Try-It Tuesday: The Long Dark (story mode)

Back in the days of 2016, I purchased The Long Dark as part of a Steam summer sale. At the time, the game only offered survival mode, which I tried. It was generally well-done and I had a fun adventure, although survival games aren’t usually my thing and TLD didn’t do much to change that opinion. But I had heard that there was a story mode that was on the way in the future, so I tucked that thought in the back of my mind and tucked the game back into my library.

That little persistent thought of a story mode finally made me reload the game this past month to check it out. Right now, The Long Dark’s story — which is called “Wintermute” — consists of just two episodes with more to come. But two is more than none, and the revelation that BOTH of Mass Effect’s Shepherds did the voices here got me on board.

At the start, Wintermute plays like a straight-up adventure game in the vein of Firewatch. You’re Mackenzie, a semi-drunk airplane pilot in Canada who is biding his time as the world is falling to pieces around him. One night, his ex-wife shows up with a mysterious case and a request for a risky flight to the far north with “no questions asked.” Mackenzie agrees, they fly out, and then the apocalypse happens.

The Long Dark’s apocalypse — the “quiet apocalypse” as it is termed — is apparently a geomagnetic storm that’s knocked out all power and electronics, at least in Canada, but perhaps all over the world. It’s also made normally shy animals a bit more man-hungry. And, oh yeah, it knocks the airplane out of the sky.

Mackenzie and his ex are separated after the crash, and the game becomes about Mackenzie trying to find her and figure out what’s happening.

Thus the game’s survival setting kicks in. I’d say that Wintermute is about 10% adventure game and 90% survival — which means that most of the time you’re fighting degrading meters (heat, hunger, thirst, rest) and trying to find all of the gear you need to survive. If you like scavenging — and hey, who doesn’t? — it’s kind of enjoyable. Makes you really excited to find a can of dog food or a bag of moldy beef jerky, because you know you’ll live another day.

But the problem I ran into is that I really wanted the story to progress, and the survival aspects kept holding that back. It’s kind of like you have to do a bunch of chores to stay alive enough to see the next bit of story, and after a while my patience started to wear thin on this.

I also found myself really frustrated about the weight limit in the game. Mackenzie can only carry 30 kg of gear without suffering penalties (and whining about it), and I hit that limit awfully quick with all of the necessities for survival. You don’t even get redundancies with 30kg, just the basics and even then not all of those.

Sure, I guess carrying 35 pounds of water around would make anyone tired, but a man’s gotta drink.

I got as far as finishing up all of the quests in and around Milton with the prompt to head out on a long hike to the next town. Perhaps I’ll even do it, too, but my enthusiasm meter is dipping down a bit without more of a story to prop it back up.

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Why is jumping into a new MMO harder than a non-MMO?

Here’s a situation that I’ve been wrestling with for a while now, which is the question of why jumping into an MMO that I’ve never played seems about ten times more prohibitive and intimidating than picking up a single-player or limited multiplayer title. For me.

And that’s always, always struck me as strange, seeing as how MMORPGs are my preferred game genre. I love them. Once I get hooked on one, then it becomes a good prospect to return to after absences. But MMOs I haven’t played much or at all have a difficult time getting into that exclusive club.

Strange enough, while I was making dinner the other night, the solution to this popped into my head. I had assumed that it was primarily the barrier to learning a new MMO — the annoyances of setting up an account and figuring out the different systems. That’s still a valid obstacle, but single-player games contain some of that learning curve too.

No, I think the answer has in what I look to get out of gaming.

You see, with non-MMOs, I’m always in them for the moment-to-moment experience. They’re fun games in what they offer me right in the here and now, whether that be the joy of arcade action, the narrative of an unfolding story, the relaxing thrill of the build, or what have you. That’s generally easy to pop in and play, because the game isn’t asking much of me beyond my immediate attention. Without the social component and with a generally more focused nature, these non-MMOs are strings-free experiences. They don’t ask of me more than a small slice of my attention.

That’s not how MMOs are at all. Above and beyond the learning curve of these games looms a massive mental obstacle that has everything to do with its social, massively multiplayer structure. These games ask of a long commitment from me, because it takes time to learn, navigate, and progress through them. They promise social connections and other features that could establish roots and “stickiness.” What I want to get out of these games is character permanence, real relationships, and long-term investment. MMOs are made for us to dive deep into them, not to dip in and out.

