Rings of Power

I’ve watched this in fits and spurts over the last while, the last 2 episodes back to back. I will continue to look back at the Peter Jackson trilogy being a near masterpiece, in both the art of filmmaking but in making the material accessible. It’s not possible to read Lord of the Rings once and understand what’s going on, it’s just too dense. The supplementary material to expand the lore is borderline the foundation to all fantasy that has come since.

LotR works because it’s a complex story that starts as a unified adventure, splits in the middle, and ties loose ends back together at the end, with both A and B plots being of near equal weight. This is my main gripe with Stranger Things as compared to The Boys, and ironically, the main issue with the Hobbit trilogy – the storylines are extremely weak and generally circular/meaningless. While not every story needs to have character growth, the A plot certain needs it.

Rings of Power has some big pacing issues, and most stem from a fundamental issue with the fact that elves are immortal. Now immortal is a word that we cannot comprehend in itself, it needs to be compared. In the lore, most of the elves are 10,000 years+ old. Dwarves live around 250 years. Humans rarely exceed 70, unless they are Numenorean (and then it’s weird). A year for us is the equivalent of 1 day for someone that’s 10,000 years old. Now, how many of us have undergone tremendous transformation in a day? It’s like comparing a human to a fruit fly.

Rings of Power focuses almost exclusively on the creation of the 3 rings of elvish power (A), with some setup of Numenor (B) and the first steps of Mordor (C). There’s a D storyline, but if you skipped the entirety of it, you wouldn’t even notice (and may be saner for it). The concept of time is difficult to manage in this storyline. GoT had more than enough example of people zooming across vast distances in hours, where for practical purposes it would be weeks if not months. For those timeframes to make sense, each of the A/B/C storylines has substantially different timeframes. A seemingly takes place over years, B over months, and C over perhaps a week. A never intersects with C, and B is used to bridge the other two.

The challenge here is that A is mostly a meaningless storyline, aside from exposition. The line is pitched as a Moby Dick approach to hunting Sauron, and the final 15 minutes are about that reveal and then completely ignoring it. Wow.

The B storyline also has no real progress or exploration as to why Numenor is the way it is. The books treat it as an Atlantis, where greed of the gods came with punishment. In this story, it’s about xenophobia, without any justification. And then a character turn which makes little sense.

The C storyline is the most interesting, in the elvish oversight of a human settlement in the southlands. There’s a weird love story here that doesn’t really work, but the human resistance and origins of the orcs is relatively well done. This is also the only storyline that has any true character development, where the decisions don’t appear driven by plot. Further than the smaller events that occur at the start are related to the final outcome.

Overall, if you’re a LotR fan, then you’re likely to get something out of the series, if only in the various call outs and interpretations. For the rest of people, I don’t see how this will work long term without some better writing and editing. Which is truly a shame, because this setting is an absolutely fascinating one.

Diablo 3 Design Time Travel

An interesting article about ex-D3 lead Jay Wilson talking about the original launch of the game. I won’t shy away from thinking he did a poor job and is exceedingly good at deflecting any responsibility from being you know, the actual LEAD.

First in the area of dumb, is that the RMAH was honestly thought to be a good idea to fix the 3rd party market…clearly a solution in search of a problem as 3rd party sites launched at 1/3rd the price of the AH. Duping was fixed with the always online bit, way back in 2012 when cloud computing and dynamic demand management wasn’t yet a thing. The AH was a bad idea from the start, every metric said so, and the gameplay loop clearly pushed people towards it. The truly bonkers reason for keeping the RMAH though… that it was on the box. For fear of being sued and the lawyers needed to confer on this. It took 2 years to remove it. Amazing. I’m all for innovating and taking risks, but you need a back-out plan. Which leads me to…

Jay mentioning that Blizzard’s design approach was iterative perfection, rather than good enough. The old saying of “it’s ready when it’s ready”. Which I think with rose coloured glasses is certainly a valid point and most assuredly delayed a lot of the work on D3. And yet, in that exact same train of thought, the RMAH was therefore “perfected”. Indeed.

Today’s Blizzard is not what once was. The pipeline to delivery is ultra long and their release quality does not indicate perfection. Which I think people are willing to take in stride if the cadence is reasonable, and the corrections doubly so. The last few years of WoW certainly was certainly a head scratcher, where the beta feedback was pretty darn clear about the faults, followed with a “trust us”. And history certainly tells us how that has gone.

