What I Learned From Peace

So I went an entire calendar month without playing a violent video game. Woo. If it sounds boring, that’s because it was! But I say that in reference to the experiment itself and not about the games I ended up playing. In fact, this turned out to be a great opportunity to rediscover some of the titles in my library.

This past September I decided that I needed to put aside the implements of virtual destruction and spend the month playing games that didn’t emphasize violence. Specifically, the goal was to go an entire calendar month avoiding games where “acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus”. If you’re asking why anyone would want to do that, my intentions are recorded in a blog post titled Giving Peace a Chance. While I met that challenge in every aspect, I can’t help but feel I missed some of the experiment’s potential.

So I went an entire calendar month without playing a violent video game. Woo. If it sounds boring, that’s because it was! But I say that in reference to the experiment itself and not about the games I ended up playing. In fact, this turned out to be a great opportunity to rediscover some of the titles in my library. Kerbal Space Program still manages to take command of my imagination as I launch crews of space frogs on missions of great peril. Inevitably, one mission leads to another as I’m led to rescue each crew from the dire straits I put them in. It’s a vicious cycle that’s uniquely rewarding. SimGolf strikes a wonderful balance between creative design elements and light business management. Your objective is to become the best golf superintendent ever by crafting challenging and fun golf courses for your temperamental patrons. And when your patrons get to complaining too much, it’s okay to build an absolutely diabolical course as retribution. Mean, yes; but not violent! OpenRCT2 breathes new life into an old classic and proves Chris Sawyer’s theme park management game is just as addicting now as it was fourteen years ago. Trials Evolution combines motorcycles and implausible obstacle courses into a punishing proving ground for your gaming reflexes. The Dig. Planet Coaster. Forza. Cities: Skylines. 80 Days. I could go on. There are too many games to list here. Many are simple to dive into and have flexible time investments. Play for fifteen minutes or two hours. Creative problem solving can be just as therapeutic as blowing up hordes of evil space aliens!

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Reckless driving =/= violent.

Though I rediscovered many great genres and games, I feel like I missed some of this experiment’s potential. Specifically, I missed an opportunity to make any kind of meaningful observation about violence in video games. There will always be a segment of gaming that thrives on virtual violence, but what about the other games? What about games that present gameplay alternatives to violence, or at the very least offer a non-lethal path through a violent setting? Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored are two notable franchises which give players a way to complete the game without committing a lethal action.

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They aren’t dead! They’re just unconscious. And potentially hurt.

Freedom in game design makes me want to explore whether or not it’s possible to play otherwise violent games as a pacifist. The game may not have been designed with pacifism in mind, but it’s not a question of intent. It’s a question of what you can get away with. For example; The day Call of Duty: Black Ops was released a gamer posted a video of themselves playing through an entire mission and only firing two bullets (language warning). Surely there have to be other games where I can do this! DOOM is all about creative ways to blow up demons, but is it possible to sprint through a level and make progress without firing a shot? Winning a round of an online shooter usually means shooting lots of people, but some also give points for playing a support role such as a medic. How feasible is it to be a team healer in Battlefield, focusing only on reviving fallen teammates? Just Cause 2 and 3 thrive as chaos; can the game handle people who don’t break the rules? Will the game let me take control of an occupied vehicle and drive it peacefully from one side of an island to the other? This video below indicates the chances of that happening are very slim:

 

When it all comes down to it, video games are just a collection of virtual systems designed to function a certain way. Simulated violence is integral to some of those systems. In others, it’s optional. Sometimes it’s a completely unintentional side effect. From time to time I wonder if gamers have been conditioned to go along with anything that’s entertaining, regardless of  moral values (or the lack of them). But the important part in all if this is that we as gamers do have a choice. Violent or not. Bloody or not. Play along with the system or try to break it. My non-violent September has led me to start planning another experiment of virtual pacifism to take place in 2017. I’ll incorporate some actual scientific methods into this next experiment and try to gauge if my behavior or attitudes change measurably depending on what kind of games I play. My wife has been volunteered to assist me as an impartial observer and record keeper for this grand trial. My only expectation is that this is going to be a fun experience. In the end, isn’t that what gaming is all about?

 

Kerbal Space Rescue

There’s a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the good news. There’s only a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the bad news. It’s bad because the crew capsule is no longer attached to an engine. Or maneuvering thrusters. Or any other spaceship parts that allow it to move under its own power. So it’s stuck in orbit above the planet with no way to move. How did it happen? I blame it on my love of pushing buttons.