That presents a huge problem when I’m either sampling an MMO or contemplating trying one out. My mind is doing all of these checks before I even get to the loading screen. For starters, does the MMO look like it’ll actually last for years to come or is it on death’s door? Is it the type of MMO that might appeal to me? Is it user friendly? And if I actually end up liking this game, do I have the time to really commit to it?

In the case of that last one, if the answer is “no,” then the immediate follow-up is “then why bother trying it?” Am I going to torture myself with a game that I’d do best to just ignore lest it try to suck up my attention and precious limited game time?

I’ve found that it’s all but impossible to get a handle on an MMO with just an evening or two’s worth of playtime. You need to commit to a week or so to really get the shape of it, and that’s a lot more to ask than a flirtation with an offline title that doesn’t care how often you log in. Sampling or trying out an MMO ends up being frustrating because mentally I haven’t decided on it, and so I’m not really doing all I can to learn it and get the most from it. I’ll avoid other people, I’ll just rush to go fight things, and I’ll walk away unimpressed. For the most part.

Obviously, some MMOs have made it through this mental gauntlet of mine to be viable candidates, but as of late I’ve wanted to explore some of the lower-tier games and kept getting held back from really getting into them. Maybe that’s also why I haven’t been fully immersed into Project Gorgon’s world either, despite professing my love for many of its mechanics.

I’d like to try out more MMOs. I probably need to develop some patience and commit to a testing schedule, but so far this year that hasn’t happened that much. Any other MMO fans find it hard to try out new games? For the same or different reasons?

Playing MMOs with a timer ticking down

While this will make me sound really stodgy, I generally order my day by half-hour and hour blocks. Until I’m off work in the late afternoon, I’m always thinking ahead of what I want to be doing next and how much time I want to allocate to each task. Get up and start exercising for 30 minutes, then a half-hour to dress and make breakfast, then a half-hour to get a few things written, that sort of thing.

One tool that I’ve used — not always, but on occasion — is a countdown timer. This is mainly when I have tasks that are too big to do in one day or when I have a lot of things that need to get done and have go dedicate only a portion of time to each. So I’ll put a timer on for, say, 45 minutes and see how much of a task I can get done before moving on at the end of that.

Out of curiosity, I started doing this for when I play games at night. Oh, I’ve timed my gaming sessions before, but I’ve never had an active countdown timer sitting on my desk ticking off the minutes remaining. Initially I thought that this might make gameplay more stressful — I want to unwind after the day, not feel like I’m pressured or under the gun — but in actuality, it’s freed me up to enjoy my sessions more.

That sounds weird, I know. But for me, it really works. Gaming with a timer results in satisfying and more focused sessions, and I’m not stressed out in the least by it.

I think that part of my problem in trying to juggle more than one game in an evening is that I never knew how long I should be playing each one. I’d be thinking about the next one I wanted to squeeze in, which would make me cut short my first game session or feel guilty about playing it when there were others to do. Instead, now I take the gaming time I have that evening (say, two or three hours) and divvy it up between the titles I want to play. I set a timer and then go, making it a fun meta-game to see just how much I can do before the time is up.

The timer not only subtly challenges me to do more in the time I’m given, it keeps me in games longer as well. I think I pressure myself to log out earlier when I do just one or two quests and then lose focus and start puttering around. Knowing that I’m committed to playing a game for the next 45 minutes removes that constant evaluation of whether or not I want to call it a night for this title.

Ack… I don’t think there’s any way to make this sound helpful or non-nutty, but I’m telling you, I’ve been doing it for over a month now and find that I’m blasting through more MMO and solo game content while freeing myself up for more pre-bed reading. I don’t think that I’ll ever want to push more than three games a night with this, but two or three seems to be a really nice spot for play. Thought I’d share that with you, is all.

Sneaking and stealing in Elder Scrolls Online

It’s a new month — and a new vantage point for my journey through Elder Scrolls Online! With Morrowind completely finished, I thought I’d be going through the main core game next. And in fact I did that… for about three days. Then the month ticked over and I used some of my allowance to buy another DLC pack.

