Friday, 8 March 2013

Finished: To The Moon

To The Moon is an adventure game by Freebird Games made using RPG Maker. It follows a pair of doctors, Dr Eva Rosaline and Dr Neil Watts as they explore an old man named Johnny's memories in order to rewrite them such that they fulfill his final wish, to visit the moon.

They work for an organisation whose business is just that, you are reaching the end of your life, so you hire them to search through your memories, nudge various events and simulate how your life would have been had you taken the other path. Then they dump these new memories over the old ones.

The game itself is fairly simple, consisting primarily of exploring an area/memory to find objects and talk to people, then once the right objects have been found, to complete a fairly simple tile flipping puzzle. To be honest though, that doesn't matter, because the game tells the story of Johnny's life so well using these systems and music, that you can't help but be drawn in. The game took me about 3 and a half hours to complete, and once I was about half an hour in I did not want to stop until the story was over.

The way the story is told has a kind of memento vibe to it, the doctors have to start with more recent memories and work their way back toward childhood, so you have a similar pattern of seeing Johnny's more recent history, but not have the context. It results in drawing conclusions that you later revise as new information comes to light and completely changes the interpretation of later events.

Personally I find the concept of deliberately rewriting someone's memories really disturbing, that the technology exists has interesting consequences from a world building perspective, and whilst clearly they have permission (complete with a contract) to be rewriting Johnny's mind I still find it to be morally questionable. The game feels heartwarming and uplifting towards the end, but I can't help but feel that those notes are false in the wider context of what is going on. Changing how Johnny remembers his life doesn't change the life he actually led.

I do think that this game could probably be told just as well in another medium, though perhaps not by the game designer. I wonder if in its current state, the game format results in a closer attachment by the player to Eva, Neil and Johnny.

Of the games I played in 2012, this one probably had the greatest emotional impact on me, I thoroughly recommend playing through it and picking up the wonderful soundtrack.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

EuroUS Trip 2012 - 2013: Germany


Berlin was a fairly depressing city, to be fair that probably has a lot to do with the sites we visited, which were focused around World War 2 and the Cold War, the East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, Sachsenhausen, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror.

See, totally made it there!
Our stay in Berlin actually included New Years Eve, despite having arrived in town at 4am (alas, the timing of planes and trains were less than ideal), we did in fact make our way to Brandenburger Tor, where the big celebrations are held. We didn't realise at the time that the entrance to the celebrations were actually quite far from the Tor itself, we had to make our way around most of the Tiergarten before we could get in, and once we were in, well it was like a really crowded carnival. It had the same 4 or 5 stores repeated along the entire party mile, each selling either silly hats, lollies, bratwurst, glühwein or beer. There was a single ride, that being a ferries wheel, and as you worked your way closer to the Tor, the crowd grew thicker and the entertainment louder. The entertainment on offer seemed like pretty standard pop music fare, but in German, which did help me enjoy it. Didn't even make it to 9pm before we decided to head back to the hotel.

Personally I think that Sachsenhausen and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe were the most powerful places we visited. Our trip to Sachsenhausen was as part of a guided tour and so were told the history of the camp as we went through it, giving insights into the purpose behind the layout and the sheer amount of time, thought and effort that went into the systems of cruelty. It really drives home that this was not done for purely cynical and logical reasons, but for fanatical ideological ones, enough people really believed in what they were doing. They would have known that the world in general would not approve, nor even the population at large in Germany, but it was a task they felt was necessary.

Alas a reconstruction, but this was taken at about 4am on New Years Eve
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or rather the museum beneath it, is laid out in a very interesting way. It consists of 4 rooms, in a loop. The first is a fairly straight forward history of the persecution of the Jews in Europe in the lead up to WW2, through to the completion of the war. Finishing with 6 portraits to give faces to the millions that were murdered. The second room is artifacts, scraps of diaries, letters and other records from Jews in the camps, some of them revealing what has happened to them, some showing vague knowledge of what will happen next. The third room is about families, they have about a dozen of them, each with a nice family photo, a map of where they were from and what the family did to try to escape persecution, finally it has a list of all the family members and you can see, that maybe 1 or 2 survive the war of a family of a dozen people. The last room was the most impactful, it was a darkened very simple room, with seating around the centre and plain unmarked walls. It projects a name on the wall and then tells that person's story, first in German, then in English. They all end with "and they died in a camp in X" or "and they were never heard from again". The names just keep coming, with no signs of repeating, I have no idea how many names and stories that they have, but longer than I was willing to sit in that room.

