12 games that deliver the feeling of hiking through a world

As I said earlier this week, I’ve been slightly obsessed with this notion of hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s always been one of those secret, quiet goals that I know I can’t do — at least not at this point in my life — but I love the idea of it. I like the thought of setting out to simply walk the land for a long way, seeing nature as it is, and achieving a very long-term goal.

So while books and YouTube videos on the subject help to sate this inner desire, I’ve also considered what games might fill that void. Most RPGs operate on hub-and-spoke questing systems where you’re never really that far away from “civilization,” nor do you go on massively long treks from point A to B through the wild. But are there games like this?

The very first that comes to mind is The Trail, a title that came out several years back that is simply a walking simulator that throws in some collection, questing, and crafting along the way. It’s got great music and a serene pace, although I’ve never been that much in love with how the fussy inventory works here.

Survival games are a good field from which to explore, although they don’t tend to emphasize a journey so much as just “roaming around until you get enough stuff not to die so you can go roam around in the next zone.” The Long Dark is probably the closest to an A to B journey through the wild that I’ve encountered. I did like it and would want to go back to it at some point for another shot.

Firewatch definitely gets a lot of the feel of being out in nature and being alone as you scuttle over and around the environment, although its journeys are almost always loops that lead right back to a starting place. But I loved the beginning when you hike into this remote outpost and then explore around it.

There’s a web-based Appalachian Trail game called Thru-Hiker’s Journey, but it’s more Oregon Trail than visuals and personal exploration and experience.

I posed this question to friends on Twitter and got a few additional responses, including Lord of the Rings Online, Valheim, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Oregon Trail, Eidolon, Outward, Eastshade, and A Short Hike. What would you say?

Deck builder roguelikes: Meteorfall and Slay the Spire

There’s been a rise of deck-building roguelikes in the gaming sphere over the past few years, a trend that gets my approval. I do like card battling games in general, although not so much the expensive and grindy collectable card versions, so playing these gives me a card fix without having to spend a lot of money on boosters.

So the idea of these types of games is that you go through a series of battles with a class and a deck of cards that offer abilities and attacks and whatnot. Since your health is a running concern (it isn’t normally reset between battles), it’s important to figure out ways to rest up while still engaging in fights.

As you progress in these games, you get more cards to add to your deck, ways to upgrade said cards to more powerful levels, and choices between beneficial or unknown bonuses. Ultimately, you face off against a huge boss and either make it or your don’t. And even if you do die, you retain some measure of class or currency progress so that you have unlocks to make future runs easier.

Two of these types of games that I’ve been playing lately are Meteorfall and Slay the Spire. Meteorfall is an excellent phone game with goofy cartoon art and a good sense of humor. It’s pretty challenging, and I do like to experiment with the different classes to see which one works for me best. For example, the Necromancer can activate summon skills that throw extra cards in the *enemy’s* deck that, if drawn, does them damage. That’s a pretty clever way to do minions without putting minions on a board.

I also picked up Slay the Spire for tablets (since that version was cheaper than the Steam one). This one offers multiple enemies and attack animations, but I’ve been kind of underwhelmed considering the extreme praise it’s gotten. Like, it’s decent, but it’s not as addictive as I was expecting.

Are MMO level boosts blasphemy or blessings?

With the recent news that Burning Crusade Classic is going to sell a one-per-account-only character level boost, the old argument of “pro vs. con boosting” has cracked open again. It’s actually kind of funny, because nobody is grousing about this on retail, but in the Classic community where the time and effort to level is much more pronounced, it’s a Big Deal. Camps on both sides are being established, blood has been drawn, and Blizzard is in crosshairs.

Of course, the studio is going to make bank with this compromise, so let’s not feel sorry for it.

Back in the day, I used to be fully, whole-heartedly against level boosting. I took a hard lined stance against it, saying that it invalidated the designed progression of the game and allowed people to, if not pay-to-win, then pay-to-progress. It felt wrong, it felt like it cheapened the time and effort that I put into working on my character if, by comparison, Joe Warrior over there shelled out $30 and got his instantly max-level character.

Now here’s the part where you expect me to say that I’ve come fully around on this topic and am completely fine with level boosting. The truth is — I’m not. I still don’t like it. I’ve used a few myself (most recently with LOTRO) and don’t really blast people for using them, but I don’t like that they exist at all. I don’t like that, from the player’s perspective, it’s a shortcut that jogs around the meat of a game’s experience and makes a false equivalence between characters that genuinely earned their status and the ones that had a bigger allowance.

