Archive for September, 2009

TF2: Five Things

A full workweek of lunchtime TF2 (and one evening session), and no post! I really have been remiss. To make up for five missed days, here’s five paragraphs on unrelated topics that summarize my week.

I’ve achieved First Milestone with the Heavy class. I had been hovering at 9 Achievements of the required 10 for a while; the one that finally put me over was for killing five enemies in a row without spinning down my minigun. See, the Heavy’s gun takes a moment to spin up before it starts firing — it’s a manifestation of the class’s slow-but-powerful theme. What’s not obvious at first is that you can keep it spinning without firing by holding down the right mouse button. While in this mode, you can start firing instantly, but at the cost of moving even more slowly than the Heavy does normally. The notable thing about this Achievement is that it’s essentially a tutorial: it draws the player’s attention to the possibility of not spinning down, and encourages one to give it a try. By the time you’ve got the Achievement, you’ve got a good handle on why, and when, keeping your gun spun up is a good idea. There are other Achievements like this, such as the Scout’s Achievement for executing 1000 double jumps, or the Spy’s Achievements for backstabbing an Engineer and sapping his buildings (in both orders), or the various ones for killing opponents with Taunt moves.

I’m getting the hang of playing as a Demoman. As with the Medic, it’s all about the secondary weapon — the stickybombs, which can be strewn about and then detonated on your signal. At work we mostly play King of the Hill maps, which makes a Demoman partcularly powerful: there’s just one important spot, and if it’s covered in your stickies, it’s very difficult for the enemy to take control of it. An enemy facing a bestickied hill basically has two options. First, they can send one guy on a suicide mission to make you detonate your bombs, then rush it with the rest of the team to capture it before you can set up them the bomb again. This involves more coordination than most ad-hoc teams are capable of. Alternately, they can just send someone to kill you before you can detonate your bombs. There are maps where there are battlements overlooking the control point that are hard to reach from the enemy’s side — ideal for Snipers, but also, I’m realizing, for Demomen, provided they can lob the stickies to where they’re needed. Even so, given the significance of the Demoman in keeping enemies off the point, and the general difficulty of killing people at close quarters with Demoman weapons, it seems like it would be a good idea for the Demoman’s teammates to station someone more melee-capable (a Pyro, say) on the route to the battlements to protect him. Either way, there’s an opportunity here for chess-like gambits involving multiple players, but ones that the gameplay (including the Achievement system) doesn’t explicitly encourage. Consequently, the opportunity is generally wasted.

I spent a little time playing the original Half-Life recently, for reasons I won’t go into, and I was struck anew by how different the feel of TF2 is. By and large, single-player FPS games live in the wake of Doom, which is to say, they’re horror games. (Even Portal, which is about as far from a typical FPS as you can get while still viewing things in first-person and using a gun, has a strong sense of nightmare.) The dominant mood in such games is the adrenaline rush. And that’s something that’s strangely missing from TF2. The cartoony style is a factor, but a relatively minor one, in my opinion. In a game without an exploration element, the sense of of anticipation is blunted, and with it any possibility of dread. Death is swift and frequent and often comes without warning, all of which also works against dread, but more importantly, death is inconsequential. I don’t mean that the only consequence is respawning back at your base — similar things could be said of conventional FPS games, where dying just means respawning at the last save point. I mean that things don’t stop happening just because you’re temporarily tagged out. If you started capturing a control point before you got killed, there’s a good chance that one of your teammates is still there finishing the job. You can even watch it happen while you wait to respawn. As a result, death doesn’t feel final, but like just one of those things that happens. That is, it doesn’t feel like death. Which probably contributes to the sense of exaggerated slapstick I described earlier.

My latest random acquisition in the game is the Sandman, a special baseball bat that the Scout can use. Its special virtue is that, unlike normal baseball bats, it can be used to hit baseballs. Baseballs that hit an opponent leave them temporarily stunned and very likely to get killed by whoever’s nearby. This is very annoying when it happens to you — as always, unexpectedly taking control away from a player creates frustration. But I have yet to actually hit anyone with a ball, as it’s a difficult skill that has to be mastered. Difficult to pull off, annoying to others wen you do — in other words, it’s kind of like playing a Spy. It strikes me that a lot of the special items have the effect of letting one class take on attributes of another. A Pyro with the Backburner becomes more lethal when attacking from behind, like the Spy. A Spy with the Ambassador can do headshots to kill instantly from a distance, like the Sniper. A Sniper with the Hunstman can be effective in melee, like most other classes.

