Monday 19 December 2022

Time is money, but also money is money

I came to William Gibson in the late 90s, with cyberpunk well-established (even erring on old hat) and cyberspace in vogue to describe the early fumblings of the web. Neuromancer wasn’t on such a cutting edge as it must have been ten years before and didn’t quite connect as it might have done, but I loved the Bridge books and come 2003 there was a new release, Pattern Recognition. The blurb didn’t sound promising; set in the present, no nanotechnology or all-powerful Artificial Intelligences? Something about brands and fashion? Oh dear, no, not my sort of thing at all. A 2007 sequel in the same world, Spook Country, had more overt espionage elements; that was more my sort of thing, and I was sure the last of the series, 2010s Zero History was equally strong.

I hadn’t thought much about Gibson until The Peripheral arrived on Amazon video. It’s incredibly well done, a strong cast hooking you into the story and strong production values to bring the near and not-quite-so-near future to screen convincingly. The book had flown under my radar when it first came out, and after a couple of episodes of the series I debated reading along. I decided to wait, and instead re-read some of his earlier works, building up to the book of The Peripheral after finishing the series. I don’t get as much reading done as I’d really like these days, so going right back to Neuromancer was a bit much; I had half an idea I’d read Pattern Recognition after enjoying its follow-ups (commenters here had recommended it when I posted about Spook Country) but couldn’t remember any details if I had, so that seemed like a good starting point. I’d work back through the Blue Ant books.

It turned out I never had got back to Pattern Recognition. The old memory is getting a bit patchy so I don’t tend to retain much from books I read years ago, but after a chapter or two I’ll get some spark of recollection unless there’s been some sort of serious mind-wipe, and I didn’t recognise any of the patterns in Pattern Recognition. Entirely unsurprisingly I’d done it and myself a terrible disservice dismissing it based on blurb alone, the commenters were right, it’s an excellent book. It’s almost 20 years old now, a longer gap from publication than when I’d first read Neuromancer, but didn’t feel archaic, perhaps as it wasn’t set in the future (“Nothing dates harder and faster and more strangely than the future”, as Neil Gaiman said). Technology has moved on but not unrecognisably so. The protagonist reads message boards from a laptop connected to a mobile rather than social media on a smartphone, but 2003 doesn’t seem so far from 2023.

Moving on to Spook Country the key plot points did come back to me, a bit of a relief that my memory wasn’t entirely faulty, then starting on Zero History… blank again. I never had it read it. It had just been sitting on a shelf. It was probably around the time I switched almost entirely to e-books, having completely run out of space, and at some point assumed I had read it. It was a strong end to the series, tying threads from the first two together. Oddly enough, the current psychodrama not being out of place for a Gibson novel, Twitter makes an appearance; two characters using it for surreptitious communication, their accounts (@gaydolphin1 and @gaydolphin2) actually exist, protected, sitting there since 2010.

So now I’m caught up on the Blue Ant books it’s time to plunge into a world of pandemic, climate disaster, and political instability. And after the news, I’ll start on The Peripheral. Ahhh! And then I got off the bus! And that was just the teachers!!1!

Wednesday 30 November 2022

In Memoriam Twitter

Funny how time and memory work. In my mind my blogging is an Old Thing that pre-dates more widespread social media and Twitter is a New Thing, but it turns out I started Twitting in 2008, the same year we set up KiaSA. Reading a post from 2009 reminded me that things were a little creaky to start with but it didn’t take too long for the blue bird to spread its wings, especially as its natural habitat of the smartphone became nigh-ubiquitous. My early Twitter feed closely mirrored MMO folk from the blogroll but as the world and their proverbial (or indeed literal) dogs (and cats) got into Twitterating so it expanded to a motley collection of comedians, authors, mathematicians, historians, journalists, sportspeople and such.

Things were generally fairly chilled in the early days, there was a novelty in the interactions between disparate folk. Of course it’s not the first time that “the masses” have been able to interact with “celebrities” (see Greg Jenner’s excellent Dead Famous for more on the history of celebrity and fandom, Greg being someone I discovered through Twitter). Internet-wise you might have bumped into Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett on Usenet or Vin Diesel in World of Warcraft but the scale of Twitter went mind-boggling pretty quickly. A hundred followers? Sure, small beer. A thousand? That’s a lot of potential interaction. A hundred thousand? Shortly after my first post grappling with the newfangled thing Ashton Kutcher edged out CNN to be the first to hit a million followers, the signal to noise ratio must be crazy at those volumes. Some folk started scaling down their presence or heading off entirely as it all got a bit exhausting, countless hordes ready to pounce on a wilful misinterpretation of the most innocuous statement, not to mention more orchestrated maliciously motivated campaigns. It’s not something I’ve personally experienced, thank heavens, but you get occasional glimpses in looking at a trending hashtag or replies to more popular Twittites.

I’ve never been a terribly prolific Twitterist of original content. There’s the vague ongoing worry over putting anything too personal online, probably unfounded, but who knows when some disciple of a long-dead game tracks down a mildly sarcastic comment about it from 2011 and launches a blood vendetta? It’s more that I don’t have much to say in a pithy format (hence this being a blog post rather than a thread of Twitterage). For me it’s become more of a combination of rolling news, an aggregator of interesting links (picking up where RSS feeds left off, in some ways), and commentary. The commentary often arrives first which can make for interesting attempts to reconstruct news stories based on reactions and spoofs, like George Smiley divining true Soviet interests by subjects suppressed by a double agent. If Smiley was working with memes of A Man Walking Down The Street With A Woman Labelled ‘Naval Manoeuvres In The Baltic Sea’ But Turning To Look At Another Woman Labelled ‘Hungarian Atomic Research Facilities’.

I don’t think I’m too misty eyed about the evolution from a scrappy assortment of vaguely tech-savvy folk to the corporate behemoth favoured by politicians, I’ve managed to curate a comfortable feed where there’ll always be something interesting or funny to scroll through on a break without too much existential dread (though you can hardly entirely avoid it these days). The effects of the Filter Bubble are always a concern, a good percentage of the people I follow appear to be of broadly similar ideology, but slightly counteracted by the variety of spheres from which they’re drawn so they’re not an entirely homogenous mass.

