Taking an early look at Among Trees

I’m not usually one for early access, but every so often I’ll get suckered into shelling out for some pre-alpha or alpha title because of instant gratification and innate curiosity. This past week, I noticed that a game called Among Trees was making the rounds, and the more I read about it, the more intrigued I got. So I sprang for it as a little gift to myself and jumped in to see what it had to offer.

Like The Long Dark and many other survival-style games, Among Trees throws the user into the middle of a wilderness with very little on hand and tasks them with gathering and crafting in an effort to increase the chances of making it another day. What Among Trees seemed to have to offer that was slightly different was a more chillaxed attitude and visuals ripped straight out of Firewatch.

I mean, you legally cannot talk about this game and not mention Firewatch, because both titles use dreamlike nature visuals that make every vista a lovely desktop wallpaper. It’s pretty much why I wanted to play it, because I really loved Firewatch’s look and feel and would be up for camping out in a woods that looked much like that.

And yeah, the visuals are the best part of the game so far. I’m not disappointed in how things look when I’m wandering around, and the HUD stays deliberately minimal to keep from distracting from being present in the forest. Actually, the interface is pretty well-done in that it’s simple, clear, and attractive. I didn’t have to struggle to figure out how to fix up the cabin or eat mushrooms.

While the world looks great, it’s still seemingly empty of meaty content. There’s no story here nor a diverse array of discoverable locations — just a lot of broken towers with goodies around them, some bears patrolling that can swipe your head off, and rabbits freaking me out by jumping out of the undergrowth and making me think I’m going to die.

All that’s really left is the gameplay loop of gathering and crafting. You can expand your cabin, cook food, whip up maps and bigger backpacks, and go fishing. The team’s roadmap has features such as pets and more things to encounter further down the road, but my gut says that Among Trees probably has a good year or two to go before it’s fully ready for release.

Still, I’m glad I have it, and I’ll be checking back in on this one from time to time as it develops.

Digging into Itch.io’s mega-indie game bundle

It’s been hard to ignore what’s been happening over at Itch.io this past week or so. The indie game marketplace put together an astoundingly huge game and tool bundle — containing something like 1,700 titles — as part of a charity drive for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund. For as little as a $5 donation, you can unlock all of these in your library and contribute to a couple of noteworthy causes. It’s been a smash success, raising over $7 million, and if you’re reading this on Monday, you still have time to take advantage of it.

Of course, once you do, then you’re faced with the prospect of sifting through 1,700 titles for ones you might actually want to use or play. I spent an evening doing so with the help of a few articles floating about there, and I have to say that (a) there are some great indie gems in here and (b) there’s a whole lot of forgettable vendor trash. I mean, someone put the effort into making them, but let’s be honest — these are indie titles and won’t have a broad universal appeal.

That said, I did grab a few games I haven’t played before and feel like I more than got my money’s worth. I already had a few of the headliners — Celeste, Overland, Night in the Woods, and Oxenfree — but I stocked away the following for a future afternoon in which boredom would drive me to trying something different out:

  • A Mortician’s Tale
  • A Short Hike
  • Astrologaster
  • Dead and Breakfast
  • Nuclear Throne
  • Death and Taxes
  • Anodyne
  • Heavy Bullets
  • Minit
  • Quadrilateral Cowboy
  • Hyper Sentinel
  • A Normal Lost Phone
  • Luna
  • Starseed Pilgrim
  • The Supper
  • Sagebrush
  • Tonight We Riot
  • Beacon
  • Hidden Folks
  • 2064: Read Only Memories
  • The Night Fisherman
  • The King’s Bird
  • Dorfromantik
  • Bleed 2
  • Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy!
  • The Stillness of the Wind
  • Verdant Skies
  • Hex
  • Wide Ocean Big Jacket
  • OneShot
  • Signs of the Sojourner
  • Far From Noise
  • Milkmaid of the Milky Way
  • Old Man’s Journey
  • Once Upon a Crime in the West
  • Pixel Fireplace
  • Shipwreck
  • Diary of a Spaceport Janitor
  • The White Door

And for those who need additional suggestions, here are a few links to curated guides to this bundle:

Good luck and game on!

Which MMOs have the best daily rewards?

Every evening when the family heads off to bed, my gaming time usually starts with a quick round of “log in to a half-dozen MMOs to grab daily rewards.” Even if I’m not playing those games at the time, I hate passing up on free stuff and like the idea of stockpiling goodies for possible future use.

