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Impressions: Medieval Dynasty

Stardew Valley meets Crusader Kings.

Okay, maybe it’s a bit early for that. I’ve only played for about two hours, and have no particular idea what’s really going on yet. But there are a few notes I wanted to jot down.

First, I really like the premise, from a mechanical point of view. You are a orphaned peasant told to just grab some empty land and build whatever. The twist here though is that each season is only three game-days long. This acceleration is possible because, you know, dynasty, e.g. you are intended to produce an heir that’s carries on the family business of village-building.

This is both unique in the farming/crafting genre and also helps handwave some of the more traditional gamey bits. Like how one dude can chop down a dozen trees and build a house in an afternoon. I mean, it’s still handwavey due to how hunger/thirst works, but I still appreciated the thought.

Also, you can change the 3-day season to be longer if you want via settings. The devs “strongly suggest” leaving it at 3, and I can see their point even from the start: without the dynasty bit, it’s just a worse Stardew Valley.

Having said that… well… the 3-day season makes all the NPC and questing bits exceedingly silly. One of the starting quests is to find out why a rye shipment hasn’t arrived. To complete this quest, you have to walk 1200m or so to the next town, then halfway back, then back, then return all the way. It took 1.5 in-game days to complete. So, basically my entire Spring. The reward was 300g, for which I have no context whether it’s worth the time I lost. Some of the meals from vendors cost 270g for some porridge, so I’m guessing No.

It was nice to see that the quest had an 18-year time limit though. Especially since one part was locating the courier who was bleeding to death near a river. Would he have just been bones if I waited 5 “years?” I’m guessing No again.

Anyway, there’s that.

OK one more thing: I find it intimidating in these games when they say “build wherever.” I recognize the terror of analysis paralysis, so I end up creating a base camp within earshot of the beginning area. Somewhere along the way though, the base camp hits a tipping point where it would be too onerous to move everything somewhere else, so I keep it in a lame area and just deal with the dissonance.

In this game though? Shit is extra scary. I’m going to have to create and reload several Saves given how it might take in-game years to find a spot where I’m happy settling. Meanwhile, I don’t know which resources are more difficult to find/gather or any sort of late-game concerns.

Which is of course the smartest thing to worry about after playing something for 2 hours.

Fallout Worlds

Bethesda recently removed the Nuclear Winter battle royale mode from Fallout 76, and replaced it with Fallout Worlds. This new feature is intended to satisfy the promise of modding within Fallout 76.

Essentially, it allows you to spin up your own Private World (a feature that already exists) but then tweak a large number of “developer” settings. For example, you can remove building restrictions, remove crafting restrictions (i.e. infinite materials), give yourself infinite ammo, crank up/down NPC damage and a number of other settings. Access to this feature does require a “Fallout 1st” subscription, same as normal Private Worlds, although there is a free “community” version that is intended to… something. Advertise the feature? Give bored people something else to do?

There is a catch though: while you can clone your character over to Worlds, they cannot come back.

A large number of people in the Fallout 76 community consider Worlds a waste of developer time. Originally, I did too. What’s the point? Why spend developer time on a feature that has no progression? All of the time you spend in Worlds doing whatever is isolated to Worlds alone, even if the only thing you tweak is goofy things like exaggerated ragdoll effects or more frequent rad storms. I suppose it might also be nice for those people who want to test out certain Legendary builds without needing to track down/grind out specific weapons.

The counter-argument that got me though was this: who says you have to come back?

Almost three years ago, I made the argument that Fallout 76 was a survival game. And, well, I sure as hell ain’t playing ARK on default settings. There isn’t anything approaching the ridiculousness of dino babysitting for literal real-world hours in Fallout 76, but there is an argument to be made that some elements of the experience diminish fun rather than facilitate. Things like grinding out multiple Daily Ops just for the free ammo to feed your minigun so you can use it in Public Events. Infinite ammo would cut out a significant possible gameplay loop, but again, some loops are better than others.