I complained a while ago about my inability to find documentation for this game. Well, I really should have looked for a wiki earlier than I did. Blame it on my retrogaming habits — I’m not used to playing games where the wiki is an essential feature, rather than an afterthought. (Although the ancient Spoiler Files for Nethack come close.) You can call it laziness on the part of the developers, but when you come down to it, no one documents stuff as thoroughly as fans. So, given that people were probably going to make a wiki anyway, why bother with any other docs? It would have been nice if either Steam or linked to it, but I can understand why a company, with legal obligations, would want to avoid linking to something so unaccountable. The wiki led me to the Movies page, which I really could have noticed before, considering that there’s a link to it right on top of, but it’s a link that, paradoxically, is too prominent to be noticeable: it’s part of the page’s banner image, which is something I generally ignore. At any rate, the Movies page is particularly significant, because that’s the one place where you can actually find a summary of the game’s premise. It shows something about the game that I’ve playing it for so long without missing that.

TF2: Tech detectoring

Playing TF2 at home continues to pose problems. I mentioned before how playing the Developer Commentary caused my machine to shut off. Sometimes it does this during a real game as well. Other times it doesn’t. There is one new development: sometimes, instead of shutting the machine off, it just gets stuck for a while, looping a second or so of sound and puting some garbage pixels on the screen before popping up a system dialog stating that the graphics hardware stopped responding and it’s had to reset them. After this, I can resume the game as if nothing happened except the loss of some valuable time during which I naturally got killed.

What’s more, I’ve now seen this happen outside of TF2. It also happened in Darwinia — a game I finished some years ago, but I gave it another look simply because it was in that Steam Indie Pack. Anyway, it’s a pretty clear confirmation that the problem isn’t just in TF2. It really seems like a malfunction of the graphics card, and I turned all my graphics settings down to the minimum during today’s session to see if that would help. It seemed to, and I had a nice crashless session (during which I managed to get one more Achievement as a Heavy), but I still got a crash when I tried Developer Commentary mode.

Well, the one real difference in Developer Commenty is the voiceovers. And in fact I had voice chat turned off in my online session — it seems to get turned back on automatically sometimes, and I specifically turned it off while I had the Options menu open to change the graphics settings. So my working hypothesis at this point is that the real cause has to do with sound, and that the reported graphics problems are just a symptom. We’ll see how that works out.

TF2: Pyro

More failure to fulfill the Oath here: I’ve got three days worth of lunchtime TF2 (plus a certain amount of evening play) to report on here, and I’m late even for the third. The only really notable thing that happened, aside from the halos belatedly showing up on the server at work, is that I reached the first Achievement milestone for the Pyro class.

The Pyro is probably the easiest classes to play. The basic Pyro weapon is a flamethrower, which doesn’t have much range, but it covers a largish area and fires continually without reloading. It’s like the opposite of a Sniper: if you can get close enough to the enemy, you’ll probably win. But the main reason that I’ve been playing Pyro so much is that it’s the one class that’s really useful against Spies. Spies have this irritating tendency to turn invisible just when you start firing at them, but no one’s invisible while they’re on fire. So whenever I’m having trouble with Spies, I switch to Pyro for a while.

The Pyro is presented as the least human character, his 1I use the male pronoun here, but there is some debate about the Pyro’s actual gender. face concealed by protective rubber gear, his past and place of origin officially unknown. All the other classes have specific bios — for example, the Scout is “The youngest of eight boys from the south side of Boston”. Does this mean that if there are several Scouts in a match, each and every one of them is the youngest of eight boys from the south side of Boston? Best not think about it — this multiple instantiation of individuals seems to be just something that games take for granted these days. (See the species descriptions in Plants vs Zombies.) At any rate, such concerns don’t apply to the pastless Pyro. He’s also presented as the madman of the team, what with the occasional muffled maniacal laughter from under that mask. This is a little unfair, because when you come right down to it, all of the characters in the game are completely insane by real-life standards. This is something that really struck me on watching a Scout, the game’s designated weakling, charge out of nowhere and beat someone to death with a baseball bat.

1 I use the male pronoun here, but there is some debate about the Pyro’s actual gender.

TF2: Milestones

I said that I’d consider Team Fortress 2 to be off the Stack when I had spent a significant amount of time playing every class. At this point, I’m tentatively declaring a less vague criterion: getting the first Achievement milestone with every class.