The psychology of daily rewards is pretty evident in that paragraph: It’s hard to pass up “free” stuff, and if that gets people to at least log in, then there’s a good chance that they’ll stick around to actually play. It’s not a dumb idea, even if it is straight-up bribery.

Anyway, going through this routine made me think about the MMOs I play or have played that feature daily rewards. Which are the best out of them?

Neverwinter – I just log in once a day to activate the celestial blessing, which comes with some experience and astral diamonds bonuses. But the real reason I do it is to get that one token a day, which can be saved up and then spent on something really nice — such as a free pet. I think there’s a purple-ranked angel at 365 days, so I’m playing the long game with that.

Elder Scrolls Online – Definitely one of the best daily reward systems, although you do need to stay on top of it to move through the calendar month. There are usually some good rewards at the two- or three-week mark, including pets, costumes, and piles of gold. I never miss this.

Lord of the Rings Online – Hobbit presents are… fine. At least we get some free virtue XP every day, and that’s almost always useful no matter what level you are. Once I got a ton of mithril coins, that was pretty great. But it’s not that thrilling for most days.

Dungeons and Dragons Online – Both the silver and gold die rolls have the potential to pay out big. Getting free experience is always welcome, and I’ve leveled up my character a couple times just by logging in. On top of that, I’ve gotten stat tomes, costumes, and all sorts of useful potions and buffs.

Guild Wars 2 – I appreciate that this daily reward system doesn’t reset unless you finish the 30 days, so there’s no pressure if you go on vacation. Some good rewards here, like mystic coins or laurels, but I can’t recall ever getting something that really made me excited. A lot of times the rewards just get translated into gold somehow.

Star Trek Online and RIFT – I wanted to mention these because instead of a straight-up rewards program, these games skew to a mission system that serves much the same psychological prompt to log in and get free stuff that’s on a timer. STO’s duty officers got me to many levels back in the day, and I always liked getting free housing decorations in RIFT.

What’s your favorite daily reward system and what’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten from it?

Just because I’m playing your game doesn’t mean I endorse it

I always feel that whenever I get into playing a certain MMO, then the pressure is on to defend and promote it. After all, if I’m spending my time playing, then that’s a tacit endorsement of the game and all it stands for, right?

Yet that’s not the truth, and I find myself irked when I or others pressure me into behaving this way. You can like a game and play a game without 100% approving of all it is, the studio behind it, and the developer’s design philosophy. I’ve long come to realize that no game is above reproach; there are always areas to criticize and dislike. I just figure that if there’s more to like than not, then you’ll probably be playing it; if it’s the other way around, it’s not worth the time. But I’m not going to assume much past that.

In fact, some of an MMO’s most fierce critics are either current or former players. Some have a specific axe to grind, while others are simply far more in tune with what does and does not work in the game and are in a better position to voice criticism about it.

But going back to that perceived pressure, I don’t find that people *not* playing a game are often more likely to defend a title. It’s very easy to lob criticisms when you don’t care or care to understand, so why not? So there’s that pressure to push back and try to strike a blow for equal understanding when you *are* playing. But, you know, that’s not my job. Nor is it yours.

We can be ambassadors for an MMO as much or as little as we please, but I’d rather that come from a personal desire to share what is bringing me joy and happiness than a reaction to negativity or what I see is unfair criticism. We all know that there’s no end to trying to correct others’ “wrongs” on the internet, although it’s certainly tempting to keep on trying.

Eh well, ignore this post. Just random ramblings. And game devs, yeah, you probably don’t care if I like you or not, as long as I’m playing, but you know what? You should care. You should care if your players are building up deep reservoirs of grudges from your negligence and ignorance, because one day that tank is going to blow all sorts of venom against you to other potential customers. So don’t take us players for granted; work hard to keep us there and keep us happy.

MMO devs: Stop going big with your stories. Go small instead.

MMORPGs as a storytelling delivery system are an interesting beast. Unlike movies and novels, they aren’t concentrated and focused upon a single, unbroken tale that’s experienced from start to finish. Unlike many other games, they are vastly longer and have a lot more filler and other diversions that take players away from whatever grand story is being told.

Without drawing this thesis out — which is exactly what MMOs do — I’ll just say that these big, huge, sprawling, super-epic mega-stories don’t really fit with the MMORPG format. For one thing, it’s too easy to lose track of what’s going on when it’s been perhaps days between stages or the devs are spinning their narrative wheels to keep players from getting through it too quickly.

