Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mine, Build, Explode: A Terrifying Adventure in Minecraft. Day 1, part 1.

If you've been keeping tabs on the videogame industry over the last year and a bit, you've almost certainly heard of Minecraft: The terminally blocky super-sandbox game that's managed to ensnare the imaginations of damn-near anyone who's played it.
For those of you not in the know, Minecraft is about trying to survive in an entirely destructible randomly-generated world made entirely out of blocks, and in which you can build anything you can imagine using materials and tools made from resources ripped from said world's massive underground tunnel networks. Incredibly hazardous enemies are spawned anywhere covered by darkness, so the game's day/night cycle requires you to make a mad dash to find shelter before the sun goes down, or else have your innards lovingly rearranged by countless undead horrors.

In an effort to understand just why this game is the biggest thing in internet popular-culture since dyslexia met cats, I intend to play Minecraft in all its pixellated insanity and document the results. The very, very terrifying results.

Speaking of terror, I'm mainly going to be relaying my game experience from the point of view of my character in the game itself, since roleplaying and actively convincing myself that my fat arse is actually placed firmly in the jaws of horror rather than my comfy computer chair keeps things exciting. Everything typed normally from now on will be from the point of view of my small, blocky, extremely fragile Minecraft-denizen while everything typed in sexy and authoritative bold is an observation or explanation regarding the game from my impartial real-life point of view.
For Example:
Wow, this sure is a nice blocky world in which I actually no-bullshit reside in at this present moment, I'm glad nothing horri- AAAH! Zombies! Creepers! Death! RUN AWAAAAY!
Okay. Safe now. Wait, what's that hissing-

My enlightened real-world perspective tells me that the above situation suggests, the developers have designed an idyllic and world for the express purpose of making the player's eventual horrible demise particularly surprising and painful: Hastening the move towards their active goal of crushing the player's soul under their spiky cyber boots and drinking our tears through crazy straws so as to nourish their cold, shriveled hearts.

Let's get started shall we? (click images for larger versions)

I choose single player, click "empty world" on the level selection screen and let the game do its magic. When you start a new world (you can have up to five at a time), Minecraft generates a completely unique "planet" that the developers claim is four time the size of the actual earth. While I fall slightly below the margin of insanity required to actually test this theory, somehow I don't doubt it. The game seems to generate a blueprint for the entire world (as seen in the screenshot), then seamlessly builds it as you explore, which you could do until your great grandchildren up and tell you that enough is enough and still be nowhere near done finding all of the kind've wonders the game's world building algorithm throws at you.

Incidentally, to keep things exciting I'm playing the game on the hardest difficulty setting and when I die, my adventure ends. Usually when you die, you lose all the stuff you were carrying and start back at the spawn point (seen in the next screenshot) with anything you've built or stored still intact. I figure if I'm set to lose everything forever at the slightest mistake, things'll stay as tense as this game can possibly get. Analogies fail me at this point, so we'll just have to play the game to see just how tense that is.

Without further ado...

Bwuh? Where...? Ugh.

When I said terminally blocky, I meant TERMINALLY. Even the clouds have right-angles.

Dammit! I told em that ship wouldn't last us past the Cube of Good Hope, I told em! So many leaks the piece of flotsam must've gone down before I had the sense to wake up.
Dammit dammit dammit.
And what did I do? I signed on-board anyway like the avaricious little fucker I am 'cause the bastards offered a cut of the profits and suspiciously generous benefits package. dammit.

Ugh. Again. Let's see how I'm doing at least.

Still the epitome of Cubic manliness and not a scratch on me! Considering what happened to the ship I figure I should probably thank the next deity I happen to meet for my uncharacteristic luckiness. But seriously now, where the hell am I?

Hmm. One hell of a bay out there. No sign of a wreck and I'm sure as hell not going bobbing for snowglobes or whatever-the-hell else the good cap'n thought would go down big in the orient. I'm on my own over here and all I'll have is what I find. There's tons of trees at least, so it's no desert island...

Or any kind've island, really. Jesus, this place goes on for miles! Mountains, trees, caves, and are those...