All in all things seemed to be bimbling along happily enough from my specific perspective, until The Event. The purchase of Twitter by the Unspecified Billionaire. It’s probably excessive caution again, but a brief glance at replies to just about any sort of commentary on the situation turns up the sort of ‘spirited defence’ of the chap that would make K-Pop stans say “steady on, now”, so it’s not entirely outwith the realms of possibility that there are teams crawling obscure blogs desperate to start a civil conversation about that statement. I hadn’t thought a huge amount about identification and verification, there’d been the odd bit of furore over who did and didn’t get a blue tick but it seemed to have settled itself down, until The Event. Oddly enough Terry Pratchett and Bill Gates had talked about the difficulties of “the parity of esteem of information on the Net” in a 1996 interview, I’m not sure if Gates might re-evaluate his prediction that “The whole way that you can check on somebody’s reputation will be so much more sophisticated on the Net than it is in print today” in the wake of the Blue Tick ‘Parody’ Chaos. Further decisions appear to have been made with the consideration and delicacy of a toddler with a chainsaw so heaven knows what the future holds. Perhaps we’re on the verge of a new age of unparalleled enlightenment, but it seems rather more likely to be a coin flip between the whole thing vanishing in an explosion of hubris or slowly falling apart as anyone vaguely competent and insufficiently zealous drifts away.

I’ve started glancing around for alternatives, and set up over on a UK Mastodon instance. It’s got that early days vibe again, for better and worse. The federated nature obviously has its strengths, but already there’ve been some rumblings over moderation policy and interactions with other servers, I don’t envy volunteer admin teams in the slightest. Data protection and security becomes quite the thorny issue. I still don’t have much to post, but I’m trying to make an effort with the odd dog photo at least. These things come and go; Bulletin Boards, Usenet, Slashdot, Livejournal, to pluck a few examples, I’ll see where folks head to and probably drift along myself. I’m partial to a bit of E. J. Thribb, so over to @ToneHannan for the eulogy (though I’ll copy the text here, just in case):

Farewell then

You were funny on
Eurovision night

Keith’s mum liked that
blue tick
she bought

At least I think it was
Keith’s mum

Tuesday 25 October 2022

One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards

If there’s been a theme to my recent gaming it would seem to be cards. Well, cards and stealth. I forgot about stealth; I was going to include it at the start but then it crouched in some bushes for 30 seconds and just popped clean out of my head. Desperadoes 3 was in the same Humble Monthly as the Legendary Edition of Mass Effect, got good reviews, and I like a bit of real time tactics now and again so I fired it up. It’s very stealth-heavy, much more Commandos than Close Combat, and though I enjoy silently crawling around as much as the next chap I usually like to mix it up with a firefight or two. That’s not entirely out of the question, you can always pull out the trusty old six shooters, but limited ammunition and weight of enemy numbers tend to make stealth the preferred option. I’d played through the first few levels, but then like a guard hearing a coin being thrown within earshot I got rather distracted and wandered off to investigate something else: the current headline Humbly Monthly offering, Deathloop.

I was aware of the time loop premise (the title’s a bit of a giveaway) and intrigued at release, but had avoided too much further information to experience the story fresh. It’s proving most interesting so far with elements of other media that’s right up my street, things like STALKER, Memento, Lost, Bioshock, and of course time loop classics such as Source Code, Palm Springs, and Edge of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat/Saving Private Groundhog. Presumably there’s a dollop of Dishonored in there as well as it’s from the same developers, but for some reason that never clicked with me, I have an hour and a half of play time back in 2013 that I can’t really remember at all (thank heavens for Steam data). The design of Deathloop is very stylish, and while stealth is certainly an option and well catered for through awareness systems, silent weapons/takedowns, the ability to hack cameras and cause disturbances and such, it feels more forgiving if you prefer to let your fists (and machine pistols, shotguns, and grenades) do the talking. A minor irritation is the lack of a mid-level save option; game-wise it certainly makes sense, to allow the looping mechanics to take care of that side of things (a neat reflection of the way Edge of Tomorrow and its source All You Need Is Kill were influenced by the idea of saving and reloading in games to keep trying different things), but not ideal if you get called away. At least it can be paused in single player mode; there’s obviously some sort of PvP possibility in the future, telegraphed on the starting screen, but I haven’t got that far yet, as I managed to get distracted again…

Another current Humble Monthly offering is Monster Train, a roguelike deckbuilder, another genre I have some fondness for. I thought I’d take a quick peak, and have ended up playing it more than anything else recently. Slay the Spire is the obvious comparison: various factions to select from, some specialising in brute force, others magic; a set of basic cards augmented with new drafts and upgrades; merchants; random events. It plays differently enough to be its own thing, though, with a tower-defence-ish twist of assembling your forces over three floors. I’ve really been enjoying mixing the factions to take very different approaches, from having a really solid tank shielding glass-cannon damage dealers to throwing out wave upon wave of disposable minions before reforming them for another attack. Again like Slay the Spire the challenges are equally varied, one battle might be a complete cakewalk where you annihilate the invaders without them laying a finger on your champion, the next suddenly features foes with abilities that nullify your most important tactics. Very well worth a look, if that sounds like your sort of thing.

Also on the cards front I’m still enjoying a few rounds of KARDS most days, I’ve found a deck that really clicks for competitive play with good results, though is by no means invincible; I had one of those days last week where every opponent seemed geared up to counter it, but that’s the luck of the draw. I’ve also got a collection of other decks covering the various nations when daily tasks pop up, less effective but they keep things fun, variety being the spice of Second World War digital card games and all that. I didn’t think I needed another, but then Melmoth mentioned a Marvel CCG had just come out, so I had a look around. I’d seen a couple of headlines about Marvel Snap but assumed it was some kids game; it seems the simple matching game we call ‘Snap‘ in the UK isn’t really a thing in the US (cursory googling suggests similar sounding games go by ‘Slapjack’ or, weirdly, ‘Egyptian Rat Screw’), so it’s not just a case of shouting ‘SNAP!’ when Iron Man turns up twice (Iron Mans? Iron Men? Irons Man?) Probably for the best, that could get messy (“no, not ‘snap’, both cards may be Venom but this one is Mac Gargan and that one is Eddie Brock…”) Anyway, I gave Marvel Snap a quick try and it seemed pretty basic, I was ready to file it as a perfectly adequate but fairly uninspired cash-in. Just this morning, though, somebody retweeted one of the developers talking about how they’d dealt with mulligans, and it was rather interesting. The thread outlines some of the goals: small decks, quick matches, but keeping the variance high (a key reason for not including mulligans, instead making a basic low-coast card with the ability to always feature in a starting hand, thus addressing the underlying complaint of not always being able to do something in your first turn). It made me take another look at the game, and sure enough there is plenty of depth to it. Deck building in a game with a vast card library can be quite a headache; I can certainly throw something together in KARDS but my serious decks all started out from templates, albeit with tweaks here and there. A smaller deck without multiple instances of the same card is quite a refreshing change, if I can find the time I might well add it to the regulars.

