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New directions for 2013

Year 6 of this blog came to a close in one of those long dry spells. I’ve come to think of that entire year as a kind of early sabbatical, at least from the Oath, but it looks like that’s drawing out into an entire lazy weekend of years. I’m not going to attempt the annual summary post, because it would be extra-difficult this time around: so much of my gaming in 2012 went undocumented here that I would have to be working mainly from memory.

And, realizing this, I definitely want to get out of this slump, of playing games without writing about them. One of the inspirations for starting this blog in the first place was Adam Cadre’s rationale for his book and movie write-ups: “posting about these things assures that I’ll actually think about them”. I don’t just want to think, I want a record of my thoughts that I can look back on. Through a combination of business and laziness, I’ve been cheating myself out of that. I said that the original Oath was a failure due to interfering with clearing old games off the Stack, but that was never really the primary purpose of the blog. It was pretty good at getting me to post.

That said, what next? I have two posts I’d like to write right off: one on Antichamber, which I purchased and played to completion this weekend, and one on how I spent most of my leisure hours in the month of January instead of playing games (and why this is relevant to a gaming blog). After that, I want to finish doing the alphabet. I’m up to D now, which means I could try to finish Deus Ex, but given my previous sluggishness at getting into it, I’m actually kind of inclined to pick something fresh off the Stack (and I think I know what). Now, although it wasn’t part of the original plan, I have so far been doing two games for each letter: one that I have on physical media, which gets the full one-post-per-day treatment, and one that I don’t, which gets one post only. I may bend that further — I don’t want to limit myself to one post if I’m inclined to make more than one — but it’s a pattern I’m willing to follow further. I might even extend it to include a work of IF as a third game per letter. I haven’t really been touching IF on this blog lately outside of the annual Comp, and that isn’t where the really interesting stuff has been happening lately.

At any rate, the distinction between stuff I own on physical media and stuff I only have as downloads is one that I’d like to formally acknowledge in the new Oath. It fits with the aim of playing older games: in my stack, the games on physical media are the older ones, because I basically don’t buy games on physical media any more. Which also has the consequence that the physical sub-stack isn’t growing, and is thus in theory completable. So, from now on, these games are the ones that really count, as far as my self-imposed rules go. You know what doesn’t count? Bundles. Humble Indie Bundle, Indie Royale, Bundle in a Box: as far as I’m concerned, if it’s on a pay-what-you-want basis, it has the same status as all the free stuff on Newgrounds. This decision alone cuts the size of the Stack by about a third. I’ll be updating the Oath to reflect this new understanding shortly, and then start abiding by it again.

Reasons for Silence

So, I’ve fallen silent again. My last post, on the ending of Advent Rising, was a week ago, and it was about a week late — I had actually finished the game sometime the previous weekend. In truth, my attention has been occupied lately with first looking for a new place to live, then arranging to move, and most recently with packing. I’ve been playing various games all the while, of course — this is the first Steam Summer Sale I’ve been through without the strictures of the Oath, so I predictably splurged — but they haven’t been in alphabetical order, so I haven’t been posting about them.

But that’s too prosaic. So let’s say instead that the last two weeks have been dedicated to the secret, forbidden letter between A and B. Do you doubt there is such a thing? I say the gap between First and Rest, like that between unity and plurality, is too great to simply pass over without something occult lurking unobserved in the interstice. A game starting with this letter-that-is-not-a-letter would be subtle enough that one wouldn’t necessarily even notice that one was playing it. And naturally one could not post about it afterward, because how would you even type its title? It starts with a letter whose Unicode code point is at best fractional, and quite likely something exotic out of the fever-dreams of John Conway.

Anyway, I’ll be moving on to B soon. But first, I think I have another post about an A game coming on, similar to how I proceeded after 80 Days.