For another thing, these massive tales (and I’m speaking primarily from my own experience and anecdotally through others’ who have said something along this line) don’t connect as well to the player or their character’s journey. We get fatigued at the “every new story has to be bigger than the one before.” We roll our eyes at the notion that our character is the greatest hero the world has ever seen. We stop being in awe of every gargantuan boss that comes along that has to be an order of magnitude bigger than the one before it.

The writers for these games keep escalating things way too much, and over a long enough timeline, it gets ridiculous for the game, especially when my hero’s status is juxtaposed with a new village asking me to collect eggs and fight off bandits to prove my worth for the 100th time.

So here’s my thought for the day: Stop, just stop trying to go bigger with these stories — and go smaller instead. You know what quests and story arcs really resonate with me as a player? Shorter, unbroken ones that are focused on crafting a really strong adventure that uses the strengths of the genre and features a beginning, middle, and end.

Games like RuneScape, Secret World, and Dungeons and Dragons Online specialize in these types of quests, and they are the stronger for them. When I can wrap my head around an entire tale — even if it’s a short story rather than a Game of Thrones-sized novel in length — and experience the whole thing in a single session, my chances of being able to remember it and resonate with it increase. Sometimes the best stories that games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online told aren’t the headlining expansion arcs but the two or three-quest chains that feature clear protagonists, antagonists, situations, conflict, and resolution.

I guess it’s the “resolution” that I am asking for, because when you think of it, that’s so very rare in MMOs. So often we get the start of a quest (the quest text) and the middle of it (the character’s adventure itself), but the conclusion is barely a line or two of acknowledgement if that. These aren’t stories, they’re busy work. I’d rather have fewer quests that focus more on immersive storytelling that takes us through the whole process rather than 3/4ths of it.

Anyway, that’s my plea to devs today. Go smaller and populate the world with many great stories instead of one unwieldy monster that we don’t care about by the time we’ve finished with it.

Looking back at Bio Break circa 2008

Since Bio Break has been around for more than 11 years now, I thought it’d be kind of fun to go back and look at the very first month I blogged here.

I used the Internet Wayback Machine to pull up the original banner I was using back in December 2008. At that time, I had been blogging on WAAAGH!, a Warhammer Online-focused site for the better part of the year, but I realized that I would need a more general purpose gaming blog for my ever-shifting interests. Therefore, on December 5th, I opened Bio Break for business. At the time, I was just 32 years old and had just one 8-month-old kid in the house. Oh, Syp of 2008. If only you knew how loud and crazy life was about to become.

“Unlike WAAAGH!, Bio Break is not going to be a daily updated blog, but rather a time-to-time journal of my thoughts on past, present and upcoming titles. Nostalgia will be a big factor, as will my eternal love for all things Chrono Trigger. So welcome, stay tuned, and keep your flies zipped!”

Obviously, I’ve stuck to the not-daily-at-all format here. Actually, Bio Break quickly became my primary blog while I pretty much stopped blogging about Warhammer Online three days earlier.

Games that I was playing:

  • Fallout 3 (“Everything’s pretty much top-notch in the game”)
  • Chrono Trigger (“Some stories transcend the limitations of the technology to burrow into our minds forever.”)

Things that I was talking about:

 

Introverting, gaming, and COVID-19

I have deliberately refrained from talking about the COVID-19 outbreak and societal isolation because, well, it’s everywhere, it’s stressing people out, and I do try to keep this a light and fluffy gaming blog. Suffice to say that the past three weeks have been like living in a different world that’s similar but not quite to what we used to have.

One topic that I’ve seen raised, first jokingly and then seriously, is that introverts are having an easier time of this social distancing and quarantining than extroverts. I haven’t seen any introverts get truly mean with this, but I have witnessed more than a few self-satisfied remarks about how we were far more prepared to be cut off from civilization than all of the chatty, touchy, groupy people. Heck, I might have made a few of these myself, but never to be nasty about it.

And I think it’s actually true. “The world generally has been a place where extroverts are rewarded and introverts get a side-eye,” says the above article, and boy isn’t that the truth. Being more on the introverted side of the spectrum (fun fact: more ministers tend to be introverted than extroverted, even though we deal with a lot of people), I’ve always felt as if *I* had to adapt to an extrovert’s world instead of the other way around. And now we’re seeing the opposite, where extroverts have to adapt to the part of the world in which we introverts feel the most comfortable.