There is also the fact that a solo world is what many people have been asking for all along. Private Worlds already exist as a feature under the subscription, and has the bonus of allowing you to preserve your unified character progress in Adventure Mode. But what is that really? You also level up in custom Worlds, possibly at a faster rate. The two things you miss are the sort of Season rewards – most of which can be boiled down to resource gifts – and… other people. You can invite others to your own Custom Worlds, and they can even rejoin that specific Custom World without you having to be online, but there is otherwise no random people drifting in.

And that’s the real downside, not the forked progression. Other people have certainly been distracting during story progression, but Show & Tell is a strong motivator for emergent gameplay. I can’t tell you how many times I have strolled into a random person’s CAMP just looking to browse their vendor wares and then end up shamed how great their camp looks compared to my Oscar the Grouch roleplay (or at least that’s what I keep telling myself). I have built elaborate nonsense in ARK and Valheim and similar games before with full knowledge that none would witness its greatness. It’s easier in those games though, because other people never existed to me. Here, it’s different.

Having said all that, I have no particular desire to fork over subscription money to access Fallout Worlds. I now understand the appeal though, even if it’s not directly appealing to me. I happen to enjoy rummaging through literal post-apocalypse garbage and slowly accumulating all the things.

If you don’t, well, Bethesda has you covered now.

Mod: Darkness Falls

If it seems as though I fell into a hole… I kinda did. Specifically, in the form a mod for 7 Days to Die called “Darkness Falls.”

I have mentioned it before, but 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a game that somehow pushes all the right buttons for me. It has zombies, crafting, loot progression, skill points and XP, base building, a sort of tower defense angle (during the 7th day Blood moon), resource gathering, scavenging post-apocalypse buildings, and so on. A lot of those mechanics synergize with each other in interesting ways too. For example, you have to weigh the costs/benefits of clearing buildings of supplies versus mining for resources to build out your base to survive the Blood moon every 7 days. And knowing that a horde of strong zombies will be able to hone in on your position on a regular schedule gives meaning and structure around your day-to-day decisions.

The base game has been really good over the years, despite it still being in Alpha, but after 200+ hours the novelty wore off. Updates are more often on a yearly cadence, and sometimes the improvements are a step backwards in some respects. In Alpha 19, for example, loot progression has been tied to one’s “game stage.” What this means is that if you end up clearing out the Shotgun Messiah weapons factory early on – a sort of Tier 5 (the highest) dungeon – the big loot at the special chamber will include… Stone Axes and maybe a Blunderbuss. This was done to prevent people from potentially cheesing hard buildings and walking away with an AK-47 within the first two days, but come on.

In any case, Darkness Falls is one of the many (!) complete overhaul mods available for 7DTD. It takes the current game (A19.4) and rolls back some of changes made over the years while adding new enemies, new resources, dozens of new dungeons, and an actual endgame. The core gameplay loop is still there, including the Blood moon. But now you can choose two classes (out of 8) when you roll a character, and each class has exclusive access to some of the new (or old) mechanics. If you max those classes out, you can collect Skill Notes to build another class book and start unlock additional perks.

I have played so much in the last two weeks that I have perhaps burned myself out on it. Also, sometimes the mod just trolls you a bit. In some of the “custom” added dungeons, for example, they will have a full room of zombies just pop out of a wall and mob your face within seconds. Under default settings, you drop all your loot on death, and thus be extra boned from such maliciousness. I have tweaked my own settings so that I get to keep whatever is in my toolbar, so I don’t accidentally get stranded 2 km from my body, naked and alone.

So, yeah, that is what I have been up to. Like I said, I may be on the tail end of being burned out from playing the mod for so long. At the moment, I am stalling before heading into the endgame biome because I know that’s where the demons are and I don’t exactly have the proper endgame weapons/armor to take them on in a straight-up fight. But I am also getting concerned that the “surprise room of demons” gimmick is in my near-future and I don’t like it. That sort of thing would work better in co-op or something. When it’s just you, there is every incentive to cheese the zombie AI as much as possible to survive. Which… works, but also kinda sucks.

