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The Recent Unpleasantness

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been trying to write a blog post about the whole #GamerGate kerfuffle. I haven’t been in a writey mood, but it seems important to get some words down, if only to get them out of my head. But then, every time I write a couple of paragraphs, I find some other article that says what I was trying to say, only better. So let’s start off with something more personal, that other people wouldn’t be able to say. Let me tell you the story of my closest encounter with an internet hate mob.

It wasn’t all that close an encounter, really. I wasn’t involved directly. But my employer was. It happened three years ago, and it started with a dispute over some minor surface damage to a vehicle that had been loaned to the company. I imagine that the company and the vehicle’s owner could have settled things between themselves if they tried, or, if that failed, taken it to small claims court. But the vehicle owner was impatient, and posted his grievances to reddit. In this post, he named the person who had been his initial point of contact at the company. She wasn’t really involved in this dispute, was definitely not responsible for the damage, and in fact had quit her job a few weeks prior to this point. In fact, she was trying to enjoy her first real vacation in a long time when it hit: nonstop angry and incoherent phone calls from strangers who had even less connection to the dispute than she did.

Now, this was a fairly minor hate mob, and blew over relatively quickly, but any amount of personal harassment is too much. The reason I think this episode might be of interest to people not directly involved is what it illustrates about the mob mentality. The chosen victim in this instance was not only innocent of any wrongdoing, she hadn’t even done anything to call attention to herself. She wasn’t a public figure. She didn’t make a blog post that people took exception to. She just got accused by someone else, and a few angry strangers took that as permission to mistreat her. I’ve long felt that the lesson here is that none of us are safe, that you can just arbitrarily become the victim of mob justice no matter what you do. I’ve compared internet mobs to house fires before. If someone is trapped in a burning house, you don’t take the fire’s side, or say “maybe the fire has a point”. Fires don’t have points. They’re just fires. If they burn someone who deserves it, it’s purely a coincidence.

But there’s one more detail that seems relevant now. I haven’t spoken of this on this blog before, because I like to keep it separate from my professional life, but: I am a game developer. I’m a programmer for Telltale Games1, and the vehicle involved in the dispute was a replica Jurassic Park jeep used in the Telltale booth at PAX. The mob had come from reddit’s videogame forums.

Now that that’s said, let me tell you a little about how #GamerGate looks from my vantage point inside the industry. There’s a notion I’ve seen expressed that #GamerGate is essentially about rescuing the games industry from Social Justice Warriors — that we game developers are being bullied into changing our games and compromising our artistic vision to meet the demands of SJWs, and that the only reason we don’t speak out about it is that we’re afraid. Because the SJWs have a stranglehold on the press, and can punish us if we don’t play ball.

Speaking as a game developer, and as someone who talks with other game developers on a daily basis, this whole idea is pure fantasy. Seriously, no one in this industry is chafing at the constraints of the SJW mafia. We have real constraints that do chafe: constraints imposed by publishers and IP license owners, by Sony and Microsoft (both of whom have new consoles out right now, with brand new certification requirements), by the limitations of our target hardware. Take us out for drinks and these are the things we’ll complain about. SJWs do not make the list.

I can’t deny that there are people trying to ruin games, however, because we’ve all experienced the effects. For as long as games have been online and multiplayer, a certain subset of players have dedicated themselves to ruining them for everyone else, whether by killstealing, or attacking their teammates, or just being abusive and annoying on in-game chat until other people quit in exasperation. We call these people “griefers”.

I suggest that online harassment of individuals should be considered a form griefing.

I hope that’s not belittling — clearly it’s worse than ordinary griefing, because it’s in real life, rather than a game you can quit. (And no, quitting your job doesn’t stop the abuse. If anything, it seems to encourage the griefers, who see it as a sign that they’re “winning”.) Mainly, I wish to suggest that griefing and harassment stem from a similar source, and that this is why gaming seems to have a much greater problem with harassment than other fields. You can’t grief people through movies or comic books, but you can in a game. And so gaming is where the griefers make their home.

Now, if you bring up the ongoing griefing campaign in a place more populated than this, you’ll inevitably put people on the defensive. They’ll object to being tarred with the same brush as the griefers, and insist that they’re just trying to have a dialogue about ethics in gaming journalism. To this, all I can say is: I’m just talking about the griefers. If you’re not a griefer, I have no quarrel with you. The only person grouping you with them is yourself, and you really shouldn’t do that, because they’re not actually on your side; griefers are never on anyone’s side, even when they’re on your team. You want a dialogue? The griefers are preventing that, drowning any reasonable disagreement in a flood of bile and vitriol. It’s hard to notice sincere concerns, let alone respond to them, when they’re buried under a thousand insults and death threats.

And there’s the problem with any attempt to use #GamerGate for any purpose other than griefing: it automatically groups you with the griefers. The tag was started to spread one of the sleazy Zoe Quinn hate videos. For a while, if you searched for “GamerGate” on Google, the first hit that purported to explain it from the Gater side was just a list of links to similar videos attacking Quinn and Sarkeesian, rather than anything to do with journalistic ethics. That’s changed: now, judging by Google hits, the primary non-griefing purpose of #GamerGate is defending #GamerGate from accusations that they’re nothing but griefers. This is not productive! I say let the griefers have their tag. They don’t define us as gamers, and we are not their shield.

  1. This is of course why I haven’t posted about any games by Telltale since 2008. When I played Sam & Max, it was research for a job interview. At that interview, I was presented with a copy of CSI: Hard Evidence, on the basis that I’d probably be working on the next CSI game if they hired me, and I should know a little about it first. []

BloodRayne: Double-Teamed

Act 3 of BloodRayne has about half as many levels as act 2, but nonetheless I wound up playing through all of Act 2 in a single day, and splitting up Act 3. The reason is that Act 2, for all its length, kept on moving forward, whereas in Act 3, I got stuck in the final confrontation. Understand that this is one of those games that only saves between levels, and losing a fight means restarting the level from the beginning. But even so, there’s a sense of progress if you can keep on doing more damage before dying on each iteration. In the last level, I was lacking even that, so I took a break. Let me go into a little detail.

The end boss is actually two bosses who aren’t friends: they try to fight each other when they’re not attacking you, but aren’t capable of inflicting significant damage on each other. One the one side, there’s the demon Beliar, a sort of slow-moving headless and inhuman skeleton made of sharp bits, who periodically returns to his spawn point in the center of the room and grows larger. If he gets big enough, he wins, in a FMV cutscene that I never saw during gameplay, because I generally died long before it was a possibility. On the other side, there’s Gruppenführer Jurgen Wulf, the man to blame for Beliar taking physical form, and who now, predictably, regrets it. As the player knows from earlier cutscenes, Wulf has super-speed and a sort of Street-Fighter-ish fire punch he can do if you stand still for it. There’s plenty of loose guns around due to the slaughter that preceded the fight, but neither enemy is a good target for gunfire — Wulf because he’s hard to hit, Beliar because guns just don’t seem to do much to hurt him.

The key with Wulf was obvious: bullet-time karate. But that’s not a realistic option with a guy made of knives. I had a hard enough time making so much as a credible dent in Beliar that I wound up hitting up the Internet for hints, thinking there must be some trick I was missing. Apparently he has one vulnerable spot, which you can aim at in sniper mode, but even now I’m not quite sure where that is — it’s his “heart”, but exactly where that is was kind of muddied by his peculiar anatomy and the fact that he never stays still long enough to get a good look. (Alas, you can’t be in sniper mode and bullet time simultaneously.) These may be problems peculiar to the PC version, though, because I didn’t see anyone else with similar complaints.

I did, however, see a certain amount of disagreement on a key question: what order should you kill the two enemies in? On the one hand, Beliar is the one responsible for the time limit. If you take him out, you have all the time you need to finish off Wulf. On the other hand, Wulf is relatively quick to kill, and once he’s not running around and distracting Beliar any more, Beliar becomes a lot easier to control. One forum post recommended letting Beliar grow a few times and then dashing into a tunnel: if he’s following only you, he’ll get stuck on the tunnel entrance and be easy to shoot. This only works for a little while, but apparently that can be enough to kill him if you can find his heart. I ultimately wound up taking Wulf out first, then killing Beliar mainly with explosives to the general chest area, letting splash damage do what my aim could not. But this was only after trying it both ways, multiple times. Experiments were helped by one pleasant surprise: after you kill either one, you get to save the game! This is the only place in the entire game where you can save mid-level.

Each kill was also accompanied by a short FMV cutscene, with some variation depending on ordering. All the FMV in the game was shown in a different resolution than the game itself, which was a bit of a problem: my current hardware takes several seconds to adjust to a change in graphics mode, so I always missed the beginning of the clip. (And they’re short clips, so that was a high proportion of the whole.) Fortunately, all the video exists on disc in the form of perfectly ordinary mpegs that I could view afterward to see what I had missed.

