Sims 4 Practical Magic is practical

Screenshot Sims 4 Realm of Magic

You shall not pass! No, actually the guy with the sigil over his head is one of the three Sages, and he is trying to teach her better spellcasting. Training with the Sages is the safest way to level up and builds friendship with them, so they will teach you a new spell and a new potion each, once a day. Do this early in your career, because one day they will have nothing more to teach you, and you will be the one mentoring other sims.

Despite the streaks of Harry Potter flavor here and there in the new Sims 4 expansion Realm of Magic, there is no overarching plot of good versus evil. The plot, such as it is, tells us that the Magical Realm is threatened by a metaphysical vortex and can only be defended by the cooperation of the three “Schools” of magic, represented by three Sages, who teach either Mischief Magic, Untamed Magic, or Practical Magic.

Given my previous entry about the excessive time spent on basic needs in Sims 4, it should surprise no one that I made a beeline for Practical Magic. Indeed, as I write this, I just had an elderly Simeon Silversweater, Sage of Practical Magic, teach me his ultimate spell, which allows me to bestow the power of magic upon a normal human. The disciple has not become quite like his master yet, though: He still has many alchemy recipes to teach me. But I know the most important one: Potion of Plentiful Needs.

***

Before we get too far ahead, let me explain the basics of sim magic, although it is fairly well explained in the game.

Spellcaster is the new life state in this expansion. As such, you can not access this magic if you are already an Alien, a Vampire or a Mermaid. You can either create your sim as Spellcaster, or find one of the three Sages in the Magic Realm and ask them to turn you into one. They will cast a temporary spell on you that lets you see “motes” (glowing orbs of magical energy) and collect a bunch of them. After having shown your magical aptitude, you get to join their ranks. As a Spellcaster, you have access to all three Schools of magic, and can mix and match them as you want, along with Alchemy.

A feature not well explained in the game (as far as I can see) is that magic accumulates over generations. A child of a Spellcaster will have more aptitude for magic than either of its parents.You go from Weak Bloodline to Strong Bloodline to Ancient Bloodline. The third generation of genetic Spellcaster will accumulate magical experience 30% faster and suffer less danger from overload.

In contrast to most role-playing magic, you don’t start your day with a supply of mana that is spent with each spell. On the contrary, each spell leaves a residue in your aura, called Charge. As you build Charge, your spells become more powerful, but the risk of backfire increases. If a spell backfires because you cast too many in too short a time, you will suffer an uncontrolled discharge of magic that burns you to death. To avoid this, you need to cast fewer spells, or have perks that let you discharge the residue or keep it from building up too fast in the first place.

Perks are bought with talent points, which you get when leveling up. You can eventually get them all if you keep at it long enough, but it may be smart to first pick those that let you gain more experience, and then those that let you control the aforementioned Charge. Hereditary Spellcasters also get more talent points, and having a familiar active supposedly gives more too. I have not tested this, as I try to always have a familiar around when casting spells.

Familiars have two functions: They give you bonuses to your advancement, and they protect you from death. If you accidentally set off a deadly discharge, the familiar will absorb part of the blast and you will both survive, although the familiar will not be able to do so again in a while (I am told a week). Luckily you can have more than one familiar, although only one can be active at any one time. But definitely prudent to have a backup familiar in case of accident. You may want to get one for each of your children too, as familiars protect from all causes of death, not just from magic.

Familiars can be bought, found, received as a gift, or won through duels. Magical duels are a big part of the game. You can challenge other sims or they can challenge you. Most duels are friendly and may even improve your relationship, in addition to giving magical experience and building Charge (don’t accept one when you are supercharged please). But you can also have more competitive duels for knowledge, ingredients and artifacts. Familiars are artifacts. Ingredients are needed for potions, but you can buy those in a shop or find at least many of them in the wild. Knowledge gives you a new spell or recipe, but there are other ways to get those.

The easiest way is to befriend a Sage. The Practical Sage is probably the easiest to befriend. The Mischief Sage (at least the one the game starts with) is on the evil side so can be harder to befriend. The Untamed Sage is also fairly personable. Once you’re a bit more than strangers, you can start asking them for training. This is a way to gain experience fairly quickly without building Charge, so don’t be shy to use it early on when you don’t have Charge-reducing perks. While improving your skills, you also improve your relationship with your teacher. Once you are friends, you can stop by and ask them for a new spell each day until you know them all. You can also ask them for potion recipes, but only one of the recipes is really worth knowing early on: Potion of Plentiful Needs.

***

Practical magic is useful from the start. Your first spell should be one that lets you repair broken things. Home reparations are time-consuming and sometimes dangerous, but on the flip side non-magical repairs builds mechanical skill and gives you spare parts you can use to upgrade your household items. Mechanical skill may also be required in some jobs. So there is a downside to using this spell, but it saves a lot of time when you need it.

The next spell cleans things, including sims, including you. No more scrubbing toilets, no more showers unless you need a specific type of shower to put you in the right mood.

The third spell creates a random item of food, either a single portion or a family-sized quantity depending on your choice. This saves time and there is no risk of burning down the house (only the Spellcaster – save early, save often, keep your familiar out).

The fourth spell weeds, waters and removes pests on a garden plant. Another time-consuming but skill-building activity avoided.

The fifth spell lets you teleport to any point of your choosing in the neighborhood. Faster than using your broomstick, let alone anything else. Broomsticks don’t make you explode, though, and they also build wizard experience, like the spell.

The sixth spell is kind of game-breaking: It lets you make an instant copy of small objects. This happens to include the rare and expensive ingredients that limited alchemy. Now you only need to buy one of each, and you can multiply them beyond necessity. This is a good time to take up alchemy. Before that, it is kind of expensive.

Next comes another gardening spell, which lets you grow a plant to full size instantly.