Post-It

I think I figured it out, what I want most in a game. I want this:

That’s a Post-It note I scribbled upgrade materials on and kept near my keyboard. While the Bow portion was for Valheim, the rest of it is for a Survival Management game called Dead in Vinland that I have played pretty heavily lately. Indeed, Steam says 48 hours in the last two weeks.

It’s difficult to discern whether Dead in Vinland is actually that fun. Hell, I don’t even know where or when I got it. After digging into my account history, it looks like it came from a January 2020 Humble Bundle? Anyway, I had been listlessly jumping from game to game because the games I want to play are unfinished Early Access titles. Which may be redundant but nevermind. Titles like the aforementioned Valheim, 7 Days to Die, Grounded. Basically every survival game ever – just got to add “content” to the list of things you have to scavenge for.

Thing is, I’m starting to realize that it may not necessarily be the survival genre per se. What I truly enjoy, what pushes all my buttons, is exactly what is on that Post-It note: Planning. I looked at all the camp upgrades in Dead in Vinland and winnowed them down to the seven that might actually have a meaningful impact. Then I could start making rational decisions on which to build first based on my available resources. It would be suboptimal to complete the two that both take 20 Wood, for example, as that is a resource that would take focused harvesting at the expense of everything else. Plus, Wood has other users whereas with Pelts I only need 30 of them total.

I do find it annoying in how few games allow you to take in-game notes. I have fun with Metroidvanias but dislike how next to none of them let you mark the map so that you know you need to come back to a particular area after getting the double-jump ability, for example. Technically, Hollow Knight let you mark the map, but only with weird icons that you had to purchase with in-game currency. Games like My Time at Portia let you make notes, but not in the way I wanted – if I’ve figured out that so-and-so really likes Apple Pies, let me attach that somewhere on the crafting screen itself. So, again, I can look at my available crafting materials and plan out the optimal route to utilize them.

I bring that up because it is not as though I necessarily enjoy just writing stuff on Post-It notes.

Well, actually, I do.

Names blurred to protect the innocent

And pondering further, it is not even necessarily that I want games where planning is required. Dead in Vinland can certainly punish you for a lack of planning – the antagonist demands a revolving tribute of goods every 7 days – and that’s not necessarily fun. It certainly drives the gameplay and gives you a reason to head certain directions, which is fine. Fun? No.

In any case, when I bust out one of my half-dozen Post-Its and start writing stuff down, I know that something is cooking. The game itself may not always warrant that level of planning – perhaps it will be a shock, but I do have a tendency to over-analyze things – but the act of doing so absolutely increases the net level of fun that is occurring. Or perhaps is just indicative of something occurring deeper beneath the surface and the product is fun.

Now, I just have to find a (finished!) game that is worthy of that attention.

Mirror

I am still playing Valheim, off and on. I haven’t felt the need to write about it though, considering how many other bloggers are filling space with their survival narratives. How many times do you need someone to talk about taking down the 2nd boss and (initially) struggling in the Swamp biome? For a minute there, even I started to wonder whether we all entered some kind of writing prompt class and had to elaborate on the same Youtube video of someone else playing Valheim.

What I have come to understand though is that all of us playing the same game and making progress in roughly the same timeframe really puts a mirror to us as gamers. Blog posts by their very nature do this all the time, of course, but when the base experience is so austere, we can’t hide in the minutia.

In examining my own narrative though, I keep coming back to… annoyance.

Fun times

The above is a map of my adventures, starting from the 2nd boss who was like two major islands away. Which is fine. Having them so far away serves as an enforcement mechanism to engage with better boats and creating portals. Which highlights how you can’t take ore with you through portals, and oh you still need to explore the Black Forest to sweep dungeons for the necessary cores. And since you drop everything on death, you have to really be on point when exploring or else you’ll have to build a new boat and sail all over again, so make sure to stop and drop a portal every so often.

The real non-fun happened after killing the 2nd boss though.

The Swamp biome is fine. It’s oppressive and dark and tough to navigate and does a real good job of highlighting how much you do not belong there. The prep work necessary before venturing in (Poison Resist, etc) is precisely the sort of things that make survival games so addicting. If you never bothered to learn what the Wet debuff means on a practical level before, you sure as hell are paying attention now. The desperate struggle to flee while both Wet and Cold, spending what precious Stamina you have left zigging and zagging to avoid Draugr arrows in your back, all while you watch with dread as Poison ticks your remaining HP away is something that I think all of us experienced in our bones.

The non-fun for me was how it took more than 5 hours of “exploration” to find a Swamp biome that even had a Sunken Crypt in the first place. I found Swamps, yes. But Sunken Crypts with their Scrap Iron is the only real reason to ever set foot in one. What I found instead were crypt-less Swamps and a world seed that is apparently 90% Plains, which is a biome two ahead of where I should be. And so I sailed and sailed and slapped portals as far apart as I dared, knowing that dying too far out would likely put an end to my playing Valheim at all.

Then this happened:

Well then

With portal “Swamp 5” I finally located a Swamp biome that actually had Sunken Crypts. Three of them. All within sight of one another. And within one such Crypt I got a read that the 3rd boss was… right next door. Next to another 3-4 Crypts.

Now, perhaps it would be too much to ask that every Swamp has a Sunken Crypt. Too formulaic. On the other hand… come the fuck on. Legitimate Swamps 1-4 were not legitimate enough, eh? I keep thinking how much my perception of the game would be different had I discovered a Sunken Crypt in the first Swamp biome I went to. Then again, maybe not, considering how I’ve clocked another 3-4 hours of “gameplay” finding and exploring Mountains that contain no Silver.

“Okay, you just don’t like exploration.” I mean… maybe? I can agonize for hours and hours in 7 Days to Die or ARK where is the ideal place to create a base. Because that sort of thing actually matters in those games. Valheim is about creating shanty towns next to resources and then portaling everywhere or white-knuckle sailing back to “home base” with a hold filled with ore. Really reminds me of Starbound and No Man’s Sky in that way – “home” is all but an abstraction, a loading screen at the end of an ever-expanding portal chain. The only real anchor in Valheim are carrots, beets, and beer, as those take a few game days produce. But, again, those be located at the ass-end of the world for all it matters.

In any case, I do not consider Valheim’s present state to be a particularly compelling argument for “exploration.” Am I literally “traveling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it?” Yes. But if procedurally-generated emptiness is what floats your boat, allow me to introduce you to No Man’s Sky, (vanilla) Starbound, and another small indie title called Minecraft.

There doesn’t have to be a treasure chest behind every waterfall, but if there are never any chests or my progress through your game is dependent upon a 10% chance of a randomly-generated waterfall spawning a chest 5% of the time, well, fuck you.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. I talked about ARK a lot before, but I sure as hell wasn’t using standard settings that would require 10 real-world hours of unconscious dino-sitting. So perhaps I uncover the Valheim map a bit via cheats (or view my world seed map) and at least note the next 5 mountain ranges of adequate size so I stop spinning my oars in the wrong direction. Because I have no problem collecting 500 whatever to do the next thing. But I have a huge problem spending the time going to the place where the whatever is supposed to be, and finding that the princess is in another castle, in a different game, and have fun playing through it all over again.

Valheimed

Like the rest of the world, I too succumbed to the call of Odin and bought Valheim.

But unlike the rest of the world, here’s my hot take: Valheim ain’t special.

Innovation!