Things rarely go according to plan in Kerbal Space Program. And that’s kind of sad since my plan was so simple there was almost no room for anything to go wrong. It’s been a while since I’ve spent quality time with the game, so I wanted to get reacquainted. Build a rocket, launch it into orbit, and bring it back. No fancy maneuvers, no tricks, just a simple up and down. Easy stuff we humans mastered back in the 1960s. But Kerbal space program doesn’t have humans, it has tiny green people called Kerbals. And it doesn’t take place in the 1960s, it’s all happening in the here and now. Anything goes, since you’re the one responsible for everything. My plan to get reacquainted had three simple parts. Part one, building a rocket, was easier than ever. Part two, launching it into a stable orbit above Kerbin, went off without a hitch. Part three, returning my brave Kerbalnauts back to the planet, is where things got a little complicated. How complicated? Well, have a look for yourself:
KSP 2016-09-03 20-39-27-21There’s a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the good news. There’s only a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the bad news. It’s bad because the crew capsule is no longer attached to an engine. Or maneuvering thrusters. Or any other spaceship parts that allow it to move under its own power. So it’s stuck in orbit around the planet with no way to move. How did it happen? I blame it on my love of pushing buttons. In this wonderful game the space bar, which I would like to remind you is the largest key on your keyboard, is bound to a command called simply ‘next stage’. You see, each craft in Kerbal Space Program can be broken into different sections or stages that are activated in sequence. One stage may activate solid-rocket boosters, while the next fires a liquid-fuel engine, and the next one jettisons spent fuel tanks, and so on. Having a firm grasp of staging is essential to building and controlling a rocket that does what you want it to. As long as you press the button at the right time. In this case, I accidentally pressed the button to separate my crew capsule from its method of propulsion at the worst possible time.

Having three brave explorers trapped in permanent orbit isn’t the way I wanted to return to a game I love dearly, so I decided to mount a rescue mission. No Kerbals left behind! If a rescue mission is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing! A boring old rocket isn’t good enough here. No, I created a Gigantic Recovery Plane with a cargo bay large enough to contain the stranded space capsule. This vehicle would dock with the drifting capsule and then capture it and keep it safely contained within the cargo bay. Say hello to the GRV: 
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The design required a few test flights and subsequent modifications before it was powerful enough and maneuverable enough to fly easily. Once it got to a point where it handled fairly well in the air I had to do something I’ve never done in Kerbal Space Program: land a plane.

It went better than I expected.

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The cockpit is all that survived my first landing attempt. The key word there is “survived”. Before you write that off as a failure, please observe that the ever-brave Jebediah Kerman is still alive and smiling. Any day where your Kerbonauts are alive and on the ground after a flight is a good day. A second test flight proved that I did have what it takes to safely land the plane. At this point, I’m confident that as long as the GRV makes it back into the atmosphere I can get it landed safely. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Before I can return it to the surface I need to get it up into space to start with. And for that, I need a rocket. A really, really big rocket. With eighteen solid-rocket boosters. Say hello to the Giant Recovery Vehicle Launch Rocket:

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My drifting crew capsule is in orbit. The GRV is in orbit with plenty of fuel to spare. At the moment, nothing is in danger of exploding. Now I can relax and think through other problems. Problems like the fact that I’ve never successfully pulled off a docking maneuver. It sounds like it’s simple enough to do. relatively speaking, spacecraft in a higher or larger orbit move slower than craft in lower, faster orbits. I needed to keep the GRV in a lower orbit than the drifting capsule, and then make a series of carefully timed engine burns to match orbits with the drifter. It sounds deceptively simple, but it’s difficult to get the timing just right so that you’re not way far away from your intended target. It will suffice to say that after quite a bit of trial and error, I got close to the drifters. Excruciatingly close.

