100-Word Stories: “No Hands on the Wheel”

she says as we fire down the road kicking up billows across the green rows of corn and the silent harvesters ready to collect. The tires jump left and right as they lose and find purchase on the gravel fumbling and awkward like my hands which are not on the wheel.

“Cowboy, what’s one last ride to ya?”

No hand at the wheel.

The corn stalks had done their work. Seeds would now be scattered or collected or planted or eaten. It wasn’t the concern of the stalk. The stalk just drank the damp earth and pushed upward to bursting.

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100-Word Writing Prompt: A food/dish that does not exist.

The recently discovered Abyssal fruit of the abyssopelagic zone, while boasting complex textures, possess a distinctly unpleasant flavor to humans. Fruit cultivated above the mesopelagic zone are considered edible but rarely survive, and the flesh of the fruit permanently stains the mouths of those who eat it. It should also be noted that the final episode of Iron Chef: Abyssal Fruit ended in a tie as chefs and judges, after tasting the fruit served several ways, in wordless unison wandered off set and began stumbling towards the ocean. Host Alton Brown could only offer conjecture concerning the strange conclusion to the popular cooking competition.

 

This fun prompt courtesy of Saladin Ahmed. I hope to do more of these in spare time as a way to warm up before writing or as a break from the normal hum-drum of study.

The State of Strategy in 2017

I’m sitting in my dining room typing the intro to this article on my iPad. I know I’m going to need to switch over to my laptop eventually, but my laptop is in the other room and I’ve got a hot cup of tea and I’m in a bit of a writing groove so I’m stuck on my undersized portable keyboard that travels with my tablet everywhere. If things get bad and my iPad dies but I still want to sit here writing and enjoying this cup of cardamom and cinnamon tea I could pull out my phone and compose this post using that.

What I’m getting at is that I have options. So many options. More options than I’ve had in the past. The same is true for strategy games in 2016-2017. We’ve had a healthy revival of old games getting new life, existing games receiving strong support and updates throughout the year, and plenty of new, terrific games in the genre. Off the top of my head I came up with seventeen games that were released or saw major updates in 2016 in the strategy genre. These were games on my radar for various reasons, and while I didn’t get around to playing all of them–some sub-genres within strategy I just don’t enjoy–the games I got around to playing this year were, on the whole, incredible.

A few years ago things looked pretty grim for the genre. The general feeling was that strategy games had passed beyond their halcyon days. New hybrid genres were eclipsing strategy games, but it turns out we were just on the underside of the wheel, and that wheel keeps on turning. 2016 may have been the best year of the decade for strategy. Here are my favorite games of the year and what they say about the state of strategy:

1. Darkest Dungeondarkest-dungeon

 

 

Darkest Dungeon is not an easy game to play. It can be very punishing, but it never feels like the game has beaten you, which is an interesting outcome for a game that straddles the fence between party-based RPG and roguelike. The heroes you foster through the terrors will get better and worse. They will find great items and develop quirks and diseases. They will become stressed and their resolve will be tested. Sometimes they will overcome their fears and become more resolute, while other times they will succumb to the overwhelming darkness.

New heroes will come to town and you’ll find spots for them on your team. They will give your experienced heroes a chance to rest, and if they survive they may end up finding regular rotation into your party. Of course, your entire party might meet a quick, gruesome death, and you may have to call upon those rookie adventurers to shoulder the load for a week of adventuring. But the game compensates for that with quests that lower-level parties can manage.

Darkest Dungeon is a beautiful game. Its design is beautiful. It’s my game of the year.

2. Europa Universalis IV: Rights of Maneuiv

Europa Universalis IV may be my favorite game of 2016 that came out in 2013. The Rights of Man expansion for this grand strategy game has addressed many of the problems members of the community had with technology groups retaining a historical, Eurocentric view of global development. Rights of Man has opened up the field with the implementation of institutions–historical social and technological reforms that influence development cost depending on when these reforms are embraced by countries around the world. With this one change the game has shifted from one that roughly follows historical patterns of development to one that feels much more like a sandbox. Now non-European technology groups can compete if they found these new institutional ideas.