Saturday 24 September 2022

Gilded tombs do worms enfold

With Mass Effect 3 wrapped up, I’m casting around for something to get my teeth into on the gaming front. Maybe not another RPG, ME3 felt a bit of a chore towards the finish. Playing all three games of the Legendary Edition in quick succession might have contributed to the fatigue and the ending is still pretty anticlimactic, a slow trudge before that fateful choice. I fired up Destiny 2 for the first time in a while, I hadn’t played since the Witch Queen expansion and it was quite comforting to slip back into, but didn’t really sink the hooks in. Melmoth pointed out that Titanfall 2 was on sale, and rather good; it’s proving most enjoyable, quite a throwback to be playing a single player FPS campaign for the sake of it rather than to slowly upgrade loot and abilities. I’ve dipped the briefest of toes into PvP, which involved an entirely expected number of deaths and few kills, I’m not sure it’s for me but seems very well done.

Elsewhere SongPop has slipped out of my regular free-to-play rotation after it dropped its cheap monthly subscription option. It has a daily login reward, and a long enough streak of those gives a pretty decent bonus to progression; miss a day, though, and the reward gets reset. As there are, shockingly enough, odd days when I might not have a burning desire to recognise short snippets of music, that sort of thing has booted it from a “maybe now and again” to a firm skip. Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms, on the other hand, has seen me splurge an unprecedented sum of cash (£7.99) after it introduced a season pass. Very similar to seasons/battle passes in other games it comes with a bunch of themed quests/goals that give out a currency to buy rewards with, some available to everyone but the best locked behind a paywall. I’d spent very little previously – most of the cash offerings are for stacks of chests of random loot – but for a ten week season with defined rewards it looked like a decent deal. There was a bit of vocal protest on its introduction (“gamers in vocal protest shocker”), including some classic If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next-ing (“this particular pass might look reasonable enough but give them an inch and you’ll have to pay ONE MILLION POUNDS just to LOG IN to the game soon enough”), but things seem to have calmed down a bit now as everyone gets down to grinding through 1.14 x 10^58 enemies.

Maybe I’ll get a bit more reading in; the third book of the Locked Tomb not-a-trilogy-any-more has just come out, so I’m re-reading the first two of the series, and if ever a series warranted re-reading it’s that one. I’d forgotten a fair bit over the past two years (like the whole climax of the first book), but enough has stuck around to make it a little less disorienting and I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting my teeth into the third.

Thursday 18 August 2022

Please turn on your magic beam

I’ve been poking away slowly at the Legendary version of Mass Effect 3, with one more chunk of DLC to wrap up before heading off to the final confrontation, but heatwaves bringing record temperatures to the UK haven’t been terribly conducive to finding the energy for such herculean efforts as moving a mouse around. Watching television has just about been possible, with a good half hour or more to recover from the exertion of pressing buttons on a remote control before having to do it again (and most streaming services don’t even need that, conveniently playing next episodes automatically).

I’m a bit late to Stranger Things, not being subscribed to Netflix when it first came out, but thought I should give it a go as the world went crazy over series 4, and I can see what the fuss was about now. Over on Amazon The Boys continues to deliver, smoothing off a few rougher edges of the comics but with no shortage of “I can’t believe they still went there” moments, skewering both current politics and blockbuster superhero franchises. Most recently I’ve whipped through The Sandman; it had been quite a significant omission in my comic reading so I came to the series fresh, and have since gone back to the source. It’s beautifully done and feels like a very “comic-y” adaptation, with self-contained episodes and arcs corresponding to issues and volumes of the comics.

One reason ther hefty bingeing, particularly on Netflix, is that the proliferation of streaming services is getting a bit much. I had Disney+ for a year, then let that lapse to switch to Netflix; after finishing The Sandman I’ll cancel Netflix, probably go for Disney+ again in the future for a few series there, maybe another service or let things lapse for a bit, then Netflix again for the final season of Stranger Things and anything else that turned up in the meantime. You slightly miss out on ‘event viewing’ if catching up on series later, but with the market so fragmented it’s not like television is such a common currency of conversation anyway, it’s a bit like waiting for games to come up on sale.

There are some parallels back to the earlier days of MMOGs, when most had a monthly subscription; Netflix has to be World of Warcraft in this scenario, the runaway success prompting everyone to want a slice of the pie, and now we have Disney+, Apple TV, Prime Video and all manner of other offerings, something like the late 2000s when subscription MMOs were everywhere. Actually we may have hit the early 2010s, with the potential subscriber base fairly well saturated and alternative pricing models coming to the fore, though the parallels aren’t exact – no other game managed to really dent the numbers of World of Warcraft but Disney+ has (by some metrics) overtaken Netflix. It’s going to be interesting to see how streaming services adapt, as the prospect of households maintaining large numbers of streaming subscriptions doesn’t seem more likely than players maintaining many game subscriptions. Lower priced subscriptions with added advertising are on their way, could you get to a fully “free to watch” model akin to “free to play”? Five minutes of adverts every five minutes of a programme? Loot crates containing a random drop (0.5% chance of a highly rated film, 75% chance of a random episode from series 27 of some scripted reality nonsense)? Premium content like extra episodes for subscribers?