These milestones are Achievements that are awarded for getting a certain number of class-specific Achievements — the key numbers are 10, 16, and 22 for most classes, except the Sniper and Spy, which get them at 5, 11, and 17. At any rate, there always seem to be three milestones. Looking at the Achievements, it strikes me that they’re also easily divisible into three categories. First, there are the ones that are likely to happen eventually regardless of whether you’re specifically trying to make them happen or not — for example, the Pryo achievement which simply requires you to kill 3 enemies in a row in the same area, or the Scout achievement for running 25 kilometers. Secondly, there are the ones that are unlikely to happen naturally, but which you can deliberately pursue, such as the Sniper achievement for getting 5 kills with the Sniper Rifle without using the scope, or the Medic achievement for cooperating with two other Medics to deploy three simultaneous Übercharges. Thirdly, there are ones based on unlikely occurrences that are completely beyond your control (unless perhaps you have someone on the opposing team cooperating with you), such as the Medic achievement for deploying an Übercharge on someone less than a second before they’re hit by a critical explosive. To a certain frame of mind, only the second sort are really deserving of the name “Achievement”, but I’m willing to accept it as a term of art.

It’s debatable which of these categories a particular Achievement belongs in, but looking at the list, it’s pretty clear that the majority of them are in the first category — certainly more than enough to clear the first milestone. So really, if I keep on this daily lunchtime regimen, it’s only a matter of time before I meet my goal. Except for one thing: Two Three classes, the Demoman and Engineer [EDIT: Also the Soldier], don’t have mission packs yet! By complete coincidence, these are also my two least-played classes. I expect I’ll give them a larger try when their class-specific content is released.

Everyday Shooter: Ending

After some more Single-mode practice and the purchase of another life, I have finally reached the proper ending of Everyday Shooter — and a proper ending it is, with a credits montage and everything. Mind you, since the game was developed by one person, it’s short on credits and long on montage. But it serves its purpose, which is to celebrate the player’s victory and enhance the illusion of accomplishment, one of my bigger motivations for playing games in the first place.

I also find the ending satisfying because of the way it breaks the midgame’s biggest drawbacks. It may seem strange to say this about a somewhat-old-school 2D shooter, but Everyday Shooter plays a lot like a CRPG. It’s the accumulative aspect. Instead of killing monsters to get XP that raises your level, you’re collecting points to buy additional starting lives, but the end result is the same: repetitive grinding makes it easier to survive the difficult bits. The problem with this isn’t just the tedium of grinding (if carried to excess), but also that it makes the difficult bits less interesting. But, as I described in my last post, the final boss in Everyday Shooter isn’t something that you can simply smother in extra lives.

Also notable is the delay between defeating the end of the final boss encounter and the end of the level. Regardless of whether you’ve defeated it or not, the song has to finish playing. The post-boss segment isn’t at all difficult, but if you won, it’s an excellent opportunity to get loads more points. (I had over 7000 by the end.) So there’s a cushion between the victory and the congratulations, giving the player time to process the fact that the long struggle is over, even as the game remains meaningfully interactive. This is an interesting effect, and one I haven’t seen in many other games.

Everyday Shooter: End Boss

I’ve managed to survive to the end of the last song in Normal mode, but it’s clear that I haven’t really finished the game.

Level 8, “So Many Ways”, is, like level 6 and arguably level 4 before it, a level with a boss. By “boss” I just mean a unique abnormally tough enemy with lots of firepower. Bosses in shooters usually have one other attribute that these bosses don’t: they block progress. They’re generally the last thing in a level, and the way to finish level is to defeat the boss. But in Everyday Shooter, every level ends when its song is over. That’s so basic to the mechanics of the game that bosses aren’t allowed be an exception. The level 4 boss explodes into a kajillion points 1This is an estimation. You can only pick up less than thousand points before they fade away, but extrapolating from the density of those picked up, I can say with some confidence that the total number is approximately a kajillion. when killed, and, of course, stops shooting at you, which makes things a lot easier for the rest of that level. But killing it is optional. And, in fact, while the time limit imposed by the song has the effect of making it easier to pass the level, it also makes it harder to defeat the boss.

everyday-endbossLevel 8’s boss is a large circle with a pair of segmented tentacles, each segment bearing a circle that can shoot at you. The way it moves, together with its white-and-transparent color scheme, suggests jellyfish. The song is another three-section A-B-A deals like level 4; the boss drifts in at the beginning of the B section and leaves when it’s over. There isn’t nearly enough time to kill it simply by shooting at it: you pretty much have to lure it towards other objects that can be made to explode, and that’s not easy when you’re dodging its bullets. (Much of the time I accidentally detonate the thing I’m trying to lure it toward prematurely.) If you manage to defeat it, the large circle drifts to the center and becomes a point fountain. But I only know this because of Single mode, where I can play with diminished fear of death. 2Diminished, but not entirely gone. When you die, there’s a second or so before your next life begins, and that’s a second in which you’re not shooting at stuff. The song does not stop during this time. Losing a second or two probably won’t make the difference between beating the boss and not beating it, but if you’re dying frequently, it adds up. In Normal mode, I’ve managed to survive the boss, but not defeat it.

