Enter the Gungeon Makes Failing Fun!

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

I don’t know if I have what it takes to beat Enter the Gungeon. It’s possible for skilled players to complete a run through the game’s six levels in under an hour. I am not a skilled player, at least not yet. A few moments ago, my sixtieth run at the game ended once again in failure. This time I was killed by the Bullet King, who I consider to be the easiest first-level boss. After reading the details on the game-over screen, I unconsciously tapped the button to immediately begin again. It’s a strange thing, because repeated failure doesn’t typically make games fun to play. And yet, after sixty attempts and twelve hours of play time I want to keep playing.

This is the end of attempt #60. I died after 6 minutes and 38 seconds, with 53 kills in this attempt.

Gungeon is a deceptively simple game. It’s easy to play, especially with a controller. Left stick to move, right stick to aim. Different buttons fire, reload, dodge, and use items. Your objective: fight through an enemy-filled fortress in pursuit of a powerful artifact. Every level of the fortress is filled to the brim with those who would do you harm. They all protect the treasure contained within: a gun that can kill the past. This relic can be used to make what was done, undone. Simply put, this gun gives the one who wields it the ability to erase their failures from the past. You control any of four characters, the Marine, the Convict, the Pilot, or the Hunter. Each of them has a past that must be erased; tragedies and failures that must be set right. Only the most haunting of pasts can possibly be motivation enough to face what lies inside the Gungeon.

I absolutely love the pixel art style of the game.

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up. The simple controls allow you to devote your focus on the delicate and frenetic combat. Different classes of enemies have their own types of weapons and movement patterns. Some fire single, slow-moving projectiles. Others wind up and unleash a wall of bullets. My least favorite charge directly towards you and explode spectacularly. The hazards of the Gungeon prove that situational awareness is just as important as your reflexes. It’s a bad idea to be in corner when a Gun Nut unleashes a barrages of angry red projectiles in your direction.

Shooting at bullets is ridiculously fun thanks to the lighthearted tone of the game as well as the varied and frequently tongue-in-cheek weapon design. Every gun, and there are a lot, has different strengths and weaknesses. Many of them are utterly entertaining to use, even if they aren’t entirely effective. For instance, The Bullet is a bullet. It fires guns. That also fire bullets. It’s asinine in the most entertaining of ways. My favorite weapon so far has to be the Lower Case r. Instead of firing bullets, it fires out letters that spell out the word “bullet”. Score a hit on an enemy, and instead of an explosion you’ll see the word “BLAM!” in glowing orange text. The Wind Up Gun is a homage to Futurama. It’s a blue rifle that shoots green projectiles and plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” as you wind the crank to reload it. I’ve also come across weapons such as a camera, a garbage gun, an M1, a mer-shotgun (a shotgun with a mermaid tail that shoots deadly water), a dripping barrel that fires deadly fish, the Thompson Machine Gun, shotguns, and the Klobbe; a fantastically useless weapon.The glee of using some of these more than makes up for the untimely deaths I suffer when wielding them.

Look carefully. I’m not firing off bullets, I’m shooting off letters.

Knowing when not to shoot is just as important as accurately unloading a magazine of bullets, rockets, letters, or fish. Your primary defense against the enemy onslaught is the dodge roll. Timed correctly, it will vault you safely over nearly any glowing red orb of death. Used recklessly, it’s just as effective at placing you in harm’s way. Boss encounters are usually a battle against one large enemy that can literally fill a room with unfriendly fire. These encounters are slowly teaching me that it’s okay not to be firing at enemies all the time. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop pulling the trigger and focus on not getting hit.

This is what they call “bullet heck”.

Gungeon is a punishing roguelike experience. This means that each level is procedurally generated. While every floor of the Gungeon will contain similar elements, the level layout, enemy makeup, and item drops will be different every time. Roguelike also means that permadeath is the name of the game. Die on level three, and you start again on level one. Though I must note that you don’t start completely from scratch after every death. Through the course of the game, you encounter other characters in the fortress. Setting them free allows them to set up shop in the game’s central hub so you can interact with them before starting a run. They offer special items or other quests to complete in return for rewards. Defeating bosses will give you a glowing green currency that survives permadeath. This currency can then be used to unlock new weapons and equipment that will show up as drops in the Gungeon in future attempts.

This is not a game that’s meant to be rushed through. Nobody will sit down and breeze through to the final boss in an hour or two. Instead, Gungeon will sit installed on my hard drive for weeks and months. Over time I’ll chip away at it bit by bit, making one hard-earned step of progress at a time. I don’t know how long it will take for me to kill the past, but I know I’m going to have fun trying.

I’m dead. Doesn’t this look fun??

Dark Souls II – Scholar of the First Sin

The challenge itself is the draw. For the most part, that’s enough. But you may reach a moment, as I did, when you start to wonder why you’re doing this. I made it about halfway through before this persistent question began to erode my enjoyment of the combat.

The original Dark Souls is a masterpiece of game design. A punishing action-adventure hack and slash game, it’s a title that stands in a worthy spot on many “greatest games of all time” lists. Though the story and lore of the game’s world is opaque, players are given glimpses of it in item descriptions and conversations with other characters. Over eighty hours, my initial frustration with the game gave way to adoration and excitement. Though frequently frustrating, the world of Dark Souls had a balance of trials and reward. When you spend hours fighting for every inch of new territory, the game rewards you for it accordingly. By the time I’d made it through the Abyss and on to the Kiln of the First Flame, I felt like I’d accomplished something. Victory over Gwyn, Lord of Cinder is a fist-pumping achievement and worthy of bragging about. The game’s design clearly led to this moment, building the world in such a way that you can recount nearly every step you took from start to finish.

Dark Souls II lacks a sense of continuity and purpose. That’s notable, because Dark Souls games are not known for having a clearly communicated story. Hints of lore and world building are hidden in item descriptions, loading screens, and in conversations with other characters. If you’re really interested in the story, you can go online and read detailed history lessons contained on the Dark Souls II wiki. I’ve not spent any time going through the lore. Personally, I figure that if the game doesn’t try very hard to make sure I know what the story is, it can’t be that important. Why should I care about something if the game itself obviously doesn’t? The original Dark Souls had a similarly hidden story, though the game’s world made up for it. By means of visual signposting and excellent level design, the player always knew where they were supposed to go next. Discovery of the world was motivation enough for me to want to keep playing. Dark Souls II lacks that key ingredient. Since the story might as well not exist, the world design alone carries the weight of motivating the player to keep moving forward. Though the game contains some compelling locations, the whole of the game’s world, Drangelic, lacks a sense of cohesion.

