Swords & Soldiers

OK, I’m interrupting the expedition to Syberia. I intend to get back to it soon. But for now, Steam is having another one of its promotions. Like last year’s “Treasure Hunt” (or this year’s “Potato Sack” promotion for Portal 2, which I sat out), it involves earning rewards via special Achievements in various games. And as before, I’m not particularly interested in the rewards, but I find the Achievements appealing. I don’t intend to buy any games just for the promotion, but I’ll certainly be trying for the Achievements in the games that I already have.

Day 1 of the promotion featured two such games, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, which was also featured in Day 1 of the previous promotion (perhaps because it tends to come up first in alphabetical listings), and Swords & Soldiers, a game I know nothing about which I got in a recent Indie bundle. (For my money, games that I know nothing about are pretty much the point of those bundles.) AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!‘s new Achievement is to complete a special level with a five-star rating, and I made some attempts at this, but found it difficult; on a couple of tries, I came close enough that I would have succeeded if I didn’t keep smashing into things so much. This was frustrating enough that I took a break with S&S, which proved engaging enough that I wound up playing all the way through campaign mode for all three of its sides.

S&S is a port of a WiiWare game, but to my newly-sensitized-to-iOS eyes, it seems like it was developed with an eventual phone port in mind. Everything about the UI is extremely touchscreen-friendly. What’s more, it seems like a pretty good example of a post-Angry Birds iPhone game, or at least part of the same stylistic trend as Angry Birds: it’s all broad slapstick and extreme stylization. I just described the caricature in Syberia as restrained. There’s no sense of restraint in S&S. It’s a story of three childish nations warring over things like barbecue sauce and toys. The three sides, in the order they become available for play, are the Vikings, the Aztecs, and the Chinese, all thoroughly stereotyped, which strikes me as especially problematic in the case of the Chinese, who still exist. (Sure, descendants of Aztecs and Vikings exist, but the Aztec civilization is long gone, and Viking was always more of an occupation than a race.) The Chinese here speak in pidgin, they say things like “Ah, chop chop” when summoned, their swordsmen wear conical straw hats (which as far as I’m aware have never been part of any military uniform), etc. So it’s not even current stereotyping, but more like Chinese stereotypes from the 1930s, which is probably why the authors thought it was acceptable. For my part, as a white guy, it’s not my place to be offended on other people’s behalf, but it’s nonetheless too embarrassing to pass without comment, and for that reason has engendered some painfully clueless arguments about racism on the Steam forums (content warning: “It’s just a game” used).

Regardless, the gameplay is interesting. It’s essentially an RTS with asymmetric sides. It’s also a simplification of the genre, like Eufloria but in a completely different way. The biggest simplification is that the map is one-dimensional. Some maps have bits where the path splits for a while and rejoins, with a railroad-like switch at the branch point to tell your units which way to go, but even there, within the path you choose, you’re fighting for distance along a line. Furthermore, you have no direct control over your units. Whenever they’re not fighting, they’re moving from left to right. As is normal for an RTS, the simplest way to win fights is to have lots of units together, but the fact that they all go running off the moment they’re summoned tends to work against this approach. Each stereotype has different ways around this. For example, the Vikings, the most straightforward side, have a healing spell that you can use to help your frontmost warrior survive in combat until the guys behind him catch up, while the Chinese have a spell that duplicates a unit, letting you build a posse out of one guy. The Aztecs have necromancer units that can turn corpses into animated skeletons, so each guy that pulls ahead and gets killed gets to be part of an undead horde later.

The interesting part is how little these simplifications change things. In practice, RTS-style gameplay often reduces to a fight along a single path between two bases, each side throwing all they’ve got at it, trying to counter the opponent’s offense efficiently enough to have resources to spare on an effective offense of their own. S&S takes that moment and turns it into the entirety of the game. And it works pretty well. It’s essentially a game of tradeoffs. You’ve got the tradeoffs between current troop strength and research into more powerful stuff, you have to increase your gold-collection rate by spending current gold, and in the later levels of their campaigns, each side develops their own megaweapon that they can use if they can refrain from casting other spells long enough to afford its mana cost. The Aztecs can even sacrifice their own units to gain a little mana, but I suppose that’s essentially the same choice every side makes when they decide whether to cast a defensive spell to save a unit’s life or not. Apparently there are some gambits that are extremely difficult to counter, so two-player play might not be all that interesting in the long run. But the single-player campaign remains interesting and varied for as long as it lasts, which was about six hours for me.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: 3 AM

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard for Gravity is a game I’m coming to associate with 3:00 at night. I once used the phrase “a real 5 AM game” to describe a game that makes you lose track of time, the sort where you look up at the clock and discover to your amazement that the sun is going to rise soon and getting any sleep that night is a lost cause. That’s not what I mean here. I mean that AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! evokes the sensation of being awake at an unreasonable hour and knowing it.