It’s a fickle world, where the smallest of soundbytes can be taken out of context. Jay Wilson has spent the last 10 years trying to find every reason why the launch of D3 and its design was someone else’s fault. This older interview with Kevin Martens is a much better take on listening to feedback and an iterative focus on content in Reaper of Souls. Wild how much better than expansion was/is.

Achiever vs Explorer

No Man’s Sky attempts to hit the Bartle archetypes, to various levels of success. You’d have to put a lot of effort convince me that either the Killer or Social types have much weight here, which dramatically reduces the feeling of competition and FOMO. The Achiever and Explorer types are the main targets.

Achievers are goal setters, where progress for the sake of progress is the main joy. The goals can be self-defined or system driven, but they are there, and the goal is often times worth more than the journey. RPGs tend to scratch a crazy itch for achievers, as there are numerous levels of goals within (quest, levels, stats, items). Games with logistical challenges are also a big hit, be it Valheim, SimCity or Factorio.

Explorer certainly have goals, but the journey is the key driver. Looking under each rock, they take joy for cataloguing the world and see how the pieces fit together. A goal is often just another part of the journey to the next exploration bit. Games with large maps and interconnected systems really resonate here, so things like Minecraft and Skyrim are like crack.

NMS has a lot of content for both types. A practically infinite world to explore (I am the first human discovering some planets in a game that’s 6 years old). A very large swath of procedural tasks to accomplish (on a per-planet basis, this dwarfs most “games”). There’s a substantial amount of “stuff” to find and catalogue – language alone has 700+ words for each of the 3 species. There’s a tiered systems of resources, where complex ones can only be crafted. There’s a “system of trade” that has market forces within (you can “crash” a market by flooding it). And there’s a collection system with an RNG rarity tier on top of it, meaning that there’s usually a carrot of sorts to aim for.

One of the twists here is the interconnectivity of these systems. Valheim forces you to explore in other to achieve, that’s where all the bosses are and by consequence, the ability to use any of the new materials. And exploration is generally gated through achievement, you simply need a better boat to get across the ocean, or armor to avoid squito. NMS is in this vein, where you absolutely need to move between planets and explore them to some level of detail in order to acquire necessary stuff. There are certainly “golden planets”, where you can set up self-sufficient mining operations – I mean it’s a game of odds after all. But you still need to find them, and the only way to catalogue a planet is to land on it.

This effectively placed tiers on NMS’s various systems, in that in order to progress (achieve) you need to find (explore) the necessary components. Some of them are obvious – find copper. Some less so – Vykeen Daggers are randomly dropped from specific events in certain systems.

Where things get a bit tougher to digest is when you apply scale, as with all other logistic games. You will find dozens if not hundreds of systems in your travels – let alone planets. Organizing them is just bonkers. Mining is useful, until it’s not because you have what you need. There’s no automation of this system, just some standalone pieces. Exploration will reach a point where you simply accept the infinite variety of things – which I suppose is a message in itself. Never have I seen a game better reflect the adage of “stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back at you”.

These are far from complaints. The journey along the path lasts as long as you want it to last. The infinite goals are there as long as you want to achieve them. I’m frankly amazed that this game even exists.

Black Adam

Or the gap between critics and audiences.

Marvel movies are pure cookie cutter. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you see it start. The recipe has certainly evolved since Iron Man first came about, but it’s a clear and consistent experience. It’s a recipe that works (not withstanding how insanely intertwined the stories are now).

DC is not like that. The Batman Nolan trilogy is I guess the kick-off, but some would argue Man of Steel. Either works. Now think about the movies we’ve seen so far and how different they are. Justice League, Aquaman, Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn, The Batman… all of them share a common universe, but that’s pretty much it. This has produced some very different movies, with some impressive highs (The Batman is a joy) and some terrible lows (Justice League). You never quite know what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch one.

Black Adam is a weird movie, for numerous reasons. Which continues the DCU trend.