Doing the Alphabet

It’s been over two full months since my last post. I could describe the immediate causes for the delay, but to be honest, I’ve been through worse before and still posted. So I have to admit that the real reason is simply my abandonment of the Oath. I can’t write without a pretense of obligation. (And it really does have to be a pretense. Nothing kills motivation faster than real obligation.) But I am still unwilling to simply resume the Oath in its current form.

You know when I was posting the most frequently? 2010. The year of the Chronological Rundown, when I added an additional stricture on top of the Oath. I’d like to try something like that again, but without the Oath underneath it. I’ve made mutterings about doing the alphabet — one game starting with each letter — under something similar to 2010’s rules: at an allotted two weeks per letter, it would take a full year to get through all 26. I had been thinking of this as something I’d start with a new year, but why wait? It’s going to wind up irregular anyway, especially if I take October off for the IF Comp. Plus, on reflection, there needs to be a slot for 0-9, and possible punctuation, depending on how one wishes to handle the .hack series. So what the heck, this begins now, almost but not quite halfway through the year.

The new rules: I’ll start playing and posting about a game every two weeks, give or take. I may play other games without posting them, even if they’re on the Stack. In choosing the game to post about for each letter, I intend to give preference to ones on physical media. Bundles have exploded the Stack of late, but if I narrow my sights and only consider things I own on disc or cartridge to matter, the Stack can be seen to be shrinking after all. Exhausting my supply of such games is something I could actually accomplish, given a few more years, and when I do, I can pretend that it means something.

Tomorrow is 80 Days.

Where now?

It’s been about a month and a half since my last post. I should say a little something to let anyone who still has this in their RSS feed that I’m still around, and intend to start posting again posthaste. I fully intended to to start posting in February, but February was dominated by a major crunch at work, which wound up stretching into March. But that’s basically over now, and I’m even taking a couple of weeks off from work to recover. So the only thing keeping me from posting now is that I’ve fallen out of the habit somewhat.

At any rate, I played a bunch of games. Most of my gaming time in January was spent on trying out things that I had purchased but not tried, mostly from various bundles and Steam sales. I didn’t finish many; in most cases, I didn’t seriously try. I just wanted to get a better sense of where games are today — and my main conclusion is that we seem to be in the golden age of tower defense. But I also discovered that I own two distinct Qix clones, and I’ll have a thing or two to say about that. I played a chapter or two of Assassin’s Creed, but ultimately decided not to commit to it until I was writing again, because there’s a great deal to say about it — the narrative structure alone is worth a post. I got a great deal farther in Lego Batman, which I have relatively little to say about that I didn’t already say about Lego Star Wars, but I suppose is still worth a post or two. And I played a whole lot of Terraria.

Even during the crunch, I got some good iOS gaming time in on the bus to work, starting with Infinity Blade and the recommendations Gregory Weir made in response to my post on Angry Birds. I’ve finished most of them already; I’m finding that non-“casual” games for iOS tend to skew short, unless they’re ports from other systems. And yes, I have tried a couple of console-to-iOS ports; I’ve had my first real taste of Phoenix Wright this way, as well as gotten started on Final Fantasy III. FF3 used to be in a sort of deadlock state for me. For a while, the only platform it existed on in the US officially was the Nintendo DS. I had plans to get a DS as soon as I had finished all my GBA games, which I’ve very nearly done: the only one left is Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. But I remember thinking when I played the original Kingdom Hearts that I really wanted to play the rest of the Final Fantasy games before playing any more in that franchise, so I’d understand all the references. Well, the rise of phones and tablets as gaming platforms has cut that loop, and also made my eventual DS purchase far less likely.

The one thing I didn’t do was look at my older titles. This is because I somehow felt that I shouldn’t be playing them unless I’m also writing about them. So the blog continues to be counterproductive for shrinking the Stack even when I’m not writing it! I will say this, though: I’ve come to the conclusion that I should be considering the titles I own on physical media separately from the ones I only have through Steam or whatever, and possibly only consider the former as Stack material. This would give me a goal that I could possible finish in my lifetime.