Whenever the game ends, you get an ending screen that reports how many points you accumulated and what percentage of the current level you cleared. (In Single mode, where I usually survive through the whole level, this is normally 100%.) When I passed the final song, something a little different happened: the jellyfish boss swam onto the screen again, and my completion was displayed as 99.9%. Without words, Jonathan Mak has clearly told me that I need to beat that boss to really finish the game.

I suppose I can understand the intent here. Despite its peculiarities, Everyday Shooter aspires to be a shooter in the classic mold. And in classical shooters, the player’s ultimate triumph consists of beating a difficult boss. The mechanics here mean that you can always pass a boss without beating it, so the game has to provide motivation for not doing that. It all makes sense in retrospect, but it came as something of a surprise to learn that I hadn’t beaten the game after all.

1 This is an estimation. You can only pick up less than thousand points before they fade away, but extrapolating from the density of those picked up, I can say with some confidence that the total number is approximately a kajillion.
2 Diminished, but not entirely gone. When you die, there’s a second or so before your next life begins, and that’s a second in which you’re not shooting at stuff. The song does not stop during this time. Losing a second or two probably won’t make the difference between beating the boss and not beating it, but if you’re dying frequently, it adds up.

Everyday Shooter: What Is Music?

I’ve described Everyday Shooter as a music game. And certainly, shooting stuff produces musical sounds. But can we really describe the end result as music? A cat walking on a piano keyboard also produces musical sounds, but we don’t call it music. Unless, I suppose, it’s used as part of a deliberate musical composition — sampling can turn pretty much any sound into music, like the barking dogs in The Beatles’ Good Morning or the rattling of a door in They Might Be Giants’ Hearing Aid. The cat on the keyboard lacks intentionality, but by being sampled and placed into a work, it becomes at least as intentional as Duchamp’s urinal — as if that were a convincing argument.

But even with intentionality as a criterion, the sounds in Everyday Shooter occupy a middle ground: the individual sounds were deliberately chosen, but their arrangement is left up to the player’s actions, which are guided by a desire to score points and avoid death, not an intention to produce music. The player might as well be a random number generator. But random processes have been used in composition before. The only difference here is that the random component occurs after it’s left the composer’s hands. Or, to put it another way, it’s rather like windchimes. Do windchimes produce music? I honestly can’t answer that.

For that matter, perhaps intentionality isn’t all that important. Coincidentally, about a month ago, a friend emailed me with some youtube clips of the arcade games Pulsar, Qix, and Zookeeper, asserting “These games are better electronic music than most electronic music out there.” Of the first, he said “I have entire glitchcore CDs that sound like this, but not as musical” (emphasis mine). This for sounds that were created by a very similar process to the ones in Everyday Shooter, but were not intended to be musical by the player or the creator. From this point of view, the important thing is merely the way the sounds are perceived.

And that, for me, is where Everyday Shooter fails. As is usually the case when I play a game a lot, I’ve had the music going through my head when not playing. And the music that goes through my head is just the background track, without the incidental player-initiated sounds. So clearly, on an automatic and intuitive level, I’m perceiving those sounds as not part of the music. It’s possible that I would perceive them differently if the background music weren’t there, because the consistency of the background music is so much more musical (repetition being the backbone of music) that it drowns out any perceived musicality of the foreground. If so, it’s ironic, because the author clearly intends the background music to encourage us to think of the foreground sounds musically.

TF2: Halo Wars (cont’d)

It turns out that the lack of visible halos is isolated to the server we play on at work — which is mysterious, because we didn’t do anything to disable them. At any rate, the halos are still around, and stirring up all manner of trouble on the Steam TF2 forums.