It’s got the punchy sense of humor that I associate with sleep deprivation, with level titles like “We’re Not Bad People But We Hate Good People” and “What The Bloody Hell’s Tungsten Carbide Drills”. The whole premise of the game is an example of that kind of joke, and an example of the sort of thing people think is a good idea at 3 AM: “Let’s go jump off buildings in wingsuits. It’ll be awesome.” Going back to the level selection screen sometimes provokes an absurd and irrelevant radio announcement from “Nebin“, who sounds bored, or stoned, or possibly just sleep-deprived — either way, he’s definitely the sort of programming that gets put on the air late at night (even though his repeated “More news at midnight” line suggests that is isn’t actually 3 AM yet).

If you’re awake at 3 AM, it’s a pretty good sign that you’re not planning on being fully awake and alert for the duration of the day. It’s a kind of reckless disregard, just like in the title — the devil-take-tomorrow attitude of someone who’d engage in the kind of pointlessly dangerous activity depicted in the game. Note that Dejobaan’s previous title was The Wonderful End of the World. There’s a running theme here, a sense of apocalyptic desperation underlying the humor, like the desperation of an all-nighter. You’re cramming for an exam, wired on caffeine, listening to Nebin on the college radio station, unwilling to allow yourself to think about anything beyond your immediate concern. Your world ends with that exam, and it’s rushing towards you like the ground. At some point, you’re just completely unable to concentrate, but falling asleep would be disastrous, so you take a break with a videogame, to keep your nerves active while your mind takes a rest. When I was in college, I frequently used Wing Commander and its sequels for this purpose — the scramble/take-off music played on a Soundblaster was better than an alarm clock. But AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! in general seems even better-suited for the purpose. It even has an Achievement called “I Avoid Sleep Wherever Possible, So I Played AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! a Whole Lot”.


Hot on the heels of their last bunch of sales, Steam is doing a singularly evil promotion: essentially, an achievement-based sweepstakes. Every two days until the 20th of the month, they post a set of criteria for filling in checkboxes that count towards a random drawing for free games. (Also, certain threshold numbers of filled-in checkboxes give special hats in Team Fortress 2, which is one of the strongest motivators known to modern ludology.)Most of the criteria involve playing games that they happen to have on sale for those two days, and apparently they’re all simple enough that you can be reasonably expected to achieve them within an hour or so of playing the game for the first time. So there’s a clear temptation here. Now, in the US, it’s illegal for a privately-run sweepstakes to actually require a purchase. Promotional sweepstakes that you enter by buying things are common, but there’s always an alternate way to enter, usually involving postcards, buried somewhere in the fine print. And so it is here; I could enter this contest without buying any games. But that’s missing the point. I don’t need the prize. I don’t even really want it. I just have a compulsion to do things that fill in checkboxes. (I’m one of the few people I know who played Achievement Unlocked and its sequel to 100% completion.)

But my will is iron. I have sworn not to buy any games solely for the sake of this promotion. Games that are already on my must-play list, though? That’s another matter. And so I’ve bought Dejobaan’s AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, which has a sufficiently quirky basis to be on my radar as worth trying out, if only for the lessons we can learn from its experiments.

That basis: it’s about base jumping. There are some levels with mountains, but mostly it’s base jumping past large floating artificial structures in the sky. You score points by getting dangerously close to them. Points give you money (or “teeth”, as the game calls it — the designers’ attitude contains a big hunk of non-sequitur humor) which you use to unlock more levels. There are more complications that I’ll probably get into in future posts, but that’s the essence of the game right there, in the same way that “enemy spaceships come from the right of the screen and you shoot at them” is the essence of myriad scrolling shmups.

And I mention scrolling shmups because, in a strange way, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAA!!! feels like one. It has a similar sense of inexorable movement, and of twitchy reactions within a continuous framework of tactical decisions about which route to take. And when you come down to it, it wouldn’t take a lot to re-theme this game around spaceships. The main difference is just one of perspective, of whether you think of the direction you’re moving in as forward or down. (Ender Wiggin would approve.)