I’ll still blog about other games, of course. In my previous post, I promised to say something about Solar 2, and I intend to make good on that tomorrow.

Five Years of Stack

The fifth anniversary of this blog’s beginning has come and passed, and so I think it’s time to take a look at where we’ve come with this little project so far. In significant ways, it’s been a failure.

One of the purposes of this blog was to motivate me to play all of the games I had accumulated over the years and never finished. Well, I started off with “just over 300 games” on my stack, and there are now just over 400. The Oath which was to see to the reduction of this number has a flaw: it allows me to count multiple titles purchased as a unit as a single purchase. I hadn’t supposed this would be a large factor when I framed the Oath, because compilation packages of this sort were seldom issued for anything other than major series, and there were only so many of those that I had any interest in. But somewhere along the line I decided it applied to any package deal on Steam or elsewhere, and that has become my dominant game-buying mode — it’s rare that I buy a game alone. Furthermore, I’m loath to close this loophole, because that would limit my access to those indie bundles I adore so.

But reducing the size of the Stack was really only a pretext all along, as the About page that I wrote five years ago acknowledges: “So really, this whole exercise is an excuse to play a bunch of old games and examine them in detail from today’s perspective.” But it’s getting to be more and more of a failure in that regard as well. Excluding the IF Comp, this year’s blogging covers nearly fifty games to various degrees of detail. Of those, only six were ones that I owned before starting the blog (and two of those remain unfinished). The Oath encourages me to prefer shorter games that I can finish quickly, and newer titles are more likely to fit that description than the ones that have managed to stay on the Stack for a decade.

If the Oath is failing me, it’s only fair, because I’ve been failing the Oath. Late posts have become the norm rather than the exception. Typically what happens is: I feel like gaming but not writing, so I try to cram as much game into a 24-hour period as I can in order to maximize the gaming/writing ratio. When I’m done, I haven’t left enough time to do the writing that I still don’t feel like, so I push it out to the next day, or further. If I’ve finished the game in the process, I feel like I have to summarize the entire experience in a single post, which is a difficult enough task that I procrastinate. If I haven’t finished the game, I feel like I can’t play it again until I’ve written something. Either way, it’s hurting my ability to finish games and write interesting commentary about them.

So, after five years, it’s time for a change. For the last week, I’ve completely abandoned the Oath and played freely, and I intend to continue in this state until at least the end of January while I contemplate what to replace it with. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t be blogging — I have some thoughts I’d like to share about Solar 2 and Terraria already — but it does mean that I won’t be pretending to myself that I’m obliged to do so. I have only room in my head for so many obligations, and it’s time I tended to the real ones a little better. If I’m lucky, maybe it’ll turn out that I can blog without an Oath at all.

2010 Wrap-Up

2010 was a special year for The Stack: it was the year of the Chronological Rundown, an experiment I’m not in a hurry to repeat. How did it go? Here’s a summary:

Year Title Finished? On schedule? Dinosaurs?
1986 Wizardry III No No No
1987 Might and Magic No No No
1988 Pool of Radiance Yes No No
1989 Curse of the Azure Bonds Yes Yes No
1990 Secret of the Silver Blades Yes Yes No
1991 Heimdall No No No
1992 The Humans Yes Yes Yes
1993 Police Quest 4 Yes Yes No
1994 Final Fantasy VI No No Yes
1995 Icebreaker Yes Yes No
1996 Command & Conquer: Red Alert No No No
1997 Evolution Yes Yes Yes
1998 Tender Loving Care Yes Yes No
1999 Dino Crisis Yes No Yes
2000 Deus Ex No No Sort of
2001 Bioscopia Yes Yes Sort of
2002 Freedom Force Yes Yes Yes
2003 WarioWare, Inc. Yes Yes Sort of
2004 Escape from Butcher Bay Yes Yes No
2005 Killer 7 Yes Yes No
2006 Gumboy Yes Yes No
2007 Bioshock Yes No No
2008 Obulis Yes Yes No
2009 Batman: Arkham Asylum Yes Yes No
2010 VVVVVV Yes Yes No

