GW2/IF: Back on the Narrative Hunt – Emily Short and Fractured Fairy Tales

One of the things I started missing while enjoying Guild Wars 2 was narrative. Huh? Doesn’t GW2 have narrative?

Well, yes, and while I don’t mind the later personal story as much as some, and I appreciate the branching choices involved in creating that personal story, one of the things I did feel about it was that it was very… fractured. You’re not meant to go on it non-stop, you’re encouraged to take time out for hearts and DEs and what-have-you.

As a result, I feel a little less story continuity than say, in GW1, where you get to go on a nonstop story mission ride until you get bored, then you go off looking for trouble with side quests and back alley zone exploration and vanquishing. It’s nice enough, for what it is, and I appreciate seeing some of my chosen allies along for the ride in the higher level stuff (though I really miss my first NPC companion Maverick, whom we never see again past level 30.)

Ditto the dungeon stories. I did them completely out of level order and it’s a bit… hard to put them back together in any semblance of plot order. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Destiny’s Edge fights and squabbles a lot in the earlier dungeons, then they kiss (ok, not really) and make up and learn their lessons in the later dungeons, in time for the final big fight.

The world stories are okay, when you talk with the NPCs, it’s pretty entertaining, but there’s not much of a “me” story when wandering the world. Or rather, nothing terribly interesting to relate.

Who wants to hear the story of me following a trail of mithril ores until I got to a cypress tree, slaughtering drakes and wolves and polar bears along the way, until I found an orichalcum ore, yay, then I saw a rich mithril vein and had to figure out how to get to it, and it was guarded by a veteran something or order, and hey, there’s a cave there I never saw, so I went down it and saw stuff, and oooh, a chest, and oh darn, wasn’t I meant to be completing this zone, except by now the vista I was wandering to is somewhere southeast of here instead of northwest so I guess it’s time to head back in that direc…eep, a DE just exploded on me, ok, fightfightfight, and now this escort DE wants me to go that way (looks longingly at the vista)… oh screw it, the vista is always going to be there, trots off after the mass of people following the NPCs…

I guess it’s a narrative, and it’s a player-engendered one, which is sorta kinda sandboxy but not quite, but it’s also the same as what most people are doing, just not in that precise order. It’s a bit more meta-gamey than roleplay-ey, I guess.

There’s perhaps more unique diversity of experience in more sandbox games like Eve, where folks can be isolated in one tiny corner of the universe and have their own special adventures brought on by their self-chosen goals, but for myself, I’ve never really liked the idea of being just a small insignificant cog in some vast machinery understanding only a little part of the overall big puzzle. Fun for a little while, maybe, but I don’t have the patience long term for it.

No, the kind of narrative that will offset the lack of it in GW2 nicely would be short, bite-sized stories where I can take on a role and immerse in a world given to me by the author, and make meaningful choices to drive the story forward, and possibly have it branch out into significantly different endings and consequences based on what I chose to do.

That kind of narrative is best found in interactive fiction (IF) games.

And since GW2 does so wonderfully visually, the perfect yet different complement is literary elegance.

Every year, around this time, I start getting an itch for IF, because of the anticipation of Ifcomp, a yearly competition of interaction fiction (or text-adventure games) where you get to play a bunch of them for two hours and vote on your favorites. I’m about two weeks early, as the voting starts October 1st and authors are just submitting their games in September.

So I decided to check out a bunch of games I haven’t played, and my go-to author for IF is Emily Short, a true master of this medium.

If you haven’t played text-adventure games in a long time, or at all, do give them a try. It’s moved on quite a bit since the stilted unfriendly two word parsers which make trying to solve the game an exercise in authorial mind-reading and walkthrough following. The best of the lot are very well-written, technically clever and conjure up fantastic worlds and characters and dialogue in text.

I first fell in love with Emily Short’s work playing Metamorphoses, which I don’t really recommend to start with for IF newbies, but heartily do for those used to the genre. It’s mysterious, literary, figurative, symbolic, and very very well-coded. The puzzles involve transforming objects into different materials (hence the name of the game) and there are alternative solutions for each puzzle and stuff reacts in a way very consistent with the materials they are made of. It’s very impressive for what it sets out to achieve, and demonstrate what IF can do successfully.

Instead, for newbies, I’d suggest something I just tried a couple days ago and found quite doable. Bronze, part of her Fractured Fairy Tales series, is a story of Beauty and the Beast. It’s notable for having a novice mode, which explicitly helps out those new to the entire genre. It’s anything but a simple story, though, as you explore through the Beast’s castle, you will learn more of the history of its inhabitants and form your own opinions and emotions up to the point of the ending(s) where one can choose to have vengeance on or save certain characters (for whatever reasons or morals or ethics guide your hand.)