COWS! Doofiest damn cows I've ever seen but near as I can tell they're fat and thriving, and if they can somehow survive out here despite the known universe apparently residing between their ears, then my infinitely more acute intellect should keep my head firmly above water until help arrives or I die a horrific, gruesome death for reasons that are entirely not my fault.
Speaking of gruesome deaths, that snow in the distance worries me. I've no idea of this place's climate; and judging by the snow-patches despite the current sunny weather, I'm guessing there's a fifty-fifty chance winter has either passed or it's on the way to bite me in the ass. I'm not sure I like those odds.

First things first: I'll need some shelter. I've heard stories from other sailors (Read: The Minecraft Wiki) that these parts are rife with nocturnal monsters that'll devour a guy whole before the thought to "fuck right off" makes it halfway across his now-very-tooth-marked brain. Now I'm not the kind've guy who believes everything spouted out by salty nutters whose entire experience of "Vitamin C" doesn't go past that chick who sang "Graduation", but whether it's from the jaws of flesh-hungry monstrosities or the nibbling voracity of these dumpy cows, I think I'm going to need protection in the form of some warm and comfy walls.

Speaking of warm and comfy:

Some sheep seem to have joined the cows in their League of Doofy Wildlife. That wool could come in handy if I'm to fend off the kind've weather that bred that snow, but with no tools I'll have trouble getting it off Fluffy over there. Still... He seems pretty docile and there's probably some wool that's been shed but still mixed up with the skin-attached kind, I'll just grab him and see how much I can get with a few gentle tugs. Heeeere, Fluffy-baby, I'll just grab here and...

Gah! Fuck! At the slightest nudge, damn-near every thread of wool explodes off of Fluffy's flesh with terrifying tearing precision! These sheep are clearly built for convenience if not survivability. I hastily collect the fallen blocks(?) of wool and look around shee- I look around anyway. Well I got plenty of wool at least, though I kind've feel bad for accidentally inflicting what must be my Poke of Sheering Death (TM) on fluffy over there.

Actually, I may need to redact the Death bit from the title. Fluffy seems pretty okay considering the eldritch forces apparently residing in my little finger have stripped him balder than Britney Spears on an off-day. Assuming winter's behind us, I've probably done him a favour, of course assuming winter's on its way I've doomed him to a slow descent into death's icy arms. I blissfully ignore this possibility as I shear some more sheep. Let's see how much wool I've got shall I?

Uh. Okay. Every piece of wool is inexplicably larger than the entire body of any member of Fluffy and Co.: the same size as every clump of dirt, sand or stone that makes up the entirety of my surroundings. Hurm.

Just about anything in Minecraft that isn't a creature or player-related tool is a uniformly sized cube. Dirt, sand, bricks, cacti, they're all different textures (and properties such as flammability) on equally-sized rigid blocks. All these blocks are breakable and collectible so as to place them elsewhere in (usually) the same state. This is what Minecraft is ultimately about: excavating and changing the landscape around you to suit your ends. It's difficult to describe just how compelling actions revolving around this simple gameplay mechanic can become, so I'll just let Minecraft-Me get back to it.

I spend a while contemplating the economic implications of matter that can grow to a fixed mass regardless of its prior state, sheep related or otherwise, before I notice...

Damn. It's already midday and all my sheepy-shenanigans have been burning precious daylight, I need to find a place to whether out the night before sundown, but where...


Next Time on Minecraft Adventures: Will the dingy cave provide shelter from the voracious undead hordes? Will our hero be overwhelmed by the truly impossible amount of things that can kill him? Will we finally get to see some motherfucking Mining and Crafting?
Short answer: "Hope so", "Hope not" and "Yes"
Long Answer: Tune in next time to find out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Worst Videogame Break-Ups

We've all been there, right? You meet someone, you find them to be fantastic, certain inexplicable arcane forces cause them to find you tolerable too and you both decide to stick with each-other for a while. Completely natural, right? So you spend some time together, you're having fun and you're beginning to wonder if this might be a long-term deal. Then something happens, be it the emergence of a subtle irksome detail or a disagreement that blasts you apart, and suddenly an avalanche of disillusionment has crushed your affection under its inescapable suffocating blanket. You can't bear another second unless you get away, so you do. Cue depression. We've all been there right?

Well I haven't. Ha.

