Swordsman online

Sceenshot from Swordsman Online

My first and so far only character in Swordsman Online has TWINTAILS!

I rather like this game, at least so far (level 25). It is distinctly Chinese, but professionally translated into English except for the voice acting. (Of which there is plenty, but there are textboxes with English translation.) Oh, and there are also the rare loading screen with classic-looking Chinese calligraphy, but overall load screens are rare.

Swordsman is based on the Wuxia literary genre, which occupies a similar niche as sword & sorcery fantasy, but arose independently from it centuries ago, and is set in an imaginary ancient China rather than medieval Europe. There is only one race, in every sense of the word: All characters are Han Chinese. There also are no starting classes: You choose your school at level 5-10, and even the more Chi (magic) based schools have a solid foundation of weapon gymnastics.

Another rare trait is seen already in character creation: Everyone is dressed decently (and prettily) at all time, men and women both. There are no bare-chested barbarians or bikini battle-babes. Flowing robes and ornate dresses carry the day.

A probably unique feature of this game is the built-in bot. From a fairly early level on, you can set up the skills you want your character to use and the ways you want them to heal, as well as the condition to stop botting. Then you let them lose in hostile territory to harass the local banditry while you go shopping. (It will only run for a few hours a day, but still.) I haven’t found a way to pick up loot though, so no Chinese gold farming. ^_^ On the contrary, it uses food and potions for healing. This feature is entirely optional and at least in the early game the fights are pretty easy if you just follow the main story line, so there is no need to grind levels. I have just done it for fun, watching my character do heroic fighting on her own.

The game is very story-driven, with interspersed story instances and whole cutscenes where your character mostly does impressive feats defeating main adversaries. These are so few though that they don’t overall break the immersion in the game except during the very first levels which are more of a tutorial. Actually, at level 25 the game still feels a bit like a tutorial, very story-driven and with a slow introduction of new features and lore. At level 25 you can learn about companions, for instance. These fulfill a similar role as “pets” in western and Korean MMORPGs.

Another feature associated with the “story-driven” part is that you can at all times let your character go to the next quest target automatically by clicking on the name of a person or area or even a class or bandit you are sent to fight. Your character will then make his or her way to the place and engage the target appropriately: Talk to a quest person, attack a bandit, or stop to let you survey an area. This saves wrist and means your real-life cartography skill is not relevant to the game. I like this. I have seen it in other Asian games too and I like it, but you can control your character’s travel yourself if you like the immersive aspect of that.

The population seems to be low, but I do see the occasional fellow player in the newbie zones, just very few. There is steady activity in the chat channel though so the game does not feel dead. Also some player actions have effects on the game world, for instance a particular quest gives you the ability to bestow a blessing on all players in an area, with your name highlighted on top of the screen. (This is for high-level players, I assume. I have only been on the receiving side so far at least.) Every area is also dominated by a guild, although I don’t know what effects this has except for the fame. I am basically soloing this far, and I like it that way when I learn a new game.

One reason why I prefer soloing now that my classmates are grandparents is that I just play less than before, and certainly less seriously. I guess I may be starting to grow up finally, but clearly I am not quite there yet!

European Truck Simulator 2

Screenshot European Truck Simulator 2 (ETS2)

Driving toward Stavanger with a borrowed Volvo FH16 truck transporting an excavator from Malmö. Oh, and this is in the game European Truck Simulator 2. Pretty realistic. Realistically pretty.

I don’t write much about games anymore. I also don’t buy much games anymore. But I think this one is pretty good. And not just good as in well made, but that it may actually put people in a good mood and feel more positive. There are many games that are addictive through negative emotions like rivalry, combat or conquest; but this game is constructive and yet fascinating. I guess it is a bit niche, but I am certainly not the kind of guy who has used to dream about being a trucker or have memorized the names of various types of trucks. I don’t even drive a personal car for many years now. And I still enjoy European Truck Simulator 2.

I can’t remember exactly how I came across this game, just that I was amused that it even existed. But my vague curiosity turned to surprise when I checked the Steam page and saw the extremely high rating by the customers. How do you get 10/10 with 77 000 reviews? Is that even possible? When you see a book review on Amazon with a pure 5 star rating, you can pretty much assume the only people who have rated it are friends and family of the poor author. But try to get 10/10 with tens of thousands of reviews.

Well, the game is niche alright. It is, as the name implies, all about trucks in Europe. But it does what it does really well. Also, and not least, it is beautiful. The scenery, the weather, the towns, the trucks. It is just so pretty. Shiny. Kind of … pure. The pure platonic love between a man and his truck, or something? Don’t ask me what it is, but I kind of feel it. At least for the first few days. ^_^

***

As the name implies, this game is about trucks in Europe. But it actually has a pretty large scope. You start as a hired driver, later you buy your own truck and pick up cargo, and finally you can buy more trucks and hire other drivers to drive for you. So it is not just a truck simulator but more of an “everything trucks” simulator. Or as their website is fittingly named: “World of Trucks.”