Podcasts are in that sort of space, tending to be free to listen, often with advertising, and sometimes paid-for options such as bonus content. Generic third party adverts I tend to skip rapidly but I have a strange fondness for the ones voiced by the host(s). It’s particularly fun when the same product is advertised on a number of shows and you can compare and contrast the approaches, seeing how they weave key phrases they’ve obviously been instructed to include verbatim into skits, or playing things pretty straight. The king of the genre has to be Adam Buxton, turning them into mini-dramas, sketches or infuriatingly catchy songs; I’m not sure the approach would quite carry over to a drama series, though…

“I move from dreamer to dreamer, from dream to dream, hunting for what I need. Slipping and sliding and flickering through the dreams; and the dreamer will wake, and wonder why this dream seemed different, and the answer will be… because they slept so well on their new Leesa Mattress! Use the code SANDMAN50 for a discount when ordering yours!”

Sunday 31 July 2022

The most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred

I picked up Mass Effect: Legendary Edition when it turned up in the Humble Monthly bundle, and I’ve been happily pottering through the trilogy for the last couple of months. The overhaul of the first game made it eminently playable for something 15 years old, though it still has a few rough edges; the combat is a little clunky, a lot of side missions occur in strangely similar rooms, and driving around planets in the Mako hasn’t magically transformed into a wildly exciting experience.

There are mods aplenty for the Legendary Edition and in hindsight I wish I’d installed some for the first game, particularly the ability to continuously run rather than getting puffed out after jogging for 30 seconds (come on, Shepard, you need to hit the gym a bit more) and skipping the decryption minigame (interesting a few times, pretty tedious towards the end). I thought I’d just stick with the main story and whip through things to remind myself of how it all started, but some inner compulsion (noble work ethic or masochistic streak of self-loathing?) drove me to every last planet in the galaxy; I might’ve missed out on a few grams of beryllium here and there but cleared up almost everything that showed up in the mission journal. I remembered a few of the main story beats (unlike Mass Effect: Andromeda, which I more or less forgot even existed, let alone anything of the plot or characters) but fair swathes had faded from my memory. I had a vague recollection of a slow start, and was slightly surprised by how quickly the main party assembled; a few key planets and one existential threat to the galaxy later, it was off to the second game.

The improvement in combat in Mass Effect 2 was particularly noticeable following immediately on, everything flows a little more smoothly. I remembered a little more of the story as well, what with the story essentially being “recruit a whole bunch of people and sort out their problems before finally tackling the galaxy-threatening menace”. There were chunks of content completely new to me, though, with the Legendary Edition including all DLC. The first game only had one pack that was included in the original PC version anyway, the second had a fair few more and I’d only played the free stuff included at launch (back in those heady days when I actually bought games as they were released rather than finally getting round to them a few years later). It was nice to catch up again with Liara properly in the Lair of the Shadow Broker, but I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on too much back in the day without the DLC. The hover-tank felt particularly extraneous; granted it was better than the Mako but that’s such a low bar to clear that hovering was hardly necessary. I also installed mods to skip the decryption mini-game and planet-scanning (having done it all manually the first time around I had no desire to stare at spectrograph readings again), and most importantly to allow female Shepard to get to know Jack much better.

On to the third game, and combat is polished that little bit more to the point that it could carry the multiplayer mode. That’s not in the Legendary Edition, a bit of a shame in some ways but there’s hardly a shortage of alternative multiplayer looter-shooters, and the maps pop up as missions in the single player game. They probably gave me the strongest flashbacks – I’d played through the story once but roamed each multiplayer map for tens, if not hundreds, of rounds of horde-type skirmishing and I’d recall a certain favourite console that offered good lines of sight on one map, a route to an extraction point via convenient ladder on another.

Again there’s plenty of DLC that I didn’t have first time around, so far I’ve played through Omega, which was a nicely self-contained story. I have slightly bogged down in the middle of the game, though, I’m not feeling terribly driven to push on through. Something I rather miss is the ability to take a completely different class out for a spin; in multiplayer you could flip between a melee-heavy biotic and sneaky sniper as the mood took you, in single player (barring a fair amount of faff with respeccing and/or mods) I settle into much more of a groove, which does get a bit samey after a while. I also wonder if the ending has something to do with it. First time around I was aware of the General Miffedness of a bunch of folk but managed to avoid specifics, so with expectations suitably lowered I didn’t find the ending that bad. Not particularly good, but not garment-rendingly awful. This time, knowing what’s coming, a lot of the schlepping around the galaxy to gather resources feels a bit pointless, but having ticked off all the side missions in the first two games I’m not going to stop now.

I’m mixing it up with my previously outlined regulars, and was almost tempted to add another to the mix when the Epic Store gave away a bunch of loot for Shop Titans. I installed it to see what was what, and it was fun enough to craft things to sell to level up to craft better things to sell for more to level up further to craft even better things to sell for even more to level up to… well, you get the idea. When you get to level 15 it may suddenly unlock a new mode that deconstructs the very nature of reality but I rather suspect not. It was fun enough but I haven’t really got time for any more virtual admin, and the “over $100!” value of the giveaway was hardly encouraging – a few chests and random virtual currencies would cost that much? Getting on for twice the full price of Mass Effect? Madness.

Wednesday 29 June 2022

Chalke Valley History Festival 2022

The Chalke Valley History Festival is a week long celebration of history, as the name rather suggests, with talks, presentations, and living history. This year we kicked things off with Caroline Shenton’s National Treasures: Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II, a superb talk on the dispersal of the collections of libraries and museums at the start of the war. Pre-war fears of a colossal aerial knock-out blow meant not just children but paintings, books and other artefacts left major cities for the relative safety of rural locations.

With cinematic influences from Went The Day Well to Their Finest, casting suggestions were provided through the talk linking the key players to characters from Ealing comedies, a nice way of bringing them to life, and the escapades often had a touch of Ealing about them – a van containing Domesday Book and other priceless documents arriving early in Somerset and being left unlocked while the armed guards went off for a cup of tea; the most important stones of the Crown Jewels being removed and stashed in a biscuit tin. Thankfully the efforts were largely successful, the majority of art surviving the war, though buildings including the British Library were hit during the Blitz; even more thankfully Britain avoided German occupation and the consequent looting widespread across Europe. I can’t wait to delve deeper in the accompanying book, Chalke Valley inevitably results in a greatly expanded ‘to read’ backlog.