By no means was Berlin all fireworks and depression, we also visited the Pergamon museum, the Bundestag dome and just a lot of walking around. The tours we went on in the city were good and the Street Art tour was focused primarily on the Berlin of today rather than the Berlin of 70-30 years ago.


We visited Hamburg for one reason, the Miniatur Wunderland. The world's largest model railway. It (currently) takes up a floor and a half of the building it is in, with the intent to eventually take up at least 2 floors. I have no idea how my girlfriend first found out about this place, but it we simply had to go there while we were in Europe. We spent the entire day there, exploring all of the various locations they have been inspired by. Switzerland, Germany, America and Scandinavia are all represented along with their own entirely made up areas. There is even a working airport, with planes landing and taking off (atop of transparent poles admittedly).

The entire place is packed with amazing little details, both mundane and fantastical. Even buildings that are almost impossible to see into seem to have fully detailed interiors, they even have a day/night cycle that lasts in total maybe 20 minutes, so you can see Vegas at night, or notice the UFO that periodically drops down to communicate with that alien that is standing out in the open but you simply did not notice until the UFO highlighted it.

It is a bit like Where's Wally, looking around at relatively normal scenes you start to notice little things, like Santas being everywhere (since we went close to Christmas time), or a Unicorn hidden in a cave in a mountainside, a thief tunneling into a bank vault, where police are ready to catch him or my favourite a couple having some fun in the woods. So many neat things that are easy to miss, I only noticed the last because a woman was taking photos of a seemingly boring section of woodlands.

The displays aren't entirely static either, there are buttons that will activate sections of scenery periodically, starting a play to be performed, or setting off a brush fire or starting up a chocolate factory. None of them are particularly well labeled, which can make working out just what has changed a challenge in of itself.

I am sure that Hamburg has other things to offer than model trains, but that was enough for us, maybe next time we are in the area we will actually look at more touristy activities.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Finished: Home

Home is a short atmospheric horror adventure game about trying to make your way home and make sense of the circumstances you found yourself in. It adjusts in various ways to your decisions, which can result in a very different final narrative (though the game ends up playing the same way).

The journey home is not straight forward and involves a trek through a surprisingly large number of locations, homes, tunnels, a forest, an abandoned factory, not a normal walk home. I picked up this game because a pair of my friends had played through it simultaneously each picking opposite decisions and discussing the differences and also, because it was cheap. Ultimately what seems to shape the story to various extents is what items you pick up and keep with you, primarily because in the final scenes this limits the options your character has available.

One thing I quite liked about this game was the boxed text, the graphics engine can only show so much, and can't really show more subtle things like smell and touch, or even just sounds and animations that the engine doesn't support. The boxed text was a fairly simple but effective way to convey that the mood.

Overall, Home was an interesting game, but not really one I think I would have bothered with were it not for a combination of a friend's recommendation, low price and short length. Had the game been much longer I suspect it may have ended up on the Abandoned list.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Finished: Saints Row The Third

I picked up Saints Row the Third in a Christmas sale on steam, when they were selling the pack with most of the DLC ridiculously cheaply. Not the last time that THQ tried to raise funds that way, but at the time THQ's financial woes had yet to make headlines and I had not finished Saints Row 2.

Saints Row 2 moved the franchise from a fairly basic Grand Theft Auto knock off to its own firm territory, introducing a huge variety of side missions and firmly gating story behind a requirement to play around, explore the city and do some very silly things. While it was a great game, I was happy to move on when I was done rather than aim for 100% completion, because there was simply too much stuff left to do, and because I knew that to a certain extent Saints Row 3 was there, which would give  me more things to do, whilst also giving me a goal and direction.