And that’s it! I’m done with BloodRayne, and actually have been for several days now. It has sequels, but I don’t have any of them, and even if I wind up acquiring them through a bundle or something, they won’t have the same status for me without physical media. After finishing the game came a little ritual I haven’t had an opportunity to engage in for a couple of years now: reshelving the CD-ROM, moving it from the are reserved for the Stack to the place for completed games. I suppose this means I have to decide what the new Oath is. I’ll be updating that page shortly.

BloodRayne: Increasing Firepower

Act 3 of BloodRayne turns things even more Wolfensteinish by moving the action to a German castle. In something of a subversion, it’s not a Nazi fortress, but a Vampire fortress being attacked by Nazis, who want the final piece of that demon-awakening artifact they’ve been hunting. As with the Daemites in act 2, this means you have two sets of enemies that fight each other. In some cases, you don’t have to lift a finger to kill the people on your hit list: it suffices to stand back and watch them get torn apart by the monsters they unwisely antagonized.

It’s not like they came entirely unprepared, though. The Nazi vampire-castle-storming force is much better armed than the Argentina bunker defense contingent, with more guys with more powerful guns. Some of them even have jetpacks. Finally, I’ve reached the point where there’s so much fire directed at me that hand-to-hand combat isn’t cutting it any more, and firing guns back seems like a necessity of gameplay rather than just an additional part of the underlying power fantasy. Appropriately, the game chooses the beginning of Act 3 to introduce the sniper-zoom-in vision, one of the four supernatural-vampire-perception modes that you can switch between at will. (That isn’t what the game calls it. The official name of sniper-zoom-in vision is something much more highfalutin.) The other three modes are normal vision, a mode that makes everything glow blue and highlights your current goal point, and (starting in Act 2) bullet time. Yes, this game gives you infinite bullet time; the only reason to ever not be in bullet time is because you want to actually get places at a faster speed than excruciatingly slow. To my mind, the chief virtue of bullet time mode is that it lets me actually follow Rayne’s high-speed acrobatic combat maneuvers, which are otherwise a bit incomprehensible. I guess this is part of what made me prefer hand-to-hand throughout Act 2. I really haven’t found sniper vision as useful, though, even as I use guns more.

The pinnacle of the increasing firepower, though, is the Nazi mechs. They’re small as mechs go, and look kind of like Metal Gear would if it had been built during the 1940s. You get to take control of one at one point, although the game does much less with this than, say, Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay did. You don’t even get to stomp around on puny humans, which is to my mind the chief appeal of mechs. Instead, it basically just sends you to fight a number of other identical mechs in an enclosed space, after which you have to get out and continue on foot because the mech’s weight would collapse the stairs if you didn’t. It’s a little weird, narratively. Throughout the rest of the story, Rayne’s big combat advantage is her vampire powers. Even when she fights other vampires in the castle, they’re mainly just less powerful than her, and on the few occasions when she meets one that isn’t, it’s a puzzle-boss that she has to defeat with cleverness rather than force. But that mech fight? She doesn’t have any vampire advantages when she’s piloting a mech, and she certainly doesn’t have any training (dialogue suggests that she’s never even seen one before), but she manages to take on three other equally-powerful mechs at once and win anyway. Now, there’s a certain mythic tradition, seen also in superhero comics, wherein heroes who are strongly associated with a particular weapon or ability have to defeat one enemy without using it, thereby establishing that the real source of their continuing victories is their intrinsic worth as a hero, not their gear or their superpowers. And you could argue that the mech fight is an example of this, showing how Rayne keeps on kicking ass on a level playing field. It just strikes me as a little strange that the leveling is accomplished by giving her access to a walking tank with an infinite rocket launcher.

BloodRayne: Act 2

Act 2 of BloodRayne officially takes place in Argentina, but you wouldn’t know it by looking. The whole thing is set indoors, in a massive beige-and-grey bunker built into a mountain, and in the mines and caverns underneath it. As I said in my last post, it becomes like Wolfenstein, and not just cosmetically. The most recent Wolfenstein game at the time of BloodRayne‘s release was the 2001 Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which I remember being notable for three things: large areas created by cut-and-pasting entire rooms (chiefly barracks), wall-mounted alarm boxes that the Nazi troopers would use to call for reinforcements if you let them, and the addition of supernatural elements to the setting, including an excavation to recover a powerful ancient artifact that they ultimately can’t control. BloodRayne apes all three.