Paradox has found the balance between historical simulator and sandbox, and while this balance may not make everyone happy, the game is better for it. The studio continues to make an already great game even better.

I’ve put 400 hours into EUIV–more than any other strategy game this year. Expansions like Rights of Man will ensure it stays on my favorites list for the year to come.

3. Offworld Trading Companyotc

Darkest Dungeon and Offworld Trading Company are proof that some of the best strategy games in 2016 came from small studios.

Offworld Trading Company is a game about being the greatest space capitalist on Mars. You will fight with other corporations for control over resources on the martian surface, and as you earn money you can either invest in improving your own holdings or start buying stock in other corporations. Once you buy out all the stock in another company you get control of their holdings. The last corporation still around at the end of the game wins.

Offworld Trading Company shows that strategy is more than mass combat simulation. If managing resources and manipulating markets is your cup of tea, Offworld Trading Company is the game for you. I love these things, so I love this game.

4. Hearts of Iron IVhoiiv

I have two Paradox games on my list of best strategy games for the year. It’s been a good year for the studio, and while their games are not for everyone, if you’re looking for historical (or wildly ahistorical) simulation, Paradox balances complexity with helpful UI–something wargames have always been bad at.

Hearts of Iron IV simulates world events leading up to the second world war, starting in 1936. Pick a faction and lead them through the events that define the economic, technological, and diplomatic choices that lead up to WWII. Like EUIV, you can play as close to history as you like, but there’s no penalty from playing far afield of the historical narrative.

To test this I started a game as the United States in 1936 and immediately started promoting the small-but-not-insignificant communist party. The party didn’t have the majority vote by the 1936 elections, but by 1937 the popular opinion was high enough to oust Franklin D. Roosevelt (apologies) and establish the Communist States of America. After this I supported several communist revolutions in South America, and even had Douglas McArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower leading volunteer divisions through the jungles of Brasil and mountains of Argentina.

This is a thing you can do in a game about the second world war. What a glorious time to be alive.

5. RimWorldrimworld

So this may be cheating, since RimWorld is still in beta and awaiting a 2017 release, but when a beta is this good, it’s hard for me not to include it on this list. RimWorld has me hopeful for the future of strategy games. It’s a colony-builder, which is one of my favorite strategy sub-genres, that focuses heavily on systems and less on story. Your colony is a small group of survivors who have crash-landed on a planet inhabited by other humans–some friendly, some not. You must carve out a life for your colonists until you can build a spaceship capable of continuing your journey through the stars. How you go about doing this is entirely up to you.

Strategy games aren’t really known for their story, but the events that arise from game systems interacting are a narrative simulacrum. These emergent stories have been funny, sad, and absurd. They remind me that strategy games can have heart, but its a thing that must be fostered and developed by the player. 2017 is shaping up to be a good year if this is what we can expect.

Designing My First Game, Part 1: Establishing Boundaries

I’ve played a lot of games. I read a lot about games. I really enjoy reading old game manuals and guides just to see how systems within games are designed and implemented. Heck, sometimes I buy games just because I want to learn how they work.

I’m no math expert, so I don’t grok systems as quickly or as thoroughly as some, but that doesn’t me I don’t derive pleasure from figuring them out.

In any case, I’ve decided to create my own game. I’m starting small, building a game with just a few connecting systems. It’s going to be a tabletop RPG putting a twist on classic fantasy RPGs, but one that can be played in an hour. All the rules will fit onto a single page, and are designed to be easily understood by new players to the genre. The focus is on the game’s theme and the roleplaying experience, and rules will hopefully get out of the way and feel like a natural extension of the roleplaying experience.