While I'm sure having no romantic ability whatsoever has its fair share of downfalls, I’m convinced that the advantages of not having to deal with romantic love outweigh the disadvantages, if that weeping beachside hobo stuffing octopi into his pants is to be believed anyway. That said: I'm no robot. I doubt you can be truly human unless you've got something to love, and don't I just love the hell out've videogames to the exclusion of all else? However, just because they're pulse-less, soulless piles of data shoved into a magical electric box, it doesn't mean they can't do a guy wrong. I've had countless relationships with videogames over the years (not the digital characters in videogames, mind you. That would be weird), and most of them begin and end fairly amicably: fun while they last, and ending because eventually I just want different things. But sometimes things are a bit messier than that. Sometimes I find a game that I fall suddenly and madly in love with before it brutally tears my nearest approximation of a heart out of its socket and crushes it between its cold digital fingers. Here are a few of those "sometimes".

Fallout 3
Some guy once said that you could never have too much of a good thing. This guy was a blithering moron for many reasons, but the most crucial flaw in his theory is his failure to account for repetition’s constant exposure of shittiness: That is, the universal truth that enjoyment of a subtly flawed experience, no matter how initially enjoyable, will gradually and constantly decline as it is repeated since good aspects lose their novelty while shitty aspects seem more grating every time they’re seen.

Also known as the HIMYM factor.

After hundreds of hours of blowing mutants of varying levels of ‘super’ into tiny bits with my inexplicably green slow motion powers, my love for wasteland-murderin’ has run drier than Helen Zille’s bathing suit area and only the game’s increasingly prevalent crap makes any impact on me. Intense bazooka duels in the ruins of the Lincoln memorial? Been and Done. Dismembered a swarm of zombies with a miniature nuke? Old news. Occasions on which I stuck a chainsaw up the power-armoured ass of a US army marine so as to steal his plasma rifle and blast his pet Deathclaw into goo? I’ve lost count. Now whenever I even think of the game, all I can see is the grimy textures of the endless wastes, the stiff animations of a hundred forgettable NPCs, and all I can hear is the sound of those three guys they got to do the voice acting, their NPCs’ faces frozen in a soulless stare, casually suggesting that I kill some giant mole-rats for them.

Real-Life Counterpart:


I could write countless essays on how bad this game truly is, and I plan to if I’m ever in a bad enough mood, but here’s the short of it: Bioshock, despite having interesting (albeit unoriginal) combat mechanics and excellent atmosphere up to a point, has the stupidest and most insulting storyline out of any game I’ve ever played. And I’ve played an adaptation of Spiderman 3.
For you see, my vastly intellectual colleagues, the stiff, unconvincing, and extremely repetitive enemies are supposed to represent the...oh wait, the game's just shit. My mistake. moving right along.

After hearing the endless multitudes of game reviewers and cavalcade of people with low standards claiming that Bioshock’s story was the most awesome thing since Big met Bang, I picked it up at a bargain price and played through it. Now, the geek code forbids me from saying any spoilers here, even though this story hardly deserves to be preserved for the lucky ignorant. Suffice to say, the game comes up with the most ass-derived idiotic twist imaginable to justify its painfully linear progression, before trying to convince the player how stupid they are for falling for it. It was kind of like George Lucas showing up at the end of the Star Wars prequel trilogy and going “Hoho, for you see, I made Jar Jar Binks specifically so you would hate him and embrace your anger, going down the path to the dark side alongside Anakin Skywalker! Now don’t you morons think I’m just the smartest fucking man alive?” When writers try to justify their own hack-itude with claims on the audience’s stupidity like this, rewarding them by slapping on game-of-the-year awards isn’t painting much of a future for the games industry, guys.

Anyway, after a first playthrough in which I kind of enjoyed the game but was indifferent to the story, and a second playthrough in which a good think about the idiocies of the game’s plot made my blood boil over like racial tension on Paul McCartney’s piano, I left the damn thing alone for good; only to be tormented by the still on-going singing of the game’s undeserving praises.

Real Life Counterpart:
That girl who initially seems intelligent, arty and interesting, but proves to be a shallow manipulative bitch with a god complex. After the inevitable breakup, you slowly driven insane by an endless stream of pretentious morons chastising you for not appreciating what you had, and refusing to believe that what you had was a girlfriend who repeatedly kicked you in the nuts so as to make an ironic artsy statement about the downfall of modern masculinity.