The game has three somewhat distinct phases if you want to play it to the fullest. In the first phase, you start up in a European city of your choice (actually the base game is mostly set in Germany and neighboring cities, but there are expansions and mods) and here you jump into a loaded truck and drive it to a neighboring town. All expenses are paid by the employer, you just drive and try to not damage the equipment too much. If successful, you are rewarded with (in-game) money and experience points. These points are used to level up. This gives you access to steadily longer trips and more types of cargo. As you level up, you also get points you can invest in specializing, such as in longer trips and rare cargo types, which give you better pay and more experience points.

In the second phase, you buy your own truck. I recommend waiting a bit, because at low levels many of the trucks are not unlocked yet, and the ones that are may not be the strongest of the lot. Plus you’ll go into quite a bit of debt. But once you are your own boss, the pay per kilometer goes up quite a bit. Of course now you need to pay fuel and repairs yourself. On the bright side you can go on “road trips” with your truck, picking up new cargo in the town where you delivered your previous load, and continue in the direction you want to go, earning money along the way as you explore Europe.

In the third phase, you buy garages and trucks and manage your own freight company. You can still drive your own truck, but you now need to keep an eye on your trucks and drivers as well. (I haven’t actually tried this part, and I am not sure everyone wants to.)

***

The first hours or days are likely to be spent learning to drive again. First, there is the matter of controls. You can control the truck using the WASD keys or the arrow keys or a combination of these. You can also use the mouse or a game controller. I use a cheap Thrustmaster joystick, but there actually exist USB steering wheels with pedals and shift sticks! They are rather expensive though, and I am not quite that far gone. Your finances may vary, as may your enthusiasm.

But even if you have a steering wheel and pedals, you have a learning curve ahead unless you are a trucker in Real Life. Trucks don’t handle like smaller cars, and not even all trucks handle the same way. Obviously getting through gates or around sharp bends is a whole new challenge, but an 18 ton truck also has a whole other inertia than a Morris Mini or even a SUV. For good measure, gravity also wants a word with your truck, if you are going even moderately uphill or downhill. So expect your first hours or days in the game to be a learning experience, and a pretty strongly focused one at first.

Luckily science assures us that the most effective way to learn is outside our comfort zone but not quite into our panic zone, and getting immediate feedback on our performance. Staying in the right zone is largely a matter of using the pedals (or the corresponding keys) wisely, and you don’t get much more immediate feedback than the sound of a traffic sign scraping along the side of a shiny new truck.

I started crawling along at tractor speed (I grew up on a farm after all) and it was almost 5 hours before I had my first encounter with the speed limit. After about 10 hours, I can occasionally take my eyes off the rapid back and forth between the dashboard and the road ahead of me, just for a few seconds. And that’s where the game really begins to shine.

***

For a niche game, there are quite a bit of YouTube videos dedicated to European Truck Simulator 2 (ETS2 for short). If you watch some of them, you are likely to notice phrases like “This is so pretty!” “Would you look at this!” “I have to take a picture of this!” “I hope we get some rain.” Because the landscape, the lighting and the weather effects are quite pretty and lifelike. And even though the distances in the game are compressed so you can drive an hour’s distance in five minutes, they try to put in all the landmarks and the best roadside scenery. It is quite lifelike too, I recently drove an imaginary truck from Kristiansand (where I am employed in Real Life) and westward (where I live in Real Life) and it was very recognizable, but of course I well was past home in 5 minutes.

And of course the cars are also rendered in exquisite detail. Not just your own, but also those of the brave souls who share the road with you.

Beauty is not that easy to convey in words, so I recommend you watch some of the high-resolution YouTube videos. I recommend Keralis and Squirrel, both of whom have multiple videos and both of whom are professional YouTube gamers with pleasant voices and decent one-sided communication skills. Also, the videos are high quality so you can ogle the landscape from the safety of your home cinema or home office or whatever you use. (Probably not a good idea to watch in your cubicle at work though.)

***

It is strange to consider that for kids playing this game today, this particular career will probably be gone when they are old enough to work there. Self-driving cars are coming, and few places will they make themselves valuable as fast as in truck driving. Trucks are expensive, and humans need breaks to eat and sleep, during which time the hardware just stands around rusting and accumulating interest on its loans. So wherever and whenever it is possible for the trucks to drive themselves, they are likely to do so. That said, it will probably take some time still for machines to be able to drive at the same speed as a human trucker and handle all the challenges on the road.

Truckers may be a varied crew, in some places more than others, but they are also an essential part of the world we live in today. If you look around you, probably you will find that most of the man-made objects you see have been brought to you by a truck. Trucks not only bring the food on our table but the table as well. We have much to be thankful for, and I am pleased that modern technology allowed us to get a glimpse into their world before the last sunset on the road.