“Nazis try to obtain powerful artifact that they ultimately can’t control” is something of a cliché by now, probably mainly due to the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, although there the artifact was divine rather than eldritch. It definitely wasn’t part of the original Apple II Castle Wolfenstein, though, which was released the very same year as Raiders. Interestingly, though, BloodRayne reminds me a bit of that game due to the initial enemies. In Castle Wolfenstein, there were two sorts: common soldiers and SS officers, the chief difference being that the SS wore bulletproof vests, and were thus immune to your normal attack. If you wanted to kill an SS officer (rather than just avoid him), you had to use a grenade. BloodRayne similarly divides its enemies into the ordinary soldiers and the officers of the Gegengeist Gruppe, a special anti-occult division. GGG officers have special training in how to fight vampires, and can ward off your attempts at biting them, unless you attack from behind.

Rayne’s mission is one of assassination. You get a hit list at the beginning, and cross one name off it after each boss fight. The first few bosses are just vanilla GGG officers with particularly large numbers of bodyguards, but after a certain point they start going a little more Metal Gear. The first really difficult boss fight happens in a chapel, where the pulpit is actually an armored machine gun turret that can zip down the aisle on a rail, its occupant cackling, forcing Rayne to run back and forth. Another of the bosses is a fellow half-vampire, the only female enemy we’ve seen since Louisiana, wearing the incongruous combination of a surgeon’s mask and a shirt unbuttoned to her navel. This is the “prove your worth as a hero by defeating something that’s just like you only moreso” fight: she’s got most of Rayne’s moves, but larger breasts.

If you ignore the Louisiana section, the content generally follows the same paradigm as the original Tomb Raider: it starts off fairly realistic for a videogame, and becomes gradually freakier as you get deeper into it. The biggest turn comes with the reveal of the Daemites: fleshy skull-like levitating heads with spinal tails. I’d almost say that it’s the return of the sex monsters, that the Daemites are basically giant sperm, except that it took me hours to even think of that connection, mainly because they don’t move like sperm at all. But at least they behave like a proper Alien-style rape monster, killing Nazis by forcing themselves down their mouths — not to reproduce, but to take control of their bodies by popping their heads off from underneath, like that one scene in Eraserhead. Although they’re at first presented in such a way as to make them seem like the products of Nazi mad science, it ultimately turns out that the mad scientists had simply captured them for study, from the caves below, where more twisted things await and the decor becomes gross and organic.

Daemites, like spider monsters, cannot be bitten, which makes the Daemite-heavy sections harder. They also don’t drop guns, which I suppose would be a downside for players who use guns a lot. I personally find that in this game I prefer hand-to-hand combat, except in situations where guns are clearly advantageous, such as when there’s a sniper on a ledge above you — and even then, Rayne can probably leap to that ledge and take out the sniper with a bite in about the same time it would take to shoot him.

BloodRayne: Sex and Violence

Although the main focus of BloodRayne is on a sexy vampire fighting Nazis, the story opens in the misty swamps of Louisiana, where you instead fight Zombies. The game calls them “mutates”, but it’s not fooling anyone, especially when the whole reason they’re there ultimately turns out to be a “voodoo ritual”. The zombies are suitably gross-looking, textured with glistening decay, although some of them have distorted arms and spiky hands that, to my expert eye, look less like mutations and more like animation glitches of the sort that tend to happen during game development. Perhaps that was the inspiration.

The zombie disease, we learn, is spread by spider-monsters, which are birthed by “bio-masses”, which are essentially just veiny, undulating, tentacled wombs with vaginas in front. Rooted in place and utterly passive, their only way of fighting back as Rayne slices them apart with her bat’leth is by disgorging more spider-monsters. The end boss of Louisiana is a gargantuan combination of the spider-monsters and the bio-wombs, called “the Queen of the Underworld”.

Combining sex with things deadly and grotesque is of course a staple of horror movies, from Cat People to Friday the Thirteenth to Alien, because it’s an easy way to make people ill at ease. But there’s something weirder than normal “sex = death” horror going on here. First of all, Rayne, personification of the “sex = death” equation, is the hero. Secondly, throughout the first act, the men that Rayne uses her eroticized bite attack on are gross and diseased. It would make horror-movie symbolic sense for a gross, diseased man to attack and kill people in a sexualized manner, but it’s the reverse here: the sexualized attack by the young woman is what kills them. It’s as if she prevents them from raping her by raping them first. Thirdly, although the most powerful beings on both sides of the fight are female, the female enemies are dehumanized, reduced to their reproductive functions. Because they’re not human, Rayne can’t use her sex attack on them.