See the ruins, bridge, and tower in the distance? You don’t get to explore any of that in DSII.

Take Huntsman’s Copse, for example. Emerging from a cave, the player sees a large tower sitting atop a cliff. To get there, you must battle your way through a misty forest filled with bandits and poison moths. Eventually you arrive at an ominous passage. Dark walls tower over a narrow walkway lined with irregularly placed stone pedestals. Each pedestal serve as perch for a Purgatory Guardian. These are the toughest enemies I’d yet faced in the game. Armed with whips and giant staffs imbued with the power of dark magic, they are a challenge when fought singly. Advance down the corridor and they’ll drop down to engage you. Advance too much at one time and multiple guardians will engage you. Each fight was tense and stressful, followed by the release of defeat or elation of victory. This sequence is classic Dark Souls; challenge, risk, and reward. It’s a satisfying gameplay sequence. Eventually you’re allowed to walk through the passage and across a rope bridge to the ominous tower. A fog gate awaits you. There’s a boss inside.

Oooh. Foreboding!

The Executioner’s Chariot is a two-stage boss fight that’s pretty standard for Dark Souls games. The fight itself is merely the logical progression of your battle with the guardians outside. Dying here means you must face the entire gauntlet again. Victory means satisfaction, reward, and the incentive to keep progressing forward. Except not in the way I’d hoped. It took me at least ten attempts to figure out how to get through the passage with the guardians, and I died at the hands of the boss at least six times. After so much pain and time and effort to take out a boss, I expected to be rewarded. My hope was that I’d keep fighting up through the tower, discovering some cool new location above the misty woods I’d been trapped in for so long. But, no, that was not to be the case. On the fateful attempt when I did achieve victory over the Executioner’s Chariot, I was sorely disappointed. There’s nothing new to discover. The room that contained the boss was just a hallway; a circular hallway! One alcove contains a bonfire, but that’s it. The payoff for all my hard work is that I get to warp out of a dead end and start another journey somewhere else.

This is the Shrine of Amana. Everybody on the internet hated it (do a search, but beware salty language), but I loved it.

This scene repeats itself more times than I can count in Dark Souls II. The game introduces a new locale, only to cast it aside and shift someplace else after a scant hour or two of gameplay. There is quite a diverse range of locations to explore. Seaside towers, a haunted ship berthed in a cave, misty and foggy woods, stone caverns lit by poisonous green pools, an iron castle sinking into a pit of lava, another castle that seems to float above the world, frozen castles; Dark Souls II has it all! And that’s part of the problem. Instead of each area contributing to the feel of the world, it feels like someone made a list locations that sounded cool and tossed them in without any justification. While most of these places are beautiful, the game clearly values quantity over quality. There are thirty-four different locations, and almost all of them have their own boss. Thirteen of those locations have a single resting point. You’ll be in those locations only long enough to fight some enemies, beat the boss, and move on.

This section of Undead Crypt made me want to quit the game.

For the most part, that’s not a problem because Dark Souls II is still fun to play – to a point. The combat system imported all of the good things from the original Dark Souls. This is a game of skill. Recognizing the patterns, strengths, and weaknesses of your enemies is important. The single most important thing to learn about combat is not to panic. Panic leads to rash decisions, which lead to death. Patience and discipline are essential to living for more than a few minutes at a time. Depending on your preferences, you can opt to wield magic or fire, build a strength character to pummel enemies with big hammers, or use dexterity to become a slasher of supreme order. Most of the time, combat is fair. Sometimes, it is absolutely not. This game loves to toss swarms of multiple enemies at you, and sometimes it’s more than a bit unreasonable. But in the end, it’s still a Dark Souls game. The sense of achievement when you tackle a tough foe is real enough. So too is the despair when you encounter a baddie that you just can’t see a way around. The challenge itself is the draw. For the most part, that’s enough. But you may reach a moment, as I did, when you start to wonder why you’re doing this. I made it about halfway through before this persistent question began to erode my enjoyment of the combat. Forty-three hours after starting the game, I watched my character take a seat on a throne. The throne was inside of some hut, which itself was buried deep within a fortress. The doors of this hut closed slowly, drenching my warrior in inky blackness and the game ended. My character had fought long and hard to sit in the dark by himself. Surely his last thought about his experiences must have mirrored my own: Is this all there is?

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.

RescueNotToday

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.

worried-jeb

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!

Dark Souls Journal #02 – Losing Battles but Controlling Myself

Dark Souls Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Read previous entries in this series: Part 1

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At first glance, Undead Burg doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as dreary as its name would suggest. First impressions can be deceiving. The bright and cheery skyline visible in the screenshot above quickly become obscured by dark stone walls, forcing me into conflict with the permanent residents of this particular burg. I can only assume that this is the path I’m supposed to take early in the game, seeing as every other avenue I tried saw me skewered in a matter of moments. If my assumptions are correct, then this twisted medieval version of suburbia is the player’s “real” initiation into the world of Dark Souls. If you can survive here, then you just might have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

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I don’t know if I have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

After a half dozen enemy encounters with results ranging from limping victory to terrible bloodbath, I realize that I still have no clue what I’m doing. Let me give you an example: Undead Burg has a shopkeeper where you can trade items and buy supplies. I accidentally killed him. In the fifteen to twenty minutes it took me to battle from the burg’s entrance to his shop my mind was in a state of combat readiness. When I stumbled into his shop, hidden behind a mess of crates and barrels I was on edge and ready to respond to the slightest stimuli with a flurry of violence. That poor shopkeeper thought the best thing he could to do a well-armed traveler that bursts through the door is start talking. I had to respond somehow. I pressed a button that I thought was supposed to initiate interaction, but I pressed the wrong one and whipped a throwing knife at his face. He doesn’t want to sell me things anymore. In one enraged motion, he came crashing through his table and lunged towards me. I’m forced to defend myself against who I assume is the only one able to sell me supplies in this location. This shop is now closed permanently. No friends do I have in Undead Burg. All because I pressed the wrong button.