For the ultimate in super-short entertainment, A Day for Fresh Sushi is what is known in IF as a “one-room” puzzle, apparently solvable in three moves. As far as I understand it, this was a speed IF, coded in two hours, so it’s not as comprehensively parser foolproof as most of Emily Short’s other works but it’s amusing five minute entertainment to read the snark of the titular evil talking fish character while you’re trying to feed him. Low investment entertainment, worth trying, just don’t expect anything resembling perfection, but pretty funny.

Eg.

>x fish

Even if you had had no prior experience with him, you would be able to see at a glance that this is an evil fish. From his sharkish nose to his razor fins, every inch of his compact body exudes hatred and danger.

The fish notices your gaze; makes a pathetic mime of trying to find little flakes of remaining food amongst the gravel.

Best of Three is a very interesting simulation of a conversation, as a girl meeting someone you once had a crush on in high school, realistic to the point of awkwardness. It’s amazing how differently you can choose to react. I spent one game just gabbering on about anything under the sun, barely shutting up once. And another where I was silent through most of it, leaving the old flame doing most of the awkward filling in of the gaps until he eventually gives up and takes his leave. And I don’t think I’ve seen all the possible endings yet.

Bee is also realistically interesting. It’s different from the others in that it’s not in Inform format, but in a web form called Varytales. You play a girl who sets out to win the National Spelling Bee, but will lose, someday, somehow. But the reasons and motivations for the above are what is really important here. (It’s got a lot of resonance with my previous post on thinking about why we game. And what we consider winning and success.) There are some major major themes running through this story, about home-schooling, about parents, about work and play – friends, homework, school and siblings. How you define success, and how you define learning. Oh, science and religion. Big themes. Very worth a read. Or two.

(And it’s in web format, so you just click, rather than typing, if you’re scared of the IF parser.)

For those not impressed by overly flowery words, I’d recommend something not-Emily Short, but hilariously funny. Lost Pig, in which you play an orc, who has lost a pig and must find it. If you get through this one without laughing or liking it, you are beyond saving.

Eg.

Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget. Boss say Grunk go find pig, bring it back. Him say, if Grunk not bring back pig, not bring back Grunk either. Grunk like working at pig farm, so now Grunk need find pig.

The whole thing is written from Grunk’s POV. It’s crazy fun.

There are a lot more good ones that Emily Short (and others, not mentioned here) have written, Galatea, Flashpoint, Savor-Faire, City of Secrets, etc. that I’ve played ages past before, but I mainly wanted to cover the four less-known ones I just played, Bronze, Sushi, Bee and Bestof3, in this post. The other two are classics that have etched themselves into my brain and must recommend.

And how do you play IF, you may ask?

Well, in all the games I just linked, in the top right hand corner, there is a little button that reads, “Play Online” which you can just click and the game will start and you don’t have to do any more worrying than that.

If you’re more of a hardcore fanatic and develop a taste for this sort of thing, there are interpreters and clients that you can download (click on “Show Me How”), and the game files from that archive, and then you can play the things offline. Z-Code and Inform games run off something called Frotz, there’s a bunch of variants.

And there’s an app in the iStore called Frotz which works for iPad and iPhone, more or less. This is my preference these days, as it’s more portable than sitting in front of a desktop (which dangles Steam and other MMOs oh so temptingly.) It has a bit of a tendency to crash or stall in mysterious fashion with bigger, more sophisticated games on my ancient iPad 1, at which point, I just switch to online play versions, but works all right for 75% of the games I’ve tried.

The basic conventions for IF are as follows:

EXAMINE everything. Just type ‘x’ followed by a noun. Eg. ‘x cat’ ‘x cupboard’ ‘x drawer’ etc.

Moving is usually via compass directions. North, south, etc, and shortened to N, E, S, W, NE, SW, NW, SE, etc. and there ‘s occasionally up and down, in and out.

To see what you’re carrying, INVENTORY or ‘i’

From there, just try anything and everything. Push, pull, touch, feel, hit, kill, whatever verbs shake your boat. And you can always try HELP or HINTS if the game provides for it.

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In Search of Emergence and Player-Created Narrative

An odd sort of ennui has come over me lately. I have, quite literally, more than a hundred games I could be playing at any given moment – some of them MMOs, and some of them singleplayer ones. But none of them appear to match or fulfill this restless craving desire that has woken within me.

I’m normally quite good at matching specific games to specific needs. I had a strategic and mild tactical urge a couple days back, so several hundred turns of Civilization V and some dickering around with Total War: Shogun 2 it was. I went through a bout or two of casual games when I just needed a short gaming spurt. But recently, I have developed a growingly insatiable desire for a game that can inspire a story to be written about what happens while playing it.

