08 September 2020

Why I am not playing Sky

 One of my obsessions about this time last year was Sky: Children of the Light by That Game Company. I have always had a soft spot for independent game companies, and any kind of game designer who puts care, wonder, and beauty at the top of their list of design goals. That Game Company's visionary, Jenova Chen, is such a one. His team's previous games, Flower, Journey, and the rest, have embodied that vision of peace and beauty in gaming. 

Sky: Children of the Light is a New Game From the Creators of Journey Where  Everyone Wants to Give You a Hug | USgamer

So when I learned that their next game was going to be a non-combat MMO, I was immediately intrigued. Once it launched on iOS I was all in.

Sky is a perfectly lovely game. It's a sumptuous world, a true sky kingdom full of heavenly beings existing alongside invasive darkness. Using little-to-no dialogue it tells a heartwarming story of life and death, grief and the afterlife, light and dark. It. Is. Beautiful.

A single playthrough feels just like a proper TGC creation, or something by Team ICO (TGC's spiritual predecessor, in my opinion). You get a complete, gorgeous, minimal journey. You will make friends using one of the more intriguing and thoughtful social mechanics of any game ever. And you will tear up, guaranteed.

After a single playthrough, however, the MMO/mobile portion of the game kicks in and the contrast is stark: you go from meandering (mostly) peacefully through a fully realized, mysterious, lovely world, to repeating the same steps in that world over and over to grind out currency and gear. Now, I'm not afraid of such a grind. I still play LOTRO and still love it, even though I'm at one of the grindier parts of the game (that being level cap). So, I ground it on in Sky. I was happy to give them some money for a season pass, happy to log in every day and do the quests necessary to get the thing. 

This grind includes (or did about this time last year) a social component of logging in each day to send a friend a present. The kind, heartfelt social system I mentioned above became a matter of checking the box, just like any other mobile game or MMO.

As I say, this is not terrible. It's kind of par for the course. So, I did it and got the things (including one of the rarest capes in the game). It can be quite nice having a place to go and things to do in a virtual setting each day, part of the appeal of these games.

Sky: Children of the Light - Apps on Google Play

What ultimately killed it for me was the difficulty of the game. Besides being about exploration, Sky is really a platformer devised by console game designers. Many of the repeatable tasks one has to do for seasonal content, for example, involves leading these spirits around and learning their stories. The trouble is that I rarely felt in control of my character when precise action was needed, so leading them around found me dropping off edges and throwing my phone across the room. Maybe it's me, maybe it's playing on an iPhone, maybe it's the game itself, but Sky became one of the more frustrating gaming experiences of recent years.

When I logged in this week to see what had been going on since I last played about six months ago, I found a terribly luscious addition to the game in the "Sanctuary Islands." Just like the rest of the game, it was a treat to drift around and admire the greenery and the lovely music. But when it came time to do the thing and the goodies, it was the exact same problem. I had to lead this spirit around at half speed, under threat of death by crabs, through an awkward terrain unable to find reasonable camera angle. It was irritating and frustrating.

So, I may pop into the Sky kingdom from time to time and admire the world, floating here and there in a gorgeous landscape, but the grind is over. It's not worth the frustration. Not while I have Shelob to defeat.

It begs larger questions about game design, repetition, risks, and rewards, but that's for another day.

16 June 2020

In defense of Frodo

Throughout what is proving to be one of the more difficult years of any of our memories, I find myself turning towards familiar comforts. One of my greatest delights is, of course, Middle-earth and the world of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve taken to it both in its digital form and by reading through passages of the novel itself yet again. In this time of difficulty and introspection, I find again that I am drawn to a particular character who perhaps does not receive the acclaim he really deserves.

Of course I’m talking about Mr. Frodo Baggins.


Initially, and like many others with me who were more involved in the film than the books at first, I didn’t think much of him. At first glance he seems like little more than a sad mule for the Ring itself. This feeling is amplified by Elijah Woods' piteous performance. But as time has gone on, and as I’ve paid closer attention to Frodo, I find that both the character of the novels and his portrayal in the films are acutely accurate, commendable, relatable, and heroic. In fact I may go far as to say that Frodo is the hero of our current age.