Between the formal talks there are all sorts of vignettes of living history – an Iron Age smith extolling the great skill of pre-Roman metalwork in contrast to popular perception (aided by some less than flattering Roman accounts that seem to be contradicted by archaeological evidence), 18th century smugglers demonstrating how to conceal considerable quantities of contraband about their person, unsung heroes of D-Day, SOE saboteurs; it’s hard not to get caught up when walking past, and unfortunately impossible to fit everything in.

From the Iron Age firmly into living memory, our next event was Chris Patten: The Hong Kong Diaries. Current politics was mostly avoided, though the fact that Oliver Dowden had resigned as Conservative Party Chairman that very morning could hardly be overlooked considering Patten’s journey to Hong Kong began in 1992 when, as Chairman himself, he played a key role in John Major’s electoral victory but lost his own seat in Bath. Missing out as Chancellor of the Exchequer, of the possible roles available Governor of Hong Kong in the lead-up to its return to China in 1997 sounded the most interesting, albeit challenging (never mind the Mandate of Heaven, as he says in the book, he didn’t even have the mandate of Bath). He kept a diary, longhand and on tape, and the covid lockdown of 2019 afforded him the opportunity to revisit the transcripts to produce the resulting book.

A fascinating glimpse into the challenges of preserving the systems and character of Hong Kong for the future (“one country, two systems”) under pressure from both the Chinese leadership and those in Britain more concerned about the relationship with China than the people of Hong Kong; I well remember watching the handover on the news, particularly Patten and Prince Charles on the royal yacht leaving the harbour, but hadn’t really been keeping up with the complexities of the situation. As history merged with current affairs Patten’s anger at the regressive policies of the 2010s was clear, especially the hypocrisy of those implementing measures while holding foreign passports themselves.

The good old British summer then put a quite literal dampener on things with a heavy shower, but we were back under cover fairly rapidly for our final event, lightening the tone slightly with the endearingly chaotic Histrionics panel show. Chaired once again by Charlie Higson this year saw Tracy Borman and Ian Hislop take on Dan Snow and Simon Day over rounds including Name That Tomb! and the historical charades of My Kingdom for a Horse, a great way to finish the day.

Iron Age Smith
Just the axe, ma’am
Vickers MG
More tea, Vickers?
2 pounder AT gun
2 pound’er? I hardly know ‘er!
Histrionics Panel Show
Snow joke

Wednesday 25 May 2022

Free like a butterfly, free like a bee

I’m currently juggling an assortment of regular games, quite different at first glance: a combat vehicle simulator, a match-3 puzzle game, an idle dungeon crawler, a collectible card game, and a music trivia game. They’re all free-to-play, though, so share many of the persistent elements that tends to bring – rewards/unlocks, achievements/badges, daily/weekly missions, experience points and resulting ranks/levels. Some combination of those seems to be the key to holding my attention long-term, so I thought I’d do a little compare and contrast.

The oldest faithful is War Thunder, I’ve been regularly playing over nine years now which is pretty staggering. New vehicles are frequently added, now pushing well into the 1980s, but thankfully my Second World War focus means I can happily bimble about the lower tiers where it doesn’t take hundreds of hours to nudge up a progress bar. Each month a set of historical decals are made available with various challenges, typically getting a number of kills or a certain score with appropriate vehicles, and I’m finding those are a perfect hook – achievable in a sensible amount of time, and a nudge to play various different countries and vehicle types to mix things up.

I’ve been ticking along in Marvel Puzzle Quest for four years now, also a pretty decent run for a match-3 game. There’s a regular drumbeat of new character from across the Marvel pantheon to unlock and level up; after a couple of years I worked my way through the whole backlog, and now keep pace with the newcomers. It’s my mobile game of choice for killing five minutes when waiting around, or when half-watching something on television or half-listening to a call. There’s something about matching 3 things that remains strangely compelling, with the powers of the characters to mix things up a little and the ongoing levelling and unlocking for a sense of progress. Characters range from one to five stars in power, and while I’ve unlocked all of them I haven’t got any 4* character up to maximum level let alone a 5*, it’s calibrated to really slow things down in those higher levels so there’s no danger of ‘completing’ it.

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms has just passed the one year mark since I started with it. It also has a regular release of a new character per month, with options to acquire older characters, and I’d just finished unlocking everyone before the event that introduced their 100th champion – the Dungeon Master from the old cartoon series. As an idle game it’s well suited to starting up and leaving it to tick along in the background, occasionally popping back to slightly tweak a formation or start a new adventure, and there’s no shortage of additional elements to progress – character levels, achievements and so on that, like MPQ, slow right down at higher levels to ensure there’s always something to progress.

KARDS hasn’t hit the one year mark yet, and slips in and out of rotation a little; it can still be enormously enjoyable, but also enormously frustrating when you hit certain decks and/or have bad luck with your draws. I tend towards flavour-of-the-month decks in ranked battles but it gets a little stale doing the same thing each time; drafts, unranked battles, the PvE campaigns, or training mode allow for much more experimentation, and are better venues to tackle the daily missions that give a small amount of currency for playing with certain nations or using certain unit types.

SongPop is the newest kid on the block in my rotation, though the oldest game as it approaches its tenth birthday; I played the original incarnation on Facebook, then took about nine and a half years off before getting hooked again. It’s very cross-platform, with Android and iOS clients as well as Windows, but it’s not so much of a “kill five minutes” mobile game – tenths of a second can make all the difference to your score, and of course you need to be listening intently.

As well as head-to-head matches there’s a Party Mode that pits you against up to 300 other players in themed parties (60s, 70s, 80s, pop, rock, etc etc) lasting 24 hours. The top player (occasionally top 3) on the leaderboard at the end of the it gets a badge, with tokens, power-ups and XP distributed to everyone else. You compete against other players in brackets based on your level, and as I was starting off only the most popular categories had more than 50 people playing them; the hinterlands of jazz, blues and reggae were very sparsely populated. Joining right at the start of a party I might have been the only player for a while, so even if I couldn’t tell Miley Cyrus from Cyrus Vance I was still racking up bonus points for being in first place every time. I was absolutely smashing it, then levelled up to the final player bracket.