Moreover, I’m hoping for something more than a developer-created narrative, the same old linear things that every player of the game sees, be it in the same or different order. Writing about how Vault Dweller X pops out of their vault and saves/nukes Megaton and ignores/saves Dad and massacres post-apocalyptic wildlife of every shape and size is… well, been there, done that. Obviously there has to be some developer input, even Dwarf Fortress establishes setting and what you’ll be dealing with (dwarves!), but I guess I’m grasping for emergence. Something that surprises the player, and perhaps even surprises the developer. Something that doesn’t happen in every other player’s game.

I’m looking for a Boatmurdered. An epic diary of Neptune’s Pride, preferably with roleplaying. I don’t need a multiplayer setting/world where every player has this sort of experience, thankfully, else my choices end up boiling down to Eve Online, I think.

And I want it in a different game from the above examples.

Oh, I tried Dwarf Fortress. It’s certainly intricate and complex, but it takes way too much time to learn and play. My one serious attempt ended up with one and a half seasons of uneventful thriving, before another season of flooding and drowning because my enthusiastic approach to irrigation sent a dwarf digging an open tunnel into the side of a river, which, judging by the volume of water which emerged, was about the size of the Thames. One year later, of endlessly digging deep deep reservoirs just ahead of the rising waters to stave off inevitable fate, I gave up.

I’m not especially keen on multiplayer competition, which rather rules out things like Neptune’s Pride, Solium Infernum, Eve Online and the like. I don’t really need the additional complication of real people and their emotional needs/drives messing up any storylines. Imaginary characters, be they computer-controlled or me-controlled, do just fine.

I was looking at roguelikes as a potential source of story fodder, but as much as I like Angband for its simplicity and games like TOME and ADOM (they might be going under different names like JADE and what not by now), they have the dungeon crawl structure. Have town, have dungeon, dive deep, kill stuff, level up, sell stuff, eat food, try not to die by all manner of different things, fail at that goal, admire gravestone, try again.

I’m rather tired of the survival theme. I don’t own Arma II, I think it’s too expensive at the moment, they’re relentlessly cashing in on DayZ and I’ve no real interest in trying it out as yet. Survival + other people. It’s no doubt interesting, but it doesn’t match the current desire. Minecraft is okay, but it’s missing the element of surprise/story/other NPC interaction. It boils down to a lone survivor story again, eking out an existence, Robinson-Crusoe-like, building an immense fortification of creativity out of what is present in nature. Terraria was more of a gear grind. Unreal World is way too lethal, unless you know certain loopholes for trading useless bits of wood to villagers, I tend to starve to death before managing to hunt or trap anything. And the story again is survival-based, don’t starve, don’t die of thirst, build a fancy house, profit, till you die.

I had an almost got-the-feeling-I-wanted moment while playing Civilization V, as I marched four units of mechanized infantry and a giant death robot down the continent wiping up the last holdout Korean civilization.

The German military machine. Panzers (ok, a gifted tank from Budapest I hadn’t the heart to get rid of) lead the way , infantry follow in futuristic APCs, supporting the titanic mech stomping across the sands. Korean workers look on wordlessly.

I was playing Bismarck and the German Empire, espousing the social policies of Liberty, Honor, Order, Rationalism and Commerce. I envisioned this as a expansionist, liberal (in terms of whatever other races or cultures were annexed into the Empire) civ, but focused on science/technology and merchantilism as a means of maintaining power and autarky, having both a very militaristic and honor-based tradition and a nationalistic pride. In other words, join our Empire and prosper. Work hard and see, you will reap the rewards of our science, our art and culture and great people. If you are foolish enough not to want to join the Great German Empire, then we will not hesitate to move in our advanced troops and -make- you join, by removing your foolish, rude, leaders.

The Korean leader had been previously both insulting and kept denouncing me at every opportunity, despite my obvious dominance of that particular game, and so, after I finished a Tech victory, then a Diplomatic one (by virtue of saving and reloading just before winning), I decided it was time for a military Dominance victory, declared war and moved in the troops. For the heck of it, since I had the tech, and since I was convinced there must be a Steam achievement for it, I made a nuke or two and dropped it on top of the capital, Seoul, and the southern Korean city of Pyongyang – it wasn’t easy finding a safe place I could bomb without nuking my own troops in the vicinity.

Nuclear devastation chars the landscape, as mechanized land troops march down implacably from the north, and battleships form a naval blockade around the coastal Korean cities.

And as I moved the umpteen bomber in from neighboring cities and aircraft carriers, softening up the Korean cities for my infantry to march in and annex, fragments of an almost Harry Turtledove Worldwar scenario came to my mind.

A stealth bomber rains its bombs down upon Seoul, its air superiority unchallenged.

I envisioned a Korean girl, writing by candlelight in the darkness, to the distant sounds of bombs shelling other city districts, wondering to her diary about why these strange German invaders had come. Of her telling her diary about the massive mech she saw on the horizon, and the tiny APCs around its feet, dwarfed by the giant, grim uniformed men with sophisticated rifles moving like ants in a long disciplined line.