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Controls, controls, I must learn the controls. If you ever want to play the PC version Dark Souls for yourself be forewarned that using the mouse and keyboard is horrible and clunky. That’s why I’m playing with a wireless Xbox 360 controller. For the most part, the default layout seems pretty intuitive. The left stick moves my character. the right rotates the camera. Clicking the right stick will snap the camera to face the same direction as my character. Clicking the right stick in close proximity to an enemy will “lock on” to that particular foe, making them easier to track in the heat of combat. The front bumpers and triggers correspond somewhat to the left and right sides of my character’s body. My character’s left arm holds a shield. The left bumper brings up the shield for a block, left trigger swipes the shield in an attack. My character’s right arm is used for offense. Press the right bumper for a light attack that you can recover from quickly, use the right trigger launches a heavy attack appropriate for the type of weapon currently wielded. The D-pad corresponds to four inventory slots. Pressing a given direction allows you to equip or unequip items in that slot.

Moving on to the face buttons: Y will switch between a one-handed or a two-handed combat stance. When using a two-handed stance pressing either the left trigger or left bumper will allow you to use your sword to block. Pressing B while motionless allows you to jump backward, or roll in whichever direction you happen to be moving. Holding B down allows me to sprint. While sprinting, press B again to jump. X uses whatever item is currently equipped. A. What does A do? Aside from using it to confirm selections in the menu I haven’t stumbled upon any use for the A button. I hope I haven’t missed anything important.

Select brings up the gesture menu, allowing me to trigger various poses that I can’t quite understand the use for:

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Pressing Start brings up the standard in-game menu. Not so standard is the realization that bringing up the start menu does not pause the game. On more than one occasion I’ve brought up the menu to change a setting or check the options, only to have an enemy wander towards me from off camera and start pounding me. I vainly start mashing my attack and defend buttons only for my character to stand motionless and take his punishment. Lesson to be learned: Combat does not work with the menu is open. I can’t tell why the game was developed this way. Probably to punish poor saps like me who just have trouble figuring things out.

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Hopefully, familiarizing myself more with the control scheme will make me ever so slightly more efficient in combat. I’ve been stuck in Undead Burg for a while now and have only managed to light one bonfire at what I presume to be the halfway point. By now I’ve tried to progress through the city about a dozen times, dying with alarming frequency. For a while I manage to hold my own against the undead masses. Each battle may be hard and furious, but I can usually take out a few groups of enemies and restore myself to nearly full health with a drink from my Estus Flask. My confidence starts to wane when I approach an unsettling trio of skeletons, each armed with a long pike and shields that look like they’ve been carved from solid granite. They’re different from the mindless drones I’ve had to plow through until now. Backing slowly away from the group, one follows me up a stairwell and paces side to side slowly. He’s taunting me, waiting for me to make the first move.

Patrol

I make the first move. I die.

Thinking that maybe I ought to try a weapon other than my light but fast curved scimitar, I try to equip a broadsword.

ThisSwordIsTooBig

Nope, can’t use that one with only one hand. My strength stats are too low so this is something I have to use with both arms. I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone and forget about using a shield for a while. The first dozen or so enemies I run into die with a pleasing lack of resistance. Even the trio of spear-laden, granite shielded skeletons can’t hold me back. I make my way up a stairwell and down a few more corridors. I try passing through a doorway shrouded in white fog, “Traverse the white light”, it says. That can’t possibly lead to anything bad, could it?

Yes. Yes it could.

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Taurus Demon? TAURUS DEMON? There’s a boss fight on a freaking parapet walk? And there are snipers firing at me from behind? And I don’t have any healing juice left in my Estus Flask?

YOU DIED

I need a break.

Mirror’s Edge

Mirror’s Edge hopes to answer the question: Can a shooter without guns be fun? The answer is yes: if you allow the player freedom of movement. Though the linear nature of the game can be a weakness, the setpiece moments are some of the most fun you’ll have in a video game.

At its best, Mirror’s Edge plays like a Hollywood action movie; an exhilarating thrill ride that puts you in the middle of the chaos, yet always gives you a way to escape the bad guys in the nick of time. At its worst, Mirror’s Edge forgets the strengths of its first-person parkour and decides to ruin the flow of the game with cumbersome, combat-heavy sections. Developed by DICE, the studio famous for games focusing exclusively on bullet-laden warfare like Battlefield, Mirror’s Edge was definitely something that seemed to come out of left field. Could they create a relatively nonviolent game based around freerunning and parkour and turn it into something that fans of first-person shooters would demand to play? It was a risk for both DICE and publisher EA. While it never achieved smash-hit status it did cultivate a core of dedicated fans, and has managed to sell consistently (at a low level) since its November 2008 release. There’s obviously something about the game that manages to draw people in. What is it?

Mirror’s Edge is set in the City of Glass, which is populated a dystopian society that has been built in the ashes of violent upheavals. The People In Charge are the bad guys from this past conflict, and impose their will on the citizens of the city. Surveillance is omnipresent, the words and deeds of every citizen are scrutinized by the Citizen Protection Force (CPF). Though the oppression of the People In Charge looms heavily, there are those who peacefully strive for change. The only way for these dissenters to exchange confidential communication is through the employ of runners, who hand-deliver physical messages via the framework of the city’s rooftops – above the normal patrol routes of the CPF.  You will experience Mirror’s Edge through the eyes of a character named Faith, a runner. Your opening missions begin as basic delivery assignments with minor entanglements, but things quickly become more complicated. Faith’s sister Kate, a CPF officer, has been framed for the murder of a prominent politician and now it’s up to Faith and her band of outlawed runners to find out what really happened.

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Poor Robert isn’t looking so good.

I’ll be honest with you: the story is forgettable. As thrilling as the gameplay itself is, story exposition needs to be downright compelling to compete with sprinting across the rooftops of Glass City… and it’s just not. Each mission is set up with a 2D animated cutscene, and it’s something of a jarring juxtaposition with the minimalist 3D aesthetic of the rest of the game since the two mediums have vastly differing visual styles. My mind has trouble associating the 2D characters with the 3D ones I saw in-game. Neither the cutscenes or the in-game exposition allows the cast to develop enough for you to care what happens to them. Thanks to the conspiratorial nature of the plot, new characters are introduced before you have a chance to register what happened to the old ones and there’s no attachment or shock when any given person inevitably get knocked off for one reason or another. The plot’s there, but it doesn’t make you care. Thankfully, the gameplay is fun and engaging enough that you’ll rarely stop and ask the quintessential question, “What’s my motivation?”

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See that red radio tower way back there? That’s where you’re going!