I can see some symbolic sense in some of this. Rayne isn’t simply sex, she’s sex for pleasure, selfish hedonism without regard for the other party, as represented by the fact that she gains health from coupling while her partner loses it. Which is still a weird choice for a hero figure, but let it pass. Her enemies in the first act are potential negative consequences of this unbridled lifestyle: disease and unwanted pregnancy. From this point of view, it makes sense that the pregnancy-monsters can’t be attacked sexually, but what then are we to make of Rayne’s freedom in attacking the disease-monsters? Most likely I’m trying to make more sense of it than it supports, and the design thought only went as far as “let’s throw in some sexual imagery to make it edgier”.

The weirdest part is that, once the Louisiana mission is over, it just kind of throws all this away and dumps you into the middle of Castle Wolfenstein. But that’s a matter for the next post.

BloodRayne: Getting Started for Real

Giving up on RadeonPro, I try out another program with framerate-limiting capability, MSI Afterburner. Finding the option in its UI for limiting the framerate was something of a challenge. These programs aren’t really built with this use in mind; mainly they’re about making things go faster, not slower. To the extent that they support framerate limits, the intent is to make things go at a steady rate and to prevent “tearing”. Ironically, capping the framerate seems to have introduced a certain amount of tearing in BloodRayne. But it fixed the sound issues, so it’s an overall improvement.

So! Now I get to actually play the game, instead of just listening to the opening cutscene and exiting repeatedly. And that means it’s time to describe the premise.

BloodRayne‘s premise seems like something you’d get out of a random videogame premise generator, or possibly Mad Libs: someone started with the template “You’re a [adjective] [badass hero type] who fights [villain]“, and it got filled in with “sexy”, “vampire”, and “Nazis”. Actually, the player character, Rayne, is only half vampire, which gives the story permission to pick and choose what her powers and weaknesses are, and make them different from any Nazi vampires she winds up fighting. The first level wastes no time in letting us know through expository dialogue that she’s unaffected by holy stuff, but water hurts her, providing for some “the floor is lava” challenges in a flooded town. She can jump something like twenty feet high and run on telephone wires, all while wearing a tight leather outfit and high heels. She has some kind of arm-mounted blade weapons that look like Klingons would use them, and she can scavenge guns, but her most effective attack against humans is simply the bite, which is an instant kill and replenishes her health.

When Rayne bites a man (and it always seems to be a man), she leaps onto him, wraps her legs around his torso, and rocks back and forth a little while she makes slurping noises and little moans of pleasure. This is a basic attack, activated by one button-press. You grow very familiar with this animation very quickly.

Speaking of absurd sexualization, this game also features some of the most blatant examples I’ve ever seen of “jiggle physics”. Or, well, I’m not sure there’s any physics involved. It could just be hand-animated: since you view Rayne from behind during gameplay, like in Tomb Raider, you only get a good look at boobs during cutscenes. But when you do get a look at them, the designers want to make sure you get a really good look. Rayne’s mentor, Mynce — another half-vampire wearing a different style of fetish gear — has a habit of making sudden bounce-inducing gestures during conversation. Even the BloodRayne logo, which Rayne wears around her neck, is a stylized picture of boobs.

And it isn’t even particularly titillating. The game is, metaphorically speaking, standing there saying “Eh? Eh? Boobs, right?” and waggling its eyebrows. Maybe I’m just too old for this stuff. Maybe everyone over the age of twelve is. I’ll have more to say about weird sexual dynamics in my next post, where I’ll describe the game’s first act.

BloodRayne: More Failure at Getting Started

So, I’ve got my joystick set up (although it sometimes needs recalibration on starting the game). Occasionally the game freezes up, but I’m hoping this won’t happen often enough to seriously impede progress. The one thing keeping me from starting BloodRayne in earnest is that I’ve decided that the business of dialogue cutting off early in cutscenes is too distracting to be tolerated.

A little research suggests that the real underlying problem (in both this game and others with the same symptom) is that the cutscenes are running just a little too fast. That the triggers to start and stop sounds are pegged to the animation, and the animation speed is determined by your framerate. Perhaps it tolerates slower machines by skipping frames when necessary, but it doesn’t take too-fast machines into account at all. What I need to do is throttle it down to the framerate it was designed for, which is apparently 30 FPS.

It turns out there are ways to do this at the driver level! That is, the official software for my graphics card (a Radeon) doesn’t provide any such option, but there are some third-party apps that do. The one that seems to be the most-recommended online is RadeonPro, which is organized around the idea of “profiles” for different games that launch automatically when the game launches. Just one problem: it isn’t launching the profile I set up for Bloodrayne. Now, I’m new to this, so it’s likely that I’m simply doing something wrong. Apparently getting RadeonPro to cooperate with Steam has its own special problems.