A few people strongly encouraged me to get the Thieves’ Guild pack, saying that it’d be better if I was working on those skills and quests earlier rather than later. I liked the idea of building up a thief skill line, so why not? I guess in my head this was more of a side class unlock, but what it ended up being is a whole new zone and quest series (which it did advertise right there on the store, so I obviously wasn’t reading that carefully).

Thus purchased, I started in on the life of crime — and gladly so. You see, ESO’s justice system has really intrigued me ever since I bumped into it. I haven’t really seen an MMO that has gamified a crime system with heat and bounties the way that ESO does, and it is executed surprisingly well. Attacking certain NPCs, pickpocketing people, and looting certain buildings, especially in towns, will result in an increase of one’s own heat (which degrades relatively quickly) and monetary bounty (which degrades slowly and must be paid to fully clear one’s name). If the heat isn’t too high, guards will only try to extort your money, but if it’s very high, then you’ll be attacked and most likely killed.

Another neat twist is that stolen loot can’t be sold to regular merchants, but only to special fences. And if you’re caught by a guard, you’ll lose all of that stuff.

The justice system makes for interesting choices: Do I engage in a life of crime or remain virtuous? Is the risk of stealing and pickpocketing worth the potential reward? Do I pay off the guard or try to make a break for it?

While I had flirted with this system earlier, Thieves Guild really immerses you right into it. Several quests in, and I’ve been sneaking through well-patrolled estates (sneaking and hiding is another part of the criminal life), grabbing everything that’s not nailed down, and trying to perfect the art of sneaking up behind people and stealing their stuff. Or, in my case, failing miserably and having NPCs call me all sorts of names. I’m really, really bad at pickpocketing and I don’t want to admit how many times I’ve been killed by the guards.

And while I haven’t determined just how “fun” all of this is on the subjective Syp scale, it is certainly a huge change of pace from the normal questing routine. I’m really interested to see where this questline will go and to attain some of the skills that will make all of this much easier. My only quibble is that it’s a shame there isn’t a better movement system to go with this pack, since NPCs can scale and jump off walls, and all I can do is pathetically try to hop onto barrels.

Battle Bards Episode 138: Wild wild westerns

Boy howdy, is it time for another highfalutin Battle Bards episode? Shucks, looks like! In this week’s show, the trio saddle up for a ride through the tumbleweeds and mesas of western MMO tunes. It may be slim pickins, but the pickins are actually pretty good!

Episode 138 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Renewal” from Fallen Earth, “Ashe” from Overwatch, and “Crimson Hills” from Aion)
  • “Calm Guitar” from Crossout
  • “Thermock Hold” from WildStar
  • “Way Out West” from LEGO Worlds
  • “Main Theme” from Wild West Online
  • “Eyes of Ice” from Aion
  • “Cool Ranch Tumbleweed Explorer” from Pirate101
  • “Main Theme” from Dino Storm
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Katriana and PanagiotisLial
  • Jukebox picks: “Legend of the Eagle Bearer” from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, “Into the Wilderness” from Wild Arms, and “Escape” from Return of Obra Dinn
  • Outro (feat. “Antique Cowboy” from Ragnarok Online)

Try-It Tuesday: Oxenfree

Time travel. Ghosts. Conspiracies. Teenage drama. Sounds like a great combination!

Lately I’ve been really jonesing for a good adventure game/walking simulator fix — something along the lines of Edith Finch or Firewatch that would tell me a good story in an immersive world. And wouldn’t take more than a few hours. I did some research, drew up a list of titles I had yet to play, and then realized that one of them — Oxenfree — was sitting in my GOG library as a free game that they gave out a while back.

Created by some ex-Telltale Games devs, Oxenfree drafts up a story of a group of five teenagers who are heading out to an island for an evening of beach R&R. Each one of the characters, including the main protagonist Alex, carries with him or her relationships and baggage. Alex, for example, lost her brother a year ago and is now grappling with the fact that her parents got a divorce, her mom remarried, and she now has a step-brother her age (who is along for the ride).

The beach party takes an unexpected turn as Alex’s radio tunes into a frequency that should have been left alone. Weird voices, time displacement, and strange happenings start popping up all over the place. Alex even sees herself in the mirror dispensing cryptic advice.