Most levels start somewhere on the roofs of the City of Glass. Your guide, Merc, communicates with you via headset to give you your bearings and objectives. Missions begin with him directing you to move towards some far-off landmark that you can see, but can’t quite pick out an obvious route to from the current vantage point. It’s up to you to figure out how to climb, sprint, jump, shimmy, crouch, and take flying leaps to get from one end of the level to the other. Despite the wide-open feel of many of the game’s environments, it is definitely not open-world. On the contrary: every level is carefully scripted and controlled, but those invisible barriers are hidden well enough so as to give the illusion of freedom. Merc will occasionally provide audio cues as to where you’re supposed to go, and the rest of the time it’s up to the game’s stunning visual design to direct your path. Mirror’s Edge smartly uses a vibrant but minimalist color palette. Rooms and even entire buildings are frequently washed in shades of the same color, providing a simple but crisp look that makes the world easy to navigate when running through it at full speed. Colors are chosen carefully, especially things that are red. Red objects; doors, valves, buttons, walls, crates, or other objects; comprise what’s called “runner vision”. These red visual indicators smartly guide the player through the level, providing a sense of direction with minimal confusion. Not sure where to run? Run at red! While for the most part Runner Vision does a good job at leading you to your objective, sometimes you get lost. Very lost. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of red in the distance, but get caught between some obstructions and lose sight of your destination. Other times you may only have one or two directions in which to go, but you haven’t gotten close enough to a particular object to trigger it to turn red. At times runner vision seems to be dependent on the player maintaining momentum in the direction they’re supposed to go, and falls apart when the player loses their way. Other times you’ll be in a large, complex area with no idea how to get there. You may see your ultimate destination, but your only option is trial and error while you discover the route. Part of my frustration with navigation stems from the fact that I’d forgotten that the game has a hint button. Press it, and Faith will look in exactly the direction you need to go. Most of the time, though, it works well enough for you to be able to keep a breakneck pace.

But this is where I need to point out a caveat for Mirror’s Edge: I can’t remember how enjoyable it was to play through for the first time. Sometimes it is legitimately difficult to know where to go. If you’re on a level with a slower pace and there aren’t any CPF following you, just backtrack a little and do some exploring to discover what you may have missed. If you’ve got half a dozen cops on your heels taking shots at you, losing your sense of direction is just adding insult to injury. Heck, there are certain sections that vexed me though I’d already played them multiple times. Specifically, there’s a bit where a helicopter gunner tries to mow you down as you navigate some scaffolding. It’s quite reminiscent of the cliffside level with the helicopter from Half-Life, except here my only option is to find the proper path to take in order to make the helicopter go away. No laser-guided RPGs here.

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But by and large, the level design is good enough that combining it with tight controls means first-person parkour is legitimately fun. Faith’s move set is more than adequate for any obstacles you’ll encounter in Glass City. She can do everything expected for a game played from the first-person perspective; run, turn, strafe, jump, crouch. Mirror’s edge also adds a few moves that aren’t present in other games. Pivot is one of them: hit a button to quickly turn about 180 degrees. She’s also capable of climbing pipes and certain grates, swinging from certain overhangs, and slipping sideways through narrow gaps. Faith’s movements are quite versatile because they may vary based on the context. While jumping or falling, hit crouch just before impacting the ground to break your fall and neatly roll upon landing. Sprint alongside a wall and jump to start wall running. Sprint at a wall and jump towards it to plant on it, then pivot quickly face your direction of origin and jump again to reach a high ledge you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. The game gradually introduces you to these moves so that they come naturally when you do need to use them. All of these moves fit into the game world perfectly, and with a little practice you’ll feel like you can fly through each of the game’s environments.

While a lot of the game takes place on the rooftops, a considerable amount of it occurs in indoor or subterranean environments. Surprisingly enough, those more enclosed areas felt more dangerous to me than being on the rooftops. When starting out at a high vantage point like the top of a building, the game takes away the player’s connection and sense of danger from the heights at which they travel. But other levels that start the player at ground level and make them climb to dizzying heights feel more perilous because every step takes them farther away from the safety of the ground. I don’t have a fear of heights, but Mirror’s Edge gives me the next best thing.

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Pay no attention to the fact that Faith can clear 40-foot gaps between rooftops with ease. It’s fun!

In addition to the parkour moves, DICE incorporated hand-to-hand combat mechanics for the inevitable confrontation with the authorities. You’re limited to light punches and light kicks while stationary, or heavy kicks that must be initiated while running. Also at your disposal is the ability to disarm your foes, but this is a special attack that must be triggered in reaction to an enemy’s specific movement. The window for disarming is very small, and you’ve got to have quick reflexes to pull it off successfully. An ability called “reaction time” exists to help you with this. It’s essentially the same as Bullet Time from Max Payne or The Matrix: the ability to slow down game events so you can react faster. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work all that well. Since the window for disarmament is so narrow, you’ll either initiate reaction time too early and miss the opportunity, or you’ll wait too long to push the right button and miss the opportunity altogether. The game never references reaction time outside of the tutorial, so I honestly forgot it was available to me almost the entire time I played.

Combat in the first few levels isn’t bad at all and even winds up being a little bit fun. Sporadic encounters with lightly armored, handgun-toting CPF give you the freedom to choose to engage or simply run away. Even if the game design implied that it wanted to you chose one option more than the other you could still try either route and have some success. There’s something satisfying about running full-speed at a hostile and performing a slide kick to knock them off their feet. Sadly, as the game progresses not only will there be points where there’s no alternative to fighting, but you’ll be locked in a small area and forced to deal with multiple heavily armed soldiers. For example, there’s a mission where you’re forced to walk into a small warehouse with four SWAT troopers. They’re wearing full suits of body armor and are armed with heavy machine guns. When you enter the room they are patrolling on catwalks above you. They know where you are, there’s no clear way out, and you have no other obvious options available to you. Even once you explore the room enough to know where you’re supposed to go, the exit is tricky enough to reach that you can’t possibly access it without becoming a bullet-ridden corpse. So your only option is to fight through FOUR swat troopers in a small environment. It took me about ten reloads before I finally memorized their spawn locations and was able to pick them off one by one. It’s possible to do, but not in the organic way that the developers intended. It’s situations like this where combat is your only option that exposes the limits of the fighting system. For a game that tries so hard to trick you into thinking you can freely run and perform awesome parkour moves in an open-ish world, trapping you in a warehouse and forcing you to fight stands in stark contrast to the strength Mirror’s Edge exhibits.

