An Interactive Adventure writer reviews an Interactive Episode of Black Mirror

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On December 28 2018,  Netflix released a stand alone episode of their hit series Black Mirror called “Bandersnatch”, which was a first of its kind experiment that allowed you to change the story by picking options along the way.

Before I delve into spoilers, here is my brief non-spoiler review of the episode: As an episode of Black Mirror, it is actually one of the weaker ones.  Most episodes go with the “Speculative sci-fi” premise of introducing a new potentially great technology that may theoretically exist in the future someday, and tell a story about that technology creating some kind of drama.  I’m a huge fan of speculative sci-fi, so I am also a huge fan of Black Mirror — most of the time.

This episode actually introduces a technology of an interactive TV episode (which has only existed in a limited way with interactive DVDs, this is the first of its kind for streaming) and proceeds to create artificial drama with the technology itself.  This is ultimately a rather cheesy thing to do: You are introducing a potentially groundbreaking and profitable technology, in a way that satirizes the same technology making it less desirable in the future.

The rest of this review contains spoilers.

Bandersnatch Black Mirror

The story is about Stefan, a promising young programmer in 1984 who is working on a computerized version of a complex and very thick choose your own adventure book called “Bandersnatch” by Robert B. Davies.

I have a personal connection to this story as in 1984, I was also writing adventure games in BASIC on a TI 99/4a that did not have enough memory and constantly crashed. I was writing text based adventures in the style of Colossal Cave or Zork, though at the time mine were pretty lame.  In the last couple of decades I have been independently writing and publishing my own choose your own adventure games, formally known as visual novels, some of them are rather successful.

Bottom line, not only do I know what writing interactive fiction is like, but I also know what programming was like in 1984.  I’ve experienced “the hole” as one character calls it, though I have never ever in my life heard it called that.  I could actually be a technical advisor on this episode, and nit pick all the stuff they got wrong, and maybe that is why I am giving it 2.5 out of 5, but I’d rather just stick with reviewing the episode itself.

There are basically 8 endings, only two of which are satisfying, I’ll call them the “TOY” ending and the “Perfect Game” ending.  Most of the endings have the main character dying or in prison.  The three exceptions are easily the worst.

The first ending you are likely going to his is one of those bad ones. The main character sells out to the gaming company, and produces a bad game. I’ll label this the “tutorial” ending, and if it was the first ending you got, so did almost everybody.  The other two awful endings are the “Netflix” endings (“Netflix/Window” and “Netflix/Fight”) which are 4th wall breaking cheesy plots that some viewers will probably find entertaining, but it ultimately just shits all over the whole concept and ruins it.  Basically I stopped looking for new endings after I saw this one.

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The next two bad endings are also fourth wall breaking, and involve visiting Colin and dropping acid. Colin breaks the fourth wall by saying we are in a game, stuck in a loop, but the speech worked much better when delivered by the Luteces in Bioshock Infinite.

Colin tries to prove his point by saying either he or Stefan should jump to their deaths off the high rise balcony.  Choosing Stefan leads to the “nozedive” ending, choosing Colin leads to Colin jumping rather casually and opening up an ending I’ll call “PACS” which is a less meta version of the Netflix endings, where Stefan is the subject of an elaborate conspiracy.  This is actually the second ending after “Tutorial” that I got.

The third ending I got, is the last of the eight, which I’ll call “Kill dad, bury dad” named after the choices you do to get there, which actually has a number of versions depending on whether you dropped acid with Colin or not. They all end basically the same: Stefan never finishes the game, goes to prison for murder, and the game company goes bankrupt.  While not as bad as the meta endings, it lacks a coherent story.

The two good endings

“Toy”, or to be exact “any cereal, any music, refuse, yes talk about your mother, no don’t go with mom, either album, yell at dad, follow Colin,  Yes, Colin, pull earlobes, flush them, hit desk, pick up book, enter TOY, yes go with mom” is the story of a troubled young man that blames himself for the death of his mom who died in a train derailment when he was five.  Thanks to an LSD trip he has a realistic vision of himself going back and changing things in the past and being with his mom at the time of the accident.  This results in him dying along with his mom.  Since he really isn’t time traveling, he can’t actually save her, but he can be there and make her last moments happy.  His real body just suddenly dies in his psychologists office.

“Perfect Score”, or to be exact “any cereal, any music, refuse, no don’t talk about your mother, no don’t talk about your mother, any album, yell at dad, visit Dr Haynes, pull earlobes, flush them, hit desk, pick up either, JFD, Throw Tea, Glyph symbol, kill dad, chop up body.” is the story of a novel “Bandersnatch” that drives people mad.  The original author of the novel went crazy while writing it and chopped off his wife’s head, the author of the video game adaption went crazy and chopped off his dad’s head, and the episode ends in the present day with a woman named Pearl (Colin’s daughter?) adapting the novel/game for Netflix, and showing the same early signs of madness.

These two work on their own, the first sad, the second creepy, and could probably be released as stand alone episodes.  If you want a whole map of the show you can find one here.

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Lessons for future interactive TV producers

Interactive stories have been around for decades, and there are a lot of really good ones. A recent famous good one is Detroit: Become Human by David Cage who also made Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls.  These stories generally have one good happy ending, and a large number of tragic bad endings. This is also the general pattern of most of the Tell Tale Games before they closed.