I don’t like that boosts help to reinforce this notion that the endgame in MMORPGs is all that matters — and that the leveling journey is just a time gate of some sort. I don’t like that studios see an opening to make easy money by selling out in this way, nor do I like that the studios are, in a way, preying upon vulnerable players.

So I’m not going to be marching in any pro-boosting parades any time soon, no. I can acknowledge that they are useful to some people and in certain situations, that they’re usually not throwing people right to the level cap with a full set of raid gear, and that leveling is still relevant and enjoyable. I can’t see myself buying a boost for Burning Crusade Classic, but hey, if you do, I won’t give you sideeyes.

Promise.

The weirdness of shoulder armor

It was always a joke in World of Warcraft and even more so in SWTOR, but the truth is that shoulder armor has sat in this weird place in RPGs for a while now — and particularly for MMOs.

For any game that allows players to equip different pieces of gear, shoulder armor turns up. After all, there’s only so many different visible spots on a humanoid’s body, and some of them are too small to notice (belts and wristbands, I’m looking at you). So developers did this weird thing that, to compensate, they kept enlarging shoulders far beyond the point of practicality. Shoulder gear wasn’t there to suggest functionality; shoulder gear was a giant cosmetic flag.

And it’s one that I think looks flat-out ridiculous.

Along with cloaks and helms, I’m often disabling shoulder armor in games that have it because I don’t like looking like a reject from a 1980s workplace.

I guess if you’re a tank, you like to look as “armored up” as possible, so big fat shoulders make more sense in that regard. Kind of like you’re a medieval football player or something. But I don’t make tanks nor need to express power in business fashion.

As I said before, World of Warcraft’s tendency to exaggerate graphics went overboard with shoulders. Some of those pieces were so big and clunky that they probably weighed more than the character. Many of them looked downright impractical. I have a fun shoulder piece for my Druid that is pretty much a pair of giant glass orbs filled with blood. Don’t know how that’s going to protect me in a fight, but give me some straws, and I’ll keep hydrated with cheery kool-aid!

I also think it’s really silly to see shoulder pieces so big and tall that any wearer of them would have zero peripheral vision. Some of shoulder gear is so spiky that it would lobotomize adventurers if they shrugged, which feels terrifying to me.

Anyway, this isn’t to say games should stop with the shoulder silliness, it’s just something that’s been catching my attention as of late.

I’m going on an MMO rerolling frenzy

You ever look at yourself, at what you’re doing, and think, “You’re so crazy! But I love you! Go for it?” The observer side of me has been doing that this whole past week as my gamer side is getting downright wacky. The reason for this split mind is that I’ve been rerolling characters left and right lately.

I’ve started over in WoW Classic. I’ve made a World of Warcraft mage to level (a first for me). I’ve even rerolled as a Necromancer in Elder Scrolls Online, and I’m contemplating a brand-new LOTRO character too.

Maybe it’s the new year finally kicking in? A desire for fresh starts and shaking things up?

I don’t think there’s any shame in rerolling. Most of the time it doesn’t pan out (which is why you should never delete your high level characters, kids — you’ll regret that), but once in a while… once in a while it does. Once in a while you’ll discover an appreciation for a new class or a connection with a certain character or a social experience that’ll keep you gaming for the long haul.

And even if this is just an exercise in temporary whimsy — what’s wrong with that? There’s something refreshing and exciting about making brand-new characters, of sniffing that “do over” smell, of shaking off the routine and the characters you’ve been inhabiting for 200 hours and seeing something different. Even if it’s just for a day or two.

I think I need that right now. The winter doldrums are hitting pretty hard (moreso than in the past due to the lack of activities to do outside of our home), and I need something to look forward to at the end of the day. New projects — like a new character — can be a short-term solution for that.

Gaming ennui

Weekend afternoons are a sacred thing to me. In the mornings and evenings we do family stuff (chores, day trips, worship, movies), but on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, there’s a glorious three-hour window when the kids go down for quiet time/naps, my wife buries herself in a project, and I can just sit and game. It’s amazing.

It’s not just the free time, but the fact that I can play during the day for once instead of the very last thing late at night when I’m fighting to keep my eyes open. During these afternoons, I get to unwind from the week, and I look forward to them.