Not-City-of-Heroes Fanfic writing

Screenshot from City of Heroes character generator

This picture may be created by the City of Heroes character generator, but the heroine Nordic Spring is from the totally imaginary MMORPG Paragons which never existed in our world, only in the world of the novel I am currently writing (my second NaNoWriMo novel this year, after I won the 50 000 words challenge with my first story, Artworld.) In contrast to Artworld, I am having a blast writing Paragons of Virtue, where Virtue refers to “Virtue City”, the city formally known as “Virtual City” before it became real, and totally not the Virtue server in City of Heroes, which is an intellectual property held by NCSoft Inc, whose lawyers are probably on the Internet like most people these days.

Nordic Spring is one of the characters in my story set in the defunct MMORPG Paragons that has mysteriously become real. She is a Nature / Ice Guardian, which is totally not a Nature Affinity / Ice Blast Defender from City of Heroes, seeing how CoH doesn’t exist and never has in that world. Before coming to the alternate reality of Virtue City, she was a slightly physically challenged, long-haired woman named Tove something or other, which is totally not a poorly disguised rewrite of Tuva, not that it matters since they are both imaginary and all.

The main main character of the story is Lightwielder Trainee, a Light/Light tank. The tank class is a mainstay of MMORPGs since long before CoH was made, and it is not spelled “tanker” like the corresponding archetype in CoH. Also, CoH doesn’t have Light powersets, although it has Darkness powersets, which work differently. (The MMORPG Champions does have a Light powerset, but it works slightly differently from in my imaginary world, beyond the obvious implications of the name.) Before coming to Virtue City, Lightwielder Trainee was an underpaid office worker named Markus. In the story he is mostly referred to as Markus when doing internal monologue or talking with friends, and Lightwielder Trainee when doing heroic things or being mentioned by others. Only Tove knows his former identity, and the other way around, as they used to team up together almost every day for several years, to the point where people thought they were a couple.

Of course, now that they are physically in the game world, who knows what will happen. But I am pretty sure it will be rated T for Teens, like the game itself. Or “Young Adult” as they say about books.

***

I am having a blast writing this story, it is one that practically writes itself. Which is great because I get to read a new chapter or two each day. The downside with stories that write themselves is that I have less control over them than if I crafted them from scratch. For instance, I had planned to introduce Tove early in the book and use her as an alternate viewpoint character to avoid this becoming just a translation from 1st person perspective.

One thing that bothered me about Artworld was that the heroine got way too little exposure and development because the MMC (male main character) was the narrator. An interesting character was largely kept unexplored and the romance was badly understated because the MMC did not really understand her emotions. (What guy can understand a woman’s emotions anyway?) So I decided that my next book would be 1) not a romance, although there might be pairings and triangles in it, and 2) not a first person perspective. In practice, however, I am now on the 6th chapter of what I call “translated first person”, by which I mean it reads as if it was written in first person narrative and then someone went through the text and replaced all instances of “I” with “he” (or occasionally the name), “me” with “him”, “our” with “their” and so on. Only one person has internal monologue, only one person’s feelings are clear to the reader, and the reader does not know things the main character doesn’t know.

Translated first-person perspective is very common in LitRPG novels, even in good ones like Aleron Kong’s Chaos Seed. But having recently rewatched parts of the anime Log Horizon, based on the LitRPG books by the same name, I see how useful it can be to expand the scope a bit, even if you maintain a main character. If you compare Log Horizon to Sword Art Online, another popular Japanese LitRPG which was made into an anime, you will notice that the main character of SAO has a pretty strong Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) flavor. In other words, he is too perfect and overpowered.

One of the most appealing aspects of LitRPG is that the characters are constrained by the game mechanics. You have to do your grinding and your artifact quests in order to become powerful, you cannot muddle through until toward the end of the book, when everything comes to a climax, the main character suddenly has godlike powers because of his heroism or his love or his heritage or an ancient prophecy or because Mystra said so. That is one of my major turn-offs about conventional fantasies, and conversely one of the things I love about LitRPG is that the character has to do the grinding to power up, use his creativity to find the best strategies and tactics based on understanding the rules, and gain the cooperation of other heroes or even villains to help save the day.

So what I wanted to write was a kind of “Log Horizon meets City of Heroes” (except not really). But the writing style, as much as I love writing and reading it myself, may get in the way of making this what I wanted.

Of course, it is still early. I mean, as of Chapter 6 (16000 words) we are still in the character’s first day in Virtue City, and he is still level 4. The tentative female main character has just arrived and is level 2, having done only a street quest so far. (Notice that the quests are usually called quests or quest missions, never just “missions” because this is totally not City of Heroes. I am sure not even lawyers could misunderstand that.)

But now it is time to get back to City Park, which is totally not Atlas Park, the starting zone in City of Heroes. Just like Factory Row is not Kings Row, Steel Towers is not Steel Canyon, and so on.

Duolingo revisited

Screenshot YouTube / TEDx

Please apologize for your stupidity! The pitfalls of using machine translation on the Web. Instead, please enlist the French. There are a many thank you.