I say this because Frodo’s battle is largely internal. Many of us are waging wars in ourselves, especially during this time of pandemic and social unrest. I know more people today with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and various other internal struggles than I have ever known, and I think more than the world or history has ever known (though this is likely in large part due to our current awareness, thanks to the field of psychology). To put it more bluntly, Fr Seraphim Rose said that the internal struggles we face in the last times are like the physical struggles faced by the early martyrs.

Though Frodo is “wounded by knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden,” his struggle is found in the greatest sense in his own person (largely thanks to the latter). The damage that Sauron‘s malicious spirit does to him through its embodiment in the Ring is absolutely unmendable.
How many of us can relate to such a struggle? Surrounded by the comfort of our own little hobbit holes, bent over a desk, trying to do what we feel we are meant to do, while completely crushed on the inside.

The book even alludes to this. Frodo is very saintly in his quietude and isolation. His trauma will not allow him to wield a weapon. He is almost monastic in his chastity and inner life, but the virtue of this is seen by none except Sam. The hero of the War of the Ring is mostly ignored by his own people.

This is not a discount Sam at all. Tolkien himself even called Sam the real hero of the story. And this is true, if by hero we mean anyone who behaves heroically, with courage, and with fortitude. But we find in him, even in his absolute undiminished humility and loyalty to his master, a more visible and I daresay worldly kind of heroism. If Aragorn is the mighty, noble warrior-king of renown, then Sam is the great folk hero of the Shire and the whole west of Midde-earth.Sam, even while remaining loyal to Frodo and his family and acting an unmitigated humility, is still very capable.

Frodo feels more like those of us who are incapable, who are preyed upon by our own inherent difficulties. Who don’t have the means to achieve worldly success. We simply don’t have "it" when that is what life demands of us.

So Frodo Baggins, the unsung tragedy of The Lord of the Rings may be the hero we need these days, the one whose happy ending doesn't come until all is said and done.

I don't mean to be grim, but I do mean to point out that while the histories of Middle-earth (and of course our own world) are full of great deeds and champions, there are also full of dead ends and heartache, made doubly hurtful when suffered by kindly hobbits. We may be in a time that requires us to pay attention to Frodo more than we have.

13 May 2020

The Reflecting Pool

The Lord of the Rings Online has been something like medicine during this lockdown. I've been working on a new game, and pecking away at the HOMES sequel (I think I'm up to a chapter a year!). But moreso I've been allowing myself a vacation in Middle-earth. If you're not interested in LOTRO or gaming en masse, this post isn't for you. Still, I thought it might be fun to reflect on my time in this game and what it says about me and my life over the past 13 years.

File:Round Gondorian Reflection Pool 2.jpg

The Beta that Never Was (2006-2007)

It's hard to go back all those years ago and recall exactly what was going on. I was newly married, which is its own adjustment, and playing lots of games. I recall ending my relationship with WoW just before Burning Crusade hit. EVE Online was in there somewhere, as was this canceled game about doing tasks on a space station...

Anyways, somewhere along the line I found out about the beta test for The Lord of the Rings Online. Hell, I like MMOs and The Lord of the Rings! I thought. Why not?

My memory here is also shaky. I recall making a Dwarf Guardian and smacking some things around in the Vale of Thrain. The game didn't run with especial smoothness on my machine. But it didn't stick some how. It was just another WoW clone with Tolkien's skin on it. Maybe I was still hungover from obsessing over World of Warcraft. There were of course other circumstances outside my gaming life that factor in, but I think that even if things were calmer or easier I probably would not have stuck with LOTRO. Who can say? I was in my early 20s and foolish and didn't know what I wanted. Now I'm in my mid-30s and foolish and I still don't know what I want.

Getting Stuck in (2008-2013)

Thankfully I still actively use the email account with which I signed up for LOTRO. I have the beta notices. I also have a "Welcome Back" email from April 2008 and that's when my LOTRO journey began in earnest.

Who knows why? I go through phases of wonder with Tolkien's stuff, so maybe I was re-reading Rings and decided to give this old goat another shot. Maybe it was the impending release of the first expansion, The Mines of Moria. All I know is that I was stuck in at this point. I made and deleted bunches of characters, found my first real kinship (the members of which I still keep in touch with today), and decided on a main - a dwarf minstrel. I also leveled them all, apparently. By the time this stint with LOTRO stopped I have at least 6 characters at level 65 or higher.

It was also at this point that I discovered how deeply I care about the character part of these games. This is the main reason I made so many alts (alternate characters); I'd have an idea for that person in Middle-earth and would call them to being. Then I'd take that person on adventures, realize I didn't want them around any more or that their journey was complete or being superseded by another and *poof* they were gone. It was a time sink and a helluva lot of fun.

How did my wife put up with this? Well, she joined me.

And this is how nuts I was at that time: I started leveling a Warden with my wife, decided I didn't like the Warden, and leveled a Champ all the way up instead. This is on top of a max level Guardian, Minstrel, and Burglar. Folks, I was stuck in. And it was fun! Especially after my wife started playing with me. Jumping on for an hour or two a night, with a good kin, was just as fun as chilling out and watching TV or any other "normal" thing couples do.

Then came the babies. In 2011 my first darling baby girl was born. We were still able to play after bedtime, but it appears my LOTRO time began to drop off in 2013. Besides life in general, this is about the time that I got really into tabletop gaming. LOTRO began to feel like a grind instead of an epic journey to save Middle-earth. That's a real pitfall with games like this. Repetitive actions wrapped in epic armor are still repetitive and if you're looking for something more dynamic you may need to look elsewhere. And so in November of 2013, around the release of the Helm's Deep expansion, we canceled our subs.

Another Go (2017)

We popped by again in 2015 when LOTRO changed hands from Turbine to Standing Stone Games. Our old kinmates were out and about on Facebook so we would hear from them on occasion, and when it became clear that the game was changing developers and and that servers were closing, we thought it a fine time to log in and choose our new forever homes. 

This is a weird sidenote because I made a few logical decisions in the process, and one oddball. Most of my characters went to Landroval, my home away from Elendilmir. I knew some people on there, knew it to be active, and to have a decent roleplaying scene. So most of my army of alts wound up there. Our largely inactive kinship moved to Arkenstone so my main character moved there. And for some reason I moved my high level Warden to Gladden. Why? I have no idea. Maybe there was a kin I was interested in. Maybe I had high hopes of being active on multiple servers. 

Then the game went dormant again until about three years ago. The itch came back hard. The epic story was at an interesting point. There were Beornings to try. So that's what I did!

I leveled my now-main character up, used the Aria of the Valar to skip ahead about 50 levels, and got into Gondor at long last. I was not in the mood to level a whole other character up and getting to 95 meant I was skipping to exactly where I needed to be, having stopped at Helm's Deep with my other characters.

Gondor was simply stunning and beautiful, but I distinctly recall having this thought "OMFG another quest?!" I fell into the classic trap. Either you buy into games like this and enjoy, or you feel like a slave to the grind. Break any game (or most activity, really) down in that way and you can feel like  a slave. To the mechanics, the repetition, take your pick. At that point that's what I was: locked into an ever-grinding wheel of quests.

It didn't help that I was a published author and game designer at this point, with Heavy Metal Thunder Mouse on the horizon. There were badder fish to fry.

So once again I shut it down.

Love Again (2020)

Who knows why Middle-earth came a'calling this go around? Who really cares. As I've said, I can let gaming be the place where I cave to my impulses. If I want to play the game, I'm going to play it. This time I feel like I have buy-in as I hadn't before. Previously I felt my time was 70% about leveling up and playing the game as a game. Now I feel like that majority percentage is spent enjoying being in Middle-earth. The game has plenty of flaws and irritations to point at, but ultimately I'm able to achieve what I want to achieve: spending time in a beloved fictional world well-realized.

