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Archive for January, 2012

Morrowind 1-19-12

Stream’s up!

So yeah, it took roughly a stream and a half to do two close-by quests and get back to town. At least two hours, if you total up the time. To be fair, the traveling doesn’t take that long; the reason it took so long in this case was because of all the fighting, save scumming, resting and dying that came along the way. Cliff racers and dark brotherhood agents are not a good combination, especially for a low-level aspiring mage/thief.

You know what’s the strangest part? I actually kind of enjoyed myself. It was frustrating and irritating, but it was also kind of exciting in an alone-in-the-wilderness kind of way. As I’ve said before, I like the concepts of travel and survival used as game mechanics.

Here are my problems, though…

Successfully resting takes virtually all the tension of the scene away. It raises your health, mana and stamina right back up to full if you can find a safe place to hide in, and since enemies apparently can’t open doors, finding a safe zone isn’t always a challenge. Apparently you can rest on the open road, even when you can see a cliff racer in the distance.

If they had some sort of limitation for how often you can rest, that would make it less “Survive until you can rest” and more “survive until you can get back to town,” which would be more intense and exciting. Adding hunger would help with that; you can’t spend two weeks hiking from point A to point B if you don’t pack the food for it.

Of course, with things the way they are now, putting a limit on how much you can sleep would only make the game more egregiously hard, and the game definitely doesn’t need that. They would have to re-balance everything so that traveling from place to place while also minding your rations would actually be viable.

Beneath the egregious unfairness, shoddy gameplay and obvious exploits is a game I would absolutely love.


ESCAPE

Heads up: This week’s Egg McMuffin’s Morrowindian Adventures will be streamed on Thursday. Same time as usual. Assuming construction workers don’t show up to stomp on my roof again.

Anywho, ESCAPE is a browser game that was recently repurposed for android phones and iPhones. This seems like a perfect opportunity for me to play it on my BRAND NEW SMARTPHONE!, but as it turns out, that version costs money. So I’ve been playing it on my laptop instead.

It’s not exactly a complex game. In fact, as far as control schemes go, it’s about as simple as you can get. You only press one button; fittingly, it’s the Escape key. You press it to jump, and you hold it for longer to jump higher. You’re jumping from wall to wall to escape from a red laser beam that’s rising up from the ground for … some reason. And there are spikes on the walls that you have to avoid touching.

As you can expect from arcade-y games like this, there’s no story whatsoever. You’re just jumping to get as high as you can before your inevitable demise.

So why have I been playing this game so much that I’m in danger of breaking my Esc key?

Well, what it lacks in context and complexity it makes up for in a carefully crafted challenge and a wonderful sense of flow. On the surface it might look like the player is just mashing the esc button over and over, but you have to be careful about your timing to avoid jumping into spikes. Holding the button down for a split-second too long can result in death. You can’t be too slow and steady or else the rising laser will get to you, but if you try to rush through you’re pretty much guaranteed to jump face-first into spiky failure.

It reminds me of Canabalt in a good way. It tosses the needless cruft of upgrade points and concept-art cutscenes that we generally find in flash games and gives us a fast-paced and engaging test of speed and reflexes. I’d still rate Canabalt as better, since it actually has atmosphere and a setting that looks relatively cohesive and interesting, but this game is still fun for a good few minutes of jumping, dodging, dying and retrying.


Morrowind 1-14-12

Stream’s here.

So, here’s all the important bits in this episode of Egg McMuffin’s Morrowindian Adventures:

  • Egg McMuffin did several Mage’s Guild quests, the rewards for which were health potions and mana potions.
  • He went out for a hike to get to his next quest.
  • On the way he killed a few wildlife creatures, an army of cliff racers, and a demon-type thing.
  • He discovered that he really likes his fire spell, and that his bow & arrows are next to useless.
  • He was assaulted by a Dark Brotherhood agent, and to defeat him he chugged down every single potion he earned.

The episode ended with him stranded in the wilderness, with no arrows and nothing to sleep on but the pile of cliff racers he murdered. Things look promising!

Once again, sorry for my heavy breathing. I thought I was better this time.

Also, on a completely unrelated note: Last night I posted a super-serious post on my alternate non-gaming blog, Ninja Lounge House. It’s called “Things You Shouldn’t Say to Suicidal People.” It deals with suicide prevention, and the counter-productive arguments people often use in order to convince their friends against committing suicide. If you like the post, I would really appreciate it if you spread it around. I want more people to know these things.