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3 kilometers away with a relative velocity difference of only 10.5 meters per second. Keep in mind that both craft are more than 300,000 kilometers above the surface of the planet and traveling at 2,300 kilometers per hour. They’re effectively two speeding bullets traveling in the same direction and I’m trying to nudge one of them to piggyback onto the other one. Coming within 3 kilometers with a small velocity difference like that is pretty impressive to me. Did I mention yet that I have no idea what I’m doing? It turns out that the first 300,000 kilometers of the journey is easy, and closing the gap of the last 3 kilometers is the hard part. The very hard part. I thought I understood what to do but my grasp of orbital mechanics failed me here. No matter what I did the drifters floated farther and farther away from the GRV. I tried a short burn from my engines to bring me closer; it pushed me farther away. I tried long bursts from my maneuvering thrusters; they pushed me in the wrong direction. With each attempted course correction my orbit skewed even more in the wrong direction.

After a few mistake-filled minutes I took a deep breath and looked at my orbital trajectory. It was a lopsided egg totally off track compared to the gentle oval of the drifter. To add insult to injury I was now running low on fuel. With my limited resources there was no possible way for me to rescue the drifters and return back to the planet. Rather than have two craft stranded in orbit in two separate orbits I decided to return an empty GRV back to Kerbin. At least I know I can land it. I nudged the GRV back into the atmosphere and begin my descent.

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Jeb looks worried. That’s not a good sign. Ever. Why is he worried?

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Well that wasn’t supposed to happen. Yes, the GRV blew up. It was torn apart by aerodynamic stresses. There is such a thing as coming into a planet’s atmosphere the wrong way. My speed of 2,500 meters per second probably wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d approached from a shallower angle. As it was I ran into too much atmospheric density too soon and it ripped my spaceplane apart. If I had a shallower approach then the thinner atmosphere would have slowed down the GRV a bit more, allowing for a more gradual and less explodey descent to the planet’s surface. I suppose it’s for the best. If I had successfully retrieved the drifters only to disintegrate upon reentry then I would have been quite peeved.

That’s the thing about Kerbal Space Program: even when an untimely explosion reduces your best plan to bits of flaming rubble, it’s never unfair. Punishing and rarely forgiving, yes; but never unfair.  Every time I’ve failed, and I’ve failed a lot, it’s been the result of something I did. Either my vehicle design was a flying trash heap or I just didn’t know how to fly it properly. It’s a game that’s easy to get into, but difficult to master. There’s no need for a story mode since the best stories will write themselves if you play long enough. That’s the real draw of Kerbal Space Program. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and write the best rescue and recovery story since Apollo 13!

A Story About My Uncle

Heavily influenced by the first-person and (mostly) combat-free games like Mirror’s Edge and Portal, ASAMU creates an experience where the journey is more fun than the destination. Why walk, drive, fly, or teleport anywhere when you can instead strap on a power suit and use an electric tether to fling yourself between points? It is admittedly an answer to a question that nobody asked, but considering how much fun it is: who really cares where the question came from?

A Story About My Uncle

Release Date:

  • Original Concept: Summer 2012
  • Final Game: May 28th, 2014

Developer: Gone North Games / Coffee Stain Studios

Where to buy: Steam and GOG.com – $12.99

What’s the Premise?

To say it in a very redundant manner, A Story About My Uncle (referred to after this as “ASAMU”) begins with the voiceover of a father beginning to tell his young daughter a bedtime story about his uncle. For the duration of the game the player navigates through the father’s story from a first-person perspective, playing through the narrated events in real-time. The setup for the story is simple: your uncle is missing. While searching through his workshop for clues as to his whereabouts, you stumble upon newspaper clippings about the discovery of new microbial life forms, stacks of books and papers about quantum physics, a specially designed “power-suit”, and the plans for a mysterious “disposal system”. Wouldn’t you know it: before the intro is over your character puts on the power suit and steps into said mysterious disposal system and is transported to a mysterious faraway land…

Originally created and released in 2012 by a team of nine students from Sweden’s Södertörn University, ASAMU was redesigned, remastered, and expanded for its re-release in May 2014. It’s a short game made by an independent studio. Calling it a one-trick pony wouldn’t be a stretch, but don’t take that as a criticism. The one trick it has; first-person platforming; is done very well and the developers wisely paced the game so the core mechanics didn’t become stale. And it helps that there’s a bit of heart contained in the game’s story.

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Why Should I Play This?

Three words: Joy of movement.

Heavily influenced by the first-person and (mostly) combat-free games like Mirror’s Edge and Portal, ASAMU creates an experience where the journey is more fun than the destination. Why walk, drive, fly, or teleport anywhere when you can instead strap on a power suit and use an electric tether to fling yourself between points? It is admittedly an answer to a question that nobody asked, but considering how much fun it is: who really cares where the question came from?