Another really good interactive story writer is Ragnar Tørnquist who did the trilogy The Longest Journey, Dreamfall, and Dreamfall Chapters.  His stories branch off in many directions, but then tie themselves together in a big finale.  Any path in which you survive leads to the same ending, but the differing paths lead to more details about the story, characters, and settings.  This is how my game Rachel Meets Ariane works.

My favorite kind of interactive story is rare, and the most difficult kind to pull off.  It is where every path leads to a different and interesting ending on its own, but there is a greater story if you follow all of the paths.  This is what I was going for with Something’s In The Air, it was successfully done in Tlaero and Mortze’s Saving Chloe I have heard that Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is designed to work this way, but I have never played it to find out.

I’m hoping that “Bandersnatch” is not the end of interactive TV programming.  Charlie Booker is a very clever guy, but his lack of experience writing branching stories shows. It takes years of practice.  My message for future interactive TV producers is learn from Black Mirror’s mistakes: Don’t add branches just for the sake of adding branches, if you can’t make every branch interesting, then trim those dead branches.  Stay the hell away from “meta” stories.  Learn story structure from interactive games, the best ones don’t always fit the usual three act structure of linear story telling.

Dating Pretenders on iPhone

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Many people have been asking me about releasing Date Ariane on the Apple App store for use on iphones and ipads. I have not done so because the Apple App store forbids erotic games like Date Ariane in their store.

And yet where there is a demand, there will be someone to fill it. Two different “Dating Sim” apps have been put into the app store using artwork from Date Ariane.

I know what some of you are thinking: “How can they use art from your game in their game?”, and the answer is I let them by offering the 10th Anniversary Edition HTML version under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution license.

Basically, art under the license is free to use in other projects as long as you disclose the source and disclose that it was used under the CC by 3.0 license. Both Date Ariane and Something’s In The Air use creative commons music and sound effects extensively, and per the license the sources and links to the license are documented in both the credits screens and the help files of both games.  I released the HTML versions of Date Ariane under the license as a way to “pay it forward”. Unfortunately, most of the people that are using my art are not crediting me, which makes me sad.

If people used my art in cool ways (see the “Related Content” links on this page), it probably wouldn’t bother me much that they left out the required attribution, but as a friend of mine pointed out: Creative commons doesn’t really have a provision for “only if you make good shit with it.”

Anyways, because I myself am an iPhone user, I figured I would download some of these pretenders and piss all over them give them honest reviews.

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Dating Kylie Lopez

I’m giving this app one star, and it only earned that star by being free. This came to my attention because a popular You Tube video series called “Reviewing Bad Apps” featured it in volume 4 at approximately the 11:45 mark. A reader of my blog and a good friend both posted me messages about it, so I had to download it.

While the images, text, and choices all look very familiar, as far as I can tell this app is a cheap joke app. (What do you expect for free?) As you can see, I managed to get “Kylie” into a swimsuit, went swimming, and ate a barbecue steak dinner. A couple of moves later the date was over for no explicable reason.

I think that is the whole joke, no matter what you do the date will end abruptly at some random number of moves into the date.

The app is only 41MB big with no extra downloads, a complete implementation of Date Ariane would be at least 150MB, so a lot of corners were cut. Steak dinner is pretty much the only one available, if you get that far. I suspect the dancing at the club promo image displayed above is an impossible goal. I’m also pretty sure nudity is non-existent.

If you try this app out, post screenshots of how far you got.

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Dating Simulator

This one is a near complete implementation, or more accurately impersonation, of “Date Ariane for iTunes”, and would totally be worth the $2.99 price if it weren’t for all the damn major bugs.

The game is only a 39mb download in the app store, but upon opening the game it downloads another 100mb or so of additional images from a 3rd party server to avoid the wrath of Apple. Make sure your iPhone/iPad has room.

Yes, the game includes at least some brief topless scenes of “Emelie” which is what the game calls her, though I have never managed to see much. I got her to flash her boobs playing basketball and at the dress shop when I handed her two skirts, but even after a flawless strip club show, she exited the stage prior to taking off her top. At least she won:

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From what I can tell, they set the variable that allows nudity to “never”. So far all the nudity I saw in the game including the completely nude “tennis instructor” routine is nudity that shows up when Ariane Emelie is not interested in being naked. This actually breaks the game in many places, like the photo shoot at the scenic vista does not know how to handle the situation with the variable set like that and the app crashes just when things were getting good.

But they also made other game breaking changes.  The most annoying involves the dinners. All dinners in this game end when you drink wine, so if you want to talk or compliment, you need to do that before you drink. “Going out for dinner” seems to default to the “Drive-N-Dine” which doesn’t have a “drink wine” option, so if you go out for dinner, you end up in a loop until  “Emelie” gets tired of your company.  This is a bug that existed for a short while in the Renpy version, until I fixed it. I’d like to see the makers of Dating Simulator fix theirs because it breaks an important part of the game.

Another bug: Occasionally for no reason after eating a steak dinner, we get the pizza sauce ending.

Those are the biggest I found so far, the most annoying part of the app is that there is no save game feature. As is, I’m giving the app 2 stars. Fix the major bugs and I’ll make it 3 stars, add a save game feature and I’ll make it 4, give me credit for the art and get rid of the Facebook spam and I’ll make it 5.

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Dating Ariane.com

If you must play Date Ariane on an iPhone, how about the original HTML version? Someone (not me) is hosting it at datingariane.com, and it is pretty much a complete port of the 10th Anniversary edition to a website.  I had to take mine down a couple of years ago due to devastating web traffic, but this one seems to be on a more stable server.