And that suggests an possible eventual outcome. If I can’t get RadeonPro to cooperate with Steam, I do still have this game on CD-ROM. I could just play it that way. I wouldn’t even have the embarrassment of having Steam announce that I’m playing BloodRayne, of all things, to everyone on my Friends list. But if I did that, I wouldn’t get the cards. Would I be willing to idle, then, to gain the cards I felt entitled to for playing offline? Probably. But I’m still hoping it won’t come to that.


Before I get back to recapping what’s been blogged before, there’s one game I’d like to get out of the way: BloodRayne. This is a true Stack item, that is, a game that I actually own on physical media. I won’t be finishing it that way, though. It’s long since been released on Steam, where I picked it up while it was on sale. It even now has Steam Trading Cards, currently priced at the maximum of 100 credits each on the Card Exchange. The cards aren’t why I bought it — they didn’t exist at the time — but they are the reason I’ve decided to play it just now. It seems like Steam card prices are generally controlled more by supply than demand: the cheapest badge by a large margin is for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, one of Valve’s most popular offerings, while the most expensive ones are for games that no one much plays. In the case of BloodRayne, I’m tempted to say that no one plays it because they’re embarrassed, but that’s probably giving the Steam “community” too much credit. All I can say is that I personally am somewhat embarrassed to own this game.

But before I get into the embarrassing content, there’s the adventure of getting it working properly. I remember having some problems with this back in the day of my first sally. In particular, back then, it somehow failed to notice when the joystick was centered, leaving the player character slowly walking forward or backward when she should have been standing still. This is the main reason I stopped playing it as early as I did. I don’t see that problem in the Steam version, although I don’t know whether the change is in the game itself or whether I’ve simply upgraded it away. Getting the gamepad appropriately configured in other respects is another matter. This game is old enough that it uses DirectInput instead of XInput. The chief effect of this is that, with any modern controller, the right joystick doesn’t work as intended: moving it up and down makes the camera pan left and right, while moving it left and right does nothing. This is because it mistakes the trigger buttons for a joystick axis. I remember there was a period when a number of games behaved like this and I didn’t understand why. Well, my current gamepad (a Logitech F710) has a DirectInput/XInput toggle switch on the back, so this is easily solved, leaving me with just trying to find out what the button assignments are supposed to be. In theory, I could bypass all this trouble by playing from mouse and keyboard, but I recall that this is one of those games that’s designed around a gamepad in a big way. For example, the player character has four alternate perception modes, or something like that. Why four? So you can select them with the D-pad.

Then there’s the sound problem. Spoken dialogue usually cuts off before the last syllable, with longer lines cutting off more. I’ve had this problem with other games in the past, and the solution is usually to turn off hardware sound acceleration in dxdiag. However, the option to do this seems to no longer exist! It’s been a while since I played a game that needed this, and in the meantime I’ve gone through a major upgrade. I have some other leads to pursue, but most of the advice online is “give up and read the subtitles”. I’ll report further in my next post, and hopefully describe the content a little.

Retro City Rampage

So, where were we? I had just finished Vice City, a game that can be described as “GTA, but 1980s”. Well, that description also applies to Brian Provinciano’s Retro City Rampage, just in a different way. The RCR project apparently started off as Grand Theftendo, a fairly straightforward attempt at a partial port of GTA3 to the Nintendo Entertainment System. At some point, however, Provinciano decided to abandon actual NES compatibility in favor of something merely NES-styled, and also abandon perfect faithfulness to the material that inspired it in favor of new content that fits that style better. The result is more stylized, faster-paced, and sillier than GTA. Put it this way: the first power-up you get is a pair of magic shoes that let you run as fast as a car and run down pedestrians on foot.

The engine is more like an adaptation of the original GTA than of GTA3, with its top-down view. Except it’s not quite top-down here. GTA, aiming at realism, rendered humans as they’d look from above, just a head between a pair of shoulders when you’re standing still, but RCR is in that naïvist-isometric view familiar from Legend of Zelda and the like, a grid of floor tiles seen from above but with side-view figures walking around on it. Not only does mixing dimensions like this make it look more retro, it affords jumping, which makes it play more retro. One of the player’s most effective combat techniques is jumping on enemies’ heads, Mario-style.