It’s in the early stages at the moment, but I’m prototyping core mechanics at the moment. From a design perspective I have a few goals:

  1. Rules should be simple to understand and unobtrusive
  2. Rules should seem organically developed from the roleplaying experience
  3. The game should have a clear, purposeful, definitive goal
  4. Players should always feel like the game is moving along with them
  5. The game should be enjoyable for anyone willing to roleplay
  6. The game should be replayable

These are probably features of all game design, but for a very small game, I think they are especially important. Anyways, I’ll be talking more about it as I work out systems and how they (and characters) interact. With a group of players willing to be a bit silly and a bit cutthroat, this game hopefully will be a lot of fun.

The Division, Part Two: A Broken, Lawless World

So it seems that The Division is broken. From what some of the developers have said, perhaps critically so. Fatally so. In the game’s current state, hacking the game is pretty simple (with a few handy tools) and it doesn’t look like there’s a quick fix that Ubisoft can deploy.

Hilariously, this turn of events mirrors the fears that the game tries to establish–namely that with the absence of a strong presence of law and order society falls apart; the strong prey on the weak; evil wins. The question that exists now is “Can Ubisoft do anything to fix this problem?” From what I can tell, this really just means I won’t be running around in the Dark Zone (the game’s quasi-PVP area) anytime soon.

Which is too bad, because before the game-breaking exploits were figured out the Dark Zone was one of the most interesting experiences. The Dark Zone is the wild west of The Division. Within the contaminated, walled zone players can run around with other Division agents (read: other players), taking on tough gangs that rove the streets, looking for special loot that can be air-lifted back in special extraction zones. But, as in the main game, you are largely alone. Any peace you strike up with a fellow Division agent is little more than a handshake saying that you’ll watch their back. Snag a piece of loot that another player wants and you might get stabbed in the back.

Art

The Dark Zone the most interesting aspect of The Division because there aren’t really any rules. As long as you don’t shoot other Division agents, you won’t draw any extra attention to yourself. Once you execute another player, for whatever reason, you’re suddenly the target of any other operatives in the area. Open season. But for some people, putting down another player for their gear might be worth the massive target that gets painted on your back. Now that the weapons hacks are easy employ, the dynamic of the Dark Zone inherently changes.

Say Ubisoft patches the game with a fix to this issue. Then what? Is the game still worth playing?

For me, the answer is “Not really.” This isn’t to say that I haven’t had my fun with The Division, but when I’m looking at games I want to play, The Division rarely beats out other games in my library. I just don’t get the desire to play what The Division offers.

And I think this is because of the ludonarrative issues I have with the game. Everything I expect from a Tom Clancy shooter just doesn’t mesh with the RPG elements of the game.

On top of this, when I first booted up the game, I almost immediately envisioned the game that could have been–one that is fresh and compelling. Imagine the following:

You are a Division agent. The Division is a taskforce that deployed highly-trained operatives who have integrated as citizens in their respective deployment zones. When disaster strikes, these operatives are activated to provide disaster relief to the local area. This may include law enforcement, but it would also focus on providing first aid, clean water, food, logistics support, communications–you know, all the things that humans actually need during a natural disaster. A game that required you to lower your weapon for a moment and find solutions to local problems that don’t involve spraying bullets would be incredible.

You okay bro
“You look like you need help, friend, but all I’ve got is this very big rifle…”

It would be a game that really hasn’t been done before, to my knowledge. The setting of a largely lawless New York City is great. Ubisoft has created a beautiful environment with The Division, but in the end the player has only been given a hammer before being unleashed on the city. How much more interesting would the game be if you had a whole set of tools? If you didn’t have a gun? If you were forced to confront or avoid burgeoning gangs and unrest with just your training in de-escalation tactics?

That’s a game I want to play more than any shooter. That’s a game that would take some guts to make.

But wouldn’t it be cool?