I don’t normally read these forums — good gravy, why would I subject myself to that? — but one of my colleagues drew my attention to them. He was trolling them. Fanning the flames, so to speak. He hardly needed to, though. I realize that pretty much any change to any online game is going to produce angry forum posts, but this one drove out all else. People saying that they’ll ban anyone with a halo, refuse to heal them as a healer, etc. I haven’t seen any evidence of this behavior on the servers I’ve played on, though, which seem to have gotten used to them pretty quickly. That doesn’t stop the vocal minority from declaring that “Valve is tearing the community in half”. It’s all pretty childish. Some people were threatening to stop playing. Considering that Valve isn’t charging subscription fees or anything, I can’t imagine they’re much concerned. If these people do stop playing, it’ll probably improve the experience for the remaining players.

My trolling colleague pointed out the thing that really sticks in the vocal minority’s craw here: These are completists. They cheated precisely because they wanted all the special items in the game, and now there’s one that they don’t have and can never get. Well, I self-identify as a completist too, so I can sympathize a little, but not very much. Cheating, to me, defeats the point of completism. The virtual items in your virtual inventory are just tokens of the feats performed to acquire them. Heck, I’m even a little leery of acquiring pokémon by trading with people who aren’t actively playing.

And ultimately, if you’re going to be a completist, you have to learn to discern which games, and which aspects of those games, are and are not suitable for completism. Take Kingdom of Loathing. There are a number of collectibles and unlockables there, many of which have been available only for a limited time. The most extreme case I know of is a trophy that you could only get for being logged on and not wearing pants at the stroke of midnight on New Years Day 2006. There were apparently some oblique hints about this beforehand on the forums, but the vast majority of players are simply ineligible for that trophy. Some players grumbled when the developers started pulling stuff like that, but in the end, it set a precedent that probably altered the tone of the game for the better. The completist will was broken. I suppose that that’s what Valve is trying to do now. I hope it’ll be successful.

TF2: Halo Wars

Something amusing happened the other day. As described before, players can get random special items in Team Fortress 2 simply by playing a lot. Some players game this by just leaving themselves logged on and not actually playing — apparently there are special apps to facilitiate this, presumably by making the idling player keep rejoining matches as they end. Obviously this isn’t what the developers intended, and yesterday, they announced that they would be (a) taking away all items procured using external idling applications, and (b) giving everyone who showed no sign of ever cheating like this a new hat.

The hat was of particular interest to me. Hat items, unlike weapons, affect nothing but your appearance, but I wanted a hat simply because I didn’t have any yet. Well, it turns out the the hat, called the “Cheater’s Lament”, gives the player wearing it a glowing halo.

Now, the announcement states that “only about 4.5% of the players in TF2’s community” had cheated. I’d expect that the proportion among active players would be somewhat greater, because the casual or occasional players aren’t the ones likely to grow frustrated with not having every item available. On the other hand, there are apparently servers that cater to idlers without using an external app, and surely the hard-core players would know about those, so who knows? All I can really say is that when I played on a public server last night, only a minority of the players were haloed. (That minority included myself. It’s my only hat, so I wanted to wear it.)

Furthermore, there was a considerable amount of anti-halo sentiment in the chatter. The word “faggy” was used. “Aim for the people with halos!” was a much-heard battlecry. Perhaps there were people in the match who were encouraging this attitude to cover for their own shameful lack of halo, but it seems unlikely that this was the cause for everyone. More likely, the idea simply backfired. No one likes a goody two-shoes, and the halo smacked too much of parading your moral superiority — and without much justification, if it’s only superiority to 1 in 20 players.

The halos seemed to be gone the next day, during the lunchtime session at the office. That is, people still had the Cheater’s Lament equipped, but it produced no visible effect. Maybe the server was out-of-date. There are rumors of technical problems, that the halo’s glow was still visible on an invisible Spy. But maybe, just maybe, the devs decided that wasn’t working out the way they intended. Again, who knows.

Everyday Shooter: Reaching New Levels

Well, I’ve reached the penultimate level: Earthworm, which seems inspired by Centipede. Mostly superficially, it must be said: there are segmented bugs to blast apart, and spiders appear here and there, but neither the bugs nor the player bahave like their arcade counterparts. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have thought it similar at all if I hadn’t been anticipating the appearance of a Centipede-like level, due to all the other references to arcade shooters of yore.

Deliberate attempts at reaching new levels in this game involve some tension between going after points to buy extra starting lives, and simply trying to survive — that is, aiming for eventual or immediate progress. There’s always a bit of this balancing act in any game where points yield extra lives, but usually it’s a wash if you lose a life in the process of gaining one, and that’s not the case here. I’m finding that I generally decide at some point what the purpose of a particular session is, and therefore what kind of risks I take for the big scores. It get interesting when I change my mind about this mid-match, when I’ve gotten further along than I expected and suddenly feel like I have to start trying to survive.

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