SR3 is violent and silly. It wears the sillyness proudly, and deliberately rubs your face in it. It exists in a bizarre, ultra-violent world, where the leadership of a criminal gang can become the focus of a notable international brand, it has a gameshow that involves condemned criminals as some of the contestants, and it has a "car chase" with human pony carriages. A car chase where when the carriage is destroyed it explodes the same way as every other vehicle in the game.

Despite the amazing amount of power that the game simply hands the player (especially if they have bought the various DLCs), the game managed to hold my attention and entertain me. It doesn't mitigate your ability to use ridiculous powers, it just encourages you to try different weapons and to play.

Because of the ridiculous nature of the universe, you simply can't be sure where the story will go next, what new strangeness show up, taking the story in a new direction whilst still allowing the Saints to continue their inexorable rise to power.

Hopefully the new owners of the IP will continue the tradition of putting the game on sale for super cheap, because its definitely worth a play. Provided you can cope with the violence and sexual themes that are in the game.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

EuroUS Trip 2012 - 2013: Sweden


Stockholm was a good introduction to Europe  I could rely on everyone speaking English though most of the conversation around me was in Swedish, the weather was cold and snowy, but the gear I took with me was easily sufficient.Plus there was snow everywhere, it snowed at least a bit every day we were there. Including Christmas day, a white Christmas, one thus unlike any other I have ever known.

Didn't get up to a great deal in Stockholm, had a Julbord (Christmas buffet) at a fancy restaurant, wandered around Gamla stan (the old part of Stockholm) and went to Skansen, which is basically a Swedish mix between Taronga Zoo and Old Sydney Town. Scandinavian animals with good views of the city, and old Swedish buildings, complete with staff to tell you about how they were used by Swedes in the 1800s.

We also watched The Hobbit there, didn't see the 3D version unfortunately due to concerns about subtitles. That said all the subtitles were in Swedish anyway which I cannot follow, so I had to rely on the context for anything spoken in Elvish or Orcish. Turns out I am a lot more familiar with the hobbit than I thought, probably because I used to have it on tape, and so have listened through it a fair number of times. I really enjoyed the movie, look forward to seeing the later ones when they are released.


Kiruna was cold, seriously in Kiruna it was typically around -21C, and that was actually meant to be warm, the week before it had been about -30. It is easily the coldest place I have ever been to, and we pretty much did not leave the hotel unless we had an activity, because the cold weather gear we had was not up to the task of keeping us warm. Heck even with the addition of further warmer clothing from our organised activities, the cold still would seep through by the end.

Unfortunately we did not see the northern lights, the one night we did not have an activity, they turned up whilst we were warm in our bed. Fortunately the trip was not a waste, the activities we did were interesting and fun and Kiruna itself is very pretty. The snow is everywhere, and since it doesn't go above 0 degrees in the winter and doesn't encounter much traffic you never get the slush issues you do elsewhere. You pretty much just get white snow coating everything and about 4 hours of light that is always somewhat approximating sunrise and sunset.

We went up a mountain, we went on a dog sled  we ate Sami food in a lavvi (traditional Sami tent), explored the Icehotel and I got to drive a snowmobile. It was a set of wonderful experiences that made temporarily braving the cold worth it.

That said, I was not sad to leave it behind and head to warmer climes. The next stop after Sweden was Germany

Monday, 25 February 2013

Finished: FTL

FTL: Faster Than Light is a Roguelikelike by Subspace games.

This is the first videogame that I backed on kickstarter and subsequently received. As a result I actually received it two weeks before release and thus it is also the first game I finished prior to its official release.

In FTL you control a ship from the remains of the Federation, fleeing from the Rebellion trying to reach the last Federation fleet and provide it with vital information that may change the tide of the war.

This isn't a dogfighting space sim, you don’t control the combat manoeuvres of your ship, instead you control the movement of your crew, the flow of power between subsystems, where weapons are targeted and most importantly opening and closing of doors.

This makes FTL a game where retreating to the medbay and opening most of the ship to vacuum is a viable and useful strategy, helping to combat both boarding parties and fires. A game where a good long term strategy can be to target an enemy ship's life support and watch its crew suffocate, because if you can capture a ship intact you get better loot.