Getting away from the us-vs-them theme, I have to say that the actual social distancing isn’t, for the most part, a great burden for me. I enjoy being alone, especially when I work, and most of the activities that I enjoy — reading, biking, cooking, writing, gaming, walking — can be done solo but also with the option of adding other people into the mix. I have my family for immediate social connection and plenty of ways via technology to reach out and connect with others if and when I need that. And yeah, I do need that, just not as frequently as an extrovert does.

My gaming and recreation time hasn’t changed much at all, despite the stay-at-home orders. I’m still keeping to the same work schedule that I always have (routine is very important to me) and evening time has become more family time where we do some sort of game or activity together. I don’t need to regress into a cocoon of gaming to self-soothe or isolate myself any further, in any case. All things in moderation.

The way I look at it, the real struggle of day-to-day life is between things that are changing from the norm and things that stay the same. Clinging to what is stable and unchanging helps to ground me, so I take great solace in my faith in an unchanging God as well as relief that things like writing, podcasting, and gaming continue more or less as they were a month ago.

In any case, we’re in for at least another month of this strange new reality, and I hope that all of those reading this are coping well. Hang in there, keep busy, keep focused on projects, and look to the grace and blessings that you do have. We’re in it together, and knowing that helps.

Six classic PC games that still hold up great today

So here’s a question related to our situation: Are you getting through your gaming backlog during your new life at home? I can see that happening, and I can also see people going back to old favorites as comfort gaming food. And since I’ve been going through classic PC games over the past several years here on Bio Break, I thought I’d make a recommendation of six games that were not only great back in the day but are still very enjoyable even in 2020.

I’ll start by holding up The Secret of Monkey Island and LeChuck’s Revenge, because humor doesn’t ever really age badly. What was funny in 1990 is still pretty dang funny 30 years later. And the fact that both of these titles received facelifts that make them more modern if you want that experience.

Over in the RPG side of things, Star Control 2 was an amazing experience that wasn’t lessened in any way by being 28 years old. I think its pixel art is pretty acceptable considering how many modern games use it, and the sheer fun, depth, and personality of this game makes it a wonder to explore today.

For my third recommendation, I’ll once again toot the horn of Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim. This RTS flips the normal script on its head by taking control of units out of the hands of players and making them these weird autonomous heroes questing in a kingdom you build for them. It’s humorous and so very fun to play.

Heroes of Might and Magic III is a classic and for good reason. It perfected this hybrid blend of RPG, board games, and strategy combat and gave players scads and scads of content to play. It’s one of those “desert island games” you’d bring just because you’d almost never run out of new stuff to do.

Want a CRPG that is as anti-fantasy as possible? Play Planescape Torment and revel in the joy of a bizarre world, little-to-no combat, deep themes, memorable characters, and several novels’ worth of storytelling. It’s still amazing.

I opened with a pair of adventure games and so I’ll close with another pair. Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Star Trek: Judgment Rites are two of the best Star Trek games I’ve ever played. You get to go through several new “episodes” from the classic series that involve a lot of conversations, exploration, puzzle solving, and even combat. There are even story arcs and recurring characters!

What are some classic PC games you’d recommend as being fun in 2020?

Lists and lifestyle changes

Back in January, CGP Grey over on YouTube posted a terrific video about New Year’s Resolutions and how we have such a hard time meeting those. Instead of making resolutions, he advises creating a “theme” for each year that you follow without trying to slavishly adhere to specific lifestyle changes. It’s a great idea and one that I think I was already following in 2020 when I decided that this year’s theme would be “Intentional Organization” in my life.

By intentional organization, I meant that I would start taking steps — more steps than before, at least — to organize my environment, my routine, and my goals. Going back 10 or 20 years, you’d discover a Syp who wasn’t that organized, who kept to dos and calendar appointments solely in his head, and who often procrastinated. About five years back, I adopted a task manager that helped to put my daily life on track and keep me focused on pursuing specific goals for work, my life, and our household. But that still left messy stuff all around me, and that’s what I’ve been trying to address.

Probably the biggest way I’m doing that is through lists. I love lists. I mean, I really, really love lists. My wife is a big list-maker, and I put her to shame. For example, when we moved to Buffalo back in 2018, I created a six-page document that was nothing but lists of indoor and outdoor activities that I researched for the kids. I have a list of 200 games to research for The Game Archaeologist. And I have lists for my media consumption, mainly because I don’t get through TV shows, books, and games as fast as I used to and want to be a lot more intentional about what order I’m approaching them.