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But it gets worse. Later that same mission, you’re introduced to an all-new type of an enemy. This comes at a pivotal point in the plot of the game. Faith has discovered a brand new threat to herself and the other runners she cares about, and now she’s face to face with not one but two of these new threats in what I thought was a closed area. Since only a few gameplay moments prior to this revelation I had been locked in a warehouse and forced to fight my way through, I logically assumed that combat was my only option here as well. Wrong. Despite these two new foes being outfitted with only a taser and significantly less armor than the SWAT team I just knocked out, I was unable to put either of these new baddies down. It didn’t matter that I could land about twice as many hits on them as the heavily armed guys. The game apparently decided that I was supposed to run instead of fight, but I hadn’t gotten the message. Instead of feeling the thrill of the chase and a sense of relief when I finally reached safety, I couldn’t help but be annoyed at the seemingly arbitrary distinction between fight and flight situations.

Unfortunately for the game, the emphasis on combat grows with each passing level. Gone are the easy and satisfying fisticuffs of the early levels. Present are a few levels of high-pressure running with annoying unbeatable foes nipping at your heels. With every combat situation that’s forced on me, the more I realize just how shallow the combat mechanics are. Your opponents eventually start blocking your attacks, but you aren’t granted the same luxury. Fights devolve into irritating cycles. Take a few hits, run in circles around your opponents while your health regenerates, and then go for a slide or jump kick, and repeat the process until they go down.

It’s times like this I’m thankful I’m not playing the Xbox 360 version of the game. See, the version for Xbox comes with a whole slew of different achievements to challenge you to play the game differently than you might otherwise. One of those is called “Test of Faith”, which is awarded when you complete the game without shooting an enemy. Regardless of the merit or skill required to earn specific achievements, people like myself will subject themselves to all kinds of gaming torture to earn points that don’t really mean anything. In the Xbox version of the game, the brand of torture meant either avoiding combat altogether or using only hand-to-hand combat to dispatch your foes. The Steam version of the game doesn’t have achievements. Ergo, there’s no real reason not to pick up a gun from the CPF officer you just knocked out and shoot some bullets back and the fools that have been shooting at you the whole game. In an attempt to discourage players from using guns unless absolutely necessary, DICE wisely placed some gameplay handicaps on Faith when she’s packing heat. She can’t run or perform any parkour moves, nor can she reload the gun or even indicate how many rounds are present in the magazine. In spite of those limits, her aim is pretty good and it’s not too difficult to take out anyone that might be giving you trouble. Lesson learned: Don’t make Faith angry.

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The days of peaceful running are over. It’s time for violent rebellion!

Though Mirror’s Edge has some cracks in the experience, it’s worth suffering through the bad moments to experience the thrills.

The police, always alert to what happens in the City of Glass, are on their way and I’m running; always running. My position on the rooftops leaves me exposed and I have to make my way down towards the surface if I’m to find any path of escape. A construction site leads me into in an abandoned subway station. Scaffolding and halfway remodeled hallways leads me to a series of giant air exchange vents. Taking these deeper into the underground leads me to the subway tunnels. My path now includes some well-lit subway track; these lines are active. I move forward to go through the tunnel when the deafening blast of an horn knocks me back and a gigantic subway train roars by. These lines are active indeed. There’s a glimpse of red off in the distance to my left. The subway trains and I have to figure out how to share the tracks. Utilizing whatever maintenance access I can, I work through and around the tracks. Eventually I find myself in a room with a catwalk running parallel above the track and a door at the end. Blue sparks start flying away from the door and I stare at it for a moment before I realize: The CPF know where I am and are cutting their way onto the catwalk. “The trains, Faith! Take the trains!” Merc’s voice sounds urgent in my ear. I’ve spent the past ten minutes frantically running down subway tunnels trying to avoid the trains at all cost. Now, they were my only salvation. At the far end of the catwalk, the blue sparks have completed their slow circuit around the door and it’s blown off its hinges. Tactical police burst through sporting submachine guns and riot shields. Trains it is! I time my jump over the catwalk’s railing and make a hard landing on the end of a speeding subway car. I’m safe now, right? No. It’s time for a solo reenactment of the end of the movie Speed; Ducking below ceiling mounted signals and carefully timing jumps over low-clearance catwalks. Before long I need to jump to an adjacent subway train, again being careful of my surroundings and timing my jump so as not to wind up impaled on the support pillars whizzing between the trains at regular intervals. Soon after, my new ride is shut down by the authorities… but there’s still another one coming full-speed at me. “Get out of there, now!” Merc is yelling at me in panic. I run back in the direction the subway came from, frantically looking for an escape. Some ways ahead there’s a red door in the side of the tunnel. As soon as I notice it the glare of headlights from an oncoming train fills my field of view. Sprinting with singular focus toward the door, I jump through the opening and turn back to watch the newly arrived subway train smash into the first, mere seconds after I reach safety. Just another day in the life of a runner. 

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The Final Raving – Full Endorsement

Anyone who plays video games should give this a try, even if this is a genre you’ve never been interested before. 

There are cracks in Mirror’s Edge, but it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s proof positive that a game centered on movement can be fun to play

Good:

  • Risky design decisions pay off, for the most part
  • Sets a high bar for visual design and original soundtracks
  • An absolute blast to play, provided you don’t get lost

Bad:

  • Overemphasis on combat sucks the fun out of running
  • Sometimes you’ll get stuck in a scripted moment, unsure of what to do

Ugly:

  • Those 2D animated cutscenes. I’m just not a fan

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • I didn’t have any problems getting the game installed and running on my Windows 10 PC, but I did have problems with a terrible amount of screen-tearing. To solve it, I had to use the nVidia control panel to force adaptive v-sync for the game

Tips for New Players:

  1. Resist the urge to fight. The game is about running, not fighting.
  2. Don’t fret too much about which jumps you can or can’t make; it’ll become intuitive in time.
  3. Play through the game at least twice; it’s better the second time around.

Release Date:

  • January 13th, 2009

Developer: DICE

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Where to buy:

Steam – $19.99

Origin – $19.99

An Evening With Oregon Trail

My first time on the trail was a comedy of tragic events. At the first river crossing one of my party members drowned when my wagon tipped over in less than four feet of water. Tragic, but one less mouth to feed meant my food would last longer for the living travelers. People got sick. Limbs were broken. We got lost. There was fog. There were measles. Then a thief stole some of my oxen. And not just some of them, but most of them. As in, eight out of my ten. Who steals eight oxen?