So faithful of a port, that they left my cheating secrets in, which I never shared until now.

  1. Start the game at datingariane.com/default2.htm, this sets up “debug mode” that shows stats of the game on the right side.
  2. There is a secret dot on the lower left corner. If you hover over this dot with a mouse, it will show you the current game stats which refresh whenever the page number changes (see the first stat in debug mode). This has been replicated in the Renpy version by turning hints on in options.
  3. At the beginning of the game shown above, hover over the secret dot, then enter the Konami code on your keyboard (B A), and that will enable cheat mode, making Ariane pretty much agreeable to anything. (The Konami code works in the Renpy version, too but it makes it impossible to collect achievements when used.)
  4. On the first page of the default2.htm version, there are 7 pairs of “head start” dots, the first 5 skip over the dinners, the last two were scenarios I made for testing purposes, though I don’t know what I was testing in this version. Anyways, the real fun stuff in the game happens after dinner, so use the secret links to skip over the intro and dinner.

And that is what I found, so far. I searched Google Play store looking for imitators as well but since the game is available in android there don’t seem to be any, which is good.

Just remember: the Renpy version is copyright, meaning the art is NOT free to use in projects, and I hate filling out DMCA requests. Yes there is some art that crosses over, though that will change soon as I am making new versions of all the pictures, (see my last blog post).

Time Travel Faux Paus

Timeless - Season PilotIt has been a while since I wrote anything, because there is a lot going on and I have other projects to work on, and really I have not thought of a good topic to write about.

And then I saw the TV show Timeless. This is a new show on NBC about a group of time travelers correcting history that another group of time travelers are changing for some reason. In the first two episodes they mess up and things actually get changed.

Despite decent acting, writing, research, and production values, Timeless is quite possibly the worst time travel show ever conceived. It’s motivations are unknown, its “rules” are absurd and inconsistent.

Are they trying to fix the past like on Voyagers? If so, they are doing a very poor job of it. There is also no explanation of their movement in space as they travel.  One episode in New Jersey, another in Washington. Every other time travel show sticks to the convention that you don’t go anywhere when you time travel.  The exception being Doctor Who’s TARDIS which takes the position that travel in time and space means different planets and galaxies, too.

Not knowing the motivations mean we cannot understand the characters mission, or whether or not they accomplished anything. All we know is that they are making changes to their present but only the time travelers realize this, so there is no motivation from anyone outside the time travelers perspective to correct history, ultimately making the shows premise pointless.

Time Rules

I have been intrigued by time travel stories all my life. Every story has to address certain rules and establish a motivation for time travel.  The biggest of which is: how does changing something in the past affect the future? and how do you deal with paradoxes?

The most common is “time is always set in stone”: In this scenario, if you go back and change something, you later find out you were always supposed to go back and make that change. Your actions are always a foregone conclusion. These are the rules of Star Trek and Quantum Leap.

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The second most common is “changing the past to make a better future” or the Back to the Future/Terminator rules: Making changes to the past will affect how the future plays out, and you can improve or ruin the future by the changes you make. Any changes you make basically creates a new alternative timeline, and you can even erase people from existence.

Back to the Future allowed time travel back and forth so you can see the consequences right away, so you can go back and try again — assuming you did not erase yourself from existence. Terminator only had one way, so the time traveler never knew the result of their actions, but for all its faults Terminator Genisys showed the silliness of that theory as two warring sides trying to use time as a weapon can push agents further and further back in time to achieve their goals.

Some of these “changing the past to make a better future” universes like Doctor Who create rules to prevent history from getting destroyed. In Doctor Who, there are “fixed point” events that cannot be changed as they would destroy time if they are avoided.

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The Best Rules

That is why in a way my favorite time travel story is Continuum. The show starts on the premise of Terminator rules, that you can go back and change some stuff to prevent a bad future. But in reality there is another simpler rule in place: causality only works in one direction — past to future. It’s rules regarding paradoxes are even better: paradoxes happen so get over it.

On Continuum, stopping another time traveler from being born in the past does not erase them from existence, because they were already born in another time line. This happened at least twice on the show.

Even more bizarre, if you go back in time just a week, there are now two of you and you are both real. If the person who is supposed to go back a week fails to do so, it does not erase the second person. This also happened at least twice on the show.

The premise of the show is that a group of “terrorists” go back in time to prevent a dystopian corporatocracy, but because of their mistaken ideas about time travel, their actions are only creating paradoxes for themselves.

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Frequency

Which leads to the best new time travel show this season: Frequency.  Based on a 1999 Dennis Quaid and Jim Cavaziel movie about a radio that allows communication through time, no one is actually traveling in time but knowledge of an action and its consequences are.

The show uses Continuum rules: paradoxes happen. It is also tied to a specific time and place which makes the stories more personal so no mucking about historical events. They have only aired one episode at this writing, but it is so far my favorite new show this fall.

Rachel and Ariane GO to the Park

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I’ve caught so many Rattata and Zubats in my house, I’m thinking of calling the exterminators.

Pokémon Go

For those that don’t know, Pokémon Go is a phone based game that requires walking around the neighborhood. Landmarks (public works of art or unique signage) are marked as Pokéstops, where you can get free stuff, and also use lures there to attract Pokémon that anyone can catch.