The nuked Pyongyang offers barely any resistance as the conquerors crack it open with high explosive shells.

I imagined a young German soldier, wrapped in protective gear and breathing mask, looking about him in dismay at the wreckage of Pyongyang, the irradiated fallout having destroyed practically any resistance or indeed, any semblance of hope, in the starved shambles of the city.

From the inside, Pyongyang is a guttered out mess. A measly 2 citizens (in Civ terms) remain. The farm and fields are devastated by nuclear fallout and the citizens are scraping out a meagre existence on tundra and mines that escaped the radiation. There is barely any food.

He tells himself that in a few years, maybe five, not more than ten, certainly, the city, having come under the Great German Empire, will be better for it. It will be richer, more prosperous, linked to trade routes, it will have all the benefits of science and technology, it will have happy hardworking workers, “Arbeit macht frei.”

After all, centuries later, the Polynesian peoples and the ancient Germanic peoples have long intermixed on the mother continent, and the pointless warring between the Chinese and the Americans on this continent have finally ceased by virtue of both coming under the banner of the German republic, two, three decades later, all the cities are happy, productive contributers to greater society.

See how the Americans and Chinese thrive under Germanic rule!

But a theoretical better future is hard to believe in, when you are afraid to walk now, in the fields glowing with ash and the Geiger counters crackling crazily, and thin skeletal Koreans with dirty or burned faces eye you warily, or even hostilely. He wants to help, but he doesn’t know how.

And a decade or so later, perhaps the same Korean girl, or another, writes about how the strange alien Germans, having occupied Pyongyang and brought it under the rule, move in a fleet of workers in just as orderly a fashion as the army marched in. Equipped with uncomprehensible technology in trucks and suits, they clean out every trace of the fallout that they themselves inflicted.

Years later, the south begins to thrive and look green once more. Workers throng the fields of Pyongyang, assiduously removing every last speck of radioactive soil.
Ominously, almost beyond the view, is the ring of land and sea troops along the last Korean border.

In fact, they run the risk of contaminating themselves with radiation sickness, but they shrug it off as their duty to the Fatherland, which Pyongyang is now part of.  With typical German efficiency, they install modern farms and roads, and motor off, leaving the city on its way to recovery. Perhaps the Germans are not so bad after all…

…Meanwhile, the ring around Seoul tightens. The naval blockade has been there for years. No news gets out from the capital.

Something like that, anyhow.

Vanilla Civilization V unfortunately seems to have very little AI sophistication. Everyone is cheerfully friendly all the time, unless you decide to move in on them. Then again, remembering previous Civ games past, I don’t think having aggressive cheating AI swamp my spearmen with knights running from an endless faucet is terribly fun or interesting either, you end up militarizing to defend against the zerg and either you die or you win and annex their city and now that you have such a massive army anyway…

There’s not much room for a narrative to go after that. All hail the king of the world, or Ozymandias.

Problem is, I’m also moderately tired of combat as conflict resolution. (Or rather, relentless slaughter masquerading as combat as conflict resolution.)

This knocks out an immense number of games. Every MMO that has quests and combat, well, kill that to solve this problem. Kill 5 or 10 or 15 or 500 of that to solve that other problem. Sorry, kill is such a vulgar word. Let’s call it, “defeat.” *coughs*

Doesn’t change much, alas.

I dabbled a bit with Hunters 2 on the iPad. It’s a pretty slick-looking game, somewhat reminiscent of X-COM. I could also play X-COM, which I have on Steam, but turn-based tactics is not feeding the exact need. So a Blood Bowl league story format and such are right out too. For now, anyway.

What’s left? I don’t know. Fallen London’s random resolution and grindy style isn’t cutting it either. It just feels like I’m clicking on a button and waiting for a result to show up. Repeat x 10 to get anywhere.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ve moved away from computer gaming and gone back to idly browsing through tabletop RPGs from RPGnow, and combing through solo roleplaying blogs, wondering if I need to go back to the Mythic Game Master Emulator to get what I’m looking for. I’ve found a few intriguing ideas, but am still trying to put things together in my head. If it gets to a form that can actually be articulated, I’ll be certain to share.

Where We Discover I Can’t Drive a Train (and Musings on Simulators)

Between some looming RL deadlines coming up in a week, Guild Wars 2 Final Beta Weekend, and Steam Summer sales, I find myself distracted from being able to put in sufficient time with The Secret World.

It’ll keep.

Meanwhile, here’s an interim post about me test driving Train Simulator 2012 – something I picked up for the hell of it while it was at 90% off.

Simulation games deeply fascinate me with their intense focus on simulating something as close to reality as possible. I also suck at pretty much all of them. Something about not reading the effing manual, I think, nor giving myself time enough to learn all the controls and nuances.