When you pitch up to a well-established MMO there’s often some sort of PvP skirmishing, and it’s often a bit of jolly old knockabout fun as you level up alongside a smattering of other new players and veterans trying out alts. Then you hit the level cap and are confronted with the other 99% of players, including highly co-ordinated teams of lightning-reflexed killers who’ve spent the years since launch honing their skills, characters and optimal positioning to maximise the insult value of particular emotes. SongPop turns out to be the same, except with a nice old lady called Doris who has an encyclopedic knowledge of 60s music and several hours to kill each day. Suddenly every party is full, many times over, and the top scores are in the hundreds of thousands. If you’re strong across every playlist in a party I reckon you can average about 2,000 points per minute, so we’re talking a good hour or three (considerably longer for those who can’t reliably win every round) of hammering the same category time after time. Not ludicrous, in the grand scheme of gaming time expenditure, but hardly a casual dabble any more. I’ve given up my dreams of a full set of badges, not that it was ever the grandest ambition, and have settled back into the basic pleasures of song recognition and the occasional nostalgia rush that evokes.

So there are persistent elements that, alongside the core gameplay, keep me coming back to those games. The publishers are probably more concerned about the other ubiquitous elements of free-to-play: in-game currencies, earned by playing and/or bought with real money; purchasable unlocks; gacha/loot boxes; advertising; premium/VIP status. Do they keep me paying as well as playing?

Premium vehicles in War Thunder are (I presume) one of its main sources of income; instantly available without needing to grind, and slightly more rewarding to use in battles. They’re separate to the standard vehicles obtained by playing and shouldn’t offer a clear advantage in battles, though there’s a bit of a furore now and again when battle ratings seem to be particularly favourable. I bought a few back in the day, particularly bundles of vehicles/currency/etc on sale, though haven’t felt the need for a while now. MPQ and Idle Champions both offer specific heroes for purchase, but in both cases exactly the same heroes can be unlocked by other means so they’re not so tempting in the cash shop; I have bought a couple of bundles, but only when steeply discounted in a sale. KARDS offers PvE campaigns and expansion sets that can be bought with either in-game currency or cash, and come with themed cards that can be very useful; I’ve bought an assortment, but with in-game currency rather than cash. For MPQ, Idle Champions and KARDS, though, specific unlocks take a back seat to random rewards from their various implementations of loot boxes (tokens, chests and card packs).

Personally I’m not a fan of spending real money on random rewards; all three games allow you to earn loot boxes by playing as well, and the results make me even less likely to spend real money. Once you’ve unlocked all the characters and basic equipment in the first two games opening packs is essentially an admin exercise of duplicate items giving incremental improvements with very occasional slightly more useful rewards. It’s most disappointing in KARDS, where booster packs should really be central to the CCG element, but while at first it’s great to be able to slot any sort of upgrade into your starter decks it doesn’t take long at all before you’re constructing specific decks that need specific, often rare, cards. With an ever-expanding pool of cards, the chances of getting something you really want from a random booster get ever-lower; I can’t remember the last time I got a new card from a pack that went straight into action. Fortunately there’s a wildcard system that lets you craft chosen cards, so at least you’re not entirely at the mercy of the randomness. I bought a few Steam bundles including card packs for KARDS at a good discount, and the Epic store giveaway that first tempted me to Idle Champions included a few stacks of chests, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to spend serious money on more. War Thunder also introduced crates requiring premium currency to open, but they seem tacked on, like it’s expected of a free-to-play game so they might as well shove them in, I’ve never bothered with them at all.

The only game that doesn’t sell random loot is SongPop, and it’s also the only one that does include advertising. More of a staple in mobile games, a free player of SongPop gets to enjoy an advert after every round they play. In the Windows Store version this consists of a static screen that can be immediately dismissed, there appears to be a pool of four or five other games that might pop up, none particularly recent; it smacks slightly of a forgotten bus stop still advertising Gods Of Egypt In Cinemas Now!! The Android/iOS versions have more intrusively irritating animated ads, occasionally immediately dismissible, more frequently unskippable. It’s pretty much unplayable on those platforms for any length of time without going slightly mad, whereas the Windows adverts are so easy to skip they might as well not be there; Goldilocks wouldn’t be impressed. The adverts can be avoided by upgrading to a VIP subscription.

Premium/VIP status is on offer in War Thunder, MPQ, and SongPop. In War Thunder it gives a significant boost to mission rewards and research speed, and is all but essential to unlock vehicles in the higher tiers; I kept it up for a few years when playing more, grabbing it at a good discount on a yearly basis, but it’s not really needed when bimbling around the lower tiers. I also took out a VIP sub in MPQ for a couple of months towards the beginning of my run; it gives out a daily bonus of tokens or in-game currency, particularly useful when frequently unlocking new heroes but not so necessary any more. In SongPop it removes adverts, allows you to select any playlist for matches, and has a few other perks; for about £4 a month it wasn’t a bad deal at all. SongPop also offered a Diamond VIP tier for four times the price that didn’t include a whole lot more; whether there to make the regular VIP status look better value, or for those who really loved the game and wanted to chuck more cash at it, it seemed a little odd.

On the whole, then, I much prefer to buy a specific known item or some sort of subscription with defined benefits, and am a dreadful cheapskate who mostly buys things in sales. I presume I’m in a minority, with loot boxes being so prevalent, but I only have a sample size of ‘me’ to work with. I’d hesitate to call any model too generous, but I’ve reached a point in all five games where it doesn’t feel necessary to buy anything; I would have said SongPop had ideal monetisation, no random loot boxes and a cheap VIP subscription as a way of showing support while also gaining a few benefits. Ironically, though, they just announced a new structure, doing away with regular and Diamond VIP in favour of a single SongPop Plus option for twice the price of the old VIP, so £8(ish) per month is steep for a light dabbling game. A two-tier system would seem to make sense, with a cheap option to remove adverts and get a few bonus rewards coupled with a pricier tier to access all playlists as well; I might’ve kept subscribing for a while under a fiver, but I guess it’s back to adverts for Sniper Fury.