The penultimate spell is rather trivial: It lets you teleport to the Magic Realm from anywhere without going through the portal at the top of the waterfall in Glimmerbrook. But there is also a crystal (Glimmerstone) that does the same thing, although it has a cooldown.

The ultimate spell, as mentioned, lets you convert a normie to a Spellcaster. It is not really something you need since the Sages have it already and besides, your kids will inherit your magic and surpass it.

***

I’ve mentioned potions. Some of them are for very specific situations and require rare ingredients. One of them (Potion of the Nimble Mind) is quite useful but not game-breaking, letting you learn skill faster but not instantly. And one is probably the main reason why professional reviewers recoil in horror. The “Potion of Plentiful Needs” resets all the need bars to full, as if you had just fulfilled all your physical and mental needs at once. If you have a stack of these, you could basically stop eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, playing or socializing. I agree that this would destroy the tenuous link between the game an real life. And that is not how I use them. I have a stack of them around for emergencies.

Say you’re about to go to bed and a friend you like invites you to an impromptu party. In real life you would probably be able to stay up a few hours even though you would regret it, but in the game you quickly grind to a halt and fall asleep on a bench. This is where I whip out my extra strong energy drink, Potion of Plentiful Needs, and dance the night away before going to work.

Or you’re coming home from work, hungry and dirty, and you get a message that the spirit of an old friend is about to pass from this realm. You don’t spend an hour making an egg on toast, another hour eating it, and an hour and a half in the shower before you go see them. In the Sims 4, there was no way to not do things slooowly, that I am aware of at least, until now. So that’s how I use the potion: To do the things I should do or would do rather than the things I must do.

There is also a Potion of Rejuvenation, but you can get that from fulfilling whims and living up to your aspirations as well. I believe it still only resets you to the beginning of your current life phase (so you can’t go from old to young, for instance). The new part is that you can mass produce it, not that this should be needed. The Potion of Immortality, harking back to an old fable, does not make you eternally young. It just keeps you from dying from old age. You are still old. Or that’s how the text presents it, I have not tried it yet. There is also a Potion of Prompt Resurrection. If you die while this is active, you return to life soon after. Probably nice to have if you are planning to do something remarkably risky, but as a Spellcaster you can get a familiar and skip the whole dying part. Maybe you can use it on other sims or something?

***

The Untamed Magic has a spell to let you summon a ghost and another that lets you restore a ghost to life, which of course is not realistic. (Nor are ghosts realistic in the first place.) I have not used it yet, but I can see it being valuable for those cases where things went more wrong than expected. The drawback with this is that another sim must cast the spell, so it is mostly useful in a family situation, I guess, or a friend that passes away unexpectedly. You could also use an ice spell to put out a fire instead of a fire extinguisher. Finally there is a spell to remove curses (or you could use the corresponding potion.) The rest of the spells, and the whole School of Mischief, seem useless to me. Which is good, because this is already too long.

Magic comes to Sims 4 (finally)

Screenshot Sims 4 Realm of Magic - floating glowing book

One of the first magic perks I took was of course “Knowledge is magic”, which speeds up reading and research as well as gaining a small amount of wizardry experience points from these activities. (The magical anti-gravity boobies were none of my doing though – she was like this when I found her.)

This is not so much a traditional review as a reaction. I’ve only had the Sims 4 expansion Realm of Magic for a couple days. I accidentally learned of it the day it came out, and the two first reviews I saw agreed that magic made the game too easy. And I was like “YES PLEASE! Let it be so!”

***

I wanted to like Sims 4. After all, I loved the three previous games in the series, each more than the last. Sims 3 remained my go-to game during my limited play time up until City of Heroes: Homecoming happened this April. And Sims 4 was technologically superior to them all. I don’t think this was obvious to people who haven’t made software (or at least been educated to do so) but it did not take me long to be impressed by the design of this game. The game still runs smoothly on my 7 year old laptop, where it is installed on an external hard disk. Now if only it was fun! But unfortunately it is not. Or wasn’t until three days ago.

A big part of why I quickly went back to Sims 3 was that the newer game went back to the roots of the series with excessive focus on basic needs. Those were always present, but somehow it feels like they make up more of the game now than in Sims 3 and even Sims 2. I know this is a bit exaggerated, but this is how I remember my sims’ day:

Wake up. Pee. Eat. Briefly do something that puts you in the right mood before going to work. (This depends on the work, but could be playing chess, playing an instrument, or taking a shower.) Work. Eat. Pee. Shower (if you didn’t in the morning.) Scramble to fill fun and social needs before going to bed. Sleep.

What really adds insult to injury, is that jobs now require you to do very specific things to advance. Typically your work-related skills must reach a certain value, but also you are expected to do certain time-consuming work things on your spare time. If you are a programmer, for instance, you need high logic skills, but you also need to do X hours of coding on your spare time. If you are a writer, you have to write X number of books of a certain quality on your free time; but you still have to go to work, and whatever you do there, it neither produces books nor increases your skills. (Meetings, perhaps?)

Compare this to Sims 3, where the relevant skills decided your speed of advancement. If they were high, you added work experience faster. If they were horrifyingly low, you actually got negative work experience. In between was this large area where you might get a raise faster if you improved your skills, but it was a matter of degree. And many jobs had an option to spend part of your work hours improving the leading skill for your work (cooking for the culinary career, a musical instrument for the music career etc). It is hard to see Sims 4 as anything but a big leap backward both in realism and fun.

***

So when I learned that the new expansion had a potion that would reset all the needs to max, I whipped out my credit card right quick. It is not like there aren’t many fun things to do in Sims 4, especially if you have a couple expansions already. The problem is finding time to do any of them when your sim takes 40 minutes to drink a glass of water. (I timed it. In all fairness, a sim hour is more like 1 minute real time, but then again they only live like 80 sim days or something. So no more water unless your life depends on it.)

Even with Realm of Magic installed, it is not like you can just fire up the game and cast spells and drink potions. There is an uphill road to power, glory, and death by fiery explosion. Still, if you take the right path from the start, you should see useful results pretty quickly. I can tell you a couple helpful things about that! But we should probably come back to that in another entry. This was more of an opinion piece. Let me just say that in my opinion after two days of play, this expansion goes a long way toward redeeming the game. I won’t say it is better than Sims 3 yet, but it’s starting to become a serious contender.

Unless you like spending your weekends working, sleeping and peeing, and hate all things magical as well as goth clothes and stained-glass windows. In that case, stay away.

We are stupid and ignorant

Screenshot anime Aho-girl

Let’s enjoy our idiot lives together! From the aptly named Aho-gaaru, or Idiot Girl.

One thing that most of us will never fully grasp is how stupid and ignorant we are, simply because we are human. And being human, while great fun at times, is being very very limited. As I have said before, “life is not only short but also very narrow”.

I used to be a genius. Not Nobel Prize level – that takes hard work too, and I hate that – but I used to effortlessly be one of the best at whatever school I went to after puberty. (I matured slowly so in my childhood I was not particularly bright.) I have remained curious since then, learned much and understood much. And the more I know, the more I realize that I don’t know and will never ever know in a human life.

As I said, I’m on the brighter end of the scale, even if not sensationally so. And I say with absolute certainty that even if I could relive my adult life a thousand times over, I would still not learn all that my fellow humans know and can do, let alone what none of us can. I don’t here talk about the origin of the cosmos or the relationships between the fundamental forces of nature. I mean things like building a house, repairing a car, growing various crops, raising children, preparing food that is both tasty and beautiful, programming an operating system, engineering a bridge or a tunnel, herding reindeer, growing bonsai trees, landing an airplane. All that jazz, including various musical instruments.

No, literally, a thousand lifetimes would not be enough to master every skill that someone has today. Probably not even enough to dabble in them all. But dabbling and mastery are not the same, although the dabbler may think himself a master until he learns enough to realize how little he knows. Most people who work in a field for decades, don’t become really awesome at it. They stop at some intermediate level that is good enough. They get paid, they don’t get fired, people even speak well of their work, finished, case closed. People speak well of my work as well. They are horribly wrong. I am terrible at what I do, even though I like it, and every workday is another day of despair about the fact that I not only know almost nothing about what I do, but can’t find a way to learn it within my remaining lifetime.

Yes, each workday is a day of mental pain, shame and regret. And I doubt it would be different in any other trade. In fact, helping people with software problems is probably one of the things I am best at. If I could go back in time to my younger body at an earlier age and take a different path, I doubt I would end up much better, and quite likely worse.

There is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect: People who are really ignorant, tend to even be ignorant of their ignorance. The Bible tells us so. OK, it actually does, but Dunning and Kruger verified it by controlled, repeatable test, and so it is named after them rather than some wise king in Jerusalem. (I am a big fan of divine wisdom myself, in principle, but my experience is the same as that of Johan Oscar Smith, founder of Brunstad Christian Church: Rather than gaining insight into the beasts of the Revelation, divine wisdom showed us the beast within ourselves. Not a pretty sight.) Anyway, sometimes ignorance really is bliss. Or at least absence of a certain form of pain.

On the other hand, ignorance and stupidity bring their own pains. No matter how convinced you are that it is all other people’s fault, reality doesn’t budge all that much, and being stupid and ignorant, you can do even less than you otherwise could have done to dodge the mule-kicks of fate. Not that even the brighter and wiser of us can avoid them all, far from it. But it is kind of nice not to have HIV for the rest of your life just because it seemed like a good idea to have sex with some friendly person. Or to not sleep in a prison bunk because you took a chance and it didn’t work out. Not have a lifelong mountain of debt and no job because you borrowed a little now and then, including from your employer without asking, because you were sure you would win the big jackpot one day. So yeah, being at least moderately non-stupid is a blessing as well.

But being smart enough and having enough life experience to know how little you know and how little you can do, that brings its own pain as well.

There is a saying that God must love mediocre people since he made so many of them. Yeah, or maybe it is an act of divine mercy, that so many people are bright enough to survive but not bright enough to realize how little they can know and do.

City of Heroes returns – sort of

Screenshot City of Heroes

The Were-Porcupine lives! (Willpower/Spines Tank.) 

During Easter week, the news broke that the online game City of Heroes  had not died at the end of November 2012, as most of us had been told. A secret cabal of reverse engineers had been able to set up a private server (possibly with the help of a former employee at Paragon Studios). For about six years, the cabal and their trusted friends had played the game that the rest of us could only watch in old YouTube videos (many of them in low resolution, as was common back then).

The source code went public during Easter, and a privately run server went public shortly after. Almost 20 000 players had signed up before a fake cease & desist warning caused the server and the forums to be wiped to protect the not entirely innocent.

A couple days later, a new server appeared, and thousands of people have once again signed up. It is kind of bizarre that this game was shut down when other games keep sputtering along with only a few hundred players. It is clear that City of Heroes  was dearly loved by many of its players, not only me. So I have conferred with the voices in my head and learned what made this game so special.

The secret ingredient

The thing people remember above all is the game’s community, the positive and inclusive and helpful atmosphere. Indeed that is a thing that stands out, but did this happen just because it was a superhero game? There have been others after it, that failed to create the same community.

And then, observing the game anew in 2019, I realized. Forming a party is an essential part of a multiplayer game, whether you are playing with dice at home or online with thousands of strangers. Parties / teams / groups / felllowships make or break the game. And only one game has a structure that makes virtually every class a welcome addition to virtually any team. That is City of Heroes, and the reason is its archetypes.