Special notes on dinosaur content: Deus Ex has bird-like monsters that I believe to be feathered dinosaurs but which were not identified in the parts I got to over the course of the year. Bioscopia had no actual dinosaur specimens, but there was a man-sized theropod statue holding a sign at one point. Surprisingly, there’s another dinosaur holding a sign in a cutscene in WarioWare — is this a widespread phenomenon I wasn’t aware of? Overall, though, I think the winner for dinosaur content is Evolution, which not only had the greatest variety of dinosaurs, it’s the only game that had dinosaurs for their own sake, rather than as obstacles for the player or as signposts.

Most of the year was spent slowly drifting behind schedule, but shorter games toward the end allowed me to pull ahead and even spare a month for the IF Comp. Does this mean games have gotten shorter over time? Not necessarily: it should be borne in mind that the games that are on the Stack are ones that I haven’t finished yet. A twenty-year-old game that can be completed in a day is very unlikely to still be on the Stack. And yes, such things definitely exist: the first games in the Ultima and Final Fantasy franchises both qualify.

As for the project of reducing the Stack, this has been the worst year yet, and it’s all because of Steam and their special deals on multi-game bundles. I’ve been considering altering the terms of the Oath to handle this better, but I honestly don’t want to — the games I buy this way are for the most part short, interesting indie works that I might never get around to trying otherwise. But this still mainly a manifestation of the weakness of will that brought the Stack to its current size in the first place. Buying games, or books, or building up a huge Netflix queue, is an act of denial, a refusal to admit how short our time is in this world and how much of that time is wasted on mundanities. The Oath forces me to acknowledge my limitations, and to make the most of time by being selective — or it would, if it weren’t broken.

And yet, there’s something I’m contemplating doing with my gaming time that will likely leave me with even more games unfinished. More info later, possibly.

PAX East

I haven’t mentioned this here yet: I will be attending PAX East this weekend. I will probably be spending a lot of my time at the IF Hospitality Suite. Any reader of this blog who is willing to trade pokémon is welcome to find me there.

2009

It’s been a terrible year for shrinking the Stack. I did manage to complete 19 games, thanks to a burst at year’s end, but only four of them were on the Stack before the year started. The rest were, for the most part, purchased in sales on Steam, where I typically bought them in packages of multiple titles. The end result is that the Stack grew by 9 titles (plus a couple that I added because they should have already been on the list but weren’t). I think I’m developing something of a resistance to Steam sales: by now, I’ve seen enough of them pass by to know that anything I want will be put on sale again in the future. But the recent year-end event, with its week of daily special discounts, has been manipulative enough to overcome what little resistance I have.

It’s also the first year of this blog in which I failed to complete a Final Fantasy. I blame the Vintage Game Club for that one, interrupting me in the middle of FF6 by starting a group play-through of Chrono Trigger. With any luck, I’ll be able to finish them both in 2010.

For I have a plan. This is to some extent a retrogaming blog, and I haven’t been giving the older games on the Stack the attention they deserve. So, my pledge this year is to do a run through history. One game from each year on the Stack, from 1986 to the present. That’s 25 years, so if I pull out a new one every two weeks (regardless of whether I finished the last one or not), we’ll all have a new perspective on game history by year’s end.

First, I have to finish writing up Immortal Defense. But after that, we’ll turn to the oldest game currently on the Stack, Wizardry III.

Zanzarah: Short session

My last session was short and uneventful. I made a more thorough exploration of a couple of locations, and I managed to level up a couple of my fairies, and that’s it. It strikes me that this is not a bad way to play RPGs — a little bit of incremental progress now and then, as time allows — but that I haven’t been doing it lately, because of this blog. If I’m committed to writing about each session until I finish the game, I feel every session has to yield something worth writing about. But how many insights can a game like this provoke? Thus, I try to save up my Stack gaming for longer sessions, and on days when I can’t do that, I just play games that are already off the stack, or demos, or free web-based stuff. (Moneysieze has been a particular obsession of mine lately, and I should probably write something about it at some point.)