Back on February 23, 2013, I wrote about Duolingo, a website that let you learn a foreign language by translating the Web. Or that was the idea. I also mentioned that it had relatively few languages, all of which were cousins of English either on the Anglo-Saxon or the Norman side.

Things have changed a little, but Duolingo is still around, and there are now a few more languages. (You can learn Norwegian! So you can properly greet your new overlords when the longships come.) No truly alien ones such as Japanese or Mandarin, but a couple using Cyrillic alphabet, and Hebrew is in the works; there are also western languages for Arabic speakers, so the alphabet problem seems to be worked around. And there’s Turkish for English-speakers. While using a slightly modified Latin alphabet, Turkish is not an Indo-European language, meaning it is not visibly related to English and its neighbors. (Even Russian is much closer to English.)

Naturally I have started learning Turkish. Because I can. Or because I wanted to see whether I can learn a language from scratch, without even a seed of background knowledge. We had a smattering of French in school, so when I play around with French on Duolingo, I am never sure how much I am actually learning and how much comes back to me from our seemingly futile French classes, and how much I have picked up from French pop music and cultural references. None of those are particularly applicable to Turkish, because Vienna did not fall to the Ottoman army in this timeline.

***

Back when Duolingo was new, it had just the website (although it was surprisingly mobile-friendly for a site with so much interaction). Now there are apps for iOS and Android. They are similar to the website, but actually easier. In other words, I take longer completing the standard chunk of 10 XP on the website. This is partly because I downloaded the appropriate languages for my smartphone keyboard (I use SwiftKey, but this probably also works with Google keyboard). The keyboard helpfully corrects badly spelt words, and even proposes valid words if I get the first letters right or nearly right. In addition, the Android app is more likely to give me exercises of the type “tap the word pairs” or “select the words” instead of actual writing exercises.

The focus on translating the web seems to have receded a bit. The philosophy was sound enough: The server keeps track of each student’s competence level, and assigns sentences from actual texts that the company is paid to translate. If the sentence is short and contain only common words, it can be assigned to a newbie, while longer sentences with more advanced vocabulary are reserved for advanced learners. The same sentence is given to a bunch of different students, and if they agree on the translation, fine. If not, you may get to vote on which translation is correct.

The website has a tab called “Immersion” which does take you to the translation work, but you are not pushed into it early in the course at least. I still haven’t actually completed any languages yet (as if such a word even has meaning for a language). I am supposedly 25% fluent in French, although I suspect 2.5% would be a more accurate estimate. I am not entirely sure I can say “twentyfive” in French.

With translation somewhat sidetracked, it seems that the company Duolingo is currently living on investments while waiting for a buyer or IPO to go public. For now it is completely free, and this was important to the founders. But if it gets bought up, it is anybody’s guess how long it will be free. At the very least I would expect a return to focus on actually useful translations. But for now it is mostly fun and games.

***

Duolingo is highly gamified. That is, the learning is made as fun as possible. Completing exercises give you XP (experience points) and you level up by doing enough of them. When you have completed a topic group (like “food”, “clothing” or “animals”) you get “lingots” which is the currency of the game. You can use these in the “lingot store” to unlock optional features like “learn flirting”.

There are small chunks of exercises that normally only take a few minutes, and they are a mix of different types. In the case of French, I translate phrases and sentences from French to English, and from English to French. The French phrases are spoken as well as written. There are also exercises where I listen to a French phrase and write it down in French, and others where I listen and try to repeat a phrase. Sometimes I get to pick a translation of a slightly harder sentence from 3 alternatives in French. Sometimes I get 6 different words, 3 in each language, and get to sort them into pairs.

In the original version, you started with 3 “hearts” which would break if you made a mistake. If you lost all three hearts and made a fourth mistake, you had to redo that batch. But evidently that made people lose heart for real, so this has quietly been dispensed with. Now instead, if you make mistakes, you don’t make progress, or may even be set back a little, but nobody scolds you in any way. It just takes longer to gain your 20 XP (two batches of exercises) for the day.

There is currently a bug where, if you study two languages, Duolingo will count progress on one of them as progress on them both. OK, I am not 100% sure if this is a bug or a feature, but I am almost sure it is a bug, because it does track progress on both of them when I look at the daily reminder mail. But in the app and on the website, I have to keep track myself.

***

Duolingo is probably the most efficient way to get started on a foreign language today. (Science backs this up: A study showed that 34 hours of Duolingo was equal to a semester of beginner Spanish in college.) It may over-estimate your progress (it certainly does with mine), but you can’t avoid noticing when you don’t know something, so it is kind of self-correcting if it pushes you too far ahead too fast. And it is just plain fun to use. Not super fun like actual computer games, but I certainly wish my workday was like this! So more fun than reading the newspaper. (Just kidding, boss! ^_^)

So go get it while it’s free. Remember, being bilingual delays Alzheimer’s. We want to delay Alzheimer’s until someone has found a cure for it, OK? So here you go, now:

Duolingo – learn a language for free!