I used to be much better when I was younger – I recall hours and hours on the Amiga playing Silent Hunter, a submarine sim, or Gunship, a helicopter sim, or F-16 Combat Pilot. I think I even gave Flight Simulator a go, though I never quite saw the point in those days of playing something without any missiles. What? Just transport people around from place to place? How boring is that, like a glorified bus driver?

(Then I found a book about Flight Simulator adventures, and Threading The Seattle Space Needle sounded immensely fun…)

Of course, as a kid, the one thing I could never figure out was how to land the fucking airplane without crashing.

(Nor did the virtual Needle ever survive my attempts to fly through it.)

Oops.

I didn’t read the manual then in those days either.

Nor did I really understand all the stuff on the HUD besides basic radar and what weapons were selected. I pretty much just treated the games like toys and had my fun with them regardless, even if true sim grognards would be recoiling in horror.

That is, until an adult neighbor came by for a visit and by chance, I happened to be fooling around with a flight sim. He also happened to be a real pilot.

Intrigued by the realization that personal computers were actually sophisticated enough to run sims (presumably he was more used to practising with full scale aircraft simulator equipment), he asked for a turn with the joystick. While explaining what little keyboard controls I had discovered by trial and error to him, I confessed I had no clue what the hell all the other dials and knobs and lines were, nor could I ever master landing planes.

Laughing, he opened my eyes to the depth of the simulation, “it’s just like a real plane” and explained every single dial, altitude control and what not, while I attempted to pick my jaw off the floor and absorb even a smidgen of the information he was imparting so matter-of-factly. Then he promptly demonstrated landing the plane safe and soundly. He’d barely touched the game for five minutes.

Dayum. (Well, considering he landed real passenger planes as his job, he’d -better- know how to land the things smoothly without a hitch, but as a kid, it knocked my socks off at the time.)

And so began my unrequited love affair with simulator games. (I’d like to get to know them better and they slap me in the face, pretty much.)

First things first, this is -not- a review of Train Simulator 2012. Nor is it a first impressions post. It is the ‘first post’ diary of a complete and utter newbie to trains.

(They’re not really my thing. I go for tanks, battleships, gunships, submarines, infantry, airplanes, cars, trains, pretty much in that order. Mechs, spaceships and weird shit like farming or janitorial implements and construction equipment not included in the above rankings.)

The good news, I found, is that it actually has tutorial missions.

 

The first tutorial explains the simplified controls (another plus!), which basically consisted of a lever to work up and down (up for more acceleration, and down for deceleration) and a button to push to determine if you were going in forward or reverse.

Phew. I can handle that. Thanks for remembering the newbies, developers!

It explains the portion of the interface which shows where your train is in relation to the track, including the destination where you’re trying to stop at, the speed limit indicator, and passenger boarding.

Already, trying to predict and apply the appropriate acceleration/deceleration rate to stop a heavy mass like a train on what essentially seemed like a dime (but was in virtual reality, a station) was proving a challenge worthy of my nub lack of skillz.

I got through the first tutorial, albeit with some embarrassed reversing as I overshot the target, and a new appreciation for subway train drivers, even if most of the trains in my country are completely automated and driverless or run with ATO and a human operator for safety.

Having gotten more or less a grasp on the basics, I decided to try out a scenario with simplified controls for fun. There was a huge list of them, neatly sortable by the type of train or the route, and helpfully labeled with difficulty level and the expected time to complete (some of them running in the hours! Eep.)

Easy difficulty level went without saying for the noob. I was debating between the shortest two, 15 and 20 minutes, when a Coals to Newcastle mission caught my eye. 30 minutes.

Extremely tickled by the phrase, and the historical link, and with Sting’s Soul Cages and Island of Souls echoing in my brain, I went for it – though I was anticipating a good half hour of extreme boredom since this -was- easy difficulty level, on simplified controls.

I figured I could always try to roleplay it to kill time. (“Roleplay” is used in the sense of this article, which has an amazing paragraph on how you can even roleplay while playing Solitaire.

So how the heck do you roleplay while playing solitaire? There are no adventures or quests in a game of solitaire, no puzzles to solve, no dragons to slay, no princesses to rescue, no character attributes to build up – in short, none of the things we’d expect to find in an RPG. Well, in this type of situation, you have to roleplay in your mind. For example, you might put yourself in the role of a World War II Allied pilot who has been shot down and captured. Now, you’re in a prison camp. You’ve just been thrown into a solitary confinement cell for complaining about not getting enough food. It’s pretty dark, but a bit of light does manage to get in through the small slit window. And when the guards threw you in, they were laughing too hard or they were too lazy to bother searching you. As the result of this great stroke of luck, they didn’t find the dog- eared deck of playing cards that was in your pocket when they came for you. So you play solitaire. You play quietly so as not to alert the guards. And you play with a quiet desperation, not merely to entertain yourself, but to stave off the pangs of hunger – you’re getting even less to eat now – and to maintain your sanity.)