Yeah, shameless self-promotion, I know. I’m sorry. This is just something I’m really passionate about.


Voice Acting

The stream today has been cancelled. I know, I just ruined your day. I’m sorry. Don’t blame me; blame the construction workers stomping all over the roof of my house. I’m working tomorrow, so we’re shooting for Saturday, 5 PM Central Standard Time.

So I figured that since we’re not streaming Morrowind, I’ll write a post tangentially related to Morrowind instead — specifically, the inclusion of voice acting in dialogue.

I’ve heard arguments surrounding the fact that most RPGs these days have all the dialogue fully voice acted. Some people say it’s unnecessary and detrimental, since it’s a big money sink and limits the freedom that the dialogue writers have.

The thing is, I agree that it costs a lot of time and money, and it is important to cut corners where you can, but after playing Morrowind I have to say that I’m glad games these days have voice acting. There’s something terribly off-putting about the lack of voices in Morrowind. But strangely enough, I’m never bothered by this in other old games like Final Fantasy VI. Why is that?

Here’s my theory…

Whether it be an isometric game like Final Fantasy or a sidescroller like Cave Story, 2D games are generally not meant to perfectly resemble reality. It’s fairly obvious that this is not how the world would actually look if this were real; it’s just there to visually represent the scene.

It’s an abstract and somewhat arbitrary representation, like the tabletop grid you use for D&D. I generally don’t lose my suspension of disbelief when I notice that the little figurines aren’t talking, and I don’t expect the cartoony sprites in Final Fantasy to talk or emote either.

The recent indie rhythm game Sequence had fully voiced dialogue, and it felt strange and almost out-of-place to me. It was quality voice acting, don’t get me wrong, but since the characters were essentially cardboard cut-outs, it just seemed unnecessary.

Morrowind, on the other hand, is obviously meant to mimic what the scene would look like if this were real. Everything is built in its proper size, and characters [are supposed to] move and emote as if they were actual people. Yes, it’s a fantasy world, but it’s constructed and presented to look real, horribly grotesque faces notwithstanding.

As such, it’s very jarring when you go to talk to an NPC and he just stares at you blankly while you read a text wall. It’s reminiscent of the Uncanny Valley. It doesn’t feel right, and it serves to remind you that this is all fake and that you’re in a video game.

Making everything voice-acted gets expensive and restrictive when you’re dealing with a huge game like Skyrim. But the way I see it, it’s not just a nice touch. It’s not just an improvement. When you’re dealing with a 3D game in this style, it’s a necessity, and should be regarded as such.

I’m certainly not criticizing Morrowind for not having voice acting. It wasn’t the norm to have everything voiced at the time of release, and I understand that. But in this day and age, it’s just something you have to have, and for good reason.


Saints Row 3: What Happened To Shaundi?

Saints Row 3 probably would have been one of my favorite games of 2011, had I played it in 2011. Sadly I didn’t get ahold of it until January 1st. I was a big fan of Saints Row 2, and based on my expectations from that game, Saints 3 did not disappoint. I had to turn the resolution to 720×480 just to make it playable, and even then the framerate chugged whenever things got busy (spoiler: things were busy most of the time) but that’s my laptop’s fault, not the game’s fault. On the whole Saints 3 felt very fresh and fun.

I have a lot of things to say about it, some good and some bad. I guess I’ll start with the first observation I made.

The three major support characters in Saints 2 were Johnny Gat, Pierce and Shaundi. In Saints 3, Gat and Pierce are back on screen in the very first mission. Gat looks largely the same. Pierce is wearing a pretentious rich-guy costume, but he’s still Pierce. But Shaundi never shows up, not in the mission or in the whole game.

So here’s my question: What the hell happened to my favorite character?

The strange thing is that there’s a new girl in the group and everybody refers to her as Shaundi, but she doesn’t look, talk or act anything like Shaundi from Saints 2. I understand that graphical upgrades are going to cause some changes in a character’s overall appearance, but this Shaundi has a different face, a different outfit, a different voice, and a completely different personality.

Saints 2 Shaundi was the archetypal stoner. She was chilled out and laid-back, she rarely ever got upset or tense, she knew all about drugs and where to find and produce them, and to top it all off, she was a complete and total slut. She just didn’t seem to give a shit, and that’s what made her charming.