City of Heroes remembered

Screenshot

This was my home…
All this pain and devastation
how it tortures me inside;
all the innocent who suffer
from your stubbornness and pride…

3 years ago this day, City of Heroes closed down. It was the first, best and at the time still the largest online superhero game, and had features that were not available elsewhere, such as extensive player-created content. But more than anything else, it had a community of people who found it natural to roleplay heroes. A game where it was natural to reach out and help your fellow players, teach them the ropes, guide and protect them, answer questions that had already been answered a hundred times. It was not just the best of its kind, it was also the “goodest” in the sense of the good people it drew together.

Out of the blue, publisher NCSoft announced the closure of the game and fired the developers, Paragon Studios, who had been working on the next expansion up till that day, unaware of the troubles ahead. Needless to say, this caused a lot of negative reactions against NCSoft. I doubt many of us are ever going to touch one of their games again, let alone buy anything from them. The reaction not only from current players but from the MMORPG community at large was so strong that it lowered NCSoft’s share value for some time. I stopped following it so I don’t know if that was permanent; one can only hope.

So that is why, when I watched this video on YouTube, and saw the fiery destruction of the familiar landmarks, I vividly remember a similar scene from the animated movie Prince of Egypt where Moses sadly watches fire and ice hail down on Egypt, singing the lyrics I have quoted above. Stubbornness and pride indeed. Curse the darkness!

Fortunately, it did not take long before the former players started making a “spiritual successor” to City of Heroes. Unfortunately, they started making 3 different “spiritual successors”, neither of which is playable at this time. (Although Valiance Online was playable in pre-beta for a while, and looked quite promising and reasonably familiar. Here’s hoping it will come back one day.) (Of course, I would prefer if City of Heroes came back, but, stubbornness and pride, so probably not.)

On another reasonably bright side, I have more time for studying now. I never found another game that could fill the same place in my life, or forge the same online community. But I still sometimes stop by YouTube and watch movies that verify that yes, this thing of beauty once existed. This place that thousands of imaginary heroes once called home, and still would, if they could find a way back.

Sims 4: More human than me?

Screenshot sims 4, two sims playing chess and talking

I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing.

Since the original “The Sims” game in 2000, the little computer people have become more and more like normal humans. With me, however, it seems to be the other way around. This fall it seems that they have become more human than I, in some ways.

Obviously I don’t mean the body. Mine is still flesh and blood, while theirs is pixels on the screen. What I talk about is how well they emulate human behavior, whereas I have my own style that is pretty unusual in some ways where the sims are not.

Specifically, this is about social interactions, social needs, even social wants. As mentioned before, the sims now have a lot of social interactions and they love to use them. Even a sim with the Loner trait rolls around a fourth of his wants about social interactions, like talk to someone, tell a joke, compliment someone, practice talking, use a pick-up line (!) and more. Strangely, these wants cannot be satisfied over the Internet, so the sims need to actually go out (or have others come over) to fulfill their wants.

The social need is borked, if I may say so. In The Sims 3, Loner sims would experience their social need meter go down fairly slowly. Eventually it would go in the red, but it would take its sweet time. This may be simply lazy coding, but in The Sims 4 the meter goes down seemingly as fast as for everyone else, it is just that they don’t suffer any negative effects of it, quite the opposite. But the meter still takes on the orange and eventually red color of impending desperation, and a quick look at the screen will make it seem like the Sim is in danger. Only when you look more closely you see that it is just the social need that is bottoming out.

Of course, I have had this problem with my journal too. When I innocently mention that I don’t have any friends except invisible friends, people get worried as if I was about to jump from the nearest bridge, while I feel quite happy this way. Even when I mention that my last kiss was some 30 years ago (and even that was rather a surprise) people worry about me. Now if they were just worrying about my genes, I would understand it, for they are overall pretty amazing genes. It would almost be too bad to dilute them. Someone should deep freeze some of my blood so I can be cloned when that becomes more trivial. Unfortunately, genes don’t guarantee the same personality, as you can see with identical twins:  Identical twins that grow up together are more different than identical twins that grow up apart. (In the real world, that is. I haven’t tried that in the game yet.)

There is another reason this is on my mind: A MOOC (massive open online course) from BerkeleyX, the electronic arm of Berkeley University, distributed through the EdX platform. Yes, I am MOOCing this year again, and more successfully. But anyway, The Science of Happiness spends an inordinate amount of time elaborating and belaboring how absolutely necessary a rich social life is for human happiness. And I am like WTH you people, but then I think to myself: At least this may be useful for playing The Sims 4, if nothing else.  Actually I guess both the course and The Sims 4 may be useful for understanding ordinary humans, of which I am clearly not one. More about that next time, probably.

Sims 4: Easier and harder

Screenshot Sims 4 - two sims in deep conversation.

