that we can see more of it.  Hockey is in a similar boat, where the global talent pool is only just emerging.  It takes at least a generation to build a base, and that includes a massive investment in infrastructure.  Elite athletes are not born, they are bred.  And depending on the country, a particular sport may be more attractive than another (see Usain Bolt).  The gap in hockey is dramatically larger than football – but it’s similar enough that there are plenty of wash outs on the international level.

The US beat Thailand 13-0 the other day.  Opinions abound.  The aspect of this particular tournament is that goal differentials can make/break the way forward.  The men’s cup often sees this occur.  Combine that with the fact that the players on the team are all actively competing for a starting position, there are only a few games, and there’s ample reason to see why the US did not let up.  Anyone who has played at the competitive level where points scored mattered in a tie breaker understands this.  Be mad at the people who made the rules, not the ones who follow them.

Where a bit more nuance applies, and gameship, is in the way the US acted as the game progressed.  I don’t mean in a technical sense but in the personal sense.  In hockey, there’s an unwritten rule where you simply stop celebrating goals when you’re clearly dominating.  That’s really super evident in the lopsided international events where games can reach 10-0 and there’s barely a smile after a goal.  I can’t recall anyone celebrating an open-net goal to clinch a game.  I would hazard to say that this is a holdover of the Canadian “sorry first” mentality that permeates the sport. (US mainline sports do not have this, since baseball, football, and basketball are never managed on a points scored system.  It’s purely win/loss.)

Watching the US players celebrate their goals really got under some people’s skins, and effectively makes them look like villains in this tournament.  Villains in the sense of international eyes.  How the home crowd views this is really a microcosm of the global sport.  At no point do I advocate them not scoring plenty of goals – again that’s the way the tournament is structured.  Fill the net.  But perhaps lay off the major celebrations on goals 8+?  At no point did anything thing Thailand had a chance, so what exactly is being celebrated?  That you were able to beat someone that has half your skill level?   Yay you?

(For those watching NBA finals and wondering about the classless Toronto fans, hear me out a second.  When we (Canadians) see an injury, it is a real visible injury – e.g. blood, knock down, etc…  Hockey players end up in the finals with no ACL/MCL… so there’s a certain toughness in sport that’s expected.  KD stopped, and walked to the side to sit down, barely made a face.  That does not look like an injury.  The Raptors and replay were essential to communicate that it was indeed a serious injury.  When that was understood, the fans completely changed their response.   I don’t think it had any bearing on the game past that point – that was a horrible 2nd half for both teams-  and the game changer was the oddly called time out.)

E3

I guess I should put something up relating to E3.  The general lack of posts (and I will state that my blog roll is down by a  large margin) seems to be more symptomatic of the medium than just me.  Always found late spring to be a tough time to write…weather is finally nice and I want to be on the lake.

Anyways, back to E3.

In 2019, we’re in a space where there are very few surprises left.  Aside from Keanu telling everyone they are breathtaking of course.  Dev cycles are admittedly longer.  There is minimal progress to be had on the graphical front (I still recall the PS3 tech demos).  Nearly everything is a sequel to something.  The last time we saw a risky AAA game that was actually good was Horizon: Zero Dawn in 2017.  There’s a fine line between sequel and a new coat of paint (*cough*Battlefield*cough*).

From all the hoopla, there are a few games that seem interesting.

  • Baldur’s Gate 3.  BG2 is the best RPG of all time… of ALL TIME!  Larian has done a smash job on Divinity, so this seems like a reasonable fit.  Finding the balance between mechanics and exploration/story is going to be key here.
  • Outer Worlds.  I have a soft-spot for sci-fi RPGs.  Been a long time since there was a good one (sorry Isey).  And I’ve rather enjoyed the long list of games from Obsidian.
  • Evil Genius 2.  One of my all-time favorite games.  Playing bad guys for comedic effect is always entertaining.  Will be interesting to see how this applies modern game practices.
  • Cyberpunk 2077.   Both the setting and the developer hit the right notes.  As long as the story structure is similar to the Witcher, I’ll be happy.  I have a serious dislike for Witcher combat mechanics.
  • Ghostwire Tokyo.  This seems more like a serious take on Ghostbusters.  The art style & setting seem interesting.  Hard to say no to a new IP from these devs too.
  • Gods & Monsters.  Zelda but in a greek setting.  Which in that case would be Kid Icarus without wings.  I rather like exploration games.
  • Marvel’s Avengers.  Honestly, I am more confused than much else. A co-op live service?  Did we not just do this dance with Gazillion Marvel Heroes?  Pretty please, let’s not have another Anthem.  The timing here seems even more off, given that Avengers just bookended.

Random Thoughts

  • There is a lot more talk about cross play, and generally this is doable if the game is also on PC
  • 120FPS on a console is a big deal.  Which frankly, means people are going to need better TVs.
  • More streaming service.
  • Ubisoft’s play for $16/month similar to EA’s service is a heck of a stretch.  That said, curious how many people still pay EA after the Anthem fun.
  • Since all this was pre-E3 it was entirely console focused.  PC only games and mobile games come later.
  • There is a general lack of indie games making the threads, but I would say this is more due to the fact that indie is almost entirely focused on PC launches first, then console later.
  • Bethesda.  What the heck is going on over there.  Thumbs up to the ESO success story after a horrible launch, but everything else feels like throwing spaghetti on the wall hoping something sticks.
  • There’s still Nintendo to show some stuff.  Guess it will relate to Metroid and new spec on the Swtich.  Indie games already have a good foothold here… maybe we see more.
  • E3 has to compete with the 24/7 news hype cycle.  When devs are paying Twitch streamers to promote their beta games… where does E3 fit?

Love, Death & Robots

I think sci-fi is my favorite genre.  My favorite stories come from the golden age, when people were chasing stories rather than paychecks (the 80s… ugh).  There’s a child-like vision in those older stories, where the science projections were more magical and focused on the psychology, rather than the technology itself.  Or from another lens, great sci-fi is about people, not technology.

Netflix has an anthology series Love, Death & Robots that tells multiple story lines, with a sci-fi backdrop.  They are between 5-17 minutes, so really quick bites.  Anthologies are like a buffet, there’s something for everyone, but not everything is for someone.  I used to have bookshelves full of them as a kid (Reader’s Digest is exactly that).  And in most sci-fi, the best stories are the short ones, where there’s plenty of open ended questions (see The Martian Chronicles).

There were quite a few highlights here for me, in my order of preference

Beyond the Aquila Rift

This plays out like golden sci-fi, with an interesting punch at the end.  There are some open ended parts, and a nice twinge of horror within.

Sonnie’s Edge

The main line story is great, the setting a bit less.

Secret War

Aside from the monster design, every other bit of this story hits near-perfect notes.  It’s very tight, and is eerily relatable.

The Witness

There are many stories like this, but none that look like this.  Apparently there was no mo-cap, which frankly, bodes well for CG as a whole in the genre.

Shape-Shifters

Werewolves in modern day setting… much better than Underworld’s gothic take on it.  The blending of genres works here… a bit like the Forever War.

 

Not to say that the other shorts are bad, they just resonated less with me.  When the Yogurt Took Over I’ve read a dozen times now in other formats.  A half dozen others seem like they are pulled straight from Heavy Metal.

Considering how short each episode is, it’s very digestible.  Most of us can spare 17 minutes to watch an interesting story.  Kind of hoping we get more anthologies in this vein.