That’s why I was disturbed the other Saturday when I settled into my office, put on my headphones, and… didn’t feel like playing anything. No MMO appealed to me. Nor did any other games, not even new ones like Cyberpunk 2077. I felt restless and bored. And normally that sort of “entertainment ennui” would’ve been fine except that for the special qualities of these afternoons. I felt like I was wasting it, somehow, to not be playing.

Of course, that’s silliness from the emotions talking. My head knew better, and so I simply worked on some writing projects and spent some extra time reading while sitting next to my wife.

But it’s always a little unnerving when those moments hit. It’s not exactly burnout, but it’s somewhere in the general vicinity. Maybe it’s a sign I’ve done something for too long without a break, and it’s time to shake things up a bit. Maybe I’m not being challenged or stimulated by the right sort of games.

The answer to this is, of course, always the same. It’s just to back off, do some other stuff for a while, and don’t feel pressured by what an afternoon represents. And so I did that for a few days, just stayed away from gaming, and by Tuesday, I felt back to my so-called normal.

10 (non-MMO) games I’m looking forward to playing in 2021

Even though my gaming backlog is a mighty beast indeed, and even though I have a wide assortment of MMOs to play at any given time, it’s still fun to anticipate what’s coming down the conveyor belt of development. Today I want to rattle off 10 non-MMO games that I’m looking forward to playing (if they do indeed release this year).

Mass Effect Trilogy Remaster

I’m really intrigued at the notion of a revamped Mass Effect series. It’s been a long time since I played these games, and I never finished the third title or even picked up Andromeda. A full remaster would be an excellent excuse to go back through the whole trilogy start to finish.

Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines 2

I just went through the original game a year or so ago, and even though vampires and super-dark settings aren’t my thing, I do like the world building here and the thought of a deep CRPG to sink my… mind into.

12 Minutes

This unique single-room timeloop game has a lot of folks interested, yours truly included.

Age of Empires IV

I can’t remember the last time I was excited about an RTS game coming out, but yes, I’ll be there on day one for a new Age of Empires game! I just hope we hear more about this soon.

Everspace 2

I have the first one and haven’t played it (probably should), but the Privateer-like sequel does look like it would hit the spot for a space sim craving I’ve been having.

Open Roads

A road trip adventure game with mystery and relationship drama? Sure. I’m in.

Chinatown Detective Agency

Cyberpunk is real big right now for some reason, so it’s cool we’ll have some more options in the future for this setting such as CDA. It looks to be a pixel art adventure game.

Road 96

I really love road trip games, and this one caught my attention with its visuals and high replayability factor.

Witchbrook

If Chucklefish can do for Harry Potter with Witchbrook what it did for Harvest Moon with Stardew Valley, it’ll sell millions. And I’ll be one of those customers.

SpaceVenture

The SpaceQuest guys were supposed to release this spiritual successor last year, didn’t happen, so maybe in 2021?

Deathtrap Dungeon was a great way to revisit an old paperback classic

Thanks to a recommendation from Contains Moderate Peril’s Roger and a 70% off sale, I picked up 2020’s Deathtrap Dungeon over the holidays. This book was one of my favorites as a kid, and I vividly remember reading through it while on a Boy Scout camping trip one summer. This time, I roped my son in to go through the experience with me, helping to advise and make choices.

So Deathtrap Dungeon was one of those choose-your-own-adventure books that also factored in RPG elements, and it ended up being one of the best pocket dungeon crawls you could ask for back then. What they did here was to recreate the whole book as a narrated FMV, where the player makes decisions at key points, interacts with inventory, and engages with combat.

At the core of this is actor Eddie Marsan, who effectively plays the game master. Sitting in a cracked red leather chair, Marsan narrates all of the action and description without hurry. Sometimes he was a little too slow for my liking, which made me pour over details like his suit and the set dressing around him, but I think he was ideal for this kind of game. He’s got a good voice for narration, the kind that kicks the imagination into overdrive.

My son and I went through an entire game, which took us something like three hours from start to finish. There are numerous save points along the way, so if we encountered a game over or hated a decision we made, we could go back. But since it branches so much, it’s not like you could see everything in one run.

We did enjoy it, I’ll say that. My son squirmed at a lot of the tough choices we made and repeatedly got frustrated that I was more daring in my decisions than he would be. Yet daring even so, we didn’t have enough gems to win the game at the end, which I felt was the weakest point of the whole deal. There’s nothing like getting right to the finish line and having the game say, yeah, you didn’t get all of the items you need, so you should probably start over.

I’m patient to a degree, but not that patient.