The reason I bring this up is that in less than a month, our family is going to go through a pretty seismic change. My wife has decided to put in notice at her work, and we’ll be going down to a one-income household. We think we can do this, but the budget will be a lot more tight than it used to be, and I’m taking steps now to curb my extra spending — most of which would go to various forms of entertainment.

That’s why I’ve been wielding my Great and Mighty Lists to prepare for this lifestyle change. I’m going to try to keep all future spending on any entertainment as minimal as possible, relying instead on taking advantage of the backlogs of stuff that I’ve accumulated and neglected over the years. I have scores of unlistened audiobooks and unread regular books, not to mention plenty of games on GOG, Steam, and Epic that have been sitting there. And through Bookbub and Epic, I’m still getting more free stuff on a weekly basis.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks organizing this master list for my media so that I have a clear understanding of what’s next in my queues for reading, watching, listening, and playing. It’s a bulwark against being ignorant of what I do have and falling into that trap of spending money to fill boredom. It might seem silly, but the goal of this is to be a better steward of what I have so that I’m not buying stuff just to buy it (not that I’ve ever been that much of a spender).

As for MMORPGs, I am not as worried. Most of them are either purchased already or free, so swapping around won’t be a problem. I think our family is going to maintain a World of Warcraft subscription, since my wife and kids all enjoy it (and my wife doesn’t have a lot of gaming passions, so I’m inclined to be supportive when she does show signs of liking a title).

Instead of allowing this situation to hem me in, I’m using lists to plot a course where I have the freedom to choose within thrifty boundaries. My entertainment needs are way, way down on the list of priorities for our family budget, anyway. If I can keep from spending much (or any) on this stuff in 2020 while starting to make good headway on the backlogs that plague us all, it’ll be a two-for-one goal achieved.

10 games in my backlog I’d like to play in 2020

A couple of weeks ago, there was much noise made among the blogosphere about giving love to one’s gaming backlog. I guess if we can’t find the time or energy to play these games, paying them lip service in a blog post is a good consolation prize, eh?

Oh, who am I to criticize, I do this sort of thing all of the time. In fact, I thought it’d be fun to go through my three digital platforms (Epic, Steam, and GOG) and pull out a total of 10 games that, time permitting, I’d like to actually play this year. Here we go!

#10 – Subnautica (Epic)

I’ve played this in the past, but I’ve never actually beaten the story mode, and that’s something I think I would really like to do. To date, Subnautica is the only survival game I’ve actually liked and played extensively.

#9 – Outer Wilds (Epic)

This is another game I’ve played and kind of want to beat, although I got frustrated at the wonky platforming. It is a very intriguing game, however.

#8 – Rebel Galaxy Outlaw (Epic)

I was really excited about this space shooter when I first got it, and then I dropped it after a single game session. I probably need to give it some extra love and a few more sessions to get into its groove.

#7 – Rise of Nations and Kohan (Steam)

A couple of old favorite RTS titles that I bought to revisit for a Nostalgia Lane or Retro Gaming post. That needs to happen.

#6 – Chrono Trigger (Steam)

I wanted to do a Retro Gaming series for this, but the Steam version kept glitching on me and I had to give up. Hopefully that’s fixed? I’m up to try again!

#5 – Kentucky Route Zero (Steam)

Now that this adventure game’s actually finished after who knows how many years, I want to see what the weird fuss is about.

#4 – The Curse of Monkey Island (GOG)

The third game is a divisive one among the community, but I’ve heard more good than bad and want to continue my playthrough of this funny pirate series.

#3 – Sam and Max Hit the Road (GOG)

Can you believe I’ve never played this? It’s a classic! How dare I! I’m a horrible human being! At least I’ve played…

#2 – Day of the Tentacle (GOG)

…wait, I haven’t played this one either? I AM SCUM. Absolute scum. When will I pay for my crimes?!?

#1 – Wasteland 2 (GOG) or Divinity Original Sin 2 (GOG)

With Wasteland 3 and 1 (remastered) coming out this year, I’m shame-faced that I haven’t played the second one after it’s been sitting in my library for so long. Or… I could get into Divinity Original Sin 2, which I’ve really, really been meaning to play through, especially with its new story difficulty mode. I probably don’t have time for both, though.