The 2011 NO BUY Game Challenge

Let’s see, CIV5, Call of Duty Black Ops, Star Craft 2, and there are probably more games I purchased in 2010 and haven’t really played out. I’ve ‘finished’ the campaigns but haven’t really gotten to the depth of game play with the multiplayer on any of them. I’m deep into WoW again with the expansion, so that should keep me going for a few months, and I still play TF2 at least once a week, so I don’t really need (let alone can afford) any new games this year. I have a stack waiting to be better explored in the Steam library. So the challenge for 2011 is no new games – unless Diablo 3 is released early.


P.S ipad games don’t count 🙂

Balancing WoW

Back to work this week, which means I have to scale back the World of Warcraft binge I was able to indulge in during the evenings over the 10 days of the shutdown period for christmas and new years. For the first time since early 2008 I didn’t do any work related emails, reading, writing or admin and it was glorious. I spent the days with the family, with trips to the various Melbourne Zoos, Botanic Gardens, and the local Parks, as well as a spot of gardening and engineering (also known as assembling the kids new outdoor swing set).

By night I resurrected the career of my World of Warcraft, human mage character Tallidus, devouring the new content and reaching level 85, specialising in the Arcane talent tree and spending a fortune in gold improving his riding and crafting abilities. Player guilds have been an important component of MMOs since the initial commercial success of Sony’s Everquest and they have been a fixture of the social life of WoW servers since launch.

Back in 2005 (that is BK or Before Kids), as L. and I progressed from level 0 to 60, we were part of the original Stormwind Infantry, an Alliance faction guild on the Silver Crusage server (a US server, alongside Blackrock that featured Australian and New Zealand players).  L’s character, Nyssah, and Tallidus, soon became guild officers and we participated in the early PVP battlegrounds and early Sunday morning social gatherings in Stormwind, Dungeon raids and the occasional Barrens storming and impromptu open realm PVP. Great times.

Going back to Azeroth for the Burning Crusade and the Wrath of the Lich King expansions, I didn’t feel much of the need to get back into the guild culture, but the new expansion Cataclysm has introduced new  guild ‘perks’, experience and reputation system for the Guilds. Roaming around the world Tallidus received plenty of random guild invites – the worst type,  just a random invite box without any previous contact or interest from some ‘scrub’ (the MMO equivalent of a FPS ‘noob’). It wasn’t until I was visiting the Action House in Dalaran, that I received a very friendly invite to join ‘Seriously Casual’ a guild with around 250 characters, about 20 or so online at one time from the Guild Leader Tutenshaman.  The casual nature of the guild is great, it’s friendly and helpful and each time we run a dungeon the more experienced members take the time to walk us through the boss fights. I’m already thinking of joining up my new Worgen characters and leveling them through to 85 to be a part of the guild progression, but that said I really should stop playing and get back to doing work again in the evenings. Warcraft takes a great deal of time to properly invest in and I’ve already noticed that I’m not doing as much research related reading as I probably should in the evenings and my thoughts tend toward WoW more than other things during the day! I’m just a classic WoW addict.

RPG #2

The second week of the Rune Quest 2 campaign went exceptionally well last night with pizza and ninja bread men, although Xavier did his best to stay up late to see what all the fuss was about.

I’m really enjoying the bronze-age mythological Glorantha game world setting and the Rune Quest rule system, but it is really great to be playing with role playing newbies again. Having players who have never played a pen-and-paper RPG before brings a whole new chaotic element to the game: who’d have thought the teacher and the lawyer would bring torture, slavery and murder to the game in our second week (those goblins really shouldn’t have stolen our horses) – and both are pregnant women, talk about shattering stereotypes.

It was good to test out the combat system, even if we did try to reason with the Goblins to get our horses back first – but we weren’t prepaid to pay for our horses they stole. Trax (my character) took a hard line stance on the suggestion that we press the goblins into our service, preferring instead to send then theives on to their next reincarnation in the great ouroboros of life.

Just a shame we have to break for the holidays – looking forward to more games in 2011.

Here is the rough background I’ve sketched out for my character, Trax A’mococo, the grizzled veteran mercenary, from the Black Grove Clan, in Delela. Trax was once a keen if amateur musician and married at a young age, but certain events lead to the death of his young love and another warrior in the clan. Although not entirely his fault, Trax was deeply troubled by the tragedy, which lead him to accompanying Soliste in the EWF raiding parties – through a growing commitment to the Humakt the Claw, a warrior and death cult that believes death is merely the requirement to move on to the stage of the great ouroboros, he has concentrated his marshal training in battlefield tactics and favours the hoplite fighting style shield and spear (he trains obsessively in fighting with the short and long spear as well as the javelin). His manner once jovial and lighthearted is now an enforced matter-of-fact facade, a deliberately attempt to tempter the rage of youth. Not afraid of death or dying, he avoids rushing into battle like many hotheads in the death cult, but once weighing the situation he commits to the battlefield with unrelenting determination and cold expertise.

