Friday, January 20, 2012

In Recovery

[Later edit: In light of what transpired a month later, this posting feels more than a little dumb and embarrassing, but deleting it would be dishonest, so it remains. Next time I feel this way, I'll just take a little break, not try to quit my entire blog.]

Readers,

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted in a week, and I wasn't exactly going gangbusters before that. I haven't come through on several topics, including finishing Wizardry V, posting on dnd, or offering a GIMLET for Skyrim, and I've only won two games since August.

I finally have to face reality: my workload, plus the non-work goals that I want to accomplish, are not compatible with spending hundreds of hours a month playing computer games. Since I became self-employed last year, all this game-playing is directly affecting my financial security.

When I started the blog, it was because I felt an unnatural compulsion to play these games (I hit upon my plan to play every game in chronological order before I knew I was going to blog about it), and I wanted something positive and permanent to come out of it. Except for one or two weeks of Skyrim, I haven't felt this compulsion for several months. Although I value your comments and our dialogue, I'm just not having any fun with it. I know that's showing in both my postings and long absences.

I'm not definitively canceling the blog. It's possible that at some point this year, my professional life will achieve a greater degree of stability and I'll find myself with a lot of down time again. Or I may wake up in the middle of the night three weeks from now, and feel a mad desire to explore wireframe hallways, and you'll seen an erratic posting here or there. In the meantime, I'll leave the blog active for new readers who want to read my postings on older games.

I'm sorry it's come to this, but I thank you for your participation in my little quest. You're the best NPCs.

Sincerely,

Chester "Chet" Bolingbroke
"The Recovering CRPG Addict"

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Best Laid Plans...

Well, since I last posted:

1. Irene only managed to get my characters up to about Level 12. Partly, this is because she thought better of her all-Buffy-all-the-time plan (she only watched through Season 3), and partly it's because I forgot to show her how to periodically go and level up the characters. So I'm in no better shape than when I left except I have some extra characters in case I lose any more.

2. What I thought would be a leisurely trip full of plenty of time to play games turned into my busiest week in months.

3. It turns out there's no good way to allow donations to Irene's Avon Walk account without ruining our anonymity.

Still, she did her best and deserves some help if I can find a way around #3. More on dnd soon.

P.S. In between my postings, you might want to check out The Adventure Gamer. Its author, The Trickster, is a frequent commenter here. He's doing essentially what I'm doing, but for adventure games. I find his postings very well written, and he even has a GIMLET-style rating system. We're going to overlap on a few games eventually, and it'll be fun to see his take from an AG perspective.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Wizardry V: Sub-Contracting


My party gets damaged by an oddly-out-of-place Japanese warrior.


A few weeks ago, commenter Jay said that Wizardry V has "as much game time as Skyrim does." When I read his comment, I thought, "Sure. If you're a n00b." Well, now I owe Jay an apology. If anything, he understated. Wizardry V is killing me.

The game does not feel as if it's notably more difficult, in terms of the encounters, than Wizardry I. The difficulty, rather, comes in the size of the game. Each of the levels is at least twice as big as the ones in the first game. Here's Level 3:


I can't color in all of the areas until I'm sure there isn't some kind of transport from a lower level. Also, there's a door I can't open yet that, for all I know, fills in the entire remaining part of the lower half of the map.

The levels are not only large but irregular. Level 3 is at least somewhat square, even if a lot of the space in the upper right and left corners isn't used. Level 4, on the other hand, proved to be extremely long and narrow, although I still haven't explored one stairway there from Level 5 (which I've also partly mapped), so for all I know the part I've mapped is only a small part of the level:


At 47x7, even this section of the level is 46% larger than any level in the first game.

I still find a certain amount of joy in mapping. In these old tile-based games, where there are only a certain number of squares, every square you map is incremental progress towards the end of the game. Even if you could map modern games this way, you wouldn't have the same surety that you were advancing slowly but surely towards the conclusion, as modern games re-use areas frequently. When I played Dragon Age: Origins with my wife, I honestly had no sense of how much longer the game was going to last. When the darkspawn army started attