Formative Games

Every so often, I wonder which games would I recommend in a couple of decades as the kinds of games that were important for either the medium or myself. As new games are released, old ones fade from memory and my own taste changes, I never think about the same games. There are some, however, that seem constant, and are also the oldest of the group.

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Hacknet: CLI is code for Cool Little Interfaces

Uplink managed to capture Hollywood hacking back in 2006. You would bounce your connection through oh so many links it should have been too slow to be usable in real-time, use password crackers that would brute-force the password through the network, go in, steal things, delete the logs and go away. Hacknet takes that and brings it to the command-line, inching just a little bit closer to give it that authentic feel.

Mechanically, it is rather simple. Systems have defenses that you need to bypass before you can run your magic tool that grants you access to it, which means you need to type the correct words in the command-line and then wait the time it takes them to do their thing. More than actual knowledge, Hacknet is a time management game, or, perhaps more accurately, a timed puzzle solver. The game is at its best when you are trying to nail down the firewall password as everything else runs, and then waiting for the PortHack utility (the magic tool) to finish so you can kill it and run another tool just a few seconds earlier.

Sadly, once you have done it before, there isn’t much to it. There are some investigation contracts (another name for quests) that ask you to dig around computers while trying to find some sort of information or tool, and I wish there were more chances to do so. Instead, most quests boil down to simply downloading a few files, uploading others, or deleting stuff. The main quest, this is, the narrative thread, does bring you into an interest investigative quest requiring you to dig around, making use of the integrated notes, and there are some other, longer contracts that might (I wasn’t particularly interested in them, by the time I was done), but this simply wasn’t the focus of the game, which I find a shame.

If I were to compare it to Uplink, I’d say that it feels like a lesser game. There are no banks to hack so I can become rich. There is no progression beyond obtaining more tools. Hacking the systems gets relatively old in both cases, though the former does have LANs which provide a bit more depth to the game. And in regards to content? Hacknet is short. An afternoon or two worth, at most.

This is not to say that Hacknet is bad. It isn’t – I had fun. It just was too short to feel memorable, in my opinion, and the story could have been something more. There is an expansion/DLC out for it, Labyrinth, which might solve the content issue. However, the base game is pretty much just a fancy pretend-to-be-a-hacker-from-Hollywood game that at is at least aware that Unix is a thing. A short, competent game, but not much else.

The Grind in the Skies: Thunderous War

War Thunder is a lobby-based air and ground-based vehicular combat free-to-play MMO that I wish I could love it – the game is great and, most of the time, it is quite fun. However, it has one of the longest grinds I have experienced in a game recently, perhaps short of Eve’s real-time skill training, which makes upgrading or getting a different vehicle (air or ground) take too much time.

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On Enjoying Grand Strategy Stories

In Monday’s Waypoint Radio, they continued the discuss of what Stellaris does right and wrong when it comes to bringing to life the events that occur throughout a regular game. And, truth be told, I have bounced many times from other Paradox Grand Strategy Games (GSG) such as Europa Universalis, or Crusader Kings, having had the most luck and enjoyment out of Victoria II.

For as much as most of Paradox’s GSG games have history to support the events within, and help contextualize what the simulation comes up with, they always failed to get my imagination going and immerse myself within them. Victoria 2, despite being the most enjoyable for me, also failed in this, feeling much more like I was playing Democracy 3 in another era. And, Stellaris hadn’t escaped that fate.

Part of that, and they touch on this in the podcast, is that there is very little that the game does to direct your attention to these events and contextualize them within themselves. For example, when a population in a far away system of your empire deviates from the official ones, there is nothing that ties that deviation to the rest of the simulation. Mechanically, it was a matter of the random number generator (RNG) rolling a number that meant the population would have a different ethic. However, and whether it happens as such or not in the simulation notwithstanding, when it comes to the player, there is no “Oh, yeah, these planet has been training a lot of troops and they have been fighting, thus they’ve become more militaristic” or perhaps pacifists, as they mourn the losses of their friends and family. There is no “oh, we have been attacked a lot by other empires, so we just don’t like others anymore”. When it comes to the game, there is nothing to tie those mechanical elements to an overall narrative of the history of your empire and the stories of the people that inhabit it.

For as much as Paradox’s GSG games pride themselves in the stories they can produce, and Crusader Kings 2 subreddit is (sometimes) proof of that, their presentation is terrible for the most part. It has improved, and it is remarkable how far they have come – even within Stellaris itself -, but it takes a conscious effort from the player to be able to weave these stories together and produce something worth remembering.

Or, as put in the podcast, somebody who is a Game Master or is otherwise good at improvising from prompts will have a much easier time in doing so. There are still limitations – federations are frustratingly simplistic and barely allow for interactions between its members -, but given the right mindset, there is quite a bit within Stellaris to enjoy.

Once that realization set within me, I understood why I have been enjoying myself more with my recent run of Stellaris (currently threatened by the Unbidden). Not only am I roleplaying as an organization from my world building project, I am also much more comfortable exercising the necessary mental muscles in order to engage with it, and that’s a great feeling to finally be invested in it beyond just wanting to win. Hopefully, Stellaris will continue to improve and communicate some of these little details much better.

Elite Dangerous: Space is pretty

After replacing my video card with one that doesn’t crash regularly, I remembered that one of the things that I wanted to try in Elite Dangerous was space exploration. Traveling to distant stars and finding interesting systems to explore, seeing perhaps what has not been seen before. So, I set out to just jump away from the arm of the galaxy that I was in.

I had a bit of a false start after I accidentally overheated myself, which meant my first trip was short-lived. However, I set out again, better prepared and… I’m happy with what I’ve found.

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