Thus, to the extent that this blog was meant to be a way to encourage me to finish up older games, it has failed. It is sometimes actually discouraging me from playing them. I’m not sure what to do about this. A modification of the Oath might be in order, or maybe just a shift in attitude.

Year Two and Revelations

So, the second year of this blog ends with another unplanned month-long outage. It’s been a pretty dismal year for the blog, with only 14 games knocked off the Stack, if I count correctly. I haven’t even finished the Orange Box yet. This is in large part because of the demands of my new job. (The first month-long outage basically coincided with my the first month of employ.) Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great job, miles better than the one I left to take it. But there have been long hours and tight deadlines, on top of a killer commute. It’s nearly an hour and a half each way by bus, which, unless I switch to a portable system, doesn’t leave a lot of time for gaming. Or, to be more accurate, it leaves a certain amount of time for gaming, but not nearly enough time to both game and write about it. I’ve really got to find quarters closer to the office, but not having a lot of time also means not having a lot of time to look for a new apartment.

And so the Oath has backfired: in order to avoid the obligation of blog, I’ve been playing games that aren’t on the Stack. But I’m not giving up. Now that the most recent tight deadline has passed, I’m going to try to ease myself back into this by writing up some non-stack games.

As for what’s remaining on the Stack, I think it’s about time I made my secret files public. There are two ways to view it. First, at some point in 2008, I discovered Backloggery through a link to this blog from a comment thread. Backloggery is a site devoted to people doing exactly the same thing as me, except with less commentary. I had always assumed that when I wanted to put my list online I was going to have to find or create my own HTML interface to it. Seeing that someone else had done the work already, I entered my entire list, and have maintained it ever since.

I found this solution unsatisfying, though, because it didn’t categorize things the way I wanted them. Backloggery sorts by platform, but not by genre. Their list of game statuses includes several degrees of finishedness (“Beaten”, “Completed”, “Mastered”), but only one unfinished status; I had been tracking only one degree of completion, but had several kinds of non-completion (“untried”, “played partway”, “was unable to complete due to unresolved technical problems”).

Then Gunther Schmidl started his own game backlog blog and showed me what I should have done in the first place: just upload the spreadsheet to Google Documents and make it world-readable. So I’ve done that too. My Backloggery page is here and the Google spreadsheet is here.

You may notice that the Google document has 301 rows, while the Backloggery reports only 299 games unfinished. I always spend a moment confused when I look at them. Well, the spreadsheet has an extra row because of the column headers, while Backloggery is missing Pokémon from the “Unfinished” list: by their standards I’ve beaten it and it would be dishonest of me to list it otherwise. I should try to contact some of the other backloggers with Pokémon on their lists to try to arrange trades. It’s probably my only hope of finding any. (Craigslist was a bust.)

At any rate, that means we currently stand at exactly 300 games listed, which is a satisfyingly round number to start the new year on. Not that this number is really all that meaningful: I’ve got 8 points to spend (that’s $80 worth of new games by the terms of the Oath, which can go quite a long way these days), and there are a number of games whose stack status is iffy. Does Team Fortress 2 count? I did buy it, but only because it came with the Orange Box. I suppose I’ll write it up when I get around to trying it, but it’s not in the list right now. What about Peggle Extreme, also from the OB? I don’t think so: it’s really just a demo, not a full game. Or The Next Tetris — a puzzling thing to be on the Stack, perhaps, as it’s not the sort of game that’s finishable, but it has a finishable component, which is what I’m counting for Stack purposes. Except I can’t for the life of me remember if I ever finished it or not. So it’s on the list just in case.

I’m sure that there are other things on the list that will provoke questions, or at least raise eyebrows. That’s why I was so reluctant to publish the list. Anyway, expect another post tomorrow (I’ve already started writing it), and happy new year.

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