Archetypes

Instead of traditional classes like Warrior, Priest and Mage, CoH had a handful of archetypes. On the face of it they were just classes by another name, but there was one difference: Each archetype had a primary and secondary power set, with different functions.

Tankers can withstand massive damage, survive and bounce back. But they can also deal a more modest amount of damage to nearby enemies. With Scrappers it is the other way around, they do massive local damage and can withstand some. Blasters can do massive damage even at a distance and also have some modest crowd control (rendering opponents helpless or at least partly disabled for a while). Controllers can do massive crowd control and have modest team support abilities (healing, damage reduction, efficiency boosts). And Defenders have massive team support while doing modest damage at a distance, thus concluding the little triangle of behind-the-frontlines archetypes.

So basically if you have any one archetype and you add another, you will get some serious benefits to both, no matter which it is. If you add someone with the same archetype, you will still get a modest benefit, because of the dual nature of the archetype. It also lets one archetype substitute for another in a pinch, then revert to its strongest role if another player joins that is better suited.

While certain combinations of heroes work best together and lets you go through more challenging missions faster, you will always get a major boost from teaming up with another archetype and at least a minor boost from the same archetype. This means that instead of the “Team needs Healer” and “Team needs Tank” that you see in other online games, CoH will have a lot of “Team looking for more”, plain and simple. Because everyone is welcome. And that, gentle reader, makes a huge difference to how you perceive a game. The feeling of being welcome everywhere, being appreciated, being able to pull your weight and help anyone you meet? That is what creates a POSITIVE atmosphere that persists for years after the game itself is gone.

Or is it? With thousands of players gathering on the privately owned server as we approach the game’s 15th anniversary on April 27, it seems that NCSoft’s snap decision has been undone … at least for now.

To be continued…?

LOTRO Skirmishes: Too much fun!

Scrrenshot Lord of the Rings Online, riding through the Lonelands.

The road goes ever on and on… Medieval travel simulator: Only moderately fun. Slaying wave after wave of goblins, on the other hand…

I’ve written on a review of the Lord of the Rings Online game as a whole, but seriously it would be too long even by my standards. The game is 12 years old this spring and has a number of commercially sold expansions as well as a number of smaller, free expansions. The level cap was 50 when the game was new, now it is 120, and most of the game between those takes place in areas that did not even exist when the game was new. So you can read online reviews of the game and then of each of the expansions if you have the patience, I guess.

Due to this layered, growing nature of the game, the learning curve is not steep but very, very long. The expansions don’t only include new geographical areas and monsters of an adequate level to fight, but also new features. The Rohan expansion, for instance, has a lot of horse-related stuff, as you might expect. Some of that can be used in later expansions, but some only within Rohan. Well, I haven’t gotten to Rohan yet, and now I am not sure I ever will.

The game is quite pleasant to play, it has an atmosphere of inherent goodness and heroism that I haven’t felt since City of Heroes. It may seem strange to compare two games from so different genres, but they do share some of that longing for a more heroic world. The player base reflects this to some extent. I get the impression that many of the players are “marriage material” (not for me, obviously, and most of the female characters are played by males anyway) but in the sense of being playful yet serious, patient and unafraid of commitment. Well, you better not be afraid of commitment because this game will take many moons if not years to complete. Pretty sure Frodo got to Mordor faster than I will. If at all.

“The road goes ever on and on” is a famous Tolkien quote, and that is certainly also true for this game. I have jokingly called it a “Medieval travel simulator”. It gets somewhat better at level 20 when you can learn riding for free and buy a horse in-game for in-game silver. Before level 20, or if you are a free-player without subscription, you have to buy the riding skill for a small sum of real money. You can also buy substantially more expensive riding speed upgrades. I probably would, if not for the skirmishes.

SKIRMISHES!

At level 20, you can go to one of the skirmish camps that exist near major centers. Normally at that age you would be in or near Breeland, so I went to the camp just outside the South Gate of Bree town. There I talked to the Skirmish Captain and went through the two tutorial missions.

Skirmishes are repeatable, instanced missions. Instanced means there is only you and your fellowship (team) if any. Nobody else will compete with you or help you. Well, except for one helper, your Soldier.

Soldiers are basically what gamers call “pets”, artificially intelligent companions that assist you in battles. There are several classes of soldiers, but you can only have one at a time. If you are squishy, you can have a soldier that tanks for you, attracting the attention of the enemy and keeping them occupied (within reason) so you can do damage from a distance. If you are a more sturdy type, you can use an archer to help whittle them down faster. The archer is also able to pull some of the opponents off you if you are surrounded. There is also a “sage” (basically a mage, but officially those don’t exist in LOTR) who can deal elemental damage at a distance, fulfilling a similar role as the archer. If you are a pure damage dealer but not very sturdy, perhaps you should get a herbalist who can heal you while you fight. Since they can also heal themselves, they too can pull some of the enemies off you and keep them occupied till you are ready to take them down, just don’t wait too long.

There are already two “pet classes” in the game: The Lore-Master is a squishy user of elemental magic, which again is not called magic but lore because Tolkien only had a handful of wizards and they were not really humans at all, more like angels in disguise. Anyway, the LM can use an animal to assist him in battle. The Captain has a human companion. The companion also has an aura that can slightly heal you, or make you slightly sturdier, or slightly increased your damage. But he will also directly assist you in battle, although he is just a commoner, not as good a fighter as you are.

Well, the good news for my Captain is that you can have both a Solider and your original banner-bearer, so now I go into battle with a team of three, even when soloing! The Soldier (in my case an Archer) is actually fairly competent, to the point of not attacking a certain type of enemy that will have secondary effects when attacked. (Which is more than I could say for myself the first times.)

TOO MUCH FUN!