This isn’t to say it’s bad. Valheim is indeed clever in many ways… assuming that it’s austere design is intentional, and not a result of it being an Early Access game built by two dudes. Part of that cleverness is the fact that Valheim put a tutorial inside an otherwise open-world survival game. Just think about all the other survival games out there, and how they all proudly lean into their cold opens and lack of direction. I have spawned into ARK with a level 1 character on what was supposed to be a safe(ish) beach and was immediately eaten by a raptor. That may be par for the course for survival games, but it doesn’t have to be. And so it’s no wonder that Valheim with its exclamation mark raven has hooked millions of people into an experience they don’t quite realize is about to get very survivalish.

By which I mean the tedium of resource gathering.

Coming home.

After killing the first boss, the player unlocks the ability to craft a pickaxe with hard, deer god antlers and otherwise move on to the Bronze Age. Which requires the exploration of the Black Forest biome to find Copper and Tin deposits, which can be smelted into Bronze that can then be crafted into better armor and weapons. It is at this stage that I realized I could have been playing ARK, Conan, No Man’s Sky, Subnautica, The Long Dark, The Forest, 7 Days to Die, State of Decay, or Fallout 76. And probably should have instead, because Valheim is incredibly basic at this level. Whereas I could tame dinosaurs to speed up resource gathering in ARK, I’m stuck sloooooooooowly collecting 20 Copper Ore at a time, bringing it back to the Smelter, and eventually turning it into Bronze. Meanwhile, you get attacked by Greydwarves every minute and a half, punctuating the tedium with a different kind of tedium. Oh, and make sure you scour every hillside on your gathering missions so you can find instanced crypts and collect enough red cubes to create your Smelter and stuff.

Seriously though, I’m reading these other bloggers and then looking at my game and wondering if they have never played a survival game before. And maybe they really haven’t. There is nothing particularly approachable about ARK (etc), especially in comparison to Valheim. But thus far, it appears all the really interesting genre innovation died with Eikthyr.

Hard to convey that initial depth of panic.

For example, a lot of hay has been made regarding how Valheim is a survival game in which you don’t actually die to starvation/thirst. Supreme innovation! But what really happens is that you trade off ignoring food at the front end to becoming obsessed with it for the rest of the game, when the opposite is true in every other survival experience. In Valheim, both your HP and Stamina meters are dictated by what food you eat, and you must eat three different varieties to keep them topped off. You can get by with just cooked meat from boars and deer in the beginning, but later generic enemies can almost one-shot you if you aren’t eating cooked meat, neck tails, and then something else like Honey or Mushrooms. That is a lot more varied farming for food than I would need in ARK or 7 Days to Die once I’m past initial hump.

I will continue on playing for a bit and see if anything fundamentally changes after defeating the second boss. Based on writings of people who have already logged 60+ hours though, it sounds like it will be more of the same with a slightly new resource. Which is literally the formula for survival games, I know. Thing is, other survival games typically have an X factor that sets them apart from one another.

As of yet, I don’t see what that is with Valheim.

Impression: Factorio

I was gifted Factorio from one of my friends whom I had gifted Rimworld. We’re cruel like that. Given how much I enjoyed Rimworld and Oxygen Not Included and other resource-collecting/crafting games, it seems like Factorio should be right up my alley.

For some reason though… it’s not.

I am in the very early stages of the game. The tutorial, in fact. And while I very much enjoy crafting/survival-esque games and colony management games, Factorio is neither. It is an automating and stand-around-waiting game. You directly control an engineer and initially collect resources 1 at a time until you build machines that can do it for you automatically.

For example, you discover an iron ore field. You can mine it yourself, one nugget at a time, until you can build a Stone Furnace to smelt the ore into an Iron Plate. Use those Iron Plates to build a Burner Drill, which will automatically mine whatever you set it on top of, e.g. iron ore. Then you build conveyor belts so the iron ore can fall out of the Drill and be moved elsewhere, where you build robotic arms that can place iron ore into Stone Furnaces and more robotic arms to place the Iron Plates directly into a storage box. Or onto other conveyor belts to move it to Assemblers which can convert them to Iron Gears, which are necessary to produce the next dozen things down the tech tree. You will also need a similar setup to mine/process copper, stone, and coal to power everything.