Historical rationality: some thoughts on Civilisation 5

During a short trip to Tasmania last week for my grandmother’s fabulous 90th birthday celebrations, I managed to cram in two activities – reading a little of Raymond Williams (1977) Marxism and Literature, and playing quite a bit of Civilization 5 (Civ5) – about 15 hours worth. Civ5 is the latest in the turn-based strategy series created by Sid Meir back in the early 1990s. Like many PC gamers, I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the years training settlers, exploring territory, waging war and researching new technologies, all in the name of empire building. For those unfamiliar with the series take a quick look here for more of the basics. Some good ‘reviews’ of the game are here, here and here. I mention the Williams text because I was intrigued by the parallels between Williams’ account of the term ‘civilization’ and my experiences with the new version of the game.

Civilization, according to Williams (p.13), is an expression with two senses that are historically linked: the achieved state (that is the state  opposed to barbarism) and a sense of development that implies historical progress. Both senses are represented in the game – early on your budding Civilization is beset on all sides, by ruthless Barbarian raiders, and competing nations (these nations are led by famous political figures and I seem to be up against the German leader, Otto Von Bismarck and the Iroquois Hiawatha quite a lot) – and the new addition of city states (fortified and independent one city regions with which you can ally, trade or conquer). Historical progress, as always in Civ games, is positioned as a marker of success (inversely an indication of a ‘bad‘ player is stagnation). Progress occurs as you settle (or conquer) cities and research new technologies, which unlock further military units to produce and buildings to construct. As Williams says of the Enlightenment, Civ5 combines historical rationality with self-referential celebration of an achieve condition of refinement: as each turn your cities contribute research points and each successfully researched technology is announced with celebration of an achieved condition. There is a great sense of inevitability about the conclusion of the game – right from the start and despite the hundreds of turns it requires to finish, that although the goal is to build something, what you will produce is something that has already been built before – it’s a game of turn based emulation. This can have great entertainment and pleasure attached to it, but it can also be hard to shake off the ennui of déjà vu. Although this is tempered slightly by the small differences between the different ‘races’ or ‘Civs’ that you can play in the game – each time you found a new city it will be named accordingly – choose England and your cities will be named London, Yorke, etc, and each Civ has ‘unique’ units and traits – Englands gets +1 movement for naval units and the Longbowmen archers to play with.  But whether you play the Americans, the Chinese, or the Egyptians, your Civ’s real identity is generated through the technologies you research and the path to victory that you choose to pursue: annihilating others for the World Domination victory, researching technology for the science ‘Space Race victory, producing culture and civic policies for the Utopia Project victory. It is very much a systematized triumph of rational values.

This version of the game is wonderful to look at, and the streamlined interface makes it much easier to play and balance out the improvements in the cities. The introduction of hexes rather than squares for unit movement, and the limitation of one unit-per-hex, makes combat highly rewarding and over comes much of the boredom of the late game found in earlier versions. Game play is always centered around the success of the metropolitan – keeping the citizens of your cities happy with culture, food and wealth, while the regional areas purely exist to be cultivated, tamed and provide raw mineral and agricultural resources. For me greater connection between my ‘workers’ who ‘improve’ the environment by building farms, chopping down forests, mining resources and the improvements in my cities – building theaters, schools, or gardens for example, would make the game more rewarding to play (or at least make managing these units more interesting).

Some of the less successful changes to the game are the civics and cultural research elements and gone is the ability to take over other civilizations through religious indoctrination and cultural export: one of my favorite tactics in Civ 4 was world domination by cultural imperialism. Civilization has become much more secular and liberalised – choosing a Marxist inspired civic policy for your civilization no longer results in a period of instability in your governance but happier workers in your cities (?!). The diplomacy victory is very elusive, and its near impossible to please all the AI Civs and City States simultaneously without generating massive income to bribe them all.

In most Civ games culture is conflated with cultivation and scientific progress, these are are just processes of accumulation and refinement: even once you have completed the research tree your scientists continue to generate generic ‘future tech’ to increase your game score. All this makes me wonder about a very different turn based civilisation-building strategy game, one that generates a narrative based on your actions, where your choices in what you build, where you explore, what technologies you develop and how you treat those you find in the game. A game where the civilization is a result of your decisions, actions and the outcomes of your negotiations and battles, one that isn’t purely based on historical rationality and is connected more closely to the ties between the state and the citizen: through art, literature, religion, entertainment, and the institutions of the state and practices, meaning and values of the population but perhaps this would be too complex.  Civ5 does a good job of being complex in the menu structure without being too obviously complex for new players but I want more emergent narrative – I want my workers to mean something, my military success and losses to mean something for the virtual people in my virtual cities and a story that builds rather than an inevitable conclusion that occurs from jumping through predefined hoops. Williams account of the term civilization, as it became linked to  then separated from and again reunited with – culture and industrial society, and then eventually linked to past glories as a received state rather than continuing process that face challenges from socialism, democracy and consumerism, for me, hints at the much more exciting experience that a Civ game could be.