The sims are not only more emotional now, they are also more social. There are easily a hundred different social interactions to choose from, and almost every skill, job or hobby adds to the list.

Compared to its predecessors, The Sims 4 is both easier and harder, simpler and more complicated.

It is very easy and simple for those who just want a “human fishbowl”. You can start playing some of the existing families, or roll random characters, or download some of the thousands of sims that are shared on the Net. Put them in a pre-made house, or put together a house from pre-made rooms, then let them take care of themselves. The sims are more intelligent, and they have gotten better at multitasking. They can mostly take care of themselves, even more so than in The Sims 3. I’ve seen a social type sim got out of the house and start chatting up neighbors while I was doing something else, and they are able to hold down a job. They still have trouble with broken equipment, though. But apart from that, there is a good chance that you can go to work and still find your sims alive and well when you come home.

It is easy to get started, and there is very little that you as a player need to decide or meddle in unless you want. But chances are that you *do* want to meddle, rather than just watch “unreality TV” with imaginary people. And this is where it starts getting complicated.

Most things are just more detailed. This detail is optional. If you just want to get started, you can ignore it. But if you have the time, you can go into ridiculous detail when designing your sim, from the shape of the eyes and nose to picking half a dozen sets of everyday clothes that your sims will choose from when they get dressed in the morning. (You can also have several pajamas, party clothes, swimwear etc, with matching accessories.) The only notable exception is the ability to color every object in a unique pattern of self-made colors, which supposedly filled up the save files like whoa in the Sims 3. You still have various colors and patterns to choose from, but can’t create your own.

Once your sims move in, the rapid growth of options continues. Even without any expansion packs, the social interactions have multiplied in the extreme. Increasing the charisma skill unlocks new options, but there is also a separate comedy skill that gives you more jokes and funny stories to tell. (So instead of “tell joke” you have “tell joke about penguins”, “tell joke about fashion”, “tell knock knock joke” etc.) There is even a pranking skill that lets you expand your ranks of pranks to play on other sims, if you are that kind of evil, detestable person. In addition there are interactions that are unlocked when the sim is in a particular mood, and there are a whole rainbow of such different emotions. Even choosing just the Friendly interaction menu gives several pages of possible interactions between two sims, in the base game without any expansions, and that’s before I have maxed any of the social skills.

Other skills have also got an excess of optional detail. Take painting, for instance. There are now a wealth of different styles to choose from, increasing as the painting skill goes up. Abstract, realistic, pop-art, impressionist, classic. Some emotions also have corresponding painting styles, like “confident painting” or “playful painting”. Paintings in these styles can only be started while in the corresponding mood, and contain a mood aura which can be activated after the painting is finished, and will influence nearby sims with the same emotion. So if you know that you will need to be confident at some point in the future, make sure to start making confident paintings at any time you feel confident, so that you can put them up in the house and activate their confident aura the day you need it.

Or you could write a self-help book, if you have a fit of confidence and sufficient writing skills. Reading the self-help book will make a sim confident for a few hours, then it fades. I appreciate the realism in this. ^_^ (Regular readers may know what I feel about self-help books: Given how many there are of them, and how well they sell, we would expect to live our lives surrounded by weakly godlike superintelligences. That is pretty far from the truth. But that they can make people feel confident for the duration of a short date, I suppose that could happen. It seems to work for the sims, at least unless they accidentally fall under the sway of a different emotion such as getting angry by getting chewed out by a bitching bystander.)

The complexity just continues over the top. Maxing your cooking skill is faster than it was in The Sims 3, but there is now a separate Gourmet cooking skill that is unlocked a ways up the ordinary skill, and that is needed for the more advanced culinary endeavors. I am honestly not sure where that idea come from, but you can now be a master of making ordinary meals and a total noob at gourmet cooking.

Computer gaming is serious business, as one might expect from Electronic Arts. Gaming is now a skill that you level up through practice, either on your computer or FlatPad (tablet) or smartphone. You unlock more games as you level up your gaming skills, but you also unlock conversation topics. This is the case for other skills as well. Sims who may seem strikingly different in other ways, like a lazy snob and an athletic outdoors lover, may bond over their elite gaming skills or their love of the violin.

Some of the skills are associated with a career. The number of careers seems somewhat limited, but bear in mind that each of them now has two different branches that you have to choose from halfway through your career. Acing your career has become much harder: In The Sims 3, you basically just had to improve the associated skills. Now you have to do that, but you also have to do various job-related tasks at home.

For instance starting in the culinary career as a dishwasher, you have to wash dishes at home as well a few times for practice. Then for the next step you must improve your mixology (drink making) skill to 2. Next you must make an outstanding grilled cheese sandwich. This is a tricky one, and you’ll find something similar in other careers, like paint a brilliant painting. The thing is, there is no choice to “make an outstanding sandwich”. You have to grill sandwiches until you make an outstanding one. The quality of your food depends on your skill level, your mood, your experience with that particular dish, your kitchen equipment, and a random element of luck. Maybe you can get it right the first time, perhaps it takes ten times.