Saints 3 Shaundi is so different I refuse to accept that it’s the same person. This one is a complete hardass. She’s pushy, she’s violent, she always seems to be angry at somebody, and she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to bark out threats, even threats directed at her friends. Occasionally other characters will make jokes about Shaundi being such a slutty stoner, and there’s the rare case where she’ll allude to some past exploit of hers into the field of drugs and sex, but none of that is ever shown in her actual demeanor or actions. I get that characters can change overtime, but this is a pretty extreme gear shift, and we never even see a hint of the old Shaundi in this new one.

My theory is that at some point between Saints Row 2 and Saints Row 3, Shaundi must have died a horrible death, and since the other three dudes in the team wanted to have a girl in the group to look pretty, they hired some actress to wear a low-cut top and pretend to be Shaundi. And this actress completely misses the point.

Whatever the case may be, I’m not happy about this shift. As I said, Shaundi was my favorite character in Saints 2. She was charming and endearing, and I found her to be the most relatable character, though I’m not sure what that says about me as a person.


Morrowind 1-6-12

Here’s the Morrowind stream, in case you missed it.

Actually, the video got split into two for some strange reason, but the second video is only two minutes long and nothing of consequence or amusement happens in it, so whatever.

You may have noticed that I have a new Livestream account. This is because my old account had the shamefully stupid username of Jedi Sasquatch. Many a year ago I’d decided to make that my username for various online sites, due to a combination of Star Wars fandom and unlocking the secret character Umaro in Final Fantasy 6. And while I still adore Final Fantasy 6, I’ve really grown out of Star Wars, mostly due to developing actual taste and realizing how utterly horrid the prequel trilogy was. Plus, come on. Jedi Sasquatch. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Anyway, I feel the need to apologize for a few things. Firstly, I’m sorry for breathing heavily throughout the entire thing. I had no idea it was that obnoxious. I’ll try to work on that.

Secondly, I’m sorry that I forgot to turn off the mods before starting. I knew I’d forgotten to do something, I just knew it. The mod I was using was called Galsiah’s Character Development, and it essentially makes leveling seamless rather than a hard transition from level to level. Basically, as you level skills up, your stats will level up accordingly as well. My Khajit thief has a pretty high endurance from all the acrobatics leveling, for instance. It’s a pretty nifty mod. Kudos to Eldiran for recommending it to me.

So for those of you who won’t watch the video, over halfway through I stopped and realized I had the mod installed, so I had to disable the mod and then start all over. The result is that almost nothing of consequence happened the entire time; so far Egg McMuffin has left the prison, given a man his ring and then stolen it right back.

And lastly, I’d like to apologize for Jarenth being too busy fighting space zombies (or whatever he does on his free time) to show up and co-broadcast the stream with me. He evidently got mixed up and thought I lived in California.

I’m busy next Friday, so we’re shooting for Thursday the 12th, same time. Hope to see you there.


The Binding of Isaac

Heads up: The Morrowind stream will be happening today at 5:00 PM, Central Standard Time (that’s 11:00 PM in GMT). Jarenth will (hopefully) be joining me for voice commentary. The stream will be featured on this link: http://www.livestream.com/ninjagameden

Anywho, I got The Binding of Isaac awhile ago when it was first released. I’m not a fan. I didn’t talk about it then, but I want to talk about it now. I hope you don’t mind.

I think it’s fruitful to compare The Binding of Isaac to Super Meat Boy. On the surface they seem like exceedingly similar games. They’re both projects led by the same person (Edmund McMillen), they have essentially the same art style, they both have gameplay based heavily on classic Nintendo titles (Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., respectively), they both have very silly stories, and they’re both aggressively challenging.

But get past the basics and you can start to notice that the general philosophy behind the games are almost diametrically opposed; specifically, in how each game regards the player.

Every level in Super Meat Boy is carefully designed to offer a fair and gradual progression of difficulty. It introduces you to gameplay mechanics and then tests your ability to utilize or overcome them. It starts off fairly simple, and then gets harder and harder until you’re facing obstacles that seem impossible on the outset, but are entirely beatable using the skills you’ve acquired.

And if you should die in Super Meat Boy, the game respectfully lets you retry the level you’re on as many times as you like. The levels are generally very short and concise (until the ending, that is) and so you never feel cheated. And if you exit, you can go back to that same level whenever you want to retry, or you can go back to previous levels to try to beat your time or collect bandages.