Black Adam, as a character, has been positioned as an anti-hero for years. He is fiercely protective of his country, going to extreme means to keep them safe from harm, making him their champion. Think Doctor Doom and Latvia. His methods are anathema to the golden age of superheroes, where the ends justify the means. In his mind, criminals have made their choice and the consequences are severe. In a sense, it’s Superman if he decided to be the arm of justice – ironically, the Injustice series is all about this. DCU has tried multiple times to present nuanced heroes… that has rarely worked out. They come off as goofy rather than gray.

The film also unveils the Justice Society (I know…) with Hawkman, Dr Fate, Cyclone, and Atom Smasher all trying to stop Black Adam for “reasons” and commanded by Waller. I’d like to say that this somehow makes sense, but it truly does not. The film’s entire setup is that Black Adam is a hero, and then this squad comes out of nowhere to attack him. It’s like the important part was edited out. Also, Cyclone and Atom Smasher are woefully underused. Hawkman is solid. Dr Fate is a weird one… but given his comics background understandable. I still think it works.

Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam is just a wall of muscle. Holy cripes. It’s insane how physically dominating he is on screen. As a character, he doesn’t develop in any meaningful sense, but he’s also not just “The Rock in a superhero suit”. I am glad to report that he doesn’t smile and has quite a few sarcastic quips throughout. Minus a few head scratching scenes, his character checks all the boxes and is fun to watch. Like stupidly fun to watch. His throne scene at the end is a nice touch.

I won’t talk about the villain aside to say that it’s really not good. Like Ares not-good.

This won’t be popular, but my largest gripe here is the young actor put in a position to be the heart of the film. He’s meant to be the grounding part, where we can relate to the larger stakes and storyline. It is a critical role and for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work like it should. One scene in particular near the end feels like a B movie, completely un-earned. I am not sure if this is the writing or the editing. Maybe it should have been split between multiple characters, or the character had some vested interest in the stakes. They just end up being a plot device.

The end result is a mechanically challenging film, but a fun popcorn flick. The sum greatly exceeds the parts, and there is no denying the sheer joy of watching a human the size of Dwayne Johnson be a superhero. As much fun here as watching Arnold in Conan. It helps tremendously that the movie slate right now is a hot mess of nothing, giving this film time to make an impact. It’s a fun watch, and right at this moment, I think we can all appreciate that distraction.

No Man’s Sky

In all the history of gaming, there are only a handful of games that we can generally accept as “comebacks” from their launch failures. FF14 gets most of the attention, but we forget how it was shut down and relaunched, acting more as a sequel than an iteration. No Man’s Sky however, that’s something altogether different.

Launched in 2016, it was touted as a near-infinite procedurally generated miracle. The hype machine was going full speed. What actually launched was a proof of concept of a universe builder and exploring simulation. A sense of ownership and place just didn’t exist, and gamers were not pleased. The developers took the flak, shut down most social media, and then decided to get to work.

Foundations was the first post-launch release, about 3 months later. It started things off with being able to create a home base. There have been 30+ releases since launch, culminating with version 4.0 – Waypoint, and a Switch release. The most recent one streamlines a lot of the starting experience, and provides a “relaxed” mode that fits between survival and sandbox.

I’ve had NMS since 2018. It was on my radar for a very long time, and the mid 2010s continued failure to launch junk had me wary of jumping in. The whole “no presales” bit eventually dove into “wait for reviews”. It was the tail end of the 1.x content, which if I recall was what the game’s original launch vision was supposed to be. I gave it a go, and lasted a few days. The training wheels section was both painful and too short, with survival mechanics that were a major source of friction.

I’d pop back in every year and a bit, start a new save and see where it lead. The pandemic certainly gave time. If I played sandbox mode, the sense of exploration was dramatically neutered because you had everything at hand. If I played the normal mode, then it felt like I was in the northern wilderness continually finding base materials to fix my mining laser. I wouldn’t say I despise, but certainly have an aversion to survival mechanics that are simply time padding. I think we all have enough of that in the real world, right?

4.0 came out a week+ ago, and with it came relaxed mode. The “default” relaxed mode is essentially survival without so much friction… things take the same amount of materials to construct, but they just last longer. Not having to recharge your suit or mining laser is AMAZING! Death is far less frequent as well, which is a huge boon as combat is not this game’s strong suit. The game just becomes substantially more accessible to everyone. And on top of that, there’s a slew of additional toggles you can use to add/remove difficulty to the game.