The Division, Part One: Shiny Super Soldiers

I’ve been playing Tom Clancy’s The Division recently, which I believe is the first AAA game I’ve purchased since Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I do not play a lot of games coming from AAA studios. If you’ve read any of my games writing, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about games coming from smaller studios, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like big budget games. I like the spectacle and production value of the thing, just as I like the summer blockbuster.

Tom Clancy (RIP) is a franchise; he has been for a very long time. His novels, and the movies and video games that spawned from his writing, root their appeal in the concept of Extremely Competent People. It’s fictional comfort food because we want to believe there are people in positions of power who are better than the average person. More capable. Gifted to extraordinary measures.

Ding Chavez is the Army recon specialist who ends up running a multi-national team of special forces soldiers. In fact, his novel Rainbow Six is probably the best example of this phenomenon.

And this phenomenon of hyper competent soldiers carries over to nearly every game with Clancy’s name on it: Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon.

While Tom Clancy games have always featured this frankly unrealistic depiction of the super soldier–men and women who continue to operate effectively through the concussive force of explosions, trauma, and every other aspect of warfare that might leave a toll on a soldier’s morale–it has almost always been situated in real-world environments and scenarios. They may not always be entirely believable, but they’re close, which is why they work as military fiction. In the end the story Clancy tells promotes a pro-government, pro-military might position (which should be distinguished from pro-military, which will come up later).

The Division is the latest entry into this genre, and we see the familiar trappings of the Clancy genre: competent government-sanctioned operatives conducting military operations in real-world environments. Disease outbreak has resulted in a complete breakdown of law and order on the island of Manhattan, and in that vacuum local factions have risen to power, turning the streets of Manhattan into sections of territory carved out by gun-toting gangs.

You are a recently activated Division agent–an individual who initially sounds like a local, community-based, aid/disaster-relief worker with some specialized military training. It’s a good thing they threw in that military training, because basically every problem in The Big Apple has to be solved with a steady stream of flying lead.

Love makes the world go round
This is my Division agent. Who was she before she was activated? Why does she always wear aviators, even at night? How does every article of clothing fit her perfectly? I haven’t had time to ask because there are larger, weirder questions in the world that need answering.

Tom Clancy games have always been about solving global crises with violence. In the context of a Tom Clancy game, this usually makes sense. Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon focus on soldiers who practice their trade around the globe in very specific, tactical conditions. Terrorists have captured a casino or research station in the Alps, and must be dealt with in very specific, violent means.

The Division changes this formula by placing the traditional Clancy soldier in urban centers facing off against civilians. In fact, the only non-civilians you end up fighting are the occasional Division agent gone rogue. Say what you want about the game’s setting and premise, but the fact that you’re fighting civilians who refuse to accept/preserve the rule of law in New York City is an inherently different and uncomfortable situation to put players in.

Fuck Justice
Civil disobedience as seen through the Clancy Filter

Realistically, if this title existed under any umbrella other than the Clancy one, it might actually work as an over-the-top, absurdist, comic book version of a near-future apocalypse. But even if the Clancy brand pushes the limit of believability when it comes to soldiery, it’s never been a brand to distort a setting. Clancy settings may play to conservative fears, but they generally exist within the realm of reality.

The Division breaks that tradition. Hard. In part two (which will be posted in a few days) we’ll look at how the Clancy brand meets the modern urban setting, the ways in which RPG mechanics inform the New York setting. You can probably tell already that I don’t these these ideas work together, but does that make The Division a lost cause? Is there still some pleasure to be had with the game?

Meet me back here in a few days and we’ll talk about it.

December will always be terrible, but I’m going to try to be better at it

December is a hard month for me. It has been for a very long time, and the more time that passes, the more baggage builds up around this particularly stressful time, just making it worse. December is traditionally not a great month for me, and it may not be for you either if you are:

1. Effected by seasonal depression 

It sucks. You can put on a mask for a while, but it’s one of those ever-present things that make everyday life-stuff harder. In fact, it just makes everything harder and it’s the worst.