In The Sims 3, everyone could reach the top of their career if they improved their skills and went to work regularly. Now it has become something you achieve if your life revolves around it. Chances are you will retire without reaching the top, if you try to have an active social life, or a large family, or a couple unrelated hobbies. This is more realistic, of course. We aren’t all bosses (and some of us are quite happy with that). But I am sure some long-time Sims players will feel frustrated.

And that is the problem with The Sims 4. It is amazing, but it is also somewhat frustrating. The learning curve is not steep, but it is very long. For those of us who were masters of the earlier games and felt in control of them, the jungle of options seems entirely too dense. I cannot imagine how it must look to someone who has never seen a plumbob before. In one way this wealth of options is a benefit, because people won’t quickly put it aside as “finished this game, on to the next”. But in my experience it requires the player to stop from time to time and relax. Tell yourself “Hey, it is just a game.”  But with the sims becoming as lifelike and complex as they are now, this is harder than ever.

 

Sims 4: The Sims get emotional

Screenshot Sims 4 - female sim outside

But we still got plumbbobs!

For 14 years, the “sims” – the small computer people invented by Will Wright at Maxis – have been the more or less constant companions of me and many others around the world. At a time when computer games was seen as a boy thing, girls and grownups embraced the ever more complex life simulation that was The Sims, The Sims 2 and The Sims 3, each of them adding more content with a stack of expansion packs as well. It did not surprise anyone that there  would be a Sims 4. It did not surprise anyone that the base game – the starter pack, if you will – would lack much of the content from the previous games. But gamers have grown a bit cynical about this over time, and with the announcement that the game would not have toddlers, a wave of disdain washed over the Net.

There are no toddlers in The Sims 4. The open town from Sims 3 is also a thing of the past – now you once again get load screens if you travel to community lots or visit other sims, although you have a block of up to 3-4 houses (depending on size) that are always loaded like your home lot. On that note, it seems that the “story progression” has also bitten the dust, the engine that kept the rest of the town living some semblance of a normal life, marrying and having children before growing old and dying. At a glance, it seems as if the game is shrinking, except for the price. And of course there are a bunch of bugs. The reviews have been less positive than at any other point in the series’ history.

I, on the other hand, am quite impressed. To me there seems to be a relentless progress in the underlying direction of the game series: To portray human life in as much detail as the current generation of computers can handle.

This time, the sims have been given emotions. They were not entirely without them before, at least indirectly: Your sims could make enemies, have a nervous breakdown, or enter “platinum mood” where they functioned at peak efficiency, more so than usual. But now there are a list of emotions to literally color their lives. (The various emotions are color coded, such as pink for romance and red for anger. Perhaps in order to map the moods onto colors already associated with them, the spectrum is not evenly populated.)

You can see the dominant color of a sim at a glance, but their portraits are also more expressive and give a fairly realistic facial expression and stance for the mood they are in. The emotions are not simply for decoration: They influence what sims can do, and how well they can do it. Social interactions tend to go down the drain when sims are angry, and this emotion tends to spread in a group because people who get insulted or shouted at take it out on others again. On the other hand, the romantic mood opens a bunch of new interactions and lends more powers to romantic options that are open more widely. Confidence also stands out as opening a fairly wide range of interactions. Some colors will improve your sims ability to learn the corresponding skills – the “focused” emotion is pretty much all about this, and is quite valuable for learning logic and programming but not for socializing. Aspies are going to feel at home in this one.

The sims have two “whims” at any one time. These are wishes that follow from their life aspiration and personality traits, or from skills they have acquired. If your sim has started getting the hang of cooking, they will start rolling whims to make food, to make group servings, and eventually to make specific dishes. But there is also a third whim, which deserves its name even better. It is only active when your sim has an emotion, and only for the duration of that emotion. If a different emotion breaks through – for instance because of some bodily discomfort – the whim is forgotten, and any effort toward fulfilling it will not give any perk points. (Fulfilling whims accumulates points that can give sims some pretty powerful benefits if you save up long enough, including some degree of rejuvenation.)

In addition to the whims, there are now separate requirements to fulfill for your sim’s lifetime aspiration. You level up toward this by doing related tasks, which may or may not also be whims, usually not. A similar system applies to jobs: In order to advance, you need to fulfill certain requirements on your free time. While most of them can be gained reliably, there are some that require luck so you will have to just keep trying till you get it. While positive emotions improve your chances of a good outcome, they are not enough and not strictly required.

One amusing detail is that emotions have a fairly strong influence on your sims’ stance and how they walk. You can set a default walk, but emotions tend to overrule it.

Not only the emotions of the sims have become more detailed, their bodies are also slightly more realistic and easier to shape in the create-a-sim module. You can zoom in and drag or push details like eye shape or ear size. Unfortunately I am too left-brained to benefit much from this, although I have learned to use the brand new butt slider. Strangely, the sims don’t react to this at all, and not to the breast slider either, which is inherited from one of the Sims 3 expansion packs. Oh well, perhaps in Sims 5 they will notice! It should be out around 2019.