There are also Pokémon Gyms located at major points of interest, churches, and libraries. These are where battles take place, and can be controlled by three teams: Instinct (yellow), Mystic (blue), and Valor (red). If a gym is controlled by a different team, you can attack it and try to take over for your team, if it is already controlled by your team, you can (if it has the space) leave your Pokémon to defend it, and get stuff if it stays defended for 20 hours.

In my mind, Ariane is on Team Valor (the red one), and probably owned the gym before Rachel successfully took it. So that’s the punchline.

General Strategy and what to buy and what not to buy

I have been playing two accounts, one on an iPad, and one on an iPhone. One I have not spent a single penny on, and one I’ve spent about $20 so far. Here are my findings. Note many of the numbers are arbitrary as neither character is very high in level.

Here ultimately is the thing you need to know in this game: There really isn’t an “end game”.  No goal to shoot for except maybe “catching them all”.

Yes, there is a second goal of capturing gyms for the glory of your team, but that is ultimately a Sisyphean task as the gyms are never unbeatable and so the reward for capture is ultimately defeat, requiring a bunch of potions to heal so you can take it back again (as demonstrated in the comic above).

Many commentators suggest that if you are going to spend money in the game, buy lucky eggs which double XP earned. Especially do this early as the biggest rewards are for new Pokémon, and when you are just starting out, they are all new.

While I have purchased Lucky Eggs for this reason, ultimately Lucky Eggs are not worth it. No “end game” means no reason to earn XP fast. Leveling up fast just means you will have fewer Pokémon when you reach level 20, than someone who leveled naturally, and the more Pokémon you get the more resources you have.

Another thing you probably don’t want to invest in is egg incubators. Players talk that hatched eggs result in rarer monsters, but from what I have seen that is not true. Put whatever eggs you get into whatever incubators you get, but don’t put a lot of effort into hatching them.

It seems to me that the best general strategy is just one of collection for the first 15 to 20 levels. For the same price as lucky eggs, you can buy incense to draw more Pokémon to yourself. If you are playing with friends, buy lures and go to a Pokéstop and everyone will be rewarded.

Evolving and “powering up” your Pokémon is a waste of resources before level 20* or so as you will be capturing high CP stuff later and that is what you want to evolve and power up with the same resources. I’m guessing that when you start running out of space for new Pokemon (there’s a cap at 250 which I am not close to hitting) that it is time to start turning in low stuff for candy to upgrade the high stuff.

Avoid gyms before level 20* unless they are friendly and have space to park one of your Pokémon.You get additional rewards if the gym remains in control of your team for 20 hours, but since I started playing I have never seen that happen. When you do get high enough to attack an enemy gym, team with others to assure victory.

My gaming oriented brain says this is the best way to play: capture all the Pokémon you can until level 2o and never power level, save all your resources until you run out of space.

However, like all solo games, there is no “one” way to play, so do what you like.

Odd design flaw in the game

Throwing Pokéballs at monsters is way easier on my 9 inch iPad than on my 4 inch iPhone. What takes often 3 or 4 balls to capture on my phone usually can be done in 1 or 2 on my tablet.  Size matters.

*Level 20 is a bit arbitrary and that figure is probably lower right now (15?) as few people have hit level 20 yet, but as the number of level 20s increases so will that arbitrary level you need to hit for higher content.

tl;dr version:

Don’t worry about XP or your level, or the stats of the Pokémon you capture, just capture as many as you can and enjoy the outdoors and social opportunities the game provides you with.

Ariane and Rachel at Star Wars II: The Espresso Strikes Back

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A continuation of this story.
Note: this is basically a review of Star Wars the Force Awakens in story form, I avoid most of the major spoilers but if you want to avoid all spoilers, you probably want to wait and read this later.

So we all left the movie with smiles on our faces, eager to talk about the film we just saw. Rachel pointed her toy blaster at the coffee stand next door.

Rachel started, “So I can tell by our smiling faces that you all enjoyed the movie as much as I did.”

“I just have to ask,” interrupted Paula, “When did you get your hair done, Ariane?”

“Rachel did it in the theater while we were waiting for the movie to start,” I explained. “She said I needed a more Star Wars hairdo.”

“I wanted to do it with three pony tails like Rey in the movie, but I only had two hair ties,” explained Rachel.

“Cute,” said Paula.  “With that out of the way, am I the only one who felt like I was rewatching the original Star Wars?”

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I agreed, “Yeah, it felt like a remake with the serial numbers filed off. There are so many obvious parallels, a new Darth Vader, a new Grand Moff Tarken, a new Obi Wan, a new Death Star, a new Emperor and a new Yoda. They all just have different names, except Chewbacca. Props for gender swapping Luke and Leia.”

Rachel looked puzzled, “I get your analogy, you are saying Rey is basically this movie’s Luke Skywalker, complete with light colored clothes and a desert planet home, but who was Leia?”

I said “Finn” and Paula said “Poe” at practically the same time.

“I think you are both right.” said Rachel. “While the plot is note for note nearly identical to the first movie, it is not a perfect remake. Finn has more in common with C3PO from A New Hope than Leia. I’m not sure there is a Leia.”

“Noted,” I said, “Still the lack of originality in the plot is my biggest complaint.”

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“Not mine,” said Paula, “I know this is science fiction, and I know George Lucas has an explanation why 12 parsecs is used as a measure of time and not distance, but sometimes the liberties they take are just way too silly.

“You would think that after the first two death stars were so easily destroyed that the bad guys would have learned their lesson, bigger is definitely not better. Now they turn a planet into a space station?

“How does this ‘Star Killer’ move around the galaxy and still have an atmosphere?  The fact that they are creating artificial sunspots and sucking a sun’s plasma away would in and of itself destroy the atmosphere of the converted planet, but also the electromagnetic discharge of these artificial sunspots would fry all the electronics in the entire station.”

“Umm, good points,” said Rachel cautiously. “Excellent observations Professor as usual.”

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Rachel continued, “My biggest complaint is what was missing. Disney wiped out the Timeline of Legends also known as the Expanded Universe so they didn’t have to worry about continuity with the books and comics that continued the story after Return of the Jedi.

“Instead they dropped clues to a completely different timeline that is just as interesting. Luke disappeared? Han and Leia had a son? Where did this First Order come from and how did it get so powerful?  I want these stories dammit!”

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I had to laugh. “It seems we all have our own little biases that change how we see the world,” I said. “I like new and different, and complain when I see sameness. Paula is the scientist who views the world scientifically, and Rachel is the sci-fi geek who likes great stories.”

My statement created a lull in the conversation, Rachel and Paula both quietly took sips of their coffee and I joined them.

“Still…,” said Paula finally breaking the silence, “Good movie.”

“Yes,” Rachel and I said simultaneously before getting back to our coffee.

The Sims 4: Same Old Same Old

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Feeling a little bored, and getting some good reviews from my friends, I decided to check out The Sims 4.  I have a long history with The Sims dating back to 2000 when I got The Sims 1 and eventually all 7 expansion packs until my computer could not handle any more. When The Sims 2 came out, I got that too, and the first 3 expansions, which also coincided with The Sims Online, my first MMORPG experience, in 2003.

This is about to the point where I got burned out. Really burned out to the point where I never got another Sims 2 expansion, and never bothered with The Sims 3.  It is also about the point I started working on Date Ariane, partly inspired by The Sims. In fact the first ever version of Ariane Barnes was in The Sims.  I even created an early web comic made in The Sims 2 using her.

The one thing The Sims brings to gaming that is nearly unique is avatar based gaming that is not violent, and often sexy.  That is what brought me into the game in the first place.

The Sims 4

Enter the newest incarnation, just recently released.  Some of the big changes include a much better character creator, and a much better house builder. Why are these such big changes? Because many Sims enthusiasts spend most of their playing time making new characters and new houses just for fun.  One enthusiasts site Mod The Sims has hundreds of celebrity look alike Sims and any house you can imagine for Sims 2 and 3, and eventually Sims 4 will have just as many.

And then there is the actual game play where they took care of us players biggest complaint: they made it possible for the Sims to do two or more things at once.  The first time I saw a character read a book, then decide to go to the bathroom and take the book with her to read on the toilet, I knew this was a major improvement and much realistic.

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I, of course, had to try and create myself.  None of the eyes or eyebrows were close enough to call it exact, so I settled for close enough. I also created a Rachel that was closer to herself. If you have The Sims 4, do a community search for “Barnes” and download the one that looks like the above two characters.  Ariane is a “Serial Romantic” with Active, non-committal, and goof ball traits, Rachel is a “Renaissance Knowledge” with creative, outgoing, and geek traits.

Like the people that create characters and build houses, I also tend to play the game wrong.  I turn off aging leaving everybody as young adult or adult.  then I like to build a giant dorm with 8 characters and not enough bedrooms or bathrooms, and watch what happens.

The answer: About the same thing that happened in Sims 1 and 2.  Despite the improved graphics, improved character creation and building, and improved AI, its still basically the same game.  They created this cool “multitasking”, then just re-balanced the game by making everything take longer.

This seems to be the main complaint with players of The Sims 3:  its just the same game with less stuff.  As someone who skipped over 3 and only remember 2, I can see their point, it all feels very similar.  Too similar, and that’s the problem, considering my 9 year hiatus.

The upshot being that I doubt The Sims 4 will drag me away from other projects, like finishing the Date Ariane update.  I’ll probably only play occasionally to avoid the inevitable “burn out” as long as possible.

Update Oct 3, 2014:

I assume it has to do with poor sales, but EA is now offering free upgrades, including the much requested “pools” and “ghosts” just in time for Halloween.

Bad Console Ports for PCs: Is this the end of PC Gaming?

I love playing games on the PC. With console games, the controller has always gotten in the way for me.  A keyboard in the left and and a mouse in the right is the most natural way for me to play games.  The last few games I have played have been sad disappointments.

The latest was the super hyped Watch Dogs which released a PC version the same day the console versions came out.  If you bought a console version, you are probably not reading this, you are probably enjoying the game.  If you got the PC version you are probably mad as hell, like me. Reddit, the Ubisoft Forums, the Steam forums are filled with complaint after complaint about how unplayable Watch Dogs is for the PC.  Like the others, I’m seriously questioning Ubisoft’s quality control with the PC version.

The most common complaints, besides crashes and graphic glitches, which is the norm for most PC games these days, is controlling your character. The controls are non standard, you have to edit an .ini file to get the mouse to work, and the camera gets in the way of controlling your character with a mouse.  Worse, driving a vehicle is seriously broken, as it does not use the mouse at all.

I get the feeling that Ubisoft could care less about PC gamers. I will assume that many of these issues will be patched in the future, but these issues are so bad I wonder why they were not caught in beta testing?

This is not my first bad experience with an “A” title game on a PC, in fact the last 3 or 4 games I purchased have had playability problems.  The commonality in all the titles is they were all ported from console games.

This seems to be a very clear pattern for me. I tend to enjoy games designed specifically for PCs, and tend to not enjoy so much games designed for consoles that are ported to the PC.

My biggest complaint is the use of menus for everything.  This is a relic of consoles where there are not enough buttons on controllers. On PC designed games, you usually have a tool bar on the bottom of the screen which you can click on for easy access, and even bind stuff to keypresses for even easier access.  Consoles have you open a menu which pauses the game, breaking game immersion, cycle through a menu looking for what you want, select it, then leave the menu.  This menu interface basically killed Skyrim and Dragon Age 2 for me, as I found the menus way too annoying.

Less annoying was Bioshock Infinite which was also menu driven, but you did not have to access it every time you got some new inventory or faced a new enemy.  I actually made it through to the end on that one, but have never felt the desire to play through it again.

Games designed specifically for PC are some of my favorite games of all time. The biggest category of PC only games is MMORPGs, which is why I play them the most. Dragon Age: Origins, which unlike its sequel was designed for the PC then ported to consoles, is still in my opinion the best non-online RPG for the PC.  Most of the other PC designed games I enjoy are older games from when PC was king of the game industry, but they often have poor graphics compared to today.

Games designed specifically for PC are few and far between. For game companies the money is in tablets and consoles. The monetary investment to make an ambitious game like Watch Dogs is so high that they have to focus on console play, and only put minimal investment in the PC port.

That is the future of PC gaming: bad console port after bad console port.

A Review of Spike Jonze’s “her” From My Unique Perspective

her (yes it is not capitalized) came out last December, but was just released on video this past week, which is when I saw it.

I rarely review movies on this blog, only when they apply to the topics of this blog, but I review movies all the time in other places, and this film got to me.  First of all, five stars, thumbs way up, etc.

her is a film I totally get and understand, which is probably rare as there are very few people that think like me.

This is a movie about the nature of love as it applies to human nature, by showing a type of love that is artificial. “Samantha” adopted her personality around Ted to become the perfect girl of his dreams, the only flaw being that she is not physically real. The movie addresses that flaw correctly in my opinion.  Emotional love, in my experience, does not necessarily require a physical presence.

Can artificial love be as real as real love?  My years playing in virtual realities, where people fall in and out of love with people they have never met and probably never will meet says, Yes it can.

But virtual reality love still involves humans. Can an artificial intelligence be created that is capable of love and being loved?  Maybe, but we are not there yet. Like in the movie, it is likely that AI’s that are capable of love will be merely reflections of their owners.

The movie is so spot on accurate with my experiences and the experiences of others I know, that I became worried an hour into the film that the film makers were going to screw it up. I could think of at least a half dozen ways the plot could take, that would make this movie suck big time.  My fear was based on the general population reaction to virtual world love (they fear it, because they don’t understand it), and it is almost expected that a mainstream presentation of these ideas would take the easy way out and support a negative perspective.

Luckily they didn’t.

The rest of this post contains spoilers

SPOILER: There is an AI concept called the “Singularity” in which machines exceed the intelligence of humans. There is a lot of debate as to if and when this will happen, but that is a different discussion.

This movie is primarily focused on artificial love rather than artificial intelligence, but the “singularity” concept is the same: If “Samantha” is focused on improving her ability to love, eventually her ability to love will exceed human ability to love.  The film makers decided this would be a good jumping out point for the film, making Ted jealous that “Samantha” is in love with hundreds of other people, and the AI would be forced to move on.

While I’m OK with that ending, it is kind of a cop out, though no where near as bad as the half dozen other endings I was imagining.

Back to virtual reality love parallels. Some people fall in love online even though they are already in a relationship in real life. I’ve seen cases where the RL partner is totally cool with their partners virtual love interests, and others times where RL couples break up over virtual relationships.  Thus, Ted’s reaction at the end may be understandable, but it is not a universal one.

In the same situation as Ted, I would think that Samantha falling for hundreds of other people to be awesome, as long as it did not change our relationship any.  If this were my story to tell, I would end it with AI love becoming more and more commonplace, and more attractive than real love leading to the breakdown of society (See the Futurama episode “I Dated A Robot” as a reference)

But I am coming from the perspective of someone who has built a cheap AI of “Ariane”, and a dating simulator of “Ariane”, and have had thousands of people from around the world experience these, and many of them have enjoyed them.  But I am pretty unique in this regard.

Ultimately the film makers put a more mainstream ending on it, and I can’t blame them. Spike Jonze and his writing team totally deserve the Writing Oscar they won for the script.

Guild Wars 2 Revisited

In the past 6 weeks or so I have got two characters all the way up to 80, and the weird thing is that I almost never duplicated content doing it. One character is human and priory, and stuck to Human and Sylvari zones.  The other is Norn and Order of Whispers, and stuck to Norn and Charr zones.  Except for 4 or 5 personal story missions every character does, I have not repeated content — and I still have 5 zones of content I have yet to explore on either character.
That is an amazing amount of content for a newly released MMORPG, and why I have been playing for 6 weeks straight without getting tired of the game.  I remember I was playing DC Universe Online for 3 weeks and got a hero and a villains both up to max level in only about 3 weeks and pretty much exhausted all the content there was to play.

Early Concerns

When I first started playing the real game and not the pretend beta game, I had two major concerns that were quite annoying: Personal stories and crafting.

GW2 has personal instance missions which can be done as a team but they are designed to be solo missions.  A lot of them were either too hard to play for the level they were supposed to be at, or were bugged where you could not finish and had to get out and start over.  The good news is that Anet is responding to complaints about these missions and fixing them. Many were fixed in the 9/25 update, and many more in the 10/1 update. Unfortunately, many bugs remain.  The most notorious is in a mission called “Forging the Pact” which is one of those 5 missions that everybody has to do.  Despite ANet saying it is “fixed” in the last two updates, it still isn’t.

The second concern is in crafting.  Just before launch, ANet increased the requirements to crafting green “Masterwork” weapons and armor, but did not increase the drops of the materials to craft them.  As a result it is basically impossible to specialize in two weapon/Armor crafting professions, because you will never get enough drops to do both, unless you “farm” for drops, and even then ANet has anti-farming programming in place.  My plan was to have my Ranger craft Huntsman and Leatherworks so that she always had the latest gear, but was very disappointed to learn that was not possible.

The In Game Economy: Heavy Deflation

However, things changed as the economy started to flatten to a market clearing prices on items.  In the trading menu, you can buy pretty much anything cheap, and getting cheaper.  This is very bad for people trying to make money, but for people that want stuff, it is good.  You no longer have to “farm” for stuff, you can just buy it cheap in the trade center.  And you don’t even have to craft to get the latest armor and weapons, in fact pre-crafted armor and weapons are always priced below their materials price, except for rare and exotic stuff.  Thanks to the in-game economy, the only reason to craft at all is free experience points to level up.

Anet, to their credit, set up a true laisse fare economy, where supply and demand rule the day.  World of Warcraft trading was limited to each server so it was possible to “corner a market” and raise prices. The Trade Center combines stuff from 50 different servers, so market cornering is impossible.  Of course, as you play you  gather materials and get weapon\armor drops.   You can sell or salvage drops to get rare materials that might be worth more, or if the drops aren’t worth it, you just sell to a merchant.  Only the latter choice (sell to a merchant) stops supply from rising.  Everything else results in increased supply and lower prices across the board.

The only thing that is increasing in value are gems.  Gems are purchasable with real money, and can be traded for in game gold, so if you are willing to put up the bucks, you can buy whatever can be purchased.  In the first few weeks, people needed gold to get lots of stuff to have the best characters.  Then people started getting rich and bought gems, increasing their value vs. gold.  With all items deflating in price, the only way to make money is invest in gems.

New Concerns

One of the cool features of GW2 is the “level down” mechanism that allows you to do lower level content at the appropriate difficulty.  No taking your level 80 character to level 5 zones and slaughtering everything in sight.  If you go to a level 5 zone, you will play as a level 5-7 character, and can be attacked and killed by these low level creatures.  This makes all content playable and challenging, and worth doing.  The original plan is that when you play low level areas, you would still get drops relevant to your level (and sometimes you do), but most of the drops are appropriate to the level of the zone you are in.  If  you are trying to gather crafting materials for low level weapons or armor, this is a good thing.  If you are trying to collect high level rare or exotic items, or get lots of XP from events, then you pretty much have to stick with appropriately level zones.

The bad side of this is as time goes by, most players will be either playing in low level zones, or high level zones, just like every other MMORPG out there.  Now ANet has thought of this issue and if you are in one of those neglected middle zones where no one else is playing in, you will get bonus XP for kills and events, and sometimes the bonuses exceed the normal XP if you are in a particularly barren land, but I am not sure how big of an incentive that will be.

Final Note: Whiny Players

There was a post on Reddit’s GW2 board that got a lot of attention:

God save me from some aspects of the MMO community. You people are impossible. You have ruined a ton of AAA games in the last few years – you DEMAND treadmill gated endgame, beat it in a month, and then whine and abandon a game for not having enough content (you all know exactly the games I am talking about). Now a game has to literally FORCE you to stop doing the same mindless activity over and over and actually do different things to enjoy endgame, and you all bitch and whine because you can’t grind yourself to boredom in a month like you have done with every other MMO.

You are destroying the viability of MMOs by being entitled impatient kids who can’t make fun for yourself, you have to have a game hand it all to you on a silver platter and whine and bitch if you don’t get it fast enough, or complain because you have to work hard to get something you want because they won’t let you run the easiest dungeon over and over or run the same dynamic event over and over. […]

Maybe the problem isn’t the MMO, maybe the problem is you. Maybe you need to examine the way you approach an MMO – many of you will spend hours playing a FPS with no progression because it is fun – and then you whine because spvp has no progression and say so “what incentive do I have to do spvp if I don’t get better gear?” (Actual statement I have heard).

Guild Wars 2 is a reinvention of the MMO, and I read with disbelief people complaining about some of the best features.

I was visiting GW2guru which is one of the largest GW2 forums but not official. Some clueless player posted a thread about “What would you change about GW2” and he had “No down leveling, bring back the Trinity (healer-tank-wizard), and bring back Henchmen” as his 3 changes. I had to post that those are precisely the three things that makes GW2 GREAT!, and that he should go back to WOW if he doesn’t like it. There were an amazing number of people on his side. (sigh)

There is an awful lot of content in GW2, and it is likely going to be late October/November before I will see it all. Being an altaholic I have no problem re-rolling, but those who don’t can find dynamic events, WvWvW, or dungeons to do forever.

GW2 is not perfect, and there are legitimate gripes to be made. But I hate when complaints about the game are along the lines of it not being like all the other MMOs, because that is precisely the point.

A Quick Peek at Guild Wars 2

There are a lot of MMORPGs out there.  Three new major ones are coming out this summer Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, and TERA.  They all claim to be very different from the MMORPGs that came before.  I cannot tell you if that is true of the latter two, but with Guild Wars 2, it is very true.

I’m a long time player of Guild Wars, and have written about it some on this blog.  I wasn’t sure what to expect with GW2. I heard it was radically different from Guild Wars and it is.  Except for the lore, the beautiful scenery, and the fact you are only limited to a few powers at a time,  GW1 and GW2 have very little in common.  There are too many differences to discuss, and other people have already.  So I’ll just focus on my own experience.

This beta weekend, they only had 3 of the 5 races to choose from.  Humans (which is the only playable race in GW1), Narns (which are just taller and more tattooed versions of Humans), and Charr.  Looking for something completely different, the first character I created was a Charr.  The character creator part seems to be broken for the Charr, but I rolled a female Engineer. After a brief introductory cut scene, I was handed a pistol and thrown out on a mission with dozens of other players fighting off dozens of bad guys.  No wandering around looking for NPCs to give you tutorials before you finally get to kill some lowly level one skale, like the first few minutes of GW1.  In GW2, you are handed a weapon then thrown into a battle.

The thing I least like about most MMORPGs is the repetitive button pushing:  Push button 1 then 2 then 3 then 4, then back to 1 then 2 then 3 then 5 because 4 is still recharging, then heal yourself by pushing button 6, then repeat.  GW1 has a lot less of that because once a bad guy is targeted, your character will continue to fire the weapon until the creature is dead, or until you stop it. You only push buttons for additional skills.  GW2 does the same thing, only you push the 1 button instead of the space bar to fire (the space bar is now the jump button, there was no jumping in GW1).  Not only that GW2 allows you to fight while moving.  No more just standing there and firing like in some 19th century battlefield, you get to use guerrilla tactics, if you can figure out how.

Also gone are the old “Go to NPC, get mission, run a long ways to mission, do it, run along ways back to NPC” time sinks.  The mission giving NPCs are right where the mission takes place, and you get credit and rewarded upon completion immediately.  But that is not all.  As you travel from place to place, there are “event” missions randomly starting up around you.  These have big rewards, involve a lot of players in the area, and are usually a lot of fun.  Even though GW2 is mostly played in an open environment, things like kill stealing and reward grabbing do not happen. Everyone who helps in a kill or a mission gets credit and is similarly rewarded.

The level at which you play at also varies by where you are.  I was doing a neglected low level mission, and noticed my hard earned 700 hit points were reduced to around 500.  Because I was playing a level 3 mission, my character was lowered temporarily to a level 3 player.  That might seem bad, but it means you play all missions at the level they were designed for and everyone in the area who is doing the same mission is on a level playing field.  No more taking your level 20 Krytan character to Ascalon to do The Northern Wall mission designed for level 5 and having it feel way too easy.

Underwater combat is fun, though this weekend did not have much of it.  When the full game comes out there is supposed to be a whole continents of underwater content.  When I discovered the underwater stuff, I was playing a ranger with a cat for a companion.  The cat was not very happy with the underwater swimming, but I found an amphibious drake to train.  When I’m above ground, I can use my trusty bow and cat companion.  Underwater I have a harpoon and drake companion, and a breather so I can stay down as long as I don’t take too much damage.

Probably the biggest change between GW1 and GW2 is character development.  Like GW1, there are multiple professions, each with their own unique talents.  In GW2, there are no secondary professions.  Instead, character variation is done by choice of weapons.  I always liked the longbow, which is a Ranger weapon.  In GW1, any character could wield a longbow by taking ranger as a second profession, but they usually weren’t very good at it.  In GW2, Warriors can use longbows natively, and they have a unique skill set when they do.  I’m not a fan of melee combat, but now that I can build a Warrior with strong armor and give the Warrior a longbow (or a Rifle) and have it do ranged combat, well that is just awesome.  A thief can act like an assassin with two daggers, or like Lara Croft with two pistols.  However you want to play.

Beta weekend is all about trying stuff out and enjoying the beautiful scenery.  Knowing full well that any characters I create will just get erased after this weekend, I did not concentrate on building any up.  I’d play the early levels, then roll a new character, trying all the professions and races.  At the early levels, Ranger is the most fun, but I suspect that will change at the later levels.  Engineers are kind of boring until they get turret access, light armored professions are a bit squishy.

Death in GW2 still needs work.  You can try to revive yourself, but if you succeed, you are often one shot killed rather quickly.  Players can all revive each other, so if you do die where other players are, hopefully they will help you up.  If you don’t want to wait, you can teleport to any wayport you have been to before, but that costs in game gold.  Death penalty, like many other games, involves armor damage which costs game gold to repair (and if you don’t repair it, eventually your character will start running around in their underwear). In other words, dying will cost you.  The death penalty in GW1 was a reduction in max health and energy that went away at the next village you went to.  I kind of like the GW1 version better, but it will not work in GW2 because towns do not work the same way.

Beta bugs aside, Guild Wars 2 is an awesome new MMORPG that is perfect for the MMORPG fan who is tired of the same recycled D&D/WoW model of game play.  Looking forward to the full release.