When I’m driving around and running over pedestrians, the style reminds me a lot of certain old coin-op games, particularly Capcom’s Speed Rumbler, which similarly let you use a car to run down enemies on foot. It really makes me realize just how connected GTA was to what went before. Apart from its open-endedness, it strikes me that the main difference is the moral one: even if you didn’t understand exactly what was going on in Speed Rumbler‘s brief opening cinematic, it made it clear that the people you were running over were bad guys. RCR doesn’t have that, but keeps things at a high enough level of abstraction to feel basically good-natured anyway, even as you run around doing slaughter sprees for high scores.

The setting is a big mashup of 8-bit videogame classics, and to a certain extent 80s pop culture and modern indie games. Mario-style green pipes and Sonic-style checkboard-pattern dirt cliffs are just part of the landscape here. Various set-piece missions are based on Bionic Commando, Smash TV, Paperboy, and so forth, probably including some that I couldn’t identify. Storefronts throughout the city have names that pun on classic videogame titles, with signage patterned after their logos. That last point might sound lame, but I’m still comparing it in my mind to Vice City, which also had jokey signage, except the jokes tended to be dick references and similar. I prefer the videogame puns.

All in all, it’s pretty delightful — moreso than I would have guessed from the title. My one big complaint is about the ending sequence. The final mission takes you out of the city and to an island fortress where a long sequence of set-pieces play out one after another. Some of them are quite difficult, but there’s no respite until the game’s end. Or, well, obviously you can just save the game and take a break, but somehow that doesn’t feel the same when you’re still in the middle of a mission. Throughout most of the game, missions have maybe at most three or four stages, after which you’re back into free-roaming mode and can decide what to do next: another mission if you like, or maybe try to rack up some slaughter sprees, or just go exploring and look for hidden packages. The endgame takes that freedom away from you for long enough that it feels like it’s breaking a pledge.

Steam Trading Cards: Confessions

Having acknowledged the problems with the Steam Trading Card system, I do my best to avoid them. Shortly after taking notice of the things last year, I adopted a few rules:

  • No idling. Obviously. Sitting in a matchmaking lobby for a multiplayer-only game that no one plays any more is permitted, as long as I do it in good faith and play a match if one appears.
  • No trading cards for money, or money for cards. “Not even once”, as they say. The Marketplace is a slippery slope, and besides, it strikes me as “easy mode”. Trading cards for cards seems like a better game.
  • No buying games just for the cards. Although if a game I was thinking of buying anyway just happens to have cards, well…

Even with those limitations, I’ve managed to reach level 57 — not the big leagues, but higher than anyone on my Friends list. My journey to this point essentially has three stages.

First, I just did a little occasional trading with Friends, if we could come up with a trade that gave us both something we wanted. Indeed, at first, your Friends were the only people you could propose trades to; if you wanted to trade with anyone else, you had to Friend them first. And then, to execute the trade, you had to be online at the same time as them. Trading took place in an interface similar to the ones for player-to-player trades in World of Warcraft and other MMOs, both players dragging offers from their inventory and then hitting an “Okay” button, which would become automatically unpressed if the other player modified the trade on their end.

I suppose Valve was unsatisfied with the amount of trading and badge-making that such an inconvenient system produced, because they soon added ways to make yourself available for trade offers from non-Friends, as well as the ability to do trading asynchronously, sending offers that people could accept or reject on their own time, which made the new game-specific Trading Forums much more useful. Just how useful varies a lot from game to game, even today. The useful forum posts, from my point of view, are the ones with subject like “[H] Gravity Well [W] Force Shield 1:1″. (“[H]” and “[W]” quickly emerged as accepted notation for “have” and “want”, “1:1″ means one-for-one, and “Gravity Well” and “Force Shield” are the names of two cards for Defy Gravity.) But a lot of the game-specific forums became clogged with spam along the lines of “1000+ cards 1:2″, without even any mention of whether those 1000+ cards included any for the game whose forum it was posted in.

My second phase began with the 2013 Winter Sale, when the reappearance of sale event cards provided additional impetus to complete badges. I had accumulated over 300 cards by then, simply by playing a lot of games and not making a lot of badges. Boosters, by the way, have never been a great source of cards. During the entirety of the Winter 2013 sale, when badge-crafting and therefore booster-dropping was at a peak, I got a total of two boosters. In the recent Summer sale, during which I reached level 50 and thus doubled my booster drop rate, I got three. But I keep on getting more card-bearing games — often without meaning to, through bundles. Even when I don’t buy any games, games that I already own suddenly get cards. At the time of the 2013 winter sale, the number of card-bearing games I owned and hadn’t got all the drops from yet was sort of perpetually hovering around 20-ish, despite my best efforts at milking them dry. So not only did I have what then seemed like a lot of cards, I had a seemingly inexhaustible source of more. So I tried my hand at being a card baron and posting general offers.