When I say “too much fun”, I mean it half jokingly, half seriously. Noticed how I called LOTRO a “medieval travel simulator”? That is not really a compliment, not in the long run. The road (or other terrain) tends to not go straight, so you have to steer all the time, either your character or your horse, so you can’t even banter with your online friends (if any) or just look around on the varied landscape as you travel.

In contrast, with Skirmishes you warp straight from wherever you are (not limited to the skirmish camp!) and you are at the start of the skirmish instance. From here on, it does not take long before you fight groups of enemies, either because they are attacking you or because you are attacking them. (There are basically two types of Skirmishes, either defending an area against invaders or take it back from invaders.)  There are only brief pauses between the attacks, often not even that, while if you are attacking you can do so at your own pace (but there will often be counterattacks right afterwards.)

So if you prefer slaying goblins over travelling with your eyes on the road, Skirmishes are suddenly a lot more attractive than the usual quests.

If your character is not too well balanced and you could need a companion to round you out, Skirmishes are also a lot more attractive.

If you want to level up rapidly, Skirmishes are also more attractive.

If you want to rapidly get improved weapons and armor, you can buy those for “marks”, a currency of Skirmishes, and you get a generous helping of marks for each Skirmish. The best gear you can buy for marks exceeds the rewards you get for ordinary quests, at least at the level I am (early twenties).

In addition you can use marks to give yourself or your soldier bonuses that only work inside skirmishes: Attack bonuses, defense bonuses, and healing bonuses. These boosts won’t work in ordinary encounters outside of Skirmishes, so going back to normal quests will feel like being nerfed (made weaker).

Oh, and while the Skirmishes are indeed repeatable, the enemies vary between a number of types, especially the lieutenants (mini-bosses for each cluster of enemies). This and the length of each Skirmish makes it more varied than in Asian games like Kritika Online and Closers, where the missions are shorter and repeat exactly. Oh, and you get rewards for eliminating a certain number of those lieutenants, as well as for defeating X number of various monster types. Some of these “deeds” are rewarded with LOTRO Points, which you otherwise would have to buy for money. You can get these rewards by questing in the relevant zones outside of Skirmishes, but it takes longer and requires more traveling.

In short, Skirmishes are easier, more fun, and more rewarding  than the rest of the game. Well, at least the rest of the game so far. Is that really a good idea when you have made an elaborate, huge game world filled with varied content?

I love repetitive games

So maybe this is just me. Maybe most players get bored after playing the same Skirmish five times, even with somewhat different opponents. I kind of hope so, because there is so much to see in this game, so much content you lose out on if you just level past it. But it is just terribly tempting to do another Skirmish instead of riding along the trade roads looking for metal outcroppings to mine for metalsmithing or branches to bring back for woodworking, or archaeological relics to craft scrolls of lore.  I enjoy the crafting in this game, but not as much as the Skirmishes.

And that’s why I call this feature “too much fun”, because it is hard to pull myself away from it. Well, relatively hard. I am not a hardcore gamer, luckily. It is more like I play these skirmishes instead of the rest of the game, and instead of The Sims 3. It is not like I take days off from work to play, or play till dawn. (Well, in late May that might happen if I’m still around, because then there are like two hours of night, but you know what I mean.)

But in the game, I mean. One does not simply walk into Mordor. One gets distracted by Skirmishes.

God still reads my journal

Screenshot anime

I sure am hung up on myself. You don’t need to tell me…

Not sure how many others are still reading, what with updates being such a rare event (especially in Februaries) but clearly someone up there is watching over me. I mean, how else do you explain that Kritika Online is being closed down after I review it in my previous entry? ^_^

Don’t worry, I have already moved on to Lord of the Rings Online. It is an old MMORPG with lots of contents and lots of features added over the years, and lots of deep lore. But knowing me, it should surprise no one that the feature that interests me the most at the moment is the “skirmishes”, which are… repeatable instances! At the outset there are three of them, and you can tweak them a lot like missions in City of Heroes or even more: You can have different group sizes from 1 to 12 heroes, you can choose from 3 difficulty levels, and you can pick a character level from 20 upward. So you can tailor the difficulty to your liking, especially upward. And you can repeat them over and over till you die. Or the game dies. About that…

I got my first character to the minimum Skirmish level, 20, before bedtime. The next day after work I eagerly fired up my gaming computer, and it started to load LOTRO. And stuck on the first loading screen. I went to their website, it was also down. Eventually I found their Twitter account where they said they had “extended downtime” but would be up next morning. It’s been two days now of the downtime being extended by a few hours every few hours. I feel slightly guilty since, me being such a Very Important Person, obviously this happens for my sake. ^_^

Actually, if it happened for my sake, I would presumably be a Main Character, and that’s a bit too much even for me! What I mean is that I am a  Viewpoint Character: I am in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time to see things happen. It is a term from literature, in which the viewpoint character of a scene – or a chapter, or a whole book – is the person who sees and feels and experiences the content of the book. And if written correctly, the personality of the Viewpoint Character filters everything that he or she reports and adds meaning and narrative to it. But the Viewpoint Character is not necessarily the Main Character, let alone the Creator of the story. Still, being a Viewpoint Character is a privilege, as you get to be where things happen, when they happen.

So basically, while it looks to me (as the Viewpoint Character) like a higher power is shutting down the games that take too much of my interest, a more realistic take on it is that I (as the Viewpoint Character but not the Main Character) am being subtly placed by the Author in a position to notice when they get shut down.

Obviously I am not being told “You are the Viewpoint Character for a certain event, so I need you to go there and do this or that.” As far as I perceive things, I do them mostly entirely on my own, or as a reaction to things that happen to me from outside. It is only when I witness some unlikely string of coincidences that I start to suspect that I am placed there as a Viewpoint Character, to make sure it is seen. Coincidences like one game getting shut down and another put on hold after I start writing about them. (Yes, I have been writing on a review of Lord of the Rings Online, I just haven’t uploaded it yet.)