Tuesday 12 April 2022

The record shows I took the blows

I wrapped up my first play-through of Cyberpunk 2077, but I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending. There’s a point where you have to decide how to proceed, and I’d avoided reading too much to keep it fresh (and will be vague in this post to avoid major spoilers). One choice was to let Keanu Reeves take over and do things his way, often a perfectly sound course of action in life, but the game had done a fine job in putting me in the shoes of the protagonist; previous missions with Keanu’s Johnny Silverhand to the fore somehow felt a little off, obviously it was still me (the player) in control, but it didn’t quite feel like me (the character), presumably the intent, and a testament to the power of storytelling in the medium. Very quantum, baby.

I was going to bring in some allies I’d made along the way, but it was pointed out that things would get messy and there would be probably be casualties. I was sufficiently worried over my NPC chums that it swayed me to go solo and agree to a corporate plan. After all, who was the real sick man in this so-called society, the rebel who’d nuked a building, or the businessman in his suit and tie? (It’s both of them, Rich.)

In my mind I was just playing along, and at a critical moment would reveal my true intentions and stick it to the corpo-man. The game gave me no reason to be certain it would be possible, there wasn’t a dialogue option of “Very well, I agree to your plan. ASIDE: I do not really agree to it and have my fingers crossed, aaahhhh”, but that was my hope. Turned out I never got the chance, I played it straight and stuck to my in-game word, hence the rather disappointing ending, things fizzling out somewhat, with most of the friends I’d made along the way expressing their dismay at my choice over the phone before the credits rolled. Nobody’s fault but mine, but after 100+ hours of thoroughly enjoying Night City it was a bit of a shame. Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again that’s what save games are for. At some point I’ll load things up from just before that final decision and give it another shot.

Not just yet, though, I think I need to let things settle for a bit. With Mass Effect Legendary Edition in the Humble monthly bundle it’s Commander Shepard’s time to save the galaxy, again. Can it really be fifteen years since the first game came out? Even with the graphics and gameplay updates it shows its age a little, but it’s still very playable, the trilogy should keep me going a fair while.

There’s also SongPop, proving to be highly diverting with its themed events especially. I did pretty well with film music for the Oscars, less well with the nominees for the Grammys. Best of all was the April Fool event with my perfect playlists – stand up comedians, comedy songs, Weird Al, Monty Python. There were also some fun musical variants like That’s Not My Name, where the answers were what songs could/should have been called (e.g. “Woo Hoo” for Blur’s Song 2), and Anagrammed Artists providing the dual challenge of firstly identifying a song is by the Imagine Dragons, and then discounting Pig Slicers, The AWOL Monk, and Sweaty Ken as possible answers before selecting Raiding Mangoes (the others being Spice Girls, Walk The Moon, and Kanye West; I’m not sure if there’s a Kanye tribute act called Sweaty Ken yet, if not that’s a definite missed opportunity).

Wednesday 16 March 2022

The SongPop Remains the Same

A few months back I started playing Wordle, lured in like millions of others by mysterious coloured squares appearing in my Twitter feed. That ability to share the results of a game without spoiling it is really smart, combined with the simple core mechanics and once-per-day limit to stop you binging until sick it’s become the first game that my entire family have all been on board with, pinging results through on the family WhatsApp group of a coffee or lunch break. Variants, knock-offs, and deliberate rip-offs inevitably proliferated like green and yellow algae, and I dabbled with a few; Quordle, guessing four words simultaneously, was an interesting version, mutating into Octordle and Sedecordle for 8 and 16 simultaneous words, and presumably by now someone’s constructed a version where you get 160,000 guesses to try and complete every single five letter word from the dictionary at once, though the replayability might be a bit limited there.

I saw a post about Heardle, an audio version where you guess a song from progressively longer clips (more Name That Tune than Wordle, but still) and thought I’d have a go. I heard a snippet of guitar vaguely reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Wild Night, so I searched for that in the possible answers and hit upon the slight snag. Apparently the songs are taken from popularly streamed artists, and my post-2000 musical knowledge is appallingly shoddy (how amusing and eccentric!); I didn’t even recognise half the artists that popped up, let alone any of their songs. It did tickle a faint memory, though, of a Facebook game called SongPop, which apparently I was playing back in January 2013 when I first fired up War Thunder. Turns out that closed down, but SongPop 2 lives as a standalone application including a Windows version, so I installed that; it even carried progress over from the Facebook version, including matches that had been awaiting my turn for 452 weeks (sorry about that, PopDude 68).

Each match consists of rounds where you have to identify five songs, with players taking it in turns to select the playlist used. Playlists are bought with in-game currency, and where I seem to recall they were pretty limited, there’s now a vast selection of genres, eras and artists – rock, pop, country, blues, reggae, TV and film themes, nursery rhymes, even (to my great delight) Monty Python. When looking for opponents the game pops up two or three suggestions where you seem to have some commonality, but there’s also the option of picking a random opponent, which I’ve used a fair bit. That’s resulted in some good matches with both players having a good shot at the other’s playlists, and some definite mismatches. I generally try and start fairly broad (something like Rock Classics), but if the other player gets specific, so do I. I’m currently in a drawn-out battle of attrition with somebody who picks K-Pop or BTS every time (not a hope), so I retaliate with Monty Python and UK TV Themes. You can finish a match at any point, so I presume they’re just as amused/stubborn as I am about the absurdity of it.

On the face of it there’s not much similarity between guessing songs and a Second World War deck building game, but there are some parallels with the way I’m playing KARDS. As with many card games you can build a fairly generic deck where most cards have some value in most circumstances, or very specific decks built around certain mechanics – discarding cards is usually a bad thing, but some cards kick off a positive effect when discarded, for example. Climbing up ranked play the decks that really employ synergy (or cheap gimmicky decks, if you’re on the receiving end) are more common and can be rather frustrating to encounter; I thought I was in a pretty strong position against one opponent until suddenly he slapped down two cards and played a whole bunch of cheap infantry – one card damaged each of his new units as they were deployed, normally a Bad Thing, until the second card damaged my HQ every time one of his units was destroyed, and that was game over.