I didn’t spam the game-specific forums, mind you. I only posted to the forum of the official Steam Trading Cards group, the largest group on Steam. My terms were simple and, relative to the other card barons, fairly generous. I’d accept any 1:1 trade within a set, and any 1:2 or 2:3 trade across sets, regardless of whether I wanted the cards I received or not. My goal was simply to get more cards. And it worked for that purpose, for what it’s worth. I did quite a lot of trading for as long as I kept bumping my post to keep it on the forum’s front page, and made enough profit to keep my card count in the neighborhood of 300 even as I kept spending them on badges. I even managed to make a badge for a game I didn’t even own (Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 Multiplayer), which, at the time, seemed amusingly novel.

But at the same time, it was clear that most of my trading partners were taking advantage of me, securing my most valuable cards with greater quantities of what they considered trash. I wasn’t much concerned about market values, but the least valuable cards tended to be the ones from 15-card or 13-card sets. Consider cards as fractions of badges — for example, a card from a ten-card set is 1/10 of a badge. If you give me two cards from a 15-card set for one of my cards from a 5-card set, I wind up with more cards, but less badge. So I let my ad leave the front page and more or less stopped trading for a while, unless a Friend wanted something.

Phase 3 started when I learned about the third-party Steam Card Exchange trading bot. This completely changed trading for me. In particular, it let me follow the letter of the “no Marketplace” rule without following its spirit. The Card Exchange bot is a Steam user that you offer trades to like any other, but instead of a human being accepting or rejecting them, there’s a computer program, which usually means you get a reply just a few second later (unless it’s overloaded, as happened daily during the Summer Sale trading-frenzy). The bot assigns each card a value in “credits”, the value being determined by its price in the Marketplace, except that it assigns the same value to every card in a set, and values are not allowed to exceed 100 credits, to help prevent abuse. The bot will accept any trade where it’s getting at least as many credits-worth of cards as it’s giving, and if there are credits left over, it keeps track of them and applies them to future trades with the same person. It does have some limitations that the Marketplace doesn’t. If you want the last of a card it has in stock, you pay 50% more — presumably this is a big part of how it increases its stock. It won’t stock more than 8 of a card, so if it already has 8 of a card you’re offering it, your offer will be rejected. It won’t let your stored credits exceed 100.

(I find these limitations interesting, because they introduce some extra symmetry. You don’t just have lower bounds of zero cards and zero credits, but upper bounds as well. This means you can think of a personal store of n credits as (100-n) anticredits, which you can use to buy the gaps in the bot’s inventory.)

What this all means is that I now had a trading partner who wouldn’t try to bilk me, but which I could maximally exploit in good conscience. I’ve gone so far as to write a script to report the price of a full badgeworth of cards for every game in Card Exchange credits. (The Card Exchange has a page listing badge prices in US dollars, but this is misleading if you’re only trading with the Exchange.) I give it cards for expensive badges (when it lets me), and buy as much as I can of the cheap ones. I mentioned before that my first badge for a game I don’t own was an amusing novelty; at this point, if I make a badge for a game I do own, it’s complete coincidence.

I suppose the next step is day-trading: monitoring small price fluctuations and making a profit by repeatedly buying and selling the same cards. I haven’t gone that far yet, but honestly, I’m pretty far gone. Trading is no longer connecting me to other players, and I’m no longer aiming for badges for the games I like. The Card Exchange is almost as “easy mode” as the Marketplace. But hey, at least I’m not idling, right?

I few days ago, I idled. The game was Actual Sunlight, a short and text-heavy character portrait about depression and suicide, written in RPG Maker. Not exactly the sort of work you’d expect to have cards, but there it is. I played through it, assiduously seeking out every item I could press a button at to trigger an essay about how worthless the player character feels, and when I reached the end, and I still had one card drop left. So I started to replay it from the beginning, but got discouraged and stopped. (My patience was not helped by the game’s irritating unskippable opening cutscene, which includes an alarm clock going off multiple times.) I’m pretty sure I saw everything the piece had to offer, so I idled for a half an hour or so. The honorable thing would have been to just stop playing, and maybe pick it up again some time later, when I could look at it again with fresh eyes. But that last card drop itched.

Anyway, if you’re read this far, I invite you to trade with me. I currently have about 600 cards, and am willing to do just about any 1:1 in-set trade, as well as consider cross-set trades that don’t leave me with less badge.

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