I realize I haven’t even gotten into the game mechanics yet, and honestly, I think that’s for the best. There’s no singular answer to what NMS actually is. The things it does offer are rarely in isolation of each other, which makes it that much more surprising as you go through. You can treat it like a base builder if you want. A pirate hunter. A trade empire. An exploration adventure. In small spaces, it had multiplayer as well. It may be easier to explain the things it doesn’t do.

I’ve personally focused on the main Atlas Path quest, to find the source of truth of the universe. I’ve got a simple base, my starter ship, a stupidly powerful multi-tool (through sheer RNG), tons of new languages learnt, a settlement to take care of, and two dozen or so systems discovered. And it still feels like I’m standing in the surf of an endless ocean. A clear research path leads ahead of me. There are a dozen breadcrumbs quests open to add more complexity to the gameplay loop. And I’m still enjoying the gameplay loop.

I’m frankly awestruck as the sheer volume of content here, and overall polish. It’s one of those few games that everyone should give a try.

September is Too Busy

I refuse to accept that this is what “normal” used to be. Things are just coming in at lightning speed and it feels like we barely have time to take a breath before the next event.

Return to school is always a fun time. There are tons of extra activities for the kids this year, which is all positive. I’m coaching both kids in hockey, which is just an insane amount of work to kickstart. Volunteer efforts are always a tough one, because there’s always more that can be done. Thankfully the majority of the administrative set up is done, and it’s about executing the year. Still… it’s going to be 8 tournaments and at least 35 games. Weekends are all but gone for a while. Fun weekends I expect, but time isn’t kind.

Side note – I did have an event with a parent at the first practice of one of the teams. Truly an astounding event that put everyone on the wrong footing. I get emotional outbursts, but parents really should know better. Not only do they look dumb, but their kids get some of the flack as a result.

Tons of health bits this last week. I pulled my back, relatives in the hospital, major surgery, and some horrendous C news. I’m in that middle curve where there will be more funerals than weddings for the next 10 years or so. I know that’s the reality, but it doesn’t necessarily blunt the news of any of the events.

Work is also at a crazy level. The summer months finally had people take vacation they’ve accumulated over the pandemic. The team has worked some absolutely insane hours, and time off just wasn’t an option (I don’t work in healthcare, that’s just *mind blown*). That didn’t stall items, but it gave time for some folks to come up with ideas and for some reason decide that we are going to try to keep pace with prior years. Even though every report on mental health says this pace isn’t sustainable. There are some key folks here that are able to rally the troops and keep folks sane. When those people decide they’ve had enough, stuff goes sideways very quickly. It’s not one of those things that’s linear… it’s a slow drip, and then boom, the damn bursts.

I dislike taking big decisions while under stress. I prefer to soak on it, at least 24hrs. That works for most things, but I do realize it means I tend to pile on more stress than may be healthy. The personal space is getting to a manageable state and there’s some light at the end of that tunnel. Work… that is more complex. I think it may be time to start exploring other opportunities.

Surviving Mars

I have a soft spot for city sims, in particular when the settings are a large step away from typical urban settings. I have an even softer sport for incremental builders (Dyson Sphere Project is superb). There’s just something about logistical planning that I enjoy… fancy that. Surviving Mars is a mix of both genres, and in order to merge them, both are diluted.

The setting is simple enough, you’re sponsored and given a rocket ship with some bits that can be used to establish a martian colony. In true red planet fashion, the world is inhospitable and you need to balance restocking from Earth and discovering elements to become self-sufficient. The first “larger step” is building a dome for colonists, which is where the city sim portion comes about.

Colonists have specializations that improve performance in certain tasks, and diminish them when doing something else. There are social factors to ensure they stay happy and don’t go bonkers. They can have kids, go to school, and have perks/flaws that impact their behavior. They also die. See, children in space can only work at a given scale. They take a lot of resources and take a very long time to mature to be “useful” when in a survival mode.

And this is the logistics piece. Mars has a ton of resources to be discovered. Collecting them is very painful. Surface elements are sparse, and most of the elements require you to have a specialized building. Buildings that can only be staffed by people. People who can only live in domes. Domes which are expensive to build and maintain, and have a very limited range. It makes it so that the cost to harvest is often well superior of what you can collect.