2. Unhappy with your current state 

December is that “look back and see what you’ve done” time that is sometimes hard for me. Even when I list out the things I’m proud of, there always seems to be a second list of personal failures or things I’m unsatisfied with. I’m quick to overvalue my mistakes and failures and slow to recognize my accomplishments, and so this sort of year-end reflection is rarely as uplifting or positive as it should be.

And sometimes it’s hard to evaluate the worth of your year when there are so many unknowns in your immediate future. I’m in the throes of job searching, which alone is stressful, but then there’s the “what has my last year of work produced, and is it applicable to what I’m looking for now” question–one which probably all freelance writers have to contend with.

I’m not happy with my health. I’m a big dude, and while I’ve made some significant changes over the last few years that have been good for me, I know I can do more to work towards a healthier lifestyle. I still like food that is terrible for me and probably eat too much of it.

Spiritually I’m not where I want to be. And that’s probably something that everyone who aligns themselves along the religious spectrum feels, but that doesn’t make the feeling intense. I think I’ve changed a lot in the last decade, become a human that tries to let empathy be the guiding force for my interactions with others. It has shaped my views in ways that mean many things I feel no longer align with the religious institutions I’ve grown up with. I have changed; they have stayed the same. Growth is good, but it means the list of “people you can turn to for spiritual advice” is very short indeed. Again, I feel as though I’m in a transitional period, and while it doesn’t stress me out, per se, if I had a board labeled “Life Stuff” with pictures and strings connecting the various elements, there’s be an assemblage of notes with lots of red ink and question marks on this particular section of the board.

3. Stressed by having to share your “state” with family

I don’t know if I really need to say much about this one. My family is a great stressor in my life. I love them very much, but holidays are…difficult.

4. Alone

Christmastime is the worst for this. I am often okay with my singleness, but when every outlet shouts that you’re missing out on a major part of the holiday because you don’t happen to be sharing it with a significant other, it becomes frustrating, as if the way you’re doing “life” isn’t correct. Oh are you all alone in this winter wonderland? Piss off, and here’s a Kay’s Jewelers commercial of people who are happier than you and have found someone they care for. And look, he bought her a diamond and they’re wearing cute sweaters by a log fire.

I get it, but it’s still not easy.

5. Feeling the lost a person/pet

Okay, so this is a little more specific, but this December is also kinda hard because I had to put down my dog of 13 years. So this is less of “this is why December always sucks” and more of “this is why this December it a little worse than usual.”

December is unequivocally the foulest month of the year for me. And maybe that will change at some point and one day I’ll realize that I have the things I care for and I’m satisfied with the things I’m doing and that maybe I just don’t care what my family thinks.

 

But that hasn’t happened yet for me. And while it’s easy to get down about these things, I’m trying my hardest not to let it totally sink my December by finding those things that really make life okay and prioritizing them. Scheduling them. Using them to push against those things that make me unhappy and make this time of year especially difficult. Here’s the short list:

1. Dedicated communication with friends

I am grateful that I have a fantastic group of friends that I can be open with. Some of them are hundreds of miles away, and some are in the same town I’m in. All of them are Very Cool people that I like a lot. Maintaining those connections this time of year helps.

2. Hard workouts

I give myself a pass sometimes and trade difficult day for a light workout. That needs to end this month. The feeling after a hard workout is the thing I will need to get me through the next few weeks.

3. Writing

Yeah, I know this is typically a writing blog, so here’s my weak connection. But seriously, I need to spend more time allowing for my own creative works, and moreover I need to be less critical of it. My critical process just kills forward movement on a project. It’s great for deep edits, but very bad for the drafting process.

4. Reflection/Meditation

This is something that has really helped in the past, and something I need to get back into. Maybe I’ll do some writing about my process for reflective writing and meditation later.

 

Well, that’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll get back to writing in this space a bit more frequently this month. I’ve got some topics cooking that I probably need to share.