An Evening With… Is a series of posts featuring games that are relatively small in scale or can be experienced in a short period of time.

Even people who don’t know a thing about video games know about Oregon Trail. Part video game, part learning experience, it’s hard to separate the game itself from its status as a cultural icon. Many people from my generation have memories of playing through the game in school, back when software developers tried to combine education experiences with video games. Perhaps their parents even bought the game for the family computer under the impression their kids would learn a few things from it. My wife has stories about how she and her sister used to play the game together “back in the day”. I was never a part of that crowd, at least not that I can remember. When a cleanup of the home office yielded the game’s discovery on a dusty bookshelf, my wife insisted I play through it.

Starting ShopOregon Trail tries to be a historical simulator. You are the leader of a party that is traveling across the continental United States with the aim of settling in Oregon. You start your journey in Independence, Missouri by picking your profession. Certain vocations lend bonuses that may be helpful over the course of the dangerous journey. A banker, naturally, can afford to buy more supplies at the start of the game. Doctors are more likely to keep their party healthy. Carpenters and blacksmiths have significantly less money to work with, but they can potentially fix their wagon should it break and they will receive a significant score bonus at the end of the game. You can determine how many people you’re taking to Oregon with you. Forewarning: Your party members possess no skills and exist only to fall ill and consume your precious resources out in the wilderness. Once your profession and party members are set, it’s off to the general store to load up on supplies for your wagon. Oxen, nonperishable food, and bullets are the only things you are guaranteed to use; most other things you’re buying as insurance against disaster. The shopkeeper offers advice on what you should buy, but only the trail will show you what you actually need.

My first time on the trail was a comedy of tragic events. At the first river crossing one of my party members drowned when my wagon tipped over in less than four feet of water. Tragic, but one less mouth to feed meant my food would last longer for the living travelers. People got sick. Limbs were broken. We got lost. There was fog. There were measles. Then a thief stole some of my oxen. And not just some of them, but most of them. As in, eight out of my ten. Who steals eight oxen? How could my party even allow such a thing? Did they not notice our only means of transportation mooing as they were led away by someone they’ve never seen before? I’m still mad at that band of traveling idiots. Just after reaching the halfway point of the journey the most tragic thing of all happened: A program crash. Fifty minutes of progress down the drain because I forgot to save my game. I’m not sure what caused the crash; it was the result of either my constant task-switching for the sake of getting screenshots or the fact that I’d been running the game in Windows 95 compatibility mode. I later discovered that I didn’t really need to be running the game in compatibility mode, so lesson learned.

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No shopkeeper could have prepared me for this.

For my second attempt on the trail I ensured the game was running flawlessly, including my ability to save both the game and its text log. What follows is a selection of the more interesting highlights from the transcript of my trail journal.

My First Second Journey

March 1, 1848
We started down the trail with:
10 oxen
15 sets of clothing
400 bullets
3 wagon wheels
3 wagon axles
3 wagon tongues
800 pounds of food

Oregon, ho! So we endeavor to leave the wastelands of the Great Plains to endure two thousand miles and many months of hardships for a bette- wait. Why are we going to Oregon again? No, really. I got so caught up in the journey itself that I have no idea why we’re making the journey in the first place.

March 6, 1848
We have arrived at the Kansas River Crossing.

The river makes me afraid. 666 feet across and 10.6 feet deep. Evil lurks here.

March 12, 1848
We have arrived at the Big Blue River Crossing.

At this river I am presented with only two options: ford or float. Neither one appeals to me, and there’s no ferry. At 9.4 feet deep, this river is nothing more than a wet death trap. I’ll wait a day to see if the river drops any. It does. Not knowing how far it’s going to drop, I’ll wait until it starts rising again before heading across.

16 days later, the river is down to 3.4 feet. I think it might be safe to try floating the wagon over.

March 28, 1848
We had no trouble floating the wagon across.
Heavy fog. Lost 1 day.
Mandy has a fever.

My party ate a LOT of food in 16 days. Time to hunt.

March 30, 1848
We shot 1 pound of meat.

13 bullets and all I have to show for it is a pound of… squirrel? Is that what that is?

April 8, 1848
We have reached Fort Kearney.

An old dude said this should be the easiest part of the trail, so I’m opting to pick up the pace in hopes of making up for lost time.

We will now travel at a more strenuous pace.

April 19, 1848
Heavy fog. Lost 1 day.

My overall health indicator has dropped to “fair”, what with a broken leg and the measles and all. A hunting trip and a day’s rest are in store.

April 21, 1848
We shot 5 pounds of meat.

I managed to bag three rabbits as they gleefully bounded towards a beautiful stream. Serves ’em right.
We decided to rest for a day.

April 25, 1848
An ox is sick. Poor Fluffernutter.

Sick Ox

Why is it that the image announcing that an ox is sick makes it look like our only option is to put the thing out of its misery? Seriously, I’m getting some serious Napoleon Dynamite vibes here.

Napoleon Cow

April 26, 1848
We shot 71 pounds of meat. I’m pretty sure this didn’t come from the sick ox. I hope.

May 1, 1848
Mandy is well again.
Woo, we’re all in “fair” health again! Pretty soon we can celebrate by decreasing food intake to scarce rations and increasing to a grueling pace!

May 6, 1848
We have reached Independence Rock.
Aww, they’re circling their wagons under the giant circular rock. How quaint.

Independence Rock

May 7, 1848
An ox died. Good, I guess we didn’t eat him, then.
We decided to rest for 2 days to mourn Fluffernutter the ox.

Dead Ox

May 14, 1848
A thief stole 9 sets of clothing.
A thief stole 9 of my 15 sets of clothing? In a wagon full of food and bullets and spare parts, this dolt goes for sets of clothing? This type of seemingly petty nighttime thievery is what to led to things like the Great Train Robbery. I do declare society is preparing to unravel!

Thief

May 17, 1848
We shot 22 pounds of meat.
Why are my bullets so slooow!?!

May 19, 1848
We lost the trail for 5 days.
Ha! Poor guy looks pretty desperate standing in the middle of a field a few paces ahead of his wagon! Oh wait, that’s me. Hmm, I just made myself sad.