Now, there are some solutions to this problem, but nearly all of them are locked behind research, which appears to have some amount of RNG in availability, as well as a significant time investment. Breatkthroughs are a type of research that are unlocked through random events and is completely gamebreaking as it removes the need for people. In the “logic” part of the game, you can also create bionic folks, who eat/sleep, but can’t die of old age. If I can create that, how in the world can I not automate mining?

The logistical challenge of the mid-game is often a frustrating point in many games, as it should be a struggle to balance things while working to add automation. Frostpunk is probably the best example of this mindset, where you’re always on the edge of failure, but the hope of automating one small step has a huge payoff. DSP’s mid-game has undergone a lot of tweaks in early access, and is in a really good spot now – the challenge is moving from a planetary scale to a solar system scale.

Surviving Mars (the base game, I have yet to try the DLC) has a rather large gap in the middle portion where automation should be the goal, yet the carrots to achieve this is hidden behind RNG. I enjoy the balancing of resources, both harvesting and refining. The game just puts a massive hurdle in scaling that system where the goal of colonizing Mars is stalled due to the inability to optimize. Contextually, I understand why research is hidden and breakthroughs are so powerful… that’s the whole point of exploration. Mechanically, the game portion suffers from the RNG in scientific progress and direction. Never to a point of critical failure, but in a frustrating lens.

Domes offer a nuanced tweak, where you can prefer specialists and then build accordingly. Space is limited in domes, meaning you need to build another one. The initial and upkeep costs make that a serious investment. Then the people need food, which is a practical challenge. You reach a power wall, where a single building may require 50 and your best tool only provides 5. The thought process here is to build a housing dome, then attach other specialist domes for specific production in the others. A hub and spoke model is theoretically the best path (and what, you know, NASA wants). The practical implications are that you will need multiples of these as mining requires a hub well away from the main cluster, which needs power/water/food/housing. The net effect is that you are better building core infrastructure and then routing it all over the map – with redundant components so that if they are damaged everyone doesn’t die in a half-turn.

And don’t get me started on both the need and pace of research. Argh!!

Boiled down, the game is about 10 hours longer than it needs to be. I ended up setting the speed to maximum (triple time?) and just stepping away for a while. Give me a problem and the tools to solve it.

This comes off as negative, but it’s more an articulation of frustration from the logistics portion. I like the art, I like the challenge of exploring a different planet, the idea that you could be on the edge of something new. There are some neat ideas here, and it would be interesting what would happen if the mechanical components of the genre could better fit the story. And I am very willing to accept that I have simply not cracked the nut of this puzzle.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Still on the metrodivania kick, I picked up Ori and the Will of the Wisps on Switch. I had played the original on PC and was more than pleasantly surprised. The sequel is just as amazing.

Ori is a metroidvania with respect to exploration, non-linear progress, and skills unlocking new areas. That seems somewhat straightforward and evident, but its the differences that make it stand apart.

Ori is really a platformer at heart, parkour to the next level. The closest analogy is Celeste, in the sense of continual movement, without the puzzle element. With the exception of a few bosses, you never need to kill/attack anything. You can, and it’s a way to speed up collection of money to purchase things, but it’s never mandatory. Instead the game puts a ton of emphasis on environmental hazards, spikes, explosions, lasers and so on. It accents this on a more than a few boss battles where you have a wall of death behind you and need to quickly and cleanly escape using a pile of skills. And with the sole exception of the last boss, you should be able to clear the game without getting hit, making hit points not all that relevant.

Ori is also a fable of sorts, where the story is told through a narrator and experienced through the same environment. There are quests throughout, more for exploration than much else. There are a few cut scenes and NPC dialogue, but it’s the world itself that changes around you that resonates the most. You clear a zone, and the world changes. The art is just plain spectacular, and the music is near perfect. If it wasn’t for the difficulty and frequent deaths, I’d consider this zen.

Credit to the non-linear development here. You hit a cross road about a 1/3rd of the way in and have 4 options to take. Each can be completed in the order you want, and gives a skill that allows for further exploration. Aside from a skill that creates a light for dark areas, the other 3 are all movement based to reach new areas. Many metroidvanias give the appearance of choice (Blasphemous actually delivers in the first 1/3rd), but its more artificial as the boss selection is linear. There are no hidden bosses, crazy skills, or major secret areas. Maybe a nook or a cranny here; in general what you see is what’s there.