The Author of the world is, in my belief, the “Christian God”. (This is an artifact of the English language, obviously God is not a Christian! Rather it is a shorthand for “God as imagined by Christians”.) This God is believed to take an active interest in what goes on in the created world. So in that perspective, it makes sense to draw connections between my journal and the closing of games. But does this connection exist outside of my head? Does it matter if it does, or only that it seems like it?

There are a lot more important things going on in the world than computer games. I basically write about them to appear more normal than I am, since it is something I have in common with many normal humans. A friend of mine lost her father, her pets, and almost her life in a house fire last month. Computer games shutting down is not likely to be a big thing in her life right now. I am well aware of how tiny, petty and pointless my earthly interests are. But somehow, oddly, I am still able to see connections between my petty little life and events on a larger scale. And that is the joy of being a Viewpoint Character, seeing what would otherwise have passed unnoticed. I get to feel important, even though I am not. Because my role is to observe. ^_^

I love repetitive games

Censored screenshot from Kritika Online

.Can I interest you in a repetitive game with ridiculously inflated human udders? Probably not, unless you really like helium-filled breasts or repetitive games. Luckily for Enmasse Entertainment, I am squarely in the second  category. I was instantly attracted to this game, Kritika Online,  when I heard that it required you to do the same instances over and over again. The humongous and imperfectly dressed breastesses don’t make much of an impression on me either way, me having grown up on a dairy farm after all. (Not diary farm – that would be the first decade of my journal archives.)

As you may have guessed, when a reviewer mentions the repetitive gameplay, it is generally not meant as a compliment. Most people are easily bored. In fact, that would normally be why we play games in the first place, instead of working overtime or reading books by geniuses like Charlie Munger and Ray Dalio who generously (for a small fee) share the principles that have made them successful by the American definition of success. Objectively speaking, moving pixels around on a computer screen to simulate combat against imaginary enemies is a lot less productive, so it seems unlikely we would do it unless it just felt good. And most people don’t feel good doing the same things over and over. But I do, within reason.

***

We are not talking about the kind of repetition where you just stand there and press the same button over and over. There is some element of tactics. Each sequence of the game consists of a hub (a small village with services and where you can meet other players, it is an online game after all) with four “instances”. Each instance is a limited area, or in this case several smaller areas one after another, where enemies are waiting to fight you. The number and type of enemies do not vary. Occasionally during the fight, and always after defeating the final boss, you get dropped items like a weapon, a piece of armor, or a potion.

The first time you are sent into an instance, it is usually to perform one or more quests: Defeat [number] of [enemy type], pick up [object]. Then you return and are sent back into the exact same instance to do something similar. The same enemies are waiting in the same places and behaving the same way. So that already makes the second time easier. In addition, you may have leveled up or found better equipment, which would also help. Just in case it gets too easy, you can adjust the difficulty level. There are four of them, from easy to insane. On harder levels, the same enemies are harder to kill and do more damage, especially the end boss. But you also get more rewards.

Even if you don’t have a quest, you can still go back and do the same instance over and over again, leveling up and finding gold and new weapons and armor. You can basically do this as long as you want, I think. I have not seen a limit yet. And in fact, sometimes the only quest you have is to level up, if you’ve been “too effective” like doing several quests during the same run though an instance.

***

“No man ever steps into the same river twice,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”

This is a classic trope in a certain type of time travel stories, where the protagonist’s mind goes back in time and is installed in his or her younger body, allowing them to live their life over again. I am sure many of us have thought of this at one time or another. I have been writing stories about this for many years, hundreds of thousands of words, but if you want to read a sure to be classic in this genre I would recommend getting The first 13 lives of Harry August by “Claire North”. I believe this is so far the best in the subgenre, but I may be wrong – be sure to shoot a comment if you have found any better.

This type of story is basically the literary equivalent of the much simpler scenario in Kritika Online (and a handful of similar games) where you are sent back into the same instance you just struggled your way through. But unlike in the game, in a more complex scenario the enemies may no longer be standing in the same place doing the same thing – your changed behavior will send ripples out from you and gradually things will change and you will find new challenges. So the game is more like the daydreams in which you think “if only I had said this instead of that, then everything would have been better”. In reality, you don’t know that, because then you would experience a different life. “All else being the same” is always a hypothetical phrase, because all else is never the same. Except in games, which is one of the more likable things about them, I think.

***

Another way to experience the same game content repeatedly is to create “alts”, alternative characters. These could be of different classes or archetypes, allowing you to experience the same content from a different angle. For instance maybe your first character was wielding a sword and fought up close with the enemies, but your second character has a bow and fights from a distance but has to run away if they get too close. That makes for a different experience, even if you know where the enemies are, because they behave differently. Unsurprisingly, I make alts in games as well. For instance, I have started Skyrim several times with a new character. Notably I had a Khajiit (cat-person) who would kill bandits and carry them all the way back to the entrance to Whiterun to lay them outside the main gate. MEOW!

I had somewhere around 110 different characters in City of Heroes before the game folded after 8 years. I have no idea how many I made in Daggerfall. But Daggerfall has a fantastic concept that I would dearly love to see in other games: You can add benefits (like more health per level, more resistances, expertise with certain weapons or against certain enemy types) at the price of leveling up more slowly. Conversely, you can add disadvantages to level up faster. So I load my characters to the gills to level up as slowly as possible (1/3 of normal speed, and I seriously wish you could go much further) and then go through quest after quest while slowly leveling up and randomly finding useful weapons, armor, magical items etc to make my character more powerful. The dungeons in Daggerfall do not always have exactly the same monsters in exactly the same place, but for the most part they do on the same level. (It changes once you level up.) Some of them vary though, adding some variation you don’t get in Kritika. Also, the dungeons are enormous, unlike the small quick instances in Kritika. But the principle is the same. And then I go back and start over again.