The interactions with the AI Generals are far too simplistic and erratic – why do leaders that convince me to attack their enemies refer to me as bloodthirsty? For my mind the best version of the series is still Alpha Centauri – which allowed you to terraform the environment to suit your civilization and create units by researching various parts and assembling them in weird ways. This version of CIv5 looks to be modding friendly so I still have my hopes, and I’m sure there will be a series of (expensive) content to download keep me playing, which brings me to two serious gripes about this Civilization version: cost and buggy game launch.

Australian gamers are penalized for buying the game through Steam – the digital distribution service run by the Valve Corporation. The game’s publisher 2K are selling the game for $US50 in the States, while I can understand this equates to a AU$70 for physical retail copies it doesn’t explain why the digital version at launch was $79.99, especially give the new parity of the AU and US dollar. The launch was also one of the worst experiences I’ve had with games through Steam, and after installing the game through Steam it corrupted by Steam folder, refused to operate and I had to trawl through hundreds of – how to fix CIV5 game crash blog and forum posts from irate gamers struggling to get their game to work. Strangely enough while the game wouldn’t run on Direct X version 10 and 11 on the the desktop PC with Win 7 – yet it would run on the laptop with Direct x version 9 and Vista. however, from this experience I’ve learned two important lessons – not to buy games like Civ (which are mostly single player experiences) at launch (Fallout: New Vegas – you are going to have to wait until after Christmas and your price comes down) and hold off at least until the first patch is released.

“Time to Man Up”

Gender studies is mostly definitely not my field but there is something about the characters in StarCraft2 that goes well beyond cliched representations of masculinity in games like Grand Theft Auto and Medal of Honour, and I think it has something to do with the Power Armour. Humans are frail terrestrial creatures not suited to the harsh environments that makes the StarCraft single player campaign so interesting: derelict space stations, magma planets, firestorms, etc. Unlike the Power Armour of the imperial Knightly orders of the Game’s Workshop’s Warhammer 40K Space Marines, the Star Craft marines suits are not ancient legendary artefacts hardwired into the human biology, but a cross between spacesuits and body armour. All but one of the characters in Starcraft 2 can remove their suits, the convict Tychus being the exception.  The male lead of the story, Jim Raynor, is rarely seen in suit during cutscenes, and his in-game avatar reveals little of his own suit –  until the close of the campaign –  but his homicidal compadre Tychus is locked in his Power Armour for the duration.  Encased there by the games central foe Arcturus Mensk, suggesting that the suits are not sanctuaries of protection in combat, but prisons of war. Tychus’s armour is even adorned with the “bomber girl” artwork of World War 2 fighter bombers, connecting the suit to a traditional of adorning the vehicles of war, conquest, exploration and objectification that is thousand of years old.

In order to compete against the biological infestation of the alien Zerg, and the brutality techno-spirituality of the equally alien Protoss, and the devastation of galactic civil war, the men of Starcraft must done the Power Armour. Women are seen as love interests for Raynor in the narrative of the campaign and support units in the Starcraft 2 battlefields. Women can be medics with their streamlined non-combat suits and they do get to be Banshee pilots, but you can form your own thoughts about the how they are represented by the in-game avatars. Even the central love interest Kerrigan, as the terrifying Zerg-hybrid Queen-of-Blades, is rescued by Raynor, and rendered helpless and naked at the close of the campaign – (SPOILER ALERT) – Raynor has to protect Kerrigan, against Tychus as he is offered a full pardon and release from his suit by Mensk to assassinate Kerrigan. Raynor must choose between his best friend, to whom he owes his life, and Kerrigan to whom he devotes his heart – did I mention that the campaign narrative was trite, melodramatic and overblown, well it is but it’s also fun, although it hasn’t offered the replay attraction that I first thought it might.

Hypermasculinity is a term that enters the lexicon from pyschology, and refers to behaviours associated with features of the male biology and historical, social and cultural tropes and stereotypical of male behaviour, attitudes and roles. Tychus’s endless and overt aggression in Starcraft2 is a good example of hypermasculinity, as is Raynor’s whiskey drinking, women lovin’, cowboy routine. It makes the melodrama of the narrative campaign irritating, and it reduces the already limited empathy for these characters during in game action. As I mentioned my familiarity with gender studies arguments is pretty limited, but the post from Atomic PC magazine, titled ‘Top five reasons Starcraft and Firefly share the same world‘ got me thinking about the different ways gender is framed in these similar science fiction universes, and why they very much do not share the same world (apart from the fact there are no aliens in the Firefly universe).

The various archetypes in Firefly, the cowboy, the preacher, the mercenary, the doctor, are variously hypermasculised, but it is their relationships with the women in the universe that sets it apart from Starcraft – there is room to be fallable, to fail, to be rescued, saved, redeemed and even weak, but Starcraft2 offers none of this parity. The men and women of Starcraft are bland, their stories are compacted stereotypes and the narrative obvious. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the game and I very much enjoyed the single player campaign but it is the real time strategy (RTS) equivalent of Twilight and Barbie, and if I have to listen to Raynor telling me to man up one more time I’m going to send his arse into a nest of Zerg and leave him there.