Tropico 3
I lent it to a friend and he won’t give it back.

Real-Life Counterpart:
“Hey, just because we got an open relationship, doesn’t mean you can move in with my best friend just because of his superior gaming rig and ability to punch me into paste. You’re so shallow. God!”

Fire Emblem

For me, the Fire Emblem series has a lot of things going for it. A turn-based strategy game with RPG character progression has pretty much been my dream-genre ever since I played Shining Force on a friend’s rapidly disintegrating Sega Genesis. Unfortunately, whenever I try to get back into Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, my favourite in the series, I’m mercilessly slapped down by the game’s brilliantly sadistic methods of getting me to bust out the crying snacks.

You see, the series seems to pride itself on the fact that if one of your (fairly few) characters dies in battle, that character can never be used again. This mechanic has some upsides, since it encourages players to use defensive strategies such as forcing enemies to only attack tougher units, and gives every move an underlying sense of tension and dread. On the other hand, battles can take up to two hours to complete and have no check points. Also, units have a varying chance of scoring a critical hit which triples the amount of damage done, and considering most scuffles are live-or-die affairs as is, this is a death sentence for anyone not covered in at least three tanks.

Only he is safe.

That’s not really the problem though, difficulty I can deal with. It’s the way that the game sadistically dangles fantastic (and necessary) rewards in front of my nose while devising impossibly hazardous requirements to get them. For example, in an early mission you are given the option to recruit one of the strongest characters in the game. Problem is, he starts as an enemy unit, an enemy unit that makes a bee-line for only your weakest units, insta-killing them with a sword designed for the aforementioned critical hits. The only way to recruit him is to get one specific character, a completely defenseless cleric chick, to walk right up to him and talk to him. He subsequently FLIPS A FUCKING COIN to determine whether he joins you or slices the cleric up right there.
The fantastic strategic combat, creative animation and (surprisingly for a Japanese-translated game) great dialogue just can’t hope to detract from the fact that in the final minutes of a three hour battle, where through a glorious but painful push filled with countless close calls, I had decisively crushed the enemy’s defensive lines and prepared for victory, only to have a squad of Pegasus-knights with critical-hitting weapons unexpectedly swooping in from outside the map to brutally and permanently gut both my favourite wizard and those three hours of my life.
And I retry the goddamned mission anyway.

Real-Life Counterpart:
That gorgeous, brilliant dream-girl for whom you feel deep uncontrollable affection even though she takes every opportunity to think up and execute new abuses and tortures that scar you down to the deepest recesses of your soul; but you take it anyway. Also she has a bear trap attached to her vagina. True story.

Dragon Age: Origins

DA:O differs from the other games on this list in that it is in no way to blame for our strained relationship. In all honesty, this game has everything I’ve ever wanted in a game: Deep, complex characters, intense and dynamic tactical combat, in-depth character customisation and progression, the ability to play a character with a personality truly of your choosing, gorgeous locations and a fully realised world-mythology. The game is an absolute dream that I could easily lose myself in for endless hours.

That’s the problem.

After my soul-crushing over-playing of Fallout 3 led to my utter inability to grasp anything of my past affection for it, I have become terrified that should I play any more of Dragon Age (a game for which I have nothing but the fondest memories) the same thing will happen, forever killing the brightest spark in my otherwise cold and shrivelled heart.

Real-world Counterpart:

The perfect woman: gorgeous, intelligent, kind, strong-willed, available and actually interested in you, but who you’re terrified of getting close to because you just can’t bear to be hurt again.

Well, that’s by closet-shoebox-of-relationship-doom for you. I don’t know if my experiences truly relate to the standard human-on-human deals the rest of you seem so fond of, but if yours hurt anything as bad as mine, I’ll pass on the extra heartbreak that genuine human bonding might bring to the table. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m on my third try of the last mission on Fire Emblem and I’m almost sure the game won’t randomly spawn a legion of Elite Fo’kyu Knights to tear apart my irreplaceable back-lines this time.
Actually no. No I’m not.
And I love her for it.