I will say, as an addendum, that this game is like a weird therapeutic exercise. There are moments where I realize the game is becoming stressful and causing me anxiety. Upon reflection, I see that this is because I'm asking the game to be something it's not. Either I make it about completion, and doing absolutely everything, or I make it into a true Middle-earth resort. This struck me hard yesterday when I found myself making another character on another server for a roleplay event that I will probably never have time to attend, and if I did it would not meet my expectations. 

Other games have a start and an end. MMOs do not. So if I don't keep this game under proper perspective (that is, mostly sticking to one character and accepting the hard reality that I will not be able to max out multiple characters any more) then it truly becomes like a job. And I think that's where a lot of people involved with various games hit the wall: it's a game and it can't be more than that and you're not the developer so you can't make it perfect.

Two other thoughts that came to mind upon reflection. One this I find I often get frustrated with games when I seek depth and meaning, because it's just not there. Also there's sometimes that feeling that says I have to get everything done right now and that's a sure fire path to burnout.

In any case, I find this type of thing interesting to think about. All of our issues are not left at the doorstep when we jump into our hobbies.

25 April 2020

D&D is for the children

Playing games with your kids is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they're gaming buddies that you can boss around and who actually live with you. On the other hand, they're kids and kids can do weird things. Sometimes said weirdness is awesome; other times it's frustrating. Mostly kids are keen to get into the thick of things with games and not belabor pointless details that hold up the session, which is nice.

20 of the best D&D memes on Reddit
Lately, to get them outside, we've been having "Wizard Walks" where we walk around the neighborhood and pretend to be wizards. That's about it. But my kids never stop imagining and pretending. So when Big Sister started going into Director Mode and saying things like, "Now this happens and I do this to you but then this happens and I'm like this and you're like this," I had to hit the breaks and say, "Nah, kid. You gotta roll for it." That way walks can be walks and Wizard Time can be Wizard Time.

Dungeons & Dragons is, to some, The Game That Shall Not Be Named. I find these are mostly reformed nerds who played way too much AD&D growing up and are trying to move to bigger and broader horizons, away from the Neckbeard Cult that so often surrounds the game (even though D&D seems to be a hotbed for the progressive wing of the tabletop culture), and I applaud them for that. However, having grown up with exactly zero D&D despite my best efforts, the game does not have the same connotations for me. In fact I've only played maybe three actual sessions of D&D.

So when I had to choose another game to try with my girls, I decided it was time to get into that Dungeon. I've had sessions with them using the Pip System and Epyllion and Fate Accelerated, all of which are great, I've even dabbled with Monster Slayers, but when I started poking around at kid-friendly character sheets. I stumbled upon this gem. I really like the layout that Brian did and I also like his "They're kids so who the *%^ cares about the rules?" approach.

Starting off in this type of game is tough with little ones because you have to keep one hand on the steering wheel so the little bugger stays on target. They can't really read the sheets can they? The now-eight-year-old can read better than most 8th graders, which makes things nearly 1000% easier; the four-year-old not so much. So I took what Brian did above and basically just added a bunch of icons representing gear and skills that they could circle and so that they have a vague idea what each stat does. I messed around in Word for an hour or two, obsessively, so it isn't super high quality:

It started with just magic users but I added a fightier and rogueier class with pre-built stats. It's cheap but it's fun and I want to share it with you. So if you've got little ones in your life and you want to do something fun, click here and grab some dice and get wild.

Couple notes if you'd like more to go on: the kids basically get to decide what the ability icons mean. Enemies are all AC 10 and hit with 1d4; kids always use 1d6 (per Brian's rules). The bottom left box is for them to draw their adventurer (or write traits if you're in to that). They tick off hearts as they get hit; XP after they kill something or do something awesome. Five XP = a new spell or feat.

That's what I've been up to.