The briefing sets you in the mood already. It’s winter, there’s strikes happening all over, a backlog of freight to clear, and your job is to haul a load of coal to be transferred to a waiting ship. On time, or you won’t have a loading bay to unload in.

Turns out my ignorance of all things train-related yielded moments of skin-crawling anxiety and imaginary terror, mixed in with relatively bored uneventfulness.

I managed to get started okay, accelerating slowly, then fast, listening to the engine make strange noises in reaction and wondering if I was doing anything I shouldn’t. Then I debated with myself on the appropriate speed to maintain and settled on approaching as close to the speed limit as possible.

The glorious coal payload, and accelerating from 10.3mph to approach the 25mph speed limit. Gee, this is going to take a while…
Then the speed limit changed suddenly from 25 to 40. Eh? Er, okay, I’ll go faster.
Then to 85. Oooh er, should I be going that fast? What if I need to stop this thing?!

In retrospect, and as explained by the -second- tutorial mission, the one with the advanced train controls, the speed limits are actually indicated on the interface, highlighted in yellow. But I didn’t realize it then. I just noticed the speed limit changing at seemingly unpredictable moments.

Then there were the lights. The railway signal lights, that is. Remember, I know next to nothing about trains.

The first few lights I passed were facing away from me, but still glowing green. Okay, presumably those don’t apply to me. They must be for other trains and are just scenic ambience.

Then I passed some that were facing me, and green. Okay, green means go, presumably, just like normal traffic. But oh my god, what if they turn red, what do I do, what do I do, this train is moving damn fast, I hope there’s no railroad crossing traffic or an oncoming train switching rails, because it’s not going to be pretty with a noob at the controls. Come on, this is -easy- difficulty level, surely they won’t include such things until intermediate or hard, right?

Adding confusion to the neurotic worrying was the fact that as my train passed the railway signal, they changed from green to red. Oh god, does that mean I should have stopped? Or maybe they’re just indicating that my train is passing…

Wait, that one is yellow, do I slow down, am I supposed to slow down? Hang on, that’s hanging over another rail, there’s one nearer to my rail that is green.

After a while of this, it did seem like all the signals were green, and I decided not to worry about something that I probably didn’t have the current capacity to react to, anyway.

The rest of the journey went by in a mind-numbing haze, punctuated by me humming snippets of the Soul Cages, taking screenshots of passing landmarks, and experimenting with camera views as I succumbed to “What does this button do?” temptation.

Coupling view. Train tracks…passing… fast… Ulp.
I can see my house from here! (Nah, not really.)

At last, after numerous accelerations and decelerations, I reached the target yard. Wherein I discovered that I had no clue how to uncouple the coal wagons, nor where precisely I should be leaving them, and after a bunch of trial-and-error clicks, managed to decouple my engine from the entire string of wagons.

Alas, that didn’t seem to end the scenario – presumably because I was only supposed to leave specific numbered wagons, but had no clue how – and I ended up trundling my lone engine up the track further to no avail. Changed my mind as the 7.50 deadline was approaching, and went into reverse.

The plan was to back up to the abandoned coal wagons and attempt re-hitching and further trial and error. But having only two minutes on the clock made me a tide… hasty.

Going at way too fast a speed to brake appropriately (or rather the speed of a car going what, 30mph?), I careened into the stationary coal wagons and my engine swayed precariously, and promptly derailed.

ROFL. Oops.

Well, that’s one way to bring up the scenario end screen.

On checking the tutorial mission list, apparently How to handle freight is numbered tutorial mission 4, though number 3 is not currently showing.

I decided to sit through number 2 first, the advanced train controls, which was slightly more complex with a throttle, brake, and forward/reverse controls.

Alas, I overshot my passenger stop and failed the tutorial, and decided to stop there for the night. Until next time.

 

CoH: In-Depth Look at Casino Heist

Casino Heist is like a four-man version of Ocean’s Eleven.

The aim: To rob the Tyrant’s Palace Casino for all it’s worth.

Players get to choose from four roles in the Theatre Lobby: The Grifter, The Hitter, The Hacker and The Thief by clicking on a movie poster glowie.

This awards a temporary power that describe the role in detail, so that new players have an introduction to what they’re supposed to be doing when they get inside the mission proper, before the time starts counting down.

When people were new to the event, players took a bit more time here to explain and describe what to do. By now, most people in PUGs automatically just look at where people are standing and take the roles that aren’t already taken. Clicking on a movie poster will indicate whether the role is available or is already in use.

Once everyone enters through door 1, signaling their readiness, a cutscene begins. This serves as both a short introductory narrative of the movie as well as more explanatory exposition to elaborate on what each player needs to do.