***

This past fall there was an anime series called Goblin Slayer, which was set in a typical fantasy world (inspired by Dungeons & Dragons with a dash of Lord of the Rings). I found this story particularly interesting because the main character seemed very clearly inspired by an “Aspie”, someone on the Autism Spectrum (until recently called Asperger Syndrome). I am not sure if the author is basing this on himself or someone he knows, but there are a lot of similarities. Goblin Slayer is a man who slays goblins. While other adventurers move on to more powerful monsters as they level up, Goblin Slayer just gets better and better at killing goblins. If it is not a goblin, he is not interested. He knows them inside and out, can predict what they will do, and has plans to counter them. If it has anything to do with goblins, he’s your man. In one memorable scene, he has a conversation with a heroine who was trapped and raped by goblins earlier in her career, and who had a phobia of them years later after she had become a famous heroine. “If you have a problem with goblins, I will kill them for you.” “Even in my dreams?” “Yes. Because I am the Goblin Slayer.”

I resonated with this character for several reasons, like how he had trouble talking with other people about other things than his special interest (but would know everything about that), how he would fail at common politeness like small talk (“Is this about goblins?” “No, but…” “Goodbye.”)  and did not meet people’s eyes (he actually wore a full helmet all the time when not asleep.) But I also realized that his approach to the fantasy world was very similar to mine. He was not interested in reaching the top level and fighting dragons and demon lords, as long as there were still new ways to fight goblins.

Although the Goblin Slayer’s reasons were different from mine, I also have the tendency to prefer the low-level part of fantasy games, doing them over and over until I feel that I have complete mastery before I move on to other things. This is not just a game thing, I guess, looking at my employment career. It doesn’t pay particularly well, but to someone like me it is still oddly satisfying.

 

 

“Won” NaNoWriMo again

There was a time when I wrote novels on the web, too! (And now I do it again.)

On the 14th of NaNoWriMo, the month formerly known as November, I had written 50 000 words on one and the same novel, which is the “winning” requirement for the National Novel Writing Month. So that didn’t take too long, especially since I started over on the second day.

It was pretty fast writing because it was fun to me. That does not mean it is fun to other people. I like superhero-themed massive online games, especially City of Heroes (2004-2012) but I have also repeatedly played Champions Online (although not weekly or monthly, but several times a year) and even tried my hand at DC Universe Online (not so much a fan of that). I occasionally donate a modest amount of money to Valiance Online (which is still in development, and very slow development at that, but can already be tested online) and especially to Ship of Heroes, another “spiritual successor” to City of Heroes which aims to especially preserve the optimistic, heroic atmosphere of the original game. I will surely play City of Titans as well, the first and biggest of the “successors” – if I am still alive and lucid when it becomes available. The official release date is still “fall 2018”, which is a couple weeks ago now. I believe their first release date was in 2015…

So I’ve written a number of attempted stories before that tended strongly toward City of Heroes fan fiction, despite changes in names and the addition of an extra power set. There is certainly some CoH fanfic tendency even in this fall’s story, but it is toned down further and the whole power system is replaced with one based on colors rather than origins. This is something I have used in my fantasy writing for some years, an earlier version of it was very similar to the system in Master of Magic and Magic: The Gathering, but again this has evolved with each story to become more and more unique. Writing a lot is important for this process, I believe, based on my own experience. There was a wave here in Norway of teachers writing their debut novel about a frustrated teacher. You have to write that stuff out of your system. There should be some of you left in your novel, but it should not be autobiographical unless you make that the point. And in the same way, I write the fan fiction out of my stories until it reaches a balance. It took four or five stories to get to this stage.

At this point, I enjoy developing my own imaginary superhero game with a unique power system, and turning it into a world with somewhat lifelike heroes (and somewhat less lifelike villains, so far). But at 50 000 words, we haven’t actually gotten very far at all. Many of those words are describing fights where a small group of newbie heroes goes into a cave or a warehouse to fight criminals, most of which don’t even have superpowers. Of course, we are not talking Superman-level heroes here either, getting shot with a handgun or hit with a baseball bat still hurts, even if it takes a number of such hits to send them to the hospital.

At the end of the 50 000 words, our main character is still level 2 out of at least 60 – and each level takes more to achieve. If I were to continue in this much detail, it would literally take millions of words for him to reach the highest level or anywhere close to it. Not that this is his goal, really. But just to put things in perspective. The main plot is barely touched upon. Interpersonal relationship are few and generally businesslike. Romance is limited to sporadic one-way flirting. We don’t know the general layout of the city where the story takes place, nor the specific layout of any of the locations mentioned. We know at most the uniform colors, sometimes race and general body type of the most important characters.

So what are those 50 000 words? Mostly fight scenes, characters talking about fights, and the narrator (who is also the main character) explaining the superpowers in enough detail to make sense of the fights. Hey, it works for actual superhero comic books. (And Goblin Slayer, but let’s not go there today.)

So anyway, you can read it here, as far as it has come, but I don’t particularly recommend it unless you can’t get enough reading about newbie superheros fighting criminals. Trigger warnings for violence (obviously), poorly hidden sexual innuendo occasionally, and an apostate main character. (Not autobiographic.) It is also a lot less funny than the stories I wrote when I was younger and more carefree.

NaNoWriMo doubts

Made from screenshot in City of Heroes

Example of possible book cover for superhero novel.

In past years, I used to be really excited about NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month. I would lay plans starting already in August, and on the last day of October – which some of us refer to as NaNoWriMo Eve or NaNoWe’en – I would restlessly visit the forums while waiting for the midnight hour to strike. Oh, and I took my vacation days in November instead of in summer. Not anymore.