The game has two main components, exploration and combat. In each of the 8 sectors you visit, there is a star map with a series of beacons, your ship has a maximum range and the aim is to get to the exit, but not really to get there as quickly as possible. You need to gather supplies and resources, which means trying to visit as many of those beacons as possible whilst still avoiding the rebel fleet that is always a few jumps behind. At each beacon there is a chance of a ship (and most likely a fight), or an event.

Events can range drastically from quests, to bomb defusing to finding a crashed ship on a nearby planet. This is probably where most of the complaints of randomness come from. It is impossible to know just what event will occur at any beacon, and some of these events have no right answer. Literally red wire or blue wire, either has a 50% chance of being the right wire to cut. Much of the time you can choose not to participate and thus to get no reward either way, but that too is not a winning move.

The solution to this problem is about knowing how secure your current situation and basically trying to risk only when appropriate. Avoid situations dealing with events where you might lose crew members if you only have a few, avoid encounters with asteroids if you are on low hull etc. The other mitigating factor is that the game features blue options, ones that only appear if you have the prerequisite equipment or crew member on board. Blue options are never actually bad, at worst they bypass the encounter, at best they give better results than the standard options. In my experience they does a pretty good job at encouraging crew and system diversity.

In general you get to be a good guy,
sometimes you can choose to be pretty evil
Combat is where you will spend most of your time in FTL, the universe is a dangerous place and an awful lot of people in it would rather see you dead and all your stuff in their cargo hold. The combat is fairly simple but effective, weapons by default never miss, but piloting and engines gives ships evasion, which is a straight percentage. Ships also have shields, which absorbs laser and beam weapon fire, a large part of combat is trying to disable enemy shields and weapons. Finally there are bombs and missiles, which require consumable items to use, but have the distinct advantage of ignoring shields, bombs don't do direct damage but also rely on teleportation which makes them harder to stop.

There is also boarding and drones, boarding is done via a teleporter room, and lets one ship send crew to the other, it is extremely powerful, capturing a ship intact gives significantly greater rewards than destroying them, but it requires more risk, teleporters have a cooldown and it really sucks seeing one of your crew die because you couldn't pull them out in time, only thing that is worse is accidentally destroying the ship with your boarding party aboard. Drones on the other hand, serve a different purpose, they also require consumable items but they are used much more slowly than missiles. Drones can provide missile defence, they can augment your crew by repairing your systems or repelling boarders, they can even be a rapid firing weapon platform (that you unfortunately cannot aim) or board enemy ships for you.

4 of the ship systems, Engines, Cockpit, Shields and Weapons are able to be manned to provide some benefit, increased evasion (a cockpit with no pilot means you have basically no evasion), faster shield regeneration and more rapid weapons firing. With a crew of up to 8 that leaves an additional 4 guys to work as back up or as boarding parties.

I may have made a few mistakes in this run
I have spent far too much time on this game, I know most of the events, what the better choices are, when I should be saving scrap and when it is reasonable to spend it, and I have unlocked the two ships that I personally find to be the most powerful, though the trickiest to start with. As a result when I start a run I am confident that I will win it, but it certainly didn't start off that way. I failed and failed and failed to even get close to the end for ages and this is where I think FTL's biggest flaw lies. Player progression is remarkably opaque and this makes the game feel a lot more random than it is. I have seen this complaint repeated online that players don't feel like it is their fault that they are losing, the game is simply unfair and giving them impossible situations.

I think the reason for this is that it isn't really the last event or decision that kills your ship. It is a slower attrition of choices that didn't necessarily seem bad at the time that build up and them boom. As the player gets better at the game they start doing better more consistently but it is still hard to identify where, just that they are. I don't really know how to solve this, but I suspect that the too random description will dog FTL for some time as a result.

It is still a game I highly recommend I have spent over 90 hours on it and done some ridiculous self determined challenges on it. It was well worth the asking price for me. I hope that the developers release new content soon, but in the meantime there a thriving mod community around the game.