The Hitter – Part 1

First, the Hitter came to this room to knock out these generators so the Thief would be able to more easily access the vault.

What it doesn’t tell you is that Hitters are able to help the Hacker as well by taking on the patrol that walks around the hacker’s target room. Paragon Wiki suggests it, and I concur.

As long as I’m on a character that can do quick heavy hits, I like to take a left into the hacker’s room before the hacker even knows it and stomp on the two casino security patrols. This saves the hacker from needing to wait on the third computer, which is where the patrol usually ends up pathing around.

Then as the hacker is clicking on the first computer, I’m out of there and headed right into the power generator room to click the four power generators.

The Hacker – Part 1

Meanwhile, the hacker went to this room to install an outdated OS to these servers.

The Hacker is the one role that is given an extra temp power of Stealth. His objective: click three computer glowies without killing the patrol in the room.

As mentioned, his job is made much easier if the Hitter bothered to care. If not, the patrol starts on the left side of the room and it’s a matter of giving the patrol a little time to walk away from the leftmost computer to click on it.

(Come to think of it, one might be able to click on the rightmost computer first, then go left, but I haven’t tested this. I tend to like to start from the left, then middle, then wait for the patrol to walk away before clicking the last computer on the right.)

Worse come to the worse, if the patrols start shooting because you’re clumsy (and I am clumsy), there’s always just eating a purple for enough defence to click the computer without being interrupted. Then run out of the room and the poor AI is dumbfounded by this.

I’m sure it’s a limitation of the mission system that no major alarm or cascade failure is set off by this, but I think it works out well for the casual PUG nature of it.

I don’t know if a control character is able to just hold the patrols and get on with it, or if any attack on the patrols is allowable, but it might be interesting to try one day to test the flexibility of the limits. The only issue is the group dynamic nature of the event, which makes one feel obliged to do it perfectly in the way that is learnt/taught/explained and not inclined to experiment, in case other people get upset they don’t get their badge or something.

The Grifter – Part 1

The Grifter intercepted Sylvia Rexson here in order to distract her and keep her out of Ted Dubois’ office…

Lots of people try to snatch the Grifter’s role. It’s all simple clicky “talking.” No sneaking required, no heavy navigating.

The one thing I’m not so fond of is that I think there is one set ‘good’ solution to the Grifter’s role in Part 1.

At least, I haven’t experimented yet, but the option everyone is told in order to get the Perfect Grifter badge is to first “flirt” with her, and then “say something crass.” Wait a few moments, and then “say something even more crass.”

This becomes an exercise in meme-spreading and memory work. Everyone do it this way. End-of-story.

It’ll be nice if it turns out that the other options are also possible and work to get the badge. But it doesn’t appear that way.

The Thief – Part 1

While the Thief was upstairs in that very same office stealing vital items from Ted Dubois.

No one seems to like being the Thief. Or at least, I end up playing the role 60% of the time when I wait for everyone else to choose first. Not sure why.

It was the first role I learnt and it’s not really that hard. It’s just a number of varied tasks.

In the first part, you’re alone upstairs in the office, and there are nine desk glowies. Three of them can be clicked simultaneously by walking up to the desks and clicking on each in turn, as long as you don’t move or twitch or somehow interrupt your own clicking action.

Somewhat randomly, each glowie may yield a desired item that increments the progress bar for the Thief forward until you find all three necessary items. Just keep clicking until done.

Battle Phase – Part 1

Once everyone has executed their roles perfectly (or not, as the case may be, and the timer runs out), everyone gets teleported back to a warehouse where there is a standard minion/goon fight as a warmup, and then Sylvia Rexson as the AV boss battle.

I’d assure you that we were fighting one of the AVs here, but I frankly don’t know which one. I’ll blame it on the dark defender’s power effects, which I can, since it’s my character. Maybe it’s Sylvia.

The AVs in Casino Heist are not really that hard, which I do like, for appropriate immersion purposes. They’re humans. A little tougher to beat on, but they don’t really have flashy OMG Ultimate Power gimmicks as opposed to either the Incarnate Trial bosses or even the Time Gladiator bosses. They reflect a believable power level.

The only thing is Sylvia has some phenomenal regeneration going on (may be her powerset) so someone with some -regen is helpful, or one will have to lay on the damage with a thick knife. She defeated my poor stalker’s attempt at soloing naturally without inspirational aid, but a stalker and scrapper duo worked fine.

On her defeat, we enter into Part 2.

With their operation half-over, the team swung into high gear.

The Hacker – Part 2

The hacker came to this room to manually disable security cameras that might capture their identities.

Same as before, just without the Hitter’s potential help. Avoid patrol, click on computers, done.