Lost Trail

May 24, 1848
We have arrived at the South Pass.
My food stores are a bit on the low side, but I can’t hunt at landmarks because there are “too many people around”? What that really means is this is the only hunting ground where you’re guaranteed to bring something home.

That sounded way more creepy than I intended it to.

Spoiled Food
That looks like way more than 20 pounds of meat.

From here my two options are to go to Fort Bridger for trading or use the shortcut to the Green-River crossing. Since I’m low on food and don’t have much to trade with I’d prefer to try and keep up with a good traveling pace. Time to apply a little math to my dwindling food reserves. 226 pounds of non-perishable food left. Five people eating generous portions eat a pound of food per meal or a total of 15 pounds per day. That’ll last me two weeks. Looking at the hunting limit of 200 pounds of food per hunt, I need to bag at least that much game every four days. Assuming a minimum of four more months of travel time, that’s a total of 1,800 pounds of food I need between now and Oregon. These people eat too much.

May 28, 1848
We shot 1865 pounds of meat but were able to carry back only 200 pounds of meat.

Bison. Slow and huge. A hunter’s best friend. Odd that so many people warned me against hunting them.

Overview

June 5, 1848
We decided to rest for a day. These poor people’s health keeps declining to “fair”. Generous portions, steady pace, what more do these wimps want?

June 15, 1848
Mandy is well again. Yay! Let’s have a party with extra rations all around! Wait, we’re already on “generous” portions! What took you so long to get well?

June 17, 1848
Mandy has a fever.
Why are you so sickly, woman?

June 29, 1848
We have reached Soda Springs. This appears to be a meeting place and trading grounds for fellow trail goers. Do I dare try and trade any of my wagon parts for nonperishable food?

We traded 2 wagon axles for 80 pounds of food. Thos axles were worth $20 each, meaning I just paid fifty cents per pound of nonperishable food. The price seems a bit steep, but what’s the cost of starving to death? You know, other than death?

July 2, 1848
We have reached Fort Hall.

There’s a fort with a general store here and it’s literally three days away from Soda Springs? I lost money on that food for axles trade. If I can find that twerp again I’ll shoot him in the leg.

We visited the store and bought:
1 wagon axle
80 pounds of food
1 set of clothing
We decided to rest for 2 days.

July 7, 1848
No grass for the oxen.

Why the heck does everyone’s health drop randomly from “good” to “fair”? Besides the fact that there’s no water and no grass. I haven’t noticed any pattern or cause and effect to it. Where are we anyway?

July 19, 1848
No water.
We have arrived at the Snake River Crossing.

No water at the Snake River Crossing…so does that mean Snake River is dry? How high is Snake River? That’ll be a test of this game’s continuity. 12 feet deep and 1000 feet across. That’s a big river. This game makes no sense.

July 20, 1848
We had no trouble floating the wagon across. Help from an Indian cost us two sets of clothing. That’s the equivalent of forty bucks. I miss the five dollar ferry.

July 24, 1848
We shot 111 pounds of meat.
Look ma, I just bagged a bear!

Hunting

July 25, 1848
No grass for the oxen.

July 26, 1848
No water.

July 27, 1848
No water.

July 28, 1848
No water.
Why does Idaho not have any water? Maybe potatoes are the cause of all the world’s problems.

We have reached Fort Boise.

August 2, 1848
Kathy has the measles.
“The measles can lead to death, especially among the elderly”. Sigh. If it’s not Mandy it’s someone else. I guess it’s time to take a rest for a few days.

We decided to rest for 3 days.

August 3, 1848
A thief stole 85 pounds of food.

People: this is why we don’t rest.

August 13, 1848
Everyone is in poor health, rather suddenly. What the what. Time to try resting again. If another thief comes I’m going to flip my lid.
We decided to rest for 3 days.

August 21, 1848
We have arrived at the Grande Ronde in the Blue Mountains.
Grande Ronde is quite breathtakingly beautiful in real life. It’s too bad the render in this game makes it look like a pile of irradiated blueberry marshmallow Peeps twinkling in the distance.

Purple Peep Mountains

I’m presented with a choice: Either I can go to Fort Walla Walla to buy supplies or I can take the shortcut to The Dalles. Buying supplies costs money, and I’ll need money to start life in Oregon. Shortcut it is.

August 23, 1848
We lost 41 pounds of food due to spoilage.
Tony is suffering from exhaustion.
We’re all exhausted, Tony.

September 3, 1848
Tony is well again.
Tony looks like a little girl.

TonyGirl

We have reached The Dalles. After talking to the locals, it appears I’ll have the choice of floating down the river on a barge or traveling over the mountain. Pixar movies and my first crashed attempt at Oregon Trail have taught me that rivers are nothing more than wet deathtraps, so we’ll be going over the mountains via the Barlow Toll Road.

September 4, 1848
The trail is impassable. Lost 7 days.
This is just another way of saying “we got lost”. That’s how it looks from the picture, anyway.

Impassable Lost

September 14, 1848
The trail is impassable. Lost 2 days.

This toll road sucks. Whatever I paid to take this route, it was too much.

September 20, 1848
We’re approaching the Willamette Valley, which is rather gloriously rendered by Oregon Trail as two lumpy rocks surrounded by some miniature pine trees. I’d hope it’s more impressive in real life.

WV puny thumbnail

September 25, 1848
VICTORY! I conquered the Oregon Trail after 6 months and 25 days of carrying a wagon full of supplies and several other party members of dead weight!

Willamette Valley

What’s this? I get a score screen? Something tells me the original travelers of the trail didn’t have such a luxury after their journey. 
ScoreScreen

Remember kids, you don’t need to be a doctor or a banker to succeed in life. At least, you don’t need to be one to win in Oregon Trail. No fatalities other than the ox and I get a 2x bonus at the end of it. Think you can beat my score? I’d like to see you try.

How to Play Oregon Trail

Sure it’s an iconic piece of software, but is it a fun game? It can be, depending on your expectations. It’s not what you’d call an easy game, though the game’s developers have tried to make it more accessible over the years. As much as I wanted to see some statistics about the health of my party and how much things like bad water and lack of grass affected them, such statistics wouldn’t make sense in the game world. The game requires you to think through your circumstances and how they would potentially affect your party. I guess it makes sense that people’s health will decline when they’ve had access to nothing but bad water for five days, but I’m still at a loss to explain how and why people break bones so frequently. Considering the base game was programmed in the seventies the depth of the game’s options are still a bit impressive. There are a lot of contributing factors here, and branching paths offer some interesting complexity that makes me want to try playing the game again. I do plan to play some more; partly to see if I can make it to Oregon in less than six months, and partly to see just how catastrophically wrong this trip can go.