Exit from Camelot

My rather defensive paladin in Darkness Falls (an underground realm in Dark Age of Camelot), battling imaginary demonic creatures. Well, at least I was on the right side.

Well, it was kind of fun playing the old game again for a couple weeks. But it was almost a single-player game on the co-op server where I used to play. There were some scattered player on the combined server where all the other old servers had been merged. But over the years they have continued to develop a more and more unique culture and language, so that the public messages were a mixture of names and abbreviations that made no sense to me. I wonder if this would have happened to City of Heroes if it lived for another decade? There was some of it after 8 years, but not so much that you could not get into it pretty quickly, and there were always new people who would ask for advice, and people would answer them politely and quickly.

I guess going back to the ex after the death of your loved one just isn’t very likely to work. Not that I would know except for computer games.

I may still play it as a single-player game occasionally, perhaps. Although this is made unnecessary difficult because the game refuses to acknowledge my mapping of a network drive to store the game files, even though it should normally be transparent to programs outside the operating system. Probably some part of the Electronic Arts paranoia, the same thing that makes The Sims games so hard to run on Linux.

Return to Camelot

Screenshot Dark Age of Camelot: Prydwen Keep

Tinlad, the new overly defensive paladin, at the gates of Prydwen Keep.

It was September 1, 2006. I was writing in my hand-coded on-line journal about leaving my favorite game for several years, Dark Age of Camelot. A new, superior game had taken its place in my heart: City of Heroes. And I wrote: ” I know that unless the game gets an interface as easy and intuitive as City of Heroes, I am not going to return. Probably not even then. Well, unless CoH is closed down for some reason. Perhaps not even then.”

Both of these things came to pass. It is now almost a year since City of Heroes closed down. It is not coming back. A “spiritual successor” is slated for release in 2015. Perhaps I will still be here, and still be interested. But to me it is an ocean of time. And a while ago, I learned that somehow Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) had survived. It was scaled back. Development is slow when it happens at all. The population is low. The subscription fee is still there, in an age of plentiful free massive online games. The servers have been consolidated, there are now 2 of them from what I can see: Gaheris, the no-playerkilling server, and one common server for all the rest.

And so, I have returned. I am not sure for how long: I paid only for 1 month, and I may not stay that long. But I did stop by.

As promised in that entry in 2006, Itlandsen the overly defensive paladin is going to remain retired, although I may visit him for reference perhaps. I have started a brand new paladin, so that I could go through the tutorial quests from the start. It has been some years, after all, and the game has also evolved for a while after I left. So let’s welcome Tinlad, the overly defensive newbie highlander paladin!  (Yes, I have just shifted a couple letters in my last name, but it was unexpectedly descriptive, since paladins spend their days in plate armor.)

The startup zone for highlanders was moved to somewhere that did not even exist when I was there. The tutorial quests were easy and the leveling quite rapid – I got to level 10 and was ready to leave the startup zone in an afternoon. In the olden days, it took days to get someone to level 10, at least alone. And I spent plenty of time getting familiar with the controls again (and changing some of them – the system is now more flexible and it is easy to set up your own keyboard shortcuts and mouse controls, or choose from popular setups.)

Some memories of the early 2000s did come back, though, once I got back to a zone I was familiar with. And when I saw the entrance to Prydwen Keep, I felt a wave of nostalgia. This was where many of my first characters spent their “childhood”, the levels up to 10. I have no count of how many hours I have spent chasing ghosts and spriggans and bandits in the area between Prydwen and Cotswold. It was also on the ramp up to Prydwen Keep that I parked my favorite character when my trial period was over and I was unable to subscribe to the game, a problem which was later fixed.

My online friends from back then are no doubt long gone. I only saw one other playable character during my stay online, but there are probably others since Gaheris is still running. But the game is playable solo, especially during the first part, as long as you don’t go into the borderlands that are designed for large-scale realm war. I wasn’t into that even back then, and I certainly am not now. Knowing that there is a real person playing the character I am killing is a super turnoff for me. Your turnoffs may vary. ^_^

The extreme longevity of DAoC also shows what a big mistake NCSoft made when they closed down City of Heroes. If they had kept the game subscription-based, slowed development to maintenance and consolidated the least populated servers, they could have had a steady income from people who just never got fed up with the game and subscribed year after year. All for the cost of electricity and fiber connection for the servers. CoH had a system for users to create new content, so it could probably have continued to grow for another decade or two or three, until the end of PC gaming as we know it.

Whether DAoC will last that long, is more uncertain. And whether I will be there, even much more uncertain. But I was there today. It was … alright, I guess. ^_^ But I’m impressed that they kept my characters waiting since 2006 for me to return. Perhaps we all have something to learn from that!