So for $3.60, I feel like I got a good run with this title. It was definitely different, and I can’t remember the last time after the 1990s that I even played an FMV game. Gabriel Knight 2, I suppose. They didn’t inspire a great legacy.

6 great YouTube channel recommendations

About half of the YouTube channels I subscribe to are for music alone, but the other half are a hodge-podge of informative and analytical channels. There are a few that, in my mind, stand above the rest in terms of content and presentation, so I thought I’d share six of them with you today.

SNES Drunk

This guy pumps out short (5-10 minute) videos that cover all sorts of SNES and 16-bit titles, and they’re a great way to revisit my favorite console of all time. It really helps he has an upbeat and honest voice that conveys real enthusiasm for the subject.

Sean Chandler Talks About Movies

While I love cinema, I don’t subscribe to a whole lot of movie channels. I do this one, because I really dig the guy’s approach and passion for movies. He covers a lot of topics that I find interesting, such as ranking franchise installments, and doesn’t have that condescending sneer that repels me from other critics.

Deep Look

Who ever thought that bugs, fungus, and other teeny tiny things in nature would be so incredibly fascinating? These mini-PBS documentaries are always a must-watch — and usually I’ll drag the kids into the room to watch with me. Unless they have spiders, because that’s a dealbreaker with my daughter.

Toy Galaxy

This is a relatively new find for me, but boy was I ever bowled over by this channel. I’m not even a toy collector, but I think these videos are engrossing — moreso because they cover entire cartoon franchises and all of the merchandising that spawned from them. The host is really funny and well-spoken, too.

CGP Grey

This guy’s really well-known, but I felt that if I didn’t include his well-written and often humorous videos in this list, I’d be failing at life. I don’t always agree with some of his conclusions, but I do like his research and presentation of topics like geography and pirates.

The Tim Traveller

While Tom Scott might be more well-known for visiting interesting places around the world, I thought I’d give a shout-out to Tim Traveller for doing much the same thing (although mostly in Europe). He’s like a tour guide for the lazy, and he’s likable to boot.

2020 Wrapup: 11 great video games I played this year

Now that we’re wrapping up 2020, it’s a good time for me to peruse back through all of the games that I managed to play this year and share the 10 that had the greatest impact on me. Let’s get to it!

Lord of the Rings Online

For a good portion of the year, I was deeply immersed in Middle-earth, particularly with Aragorn and Arwen’s wedding and Rohan on the progression server. But by the end of 2020, I was very burned out on this title and disillusioned with SSG’s decision to monetize the latest quest pack.

World of Warcraft

I took several months off at the tail end of Battle for Azeroth, which helped to pave the way to revive my interest in the fall for Shadowlands. I really loved the new leveling revamp and spent the last month immersed in Blizzard’s latest expansion.

Disco Elysium

This was a really bleak RPG that I got over last winter that nevertheless enthralled me with its unique storytelling and game mechanics. I don’t think I’d play it a second time, but I’m certainly glad I did it in the first place.

Toonstruck

I had a really good and very productive year with retro gaming, often writing posts many months ahead of time. Toonstruck with Christopher Lloyd and Dan Castellaneta was a delightful discovery and a very funny game to boot.

Chrono Trigger

It was a real blast to go through my favorite RPG of all time to share in a rather extensive retro gaming series. I’ve never played it on the PC before, but it turned out pretty well in the end!

Fallout 76

I had several good months of adventuring through the wasteland, especially as Bethesda improved it with Wastelanders and One Wasteland. It’s definitely a title I want to return to in 2021! Here’s hoping they get text chat in there some day, however.

Space Quest 5 and 6

It was SO satisfying to finally finish up this series that I began as an 8th grader. I’d never played these last two titles, and they turned out to be really funny and enjoyable!

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Bounced around in SWTOR over various months, but toward the end of the year, I made it my mission to power through the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion to finally finish that up. Had some great time doing this with my oldest son, who was really into it.

Octopath Traveler

Thanks to a half-price sale, I picked up this Square Enix day and got All The Nostalgic Feels from this modern RPG classic. I’m still poking my way through it but really loving its presentation and design.

Elder Scrolls Online

ESO is one of those MMOs that I find myself dipping into for a month or two and then leaving for a while, only to come back again and have a good time when I do. I finished up Elswyr’s main story and started in on Greymoor, although I haven’t completed that yet.

WoW Classic

For a good while there over the summer, WoW Classic was really hitting the spot for me. I haven’t looked back since Shadowlands, but… you never know.