The game can be excruciatingly difficult, but it never feels unfair or disrespectful. (With the exception of the Warp Zones, which seem like deliberate attempts from the game to make you ragequit.)

The Binding of Isaac, by extreme contrast, does not give a fuck about you or your time. Everything about the game is randomized, from the levels themselves to the powerups you find. And those powerups are severely unbalanced. I still remember the first time I tried to play the game, one of the first items I found was something that permanently reduced my max health to one heart (33% of the normal maximum) which pretty much guaranteed that I would fail. That was the first of many times the game would give me the middle finger.

If you die in TBoI, the game spits in your face and forces you to start at the very beginning again. Checkpoints? Save systems? What are those? Never mind that you had some items you actually liked, because you stepped the wrong way one too many times, so now you have to start at the beginning!

Coupled with the fact that some powerups are far, far worse than others, and that some of them actually hurt you, and you have a game that inordinately wastes your time. When you finally do beat the game it probably won’t be because of your skill or coordination; it’ll be because you found the most overpowered items.

I find the best way to summarize The Binding of Isaac is with two simple words: Fuck You. That sounds like hyperbole, but it really isn’t. I said that to a few of my friends who actually like the game, and they agree with me. This game is mercilessly mean-spirited. It hates you, and it does not want you to feel gratified or entertained.

Maybe you like an unfair challenge. Maybe you want a game to treat you like its bitch. I can’t empathize, but I won’t tell you you’re wrong to enjoy something. But what really bugs me is when I hear people say that this is how all games should be. You know, those people who say that “gamers these days aren’t willing to WORK for their fun!” I will never understand that. I already worked for my fun. I worked fucking minimum wage for the privilege to play this game. All I ask for in return is for the game to provide me with some sort of entertainment value without treating me with disrespect and wasting my time.

Super Meat Boy made me want to punch my monitor at times, but I’d still recommend it to anybody who enjoys platforming. I would only recommend The Binding of Isaac to masochists.


Happy Birthday! Also, Announcement

Yes, happy new year and all that. What some of you might not realize is that today doesn’t just mark the start of 2012; it’s also the one-year anniversary of the start of Ninja Game Den!

Well, technically I created the blog awhile before January 1st of last year, but that was the day I published my first post and publicized the blog. That was long before most of you would discover it, but whatever, this is a pretty big deal for me, alright?

I now feel morally obligated to do something special to mark the occasion. So here we go: I’d like to announce that in a few days I’ll be starting a Livestream playthrough of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. I plan to make this a regular thing, as I previously attempted with Fallout.

But JPH! You remember how Fallout went, don’t you?

Yes, I do. Morrowind is a different game. I’ve played it a decent amount already, and I didn’t find it utterly dreadful like I did with Fallout. But it does have a lot of boring stretches, and I figure it’ll be less boring if I have people to talk to along the way.

So, JP, what mods are you going to use?

This might sound a bit outrageous, but I’m not planning on using any, except for the Morrowind Code Patch, which fixes a number of bugs and miscellaneous issues (and, among other things, lets me toggle sneak mode).

I understand that the Morrowind modding community is impressively huge and talented, but for the purposes of a Let’s Play, introducing even one addition or feature that the designers didn’t intend for would open up a host of issues. Firstly, it could cause glitches within the game that weren’t there in the first place. Secondly, if I want to criticize the game for some minute detail, it could become hard to tell whether that issue is from the game itself or from the mods, and this problem would become more prominent with more mods included. And most importantly, it opens the floodgates for people to say “You’re not using the right mods! You should use these instead! They make the game way better!”

The first streaming day is set for Friday, January 6th. I won’t be free every Friday, and I honestly can’t say when I will be free, because my work schedule is completely erratic and unpredictable. I think I’ll just have to pick days that I’m off and announce those dates for streaming a few days in advance.

I’m not sure what build I’ll go for. The character I built for my secluded playthrough is an acrobatic ninja-type khajit, because what else would I do, honestly. For the LP I’m thinking I’ll roll a mage. An acrobatic mage, natch, but a mage nonetheless. I don’t know how magic works in this game, but I’ve heard that spellcrafting is one of the most fun things to do in Morrowind, so that might be the best option to showcase the game and to make me actually like it.

What do you think I should play as? Post a comment and say so. Or just show up on Friday and make your suggestion then.