In principle, this is the same sort of thing you’re doing in Oxygen Not Included. But that game… is fun. I’m not sure what Factorio is yet.

There’s a rather annoying part of the tutorial in which you are specifically tasked with creating 50 gun magazines per minute while also consuming 12 technology per minute. I get that the point of the exercise is to push the player into understanding you can build a dozen Lab buildings to accelerate research, and same with the mass-production of magazines (to feed turrets to fend off hostile wildlife). That said, I was the closest to quiting the game outright at that moment. All prior tutorial steps were “build X, which takes a half dozen steps,” which was fine. The magazine/tech thing was arbitrary though, and I was a little worried I would run out of technology to research before I successfully built enough Labs. Nevermind how many extraneous magazines were crafted as I trialed-and-errored my way to figuring out how to achieve that, again, arbitrary rate.

At this point, I may abandon the tutorial altogether and give the “real” game a try. Not having any express goals is not something I typically enjoy in gaming generally, but is not something that bothered me in Rimworld or Oxygen Not Included.

We’ll see if I have the same sort of success (read: fun) in Factorio.

Tension

Tension in gaming is an interesting experience.

Tension feels uncomfortable. Relieving tension feels satisfying. Ergo, the introduction of tension-producing elements in your game can naturally propel players through the gameplay loops necessary to remove the tension while also rewarding them for their efforts. This pathway is different than one that relies on the player seeking rewards; the designer is instead threatening the player’s status quo.

While elegant, tension comes with risk. If a player is unable to relieve the tension, e.g. fails the test, that failure state can be a permanent stopping point. Players can become discouraged. Even when successful, players can also burn out from being under stress all the time, feeling as though the satisfaction states are either too infrequent or too brief. Even players who thrive and seek out tension scenarios may burn out in the other direction, mastering the game systems enough such that even the tension that still exists isn’t enough to ring their bells.

I have been thinking about this lately as I continue to be engrossed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI). While it may not immediately look like it, or even feel like it, ONI is decidedly a survival game.

In the beginning, the tension is apparent. You start with three Dupes and they have nothing but a little bit of space and some air (starter oxygen is included after all). If bathrooms are not created within the first day, all three Dupes will pee all over the floor by the morning of the 2nd day. After that, you have a bit of a reprieve… but it’s kind of a trap too. The calories provided by the starter food will only ever dwindle, and I hope you didn’t build their beds where all the CO2 lingers.

Although I have over 90 hours in the game now, I nevertheless still fell into the mid-game trap regarding (mostly) non-renewable resources. I started a game on the Oceania map, which had an absolute abundance of Algae and Coal. Algae in particular is a finite* resource on the default Terra map and its scarcity often forces you into Electrolyzers early on, which forces you into taming Steam vents, etc etc. Conversely, having 21 tons of the stuff on my map allowed me to keep the early-game Oxygen-creating machines running longer. I was even good on Coal too, as I had a Hatch ranch going which was producing Coal at a good clip.

If those details sound ominous, they should. While my Coal reserves were fine for everyday use, I had been building a Metal Refinery to make refined metal for future projects. Simultaneously, I was setting up a Hatch ranch to breed regular Hatches into Stone Hatches into Smooth Hatches, the last of which eat metal and poop refined metal exclusively. Normal Hatches and Stone Hatch eat basically anything and poop Coal, so I didn’t think twice about crafting two Incubators to speed the process along. As it turns out, adding nearly 2000 kJ stress on my power grid will burn through Coal pretty quick, as will replacing normal Hatches with ones that don’t poop Coal.