This year I kind of intended to participate, but after midnight I still did not have any good idea about what to write about. No, it is not like I don’t have ideas. I have more ideas than I can count. Ideas are like cats: If you take in two of them, soon your house is full of them. They are on your kitchen counter, they are on your couch, they are under your cupboard, they try to follow you into the bathroom. Actually, ideas usually succeed at this better than cats, but you get the point. There are always ideas, but none of them stood out as This Year’s Idea for NaNoWriMo.

Around an hour after midnight, I picked one fairly pretentious one, a metaphysical fantasy about an unemployed warehouse workers which gets picked by the Universe to send to the Universe’s niece which was in a difficult age, with excessive magic production and wars and disasters. Insert deep teachings about the Great Chain of Being and the Descent of the Light into Creation. I wrote a bit less than 2000 words on it before I decided that this was way too serious a topic for speed writing. Also, not much fun. So the next day I started over with a fluffier story.

Currently I’m writing about a gamer who tried to be a hero in Real Life and was stabbed and died. Or perhaps he didn’t exactly die. It is hard to know. What we know is that he wakes up inside his favorite superhero MMORPG, which was closed down the year before. Maybe this is his afterlife – he and the game are both dead – or perhaps he is in a coma and imagining all this. Or perhaps it is the future and his frozen brain has been scanned and uploaded to a supercomputer. Or perhaps he has been in a coma for many years and his actual brain has only now been connected to a supercomputer. Who knows? How are you supposed to find out from inside the game? If reality outside of reality was easy to find out, we wouldn’t have dozens of competing religions in the so-called real world, would we?

But mostly it’s just the kind of fluffy feel-good superhero story with the occasional challenge thrown in, that I myself would like to read. It is almost certainly not going to sneakily save anyone’s soul while they let their guard down.

So in the end, I am once again writing the kind of story I like to read. In fact, I am writing it because that is the only way I get to read it – the muses in my head won’t dictate a whole book to me if I can’t be bothered to write it down. That’s just how this thing works for me. So I guess I am, as you say in English, just pleasuring myself – in this case my mind rather than my flesh. But in either case, it is probably not something the rest of the world is particularly interested in. I may put it up with the old stories that are linked from my front page, in which case I will likely only post the first chapters as usual. We’ll see, nobody knows whether we will be here tomorrow. But if I am, chances are that I am writing. I do that pretty much every day, after all.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 15

Screenshot anime Overlord, season 3, episode 8, last scene

Why is there a Dragon here? For speaking, naturally! Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the world’s premiere speech recognition software, now with Deep Learning Artificial Intelligence that adjusts to your accent and the common cold. Fire breathing not included.

Today I upgraded (in a manner of speaking) from Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 13 professional individual to Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 15 home. I virtually never used the more advanced features of the earlier version.

The most important part for me is accuracy of recognition, and I have to say that version 15 is almost indistinguishable from magic in that regard. And I mean right out of the box: There is no longer even an option to train the program by reading a text for it. Version 13 was pretty good after training and a few days of practice. Version 15 is that good right out of the box. (At least I believe it doesn’t have access to my previous training, as it required me to uninstall the previous version and reboot the computer before I was allowed to install the newest version.)

I have used and reviewed many different versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking over the years, both before and after it was acquired by Nuance. There has definitely been progress! I believe the first version I reviewed was either six or seven, and I generously compared it to homesick Asian high school exchange student. I could probably have added seasick as well, as its performance was unimpressive, to say the least. If you had functioning hands, you were better off using those, even if you typed with one finger.

Those days are definitely gone! Dragon NaturallySpeaking 15 takes dictation like a highly trained secretary, only faster. Actually, Dragon has outpaced secretaries for at least a couple of versions now, but this required you to speak clearly and train the program first. And the results were less impressive for me, who has a strong Scandinavian accent. Actually, “accent” might be too weak a word. If you are familiar with the computer game “Skyrim”, the pronunciation by the Nord bandits in that game is pretty close to how I speak in real life. I am not sure how a highly trained secretary will handle that, but Dragon NaturallySpeaking 15 has well over 99% accuracy, right out of the box, with that kind of foreign accent.

***

There are still some challenges. In my experience, they are not too bad, but I see a lot of one star reviews on Amazon. Most notably, Dragon is squeamish about working with applications it doesn’t know. Supposedly this includes earlier versions of Microsoft Office. When I started writing in LibreOffice, Dragon NaturallySpeaking automatically popped up to the “Dictation box” where you can dictate and edit your text before transferring it to the target application. It’s an okay solution in my opinion, but it can be distracting, and you cannot interact directly with the target program using your voice for instance “click file save” the way you can in supported programs. Removing the checkmark for automatically opening Dictation box lets me dictate directly in LibreOffice, but it still struggles with commands, and you cannot edit the text with Dragon after you dictate it.

I have the same problem with my favorite browser, Vivaldi. Admittedly that is not very common browser, So I installed the Dragon Web extension For chrome.As you can see from the previous sentence, that didn’t work too well, and it doesn’t work too well in Google Chrome either. Luckily I have fingers, and so Dictation Box it is. But Google Chrome is by far the most popular browser for Windows, and not having native support for that makes the program seem rushed, at best. Especially when you consider that Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a very expensive program. It is not so bad by Norwegian standards, since both salaries and living expenses here are already very high. Even so, I only buy Dragon NaturallySpeaking when it is discounted, as it was in this case. In the USA, a single person could eat for a month for this much money, and in the actual developing world even more. So in that perspective, you would expect a more polished product than this.

But what it does well, is take dictation. And at that, it is the best in the world. No software and no human can match it for the combination of speed, accuracy, and fast learning.