The devs seem to do a reasonable job of subtle adjustments when a particular deck is really dominating, and ensuring there are ways to counter particular tactics. Of course sod’s law says that if you gear up with a bunch of cards that are good against hordes of cheap units then you encounter a deck that massively buffs one or two powerful units (on top of the general sod’s law of card games when you have the perfect card in your deck but don’t draw it when you really need it). On the flip side I know that if I adopt a particular deck that’s always easily beaten me, every match I play will be against opponents perfectly tailored to deal with it. Still, I thought I’d give it a bash so had a browse of the user-submitted decks on the main website. A lot of them need a bunch of rare units, so require either incredible luck with random rewards or some real-money investment. One jumped out, though, that mostly used cheap common cards. It’s an ‘aggro’ deck that tries to get a bunch of low-cost units onto the field and buffed before an opponent can deal with them. It’s very much all-or-nothing, if you haven’t won in the first few turns there’s no Plan B, so at least it’s quick either way. It’s been pretty effective, I’ve climbed the furthest I’ve got to in ranked play, but it gets a bit stale doing the same thing every game so I mix things up with unranked matches using various decks that are more interesting to play, if less optimal, and draft games. Maybe if I had to identify military marches from brief snippets while attacking and also guessing five letter military words it would be a one-stop shop for all my gaming needs…

Sunday 13 February 2022

Do you feel lucky, Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk: 2077 is going strong; nudging up to the 100 hour mark and it feels like there’s a fair bit more to do, with at least a couple of strong side missions chains in progress alongside the main story. I haven’t been rushing; some evenings I don’t feel like delving too deeply so I’ll noodle around clearing up a bit of crime or doing some clothes shopping, others I’ll settle down and push on with the plot. Noodling feels a little wrong considering there are somewhat pressing matters to deal with, but it’s a very RPG matter of life and death that allows for plenty of chasing after rogue taxis in between preserving your own existence.

It took me a while to find a decent sniper rifle, but a crafting template and sufficient perk points got that sorted, so that’s my weapon of choice for starting most encounters. An array of hacking skills to confuse, blind and generally irritate foes can generally keep me stealthy, and if all else fails a shotgun makes for a pretty sound Plan B. With gear pretty well sorted the old RPG Rainbow of Excitement has reached its inevitable conclusion; a splash of green used to be cause for celebration, then only blue was enough to quicken the pulse, eventually purple barely raised an eyebrow and orange is worth a quick glance, though usually no more than that. Another old RPG standby, Getting Captured and Losing Your Stuff, made an interesting change for a bit; I was a little surprised that my captors had fitted an entire arsenal of weaponry and fourteen spare outfits into a single locker when I recovered my gear, but probably not as surprised as they were that I’d somehow carried it all in the first place.

It feels like a long time since I’ve been pulled into the story of a game, and I’ve been having a browse to see if there might be something else once I’ve wrapped up Cyberpunk. The remastered Mass Effect trilogy, perhaps, with Baldur’s Gate 3 still in Early Access. Then again I might have had enough of story for a while, so waiting for its full release might work out after all.

Friday 14 January 2022

Buddy Holly Never Wrote a Song Called We're Too Cyberpunk

It’s been a while since I really sunk myself into a new game, but Cyberpunk 2077 has properly hooked me. Melmoth gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up so I picked it up in the Steam sale; about 30 hours in I’ve just hit the title card having spent plenty of time pottering about Night City tackling random criminals and side quests before cracking on with the main story.

It feels very Deus Ex, more so than the actual sequels in many ways (which were fine in themselves, but didn’t really capture the sprawling openness of the original). It’s comfortingly familiar in its systems; stealth, tech/hacking and a variety of firearms presenting different ways of tackling problems from tiptoeing around piling up unconscious bodies in wheelie bins to silenced sniping to the more straightforward shotgun to the face. It’s comfortingly familiar in setting as well. I never played the pencil and paper RPG but have enjoyed plenty of similar media like Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Altered Carbon; having been around for the first two editions of the RPG, set in the wildly futuristic years of 2013 and 2020, the cyberpunk genre seems oddly retro in many ways now, even with the subsequent updates.

It seems to have absolutely hit my Goldilocks spot. The city has the open world elements so there’s always something to do, but with distinctive enough side missions so it doesn’t always feel like you’re just doing yet another instance of the same activity. Combat is challenging enough that I can’t just wander around blazing away with impunity, but not head-smashingly frustrating (mostly; the level based nature of it meant I inadvertently got into a couple of scrapes with nigh-invulnerable opposition, but the good old RPG standby of coming back a few levels later sorted things out). The main story is strong enough to pull me along, but loose enough to allow for meandering diversion. It feels like there are choices to be made in that best RPG way, where you know you’re going to end up in the same places but with subtle enough differences that it feels like your own version of the story. There’s plenty of loot to be had, and crafting and upgrading if the things you find aren’t quite right, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, it’s not like you’re repeating activities solely for the chance of an almost-identical-but-very-slightly-better gun. As many have pointed out the armour system does force a bit of a choice between selecting the item with the best stats in each slot versus not looking like you’ve clothed yourself from a charity shop reject dumpster, but I haven’t found that too much of a hindrance (there’s usually something decent looking that’s not too far off, stat-wise, or you can just avoid mirrors if it really comes to it). The stats and perks system seems intuitive enough with a plethora of interesting-looking options, I’m not sure how many I’ll be able to ultimately acquire but I’m looking forward to trying out a few different options.

I’m also greatly appreciating the single player offline nature of it, particularly after Fallout 76. I’m not missing a cash shop or season pass goals or daily login rewards at all, they have their place, but not everywhere. Being able to pause at any point is quite the blessing; I was playing a PvP match of KARDS, which only allows communication via a limited series of emotes. That’s a thoroughly sensible system, cutting through language barriers and removing the possibility for the usual online unpleasantness (you can even shut them off if someone starts spamming them in a desperate attempt to be mildly irritating). The downside is the absence of a “My dog’s been sick on the carpet!” emote (understandably, it’s a bit specific), so I could only use the more generic “Sorry!” after I’d inadvertently let the timer run down on a couple my turns.

Of course this all comes with the caveat that I’m still early on in the story and entirely reserve the right to fundamentally change my mind as things go, but so far it’s looking good. I’m sure things will get a bit stale after a while, but I’m hoping the combination of narrative and gameplay will at least see me through to the end of the main story; plenty of previous games with similar open world/RPG elements (Red Dead Redemption 2, Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Origins etc.) have fallen at that hurdle, maybe there’s something about an SF setting I need (the (offline) Fallout and Mass Effect series being cases where I did actually finish the story).