Other than some very light puzzles involving the radio, Oxenfree is mostly about exploring the island (which has a rich and occasionally disturbing history) and navigating the fivesome’s relationships via dialogue options. Alex can choose to remain silent during chats or break in with up to three options, all of which create a very natural-sounding flow of conversation. And while the game doesn’t make a big deal of it until the very end, many of these conversational picks end up influencing relationships and changing the ultimate outcome.

Fortunately for this dialogue-heavy game, Oxenfree is both written and performed admirably. The kids are genuinely interesting to listen to as they quip, argue, observe, and share history. While all of them have interconnected histories, it’s only through the dialogue selections that the player is gradually informed as to what they are. I always wanted to hear all of the dialogue and would sometimes stop walking just to make sure I didn’t transition to a new screen or trigger a script and cut off the chatter.

My greatest complaint about Oxenfree is, other than its relatively short length, the control scheme. For a game that only has a handful of inputs (movement, radio, map, use, dialogue selection), it should have been 100% controlled by the mouse. Instead — and with no options to change this — movement keys are the WASD or arrow keys, enter is the use key, CTRL is for the map, shift is for the radio, and the mouse picks the dialogue. I kept having to move my hands on and off the keyboard during the play due to needing the enter key and wanting my right hand to always be near the mouse in case one of the time-limited dialogue options popped up. It’s just an annoyance that shouldn’t have been present.

Another small quibble is that a lot of the game’s very important backstory — the overall mystery of the island — is relegated to a series of hidden letters (“Scavenger hunt! Scavenger hunt!” Alex crows) that only start unlocking late in the game when I kind of wanted to wrap up the tale. They should have been present earlier and been far more noticeable for their narrative importance.

Overall, Oxenfree is a funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes downright creepy game, even though it uses a rather distinct 2-D painterly visual setup (which — quibble number three here — can make using the island map a little difficult). There’s a little incentive to replay to make different choices and see how other dialogue options would have played out, but I think one solid playthrough gave me most of the game experience that I needed here. Definitely a recommended title.

LOTRO: Shadows of Angmar done… for the last time

Moving at a clip that went a lot faster than I had anticipated, I wrapped up both Eregion and Volume 1 of LOTRO’s epic book series in the first week of the month. Eregion’s content zipped by as I zoomed through quests on auto-pilot, and the last few books of Volume 1 were more about traveling and talking than any actual questing.

This marks the second, and most likely the very last, time that I have finished Volume 1 in the game. For the longest time, I would just skip it on previous characters, having determined that it was too time-intensive and unrewarding (in both story and useful rewards). To be honest, I only finished it now because I was determined to get through all of the solo content on the progression server.

Volume 1 is very much a product of the early years of LOTRO. There are a few fanservice moments and high points, but that’s offset by an overabundance of travel (which was obviously meant to be a time sink), bland characters, and a storyline that didn’t feel urgent nor that connected to the well-known story told in the books. Sure, at the end it definitely ramps up for the last quest or two, but Ms. Darth Vader up there doesn’t stick around to be an interesting recurring character.

So where does that leave me? I feel a little at a loss for the remainder of February, here. Until Moria unlocks, my options aren’t that great. I’ve already finished my level 50 class quest and most of the Eriador deeds that I need, so I suppose finishing those up are an option.

A much more fun option, however, is Bingo Boffin! I checked back last week to see if he was now appearing to me after having disappeared for a while there, and sure enough, he showed up with a new quest for me to do. So I jumped back on that train, showing his journal to Tom Bombadil, going tavern hopping, and learning the ropes of treasure hunting. I’m not exactly sure how far I’ll be able to go with this chain, but with little else to do, I might as well see!

I’ve also been fiddling with outfits, being somewhat unsatisfied with several that I cobbled together from my meager wardrobe over the past several weeks. I’m hoping that Moria will introduce more outfit designs, although I honestly don’t remember if this is that case. Probably is.

I do wish that SSG would put out a roadmap for the year, although it was pretty tardy in doing this in 2018 and doesn’t seem that motivated to communicate these days. Besides, we know that the next major content update is most likely Minas Morgul, so I’m steeling myself to take my Lore-master back to the hell that is Mordor. Hopefully this time it’ll be better. That’s always an encouraging sentiment!