ONI has a particular tendency to punish complacency, going from Comfortable to Colony Collapse within a matter of a few Cycles. If you are not creating enough Oxygen for your Dupes, the game will give you a notification with the exact discrepancy. If your Oxygen-creating infrastructure is entirely dependent on Algae and you’re about to run out though, you get no warning. Well, you will eventually get the “not creating enough Oxygen” notification, but by then you will have to be scrambling to Electrolyzers regardless of whether your infrastructure currently supports it.

In some respects, ONI feels like the ideal tension-based game. The tension of keeping all the survival balls in the air exists, driving you ever onward. But you can also engineer stable systems such that you solve (some) problems permanently. Or “permanently” until the rounding errors in your design round up to whole errors. It can be frustrating though, coming from other tension-based games where the tension is more immediately apparent.

76% Fallout

SynCaine has his 30-minute impression of Fallout 76 up and, spoilers, he’s not impressed:

If you ever wondered what a Fallout game would be like if you removed all the story, all the reasons why you might play and care, F76 is the answer. It’s the same gameplay, the same systems, basically the same world, just empty of reasons to care.

While I am sure that is intended to be a damning indictment of Fallout 76’s failure… it really isn’t, IMO. The overwhelming vast majority of any Fallout gameplay is, well, gameplay. Specifically, it is wandering around, collecting junk, killing Super Mutants and Ghouls, experiencing environmental storytelling, and otherwise exploring the post-apocalypse wasteland. You know, all of the fun bits that occur inbetween questing. So when SynCaine says something like:

In Fallout 3, you also start in a vault, but as a child surrounded by other humans, including your family. Shortly after leaving the vault, you had to a fairly large settlement of humans that gets you rolling.

…I had a puzzled expression on my face. When I emerged from the Vault 101 for the first time – still in the top 5 videogame experiences in my entire life, by the way – I must have gotten turned around because Megaton was not where I went next. Instead, I explored some burnt-out buildings, fought some raiders, collected a bunch of junk, and basically hit up a bunch non-story locations.

I was not trying to avoid whatever the main story quest was supposed to be, but I wasn’t particularly bothered in speeding towards it. And while it was interesting finally getting to Megaton and having to make those moral decisions regarding the sheriff and the nuclear bomb in the middle of town and all the rest… that wasn’t everything that Fallout is. Shit, some of the best narratives in the entire series do not involve NPCs either, e.g. Father in the Cave.

Is there anything approaching Father in the Cave level so far in Fallout 76? Nope. Of course, there really hasn’t been anything of that level even in the main story quests for any Fallout game. Were you really that enmeshed with finding your father, finding your son, or deciding who rules the Mojave? Or was the main plot just a vehicle in which you drove around the wasteland, finding all the poignant stops along the way? Fallout 76 has that same vehicle, that same main story quest, getting you to explore every corner of the map. It’s a beater instead of a Porsche, but it still gets you from A to B.

Which is astounding for a survival game.

SynCaine would surely not care that Fallout 76 was never intended to be anything but a spin-off survival game and not some Fallout 5 substitute. But that is a distinction that matters. There is no plot reason to care what occurs in ARK, or Rust, or Conan: Exiles, or most other survival games. And yet there is an overarching plot to Fallout 76, complete with hours of voice acting, tragedy, and dark humor. There are no moral decisions, true, and yet that is about to change with upcoming patches in a natural way, e.g. everyone died from Scorchbeasts, Vault opens, we followed in footsteps of the dead but succeeded in eliminating the threat, newcomers are now moving in.

The devs did not set out to construct the plot this way; they honestly felt like “players are the NPCs” would work, which is some Silicon Valley startup fantasy bullshit and any actual player of videogames would instantly say is dumb. Bethesda is trying to turn the ship around though, and they have largely succeeded thus far with monthly patches and new quests. Some of it is a bit grindy, like the recent Boy Scouts-esque stuff which comes down to Achievement hunting to unlock a backpack. But, well… it fits this game, and gives you a reason to go back around the block.