The Thief – Part 2

While the Thief entered this vent, bypassed the security on the other side and accessed the vault…

So here’s where I confess to roleplaying. I habitually dismiss pets if I’m playing a class with them, and turn off any flashy toggles before I click on the vent.

I don’t think the game actually cares, but it just doesn’t make immersive sense for my character to fit into that vent with 5 clanking robots of various sizes trailing after him. (I guess it’ll make a great comedy movie.)

It also helps (my peace of mind, at any rate) when I navigate this series of laser alarm-like things which come after the vent.

There are three sets of them, and a fixed safe path through. I’ve never tried tripping them on purpose, so I don’t know what happens. I suspect you simply don’t get the Perfect Thief badge.

Those safe paths only exist, by the way, if the power generators are down. One of the notable differences/consequences that the mission’s scripting was able to generate – as I found out when we attempted with three after one player crashed and we decided the least necessary might be the role of the Hitter.

Houston, we may have a problem.

The movement inhibition power also slows you down to a terrible crawl.

I discovered a little late that it may, just may, be possible to sneak past via the absolute sides of the corridor, but i didn’t make it very far because I was too slowed and paused for far too long to stare agawk at the laser display.

And lastly, once into the vault, one simply waits for the grifter to obtain the passphrase and the keypad glowie to light up, before clicking on it to ostensibly key it in and make off with the loot.

The Grifter – Part 2

Which brings us to…

That required the Grifter to meet Ted Dubois in his own office in order to record each segment of the Verbal Pass Code so that the Thief could actually open the vault.

This is the segment I like from the Grifter. It’s a conversation segment with choices, and you pretend that you’re a reporter from some magazine or other.

All the options work. You can pick any one of them, and Ted will eventually say all the words that get the Thief into the vault. So there are two benefits: one, you can actually roleplay a little and express the most suitable line your character would say, and two, you can experiment safely (without fear that people will curse you behind your back) to find the most efficient option.

What I find most amusing is that most people are scared to experiment. They have been taught by example to pick the most “officious” response and they follow it slavishly because hey, it works. Don’t break what’s working, right?

It turns out that that second option, the officious, “pieces on high-profile security experts” one is actually the slow route. It takes Ted the better part of three conversation dialogues for him to say the final word to the passphrase.

By gutsy experimentation earlier on, I found out that the very first option, the “casino-focused interior decorating” magazine,  the first question will get him to say the phrase much faster, without having to ask him a second or third question.

I’ve been using that option since, because I feel obliged to be a speed freak when someone is waiting on me in order to click their glowie. Some day, I’m going to have to experiment with the last magazine option, I really want to want to see the NPC’s conversation as well as find out if it’s faster or slower.

The Hitter – Part 2

Finally, the Hitter came here to the Game Room to teach one of these three patrons how to count cards. Their attempt to cheat the house would trigger the recognition software and buy the team time.

Now this one, I don’t like. It is clued into the subsequent prompt captions that show up for the Hitter that one of these options may work better than the other two.

It’s the spectre of the “only one good solution” again. This one, I was watching when others chose differently, and I can confirm you don’t get the Perfect Hitter badge if the Hitter makes the wrong choice and picks, for example, the High Roller.

You MUST choose the disheveled drifter and teach him to count cards if you want the shiny badge award to be enabled for all.

So yeah, follow the walkthrough, kthxbai. Else you screwed some poor alt out of their badge and the player might grumble a bit behind your back (if he’s polite enough to keep it to himself) and wait the next day for “a better team who knows what they’re doing and plays the way they’re supposed to” to go get the badge. (Lucky it’s just a badge. If it was mission success contingency and the shiny reward awarded or not, I can just picture the bad-tempered screaming at each other now.)

Then what was the point of the poor mission writer putting in all that conversation content for the other two options? For the first people to trial-and-error it by penalty and for all subsequent people to ignore, inflicting on themselves less variety to a mission they’re going to repeat for the shiny regardless?

Battle Phase – Part 2

When done, the second part of the fight begins. Again a standard goon/minion fight, followed by two AVs, one of them Ted Dubois.

Once defeated, everyone is teleported back to the Theatre Lobby where each person’s performance in the role is tallied up and the Perfect (Insert Role Here) badge awarded for everyone as long as the person in the role did it “right” by the mysterious badge rules.

Once you pick up all four badges (it can be through multiple event runs), the “Roleplayer” badge is awarded as a bonus.

Which ultimately is what the mission is trying to achieve, I think. Sorta kinda.

It’s a bit awkward in that roleplaying is hard to do on a time limit, with one  ‘correct’ solution in places, and lack of room for self-expression, what with folks relying on you to perform cooperatively and speed them through. But it’s got the willing suspension of disbelief and giving you a role to play at immersing in portion.

Still, it’s a very creative new use of the new conversation choices, mission and trial mechanics, and I’d like to see more come out of it.