I’d be remiss not to mention the difficulty here. Metroid Dread can be beat by nearly anyone. Bloodstained takes it up a notch. Blasphemous is next up, and Hollow Knight a sort of pinnacle. Ori is near the top, not because it’s punishing, but because it’s demanding. The final area in particular has some absolutely devastating areas to get through that feel like trial and error, with little respite. It isn’t 1-hit death, and when you do die, you only lose the progress on that attempt.

There aren’t many games like Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and it’s a right joy to play through. It’s a different take on the metroidvania genre, with a much larger focus on precise movement and exploration, rather than difficult combat. Highly recommended.

Back to Hollow Knight

As many parents can attest, the final week of summer and first week of school is a non-stop adventure. Time management is just at another level, not to mention planning. Everyone is back in class, and hockey restarted this weekend…now it’s about showing up. Looking forward to the first “normal” fall in a long time.

The hectic pace means that most PC gaming isn’t even an option, and the Switch takes lead. (It does make me curious about a Steam deck even further. A new version is due soon.) I’m on a good metroidvania kick now, which works amazingly well for short gaming bursts. Hollow Knight ranked as my #1 iteration of the genre, and given the recent playthroughs through Blasphemous, Dread, and Bloodstained, I wanted to see if it still held true.

No doubt in my mind, it still does. And a Kickstarter no less.

One of my kid’s teachers is a Harry Potter fan. Super fan I suppose. She loves the Philosopher’s Stone, reads it every year, and keeps finding new bits. I played WoW for longer than most, and still there were new bits to find. Hollow Knight has this as well, especially if you’re paying attention to the lore. Given the non-linear construction of the game, there is a ton that’s open quite early if you want.

There are 5 core abilities in the game. The dash is acquired early, followed by the wall jump. Those together are enough to do a good 80% of the rest of the game. The charged dash opens a few more optional areas, and the double jump is required to reach the final areas. Finally, the shadow dash is used for reaching the “true” ending. This big middle portion allows for a crazy amount of exploration options, and the scaling of enemies per zone allows for a higher or lower level of challenge.

This particular playthrough was focused on exploring as much of the map as possible early on, including unlocking the fast travel (tram) options. As a fresh player, the difficulty curve acts as a sort of soft wall to tell players “maybe not now”. As someone with experience, in particular as to how the downward slash (pogo) works, it nearly trivializes some content.

Taking out Hornet at the start was a breeze, where my first playthrough took nearly 30 minutes on that single boss. The White Tower’s buzzsaw challenges took me a couple days to get through prior, this time it was relatively smooth sailing. The last boss went down on the 2nd attempt this time… and that’s a full on bullet-hell experience the first time.

After having had this run through complete, I posit that metroidvanias have another defining feature – positioning. This was an absolute back in the old castlevania days, where single hits were enough to put you in a pit. It’s now morphed into a skill-based approach, where all bosses support a no-hit kill mode as well as the ability to completely wipe the floor with you. There are no bosses that have unavoidable damage, and Hollow Knight takes this to the extreme with the final Godhome boss – Absolute Radiance – where a single hit kills you.

It’s been an interesting summer of metrodivanias runs, and solidified my love for the genre. It has all the bits I enjoy about gaming, with a solid mix of exploration, challenge, and progression. Hollow Knight is a near masterclass in this design, and remains the bar which other games are measured.

Mike Fahey

Some sad news, Mike passed recently. I had read that he had suffered another medical event in the spring, and the complications were the last bit. It’s a weird thing to mourn a person you’ve never met.

Mike was an old-guard of the gaming blogosphere, and was the only reason I kept with Kotaku over the years. He had a quirky sense of humour, and a calming “uncle” vibe that was always entertaining and safe. He was the old geek we aspired to be, and felt like the final bastion of corporate takeover of gaming media.

He wasn’t a serious journalist by any means, just that friend who liked stuff and you wanted to hear what he had to say. Snacktaku in particular was a highlight of the very odd things that people put in their bellies. His participation in the various Kotaku podcasts were always entertaining because he genuinely liked the people he was working with and had no podium to stand upon.

It’s a tough loss for the community, and moreso for his family.