I dunno. People aren’t still playing Diablo 3 for the plot, or Destiny 2, or Anthem (at all, *rimshot*). They play because the gameplay loop is fun. Complaining about Fallout 76 not having the same narrative quality of actual Fallout games just makes me question why you played Skyrim so much, and possibly still do. Was it for the engaging faction warfare? Or for whatever the situation was with that one dragon final boss that I 2-shot from stealth? Is that why any of us played and enjoyed Skyrim so much? Or was it perhaps the walking around, the fighting, the exploring caves, and otherwise existing in that world?

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps you played Fallout and Skyrim exactly one time, never went anywhere other than towards a quest marker, and turned it off the moment the credits rolled. If you don’t play these games that way, well, you are in for a treat. Not because there is a grand narrative you are missing – although it ain’t that terrible – but because there is a huge map full of nooks and crannies actually filled with things worth picking up, killing, or looking at. And it’s getting better all the time.

Too Much Cheese

I have always had mixed feelings when it comes to Early Access games, but not always for the same reasons as everyone else. For example, one of the biggest dangers is getting hooked on a game that just never gets completed. Money dries up, development stops, you never get any sort of conclusion. I’ve never been too worried about that – either the game was fun when you played it, or it wasn’t.

No, my biggest concern is when the game gets better or more balanced… but I’m already done.

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a colony-management game from Klei that I started playing last year and it has gotten significant updates on the regular. Some new buildings, some new creatures, a sort of end-goal to strive for, and so on. Other things have not changed over the year, and it’s questionable whether they ever will. And that bothers me because some of the things that haven’t changed are broken mechanics.

One of the mid-to-late game threats in ONI is heat. In the beginning, you’re worried about Oxygen (hence the name), so you burn algae for air. Then you run out of algae. Switching to an Electrolyser allows you to turn water into Oxygen + Hydrogen, so you focus on getting clean water to burn, while finding a use for all the unbreathable Hydrogen (generally via Hydrogen Generator to power to the Electrolyser). This is another trap though, because the “free” Oxygen getting piped out is hot, and as your base heats up, your crops will fail. Thus, cooling things becomes a top priority.

While there are a number of “legit” ways to cool things down, the Water Sieve method is straight-up broken. Water Sieves are used to turn Polluted Water into normal Water, for use in bathrooms and such. The supposed downside of this is that the Sieve itself outputs relatively hot water at 40°C, which will gradually heat up your base and ruin your crops (which typically stop growing at 30-35°C). The real issue though is that the Water Sieve always outputs 40°C water… even if the Polluted Water was at a much higher temperature. Thus you get physics-bending/game-breaking (IMO) solutions like piping your clean water out of a Water Sieve and into an Aquatuner (which cools liquid down at the expense of heating itself up)… which is being liquid-cooled in a tank of Polluted Water… that you are piping to the Water Sieve.

Clever use of game mechanics, indeed.

Along the same lines, I have a 100% zombie-proof base in 7 Days to Die. It’s a tower with a nearby ramp and fence, along with a half-block on the other side of the fence. To the zombie AI, this half-block would allow them to jump again and land on the tower and start eating my face. In reality, once they hop over the fence, they miss the half-block, and plummet to the ground, taking damage. From there, they run back up the ramp and try again until they die again. I still try and kill them myself for the XP, but I have all the time in the world to line up the shots or try again if I miss. The devs have added a “tantrum” mechanic whenever a zombie tries to run a path and fails, but that just means the zombie will wail on a bunch of iron spikes.

There are two “easy” solutions to my “problems”:

  1. Don’t use these mechanics, and/or
  2. Don’t play these games yet

To which I would say:

  1. Handicapping myself via willpower alone isn’t fun, and
  2. These are precisely the type of games I want to be playing at the moment

If you have a list of non-Early Access survival/crafting games that I haven’t already played, by all means, let me know. Otherwise, I’m going to be over here stuffing my face with delicious cheese, and paying for it later.