I played Oregon Trail version 1.2 for Windows. My wife owns a physical copy of the game, so I copied the contents of the disc to my hard drive and ran the game straight from Windows Explorer. There are multiple copies of the game .exe. The location of the file varies depending on where you copy it, but within the game’s directory it was located in Oregon Trail/OTWIN32/OREGON32.EXE. As I learned the hard way, no compatibility mode is necessary. It is possible to find multiple versions of the game on sites that host abandonware (what is abandonware?), but there are some potential legal and moral implications to this. If gaming with a clear conscience is important to you, consider reading Abandoning Abandonware (Or: How Do You Like Your Piracy?).  To get around any potential issues, you could play the game for free in your browser from the Internet Archive: The Oregon Trail Deluxe 1992 Edition at The Internet Archive.

Dark Souls Journal #01 – What Have I Done?

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough of Dark Souls

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? […] “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care.

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? I blame Zachery and Brandon from the Facebook group I’m a part of, Theology Gaming University. “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care. Anyone who has been around gaming even a little but over the past few years has heard of Dark Souls. It’s a game made by a Japanese developer and released to consoles in 2011, and later made its way to the PC in 2012. So what exactly is it? Over the years I’d seen a lot of coverage of the game but never really paid it any mind because it just didn’t seem like it was my thing. Big guys in armor swinging swords. Torches and castles. No lasers or spaceships. No humor. Supposedly punishing difficulty. Story and background history told in an overt manner. The impression I got is that it was difficult hack ‘n’ slash game made to punish anyone brave enough to give it a try.

Turns out I may not have been too far off the mark on that assessment.

20160509203333_1I got the game for $5 during a recent sale at the Humble Store, donating my 5% Humble Tip to the Wounded Warrior Project. After doing a bit of research I found an excellent  guide to configuring the game at the Dark Souls subReddit. While you don’t have to do everything recommended there, DSfix is an absolute must to get the game running properly. I also went for an HD texture pack and font upgrades.

The first time I started the game I got some weird graphical glitches where the HUD was fullscreen, but the gameplay was only showing in the top left corner of the screen. Turns out that was a result of me not fully reading the instructions for DSfix. I didn’t disable Anti-Aliasing from the in-game menu like I was supposed to. Who knew it would make that much difference?

Starting a new game brings you to a character creation screen where you can choose your class, talents, gifts, and a few other attributes. Not having any idea what differences any of these would really make I went with the Wanderer. If I’m given the option I usually try to pick something that might approximately apply to me, and I certainly don’t have the traits of a soldier or a magician. Picking a “Large” physique character who walks around a lot and carries a cool-looking curved sword seemed to make the most sense to me.

20160510064341_1There is an impressive opening cinematic that lays out some interesting-looking history from the world of Dark Souls, but as far as I could tell there wasn’t any context for how my character fit into the grand scheme of things. When I took control of the game my character was locked in a cell, and someone tossed me a key to allow my escape. The only tool afforded me to help in my escape was the hilt of a sword. Not the sword’s blade, or a knife, or anything sharp, but a handle. Why do I get the impression this is a sign of things to come? For some reason I’m a prisoner in the Northern Undead Asylum and I look decidedly less than human. Am I dead? How did I get to the asylum? Why am I escaping? I didn’t grab any screenshots of this opening level because I was too busy mashing buttons on my controller and trying to stay alive. Things didn’t seem to difficult at first; I think I only died once in the tutorial level. After beating the tutorial’s boss a giant raven grabbed me and flew me to what I assume is the main game’s world.

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Hints and other messages are littered throughout the game in the form of glowing scratch marks.

The raven dropped me in Firelink Shrine, an interesting-looking little place. There are ruins strewn about. There’s a guy loitering near the fire who tells me about two bells; one in a high place and the other someplace down below. The implication is that I’m supposed to go to one of or both of those places and ring some bells. So there’s death, darkness, undead, demons, and now bells are involved. Great. I hate bells.

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You’ll see this screen an awful lot.


There may be multiple paths of progression from here, but nothing really stands out. The most obvious one to me involves some stairs that make a winding descent, eventually leading to an elevator that goes down even further. Eventually I wind up at a place called New Londo Ruins. Visually, it’s a pretty place as far as ruins go. Crumbled structres loom in front of a dark blue haze, backlight by a far-off light source. There are some apparently distracted and quite weak zombie dudes, and so far the ruins don’t seem too bad or too hard to go through. After slicing and dicing my way through a dozen or so brain-dead undead I notice that each enemy I kill makes a counter in the bottom-right of the screen go up. Each enemy has a value or something. Come to find out that somehow I’m collecting “souls” from my slain enemies and this is some kind of in-game currency. Morbid, but I guess that’s why the game is called Dark Souls, and not Happy Fun Souls.

Eventually I make my way to the edge of a giant subterranean pond with wood walkways sprawling out before me. Just before the first walkway is one of those helpful glowing hints that says something like: “Bravery: 1 Required”. I check my stats to see if I have any bravery. …no, it doesn’t look like it. Well, let’s go forward anyway; I’m sure it’s just a suggestion! A few steps down the path I encounter two ghosts. How hard can this be? Whoa! They can reach out like the creepy ghost that stole the baby in Ghostbusters 2! I wonder if I can try to mo-YOU DIED.

Well crud. Brutally throttled in the back by an undead vapor. I don’t think I even landed one hit on those guys. I respawn at the bonfire at the top of Firelink Shrine and do the same thing again. Once I hit the ground floor it quite literally hits me: enemies don’t stay dead. Every time I respawn, either from death or resuming a saved game, every enemy respawns back in the game world no matter how many times you’ve already mowed through them. That’s just rough.

Searching through my inventory I find a curse or something that says it allows me to engage in fights against ghosts, and I just so happened to be carrying two of them. Armed with this new knowledge I rush back to the depths only to find out they don’t help, I still died. Twice. Though those last two times I didn’t die quite so quickly. That’s progress, right? I think the game is trying to tell me that progressing through the New Londo Ruins is not what I’m supposed to be doing. Surely there must be some other avenue to take? We’ll find out.

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Those glowing orange marks contain helpful game wisdom and encouragement. It gives me the warm fuzzies inside.