Suit
“She may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts”

The aforementioned power suit is the game’s way of giving you special platforming abilities, of which there are three:

  1. Long jump / high jump – this is charged by holding down the right mouse button and will result in either a long forward jump or a high vertical jump, depending on how you’re moving when the jump is initiated.
  2. Power grapple – this allows your suit to “grab on” to certain distant surfaces with an energy leash which will then pull you toward the object you’re connected to. When your suit is upgraded, you have the ability to grapple three times while in midair. The ability to use the grapple is “recharged” only after landing safely on the ground.
  3. Rocket boots – Boots with rockets on them. Holding down the spacebar while in the air will ignite the rocket boots, giving you and extra boost in whichever direction you happen to be facing at the moment. Like the grapple, this ability is recharged after landing safely on the ground.

It’s a combination of movement that’s difficult to fully convey via text. Hopefully this .gif will do a better job of demonstrating how the long jump and grapple abilities can be combined:

ASAMU

Though viewing the game in motion may help convey what the experience is like, the sensation of flinging yourself over seemingly bottomless chasms is best experienced firsthand. The mechanics and perceived physics of motion are done extremely well. Controls feel intuitive, and though there aren’t necessarily dire consequences for missing a jump and falling into the void, the combination of visual and aural effects turns a missed jump into a gut-wrenching moment. Close calls that end well generate a palpable sense of relief, and you may find yourself backing away from the keyboard for a moment to steel your nerves before attempting the next set of maneuvers.

Levels are linear, and with one exception there’s only one path to take in order to make progress. The developers wisely took a page from the book of Mirror’s Edge, and use subtle color cues to guide the player through the irregular game world.

First Look
The neon-blue, glowing symbols will guide you…

Quite conspicuous at first, the visual cues will become more subtle later in the game, ultimately forcing you to find a path while you fling yourself under a cliff face and only one missed grapple from falling into oblivion.

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See that tiny doorway on the back wall? That’s where you’re headed!

The game seldom hold your hand and puts a pressure on you to navigate the levels on your own, trusting that the level design is clear enough so as not to lose or confuse the player. It works – most of the time. There are a few segments in the game where you’ll fling yourself in a randomly chosen direction, furiously trying to grapple onto something-anything in hopes of finding what seems to be the secret way forward. I think there were maybe three or four parts where I had to resort to YouTube to find what I missed. In some cases my struggle was self-inflicted; I missed what should have been an obvious visual cue.

The two most frustrating moments I experienced came about because the game doesn’t have a great way to demonstrate the effective limitations on the grapple and the rocket boots. In one segment I could clearly see that I was supposed to grapple past three floating rocks, and then use the rocket boots to make my way to a distant platform. The issue is that since every jump you make is either pass or fail over a bottomless abyss, there’s no real way to anticipate how far the rocket boots will take you or how close to an object you need to be in order to lock the grapple onto it. If I were to replay the sequences again, I think it would still take a measurable amount of luck for me to clear them.

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The art direction is vibrant and definitely pleasing to look at. It’s done well, if a bit derivative; it reminded me of Na Pali from the first Unreal with a few helpings of Avatar tossed in here and there.

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There are lots of little details worth exploring in your uncle’s lab. Not explained: How he got Post-It notes to stick to wooden paneling.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Try to plot out your route before making the initial jump
  2. Don’t give in to your desire to click frantically when trying to grapple something; odds are you’ll waste grapple and have to redo the section

The Final Raving – Qualified Endorsement

While it’s not for everyone, if you have an interest in similar games (Mirror’s Edge, Portal, even the platforming elements of Assassin’s Creed) this one might be a good fit for you.

A Story About My Uncle is proof positive that small games developed by indie studios have a place in a AAA world. It makes me look forward to future releases from Gone North Games / Coffee Stain Studios

Good:

  • Fun platforming gameplay that generally works very well
  • Almost unparalleled for exhilaration of movement
  • Vivid art design

Bad:

  • Occasionally frustrating moments
  • If running time trials isn’t your thing, $12.99 might be a bit steep for a 3-hour platforming campaign

Ugly:

  • While there isn’t much of it, the NPC character animation is quite dated

Compatibility Considerations: 

None. Built in the Unreal Engine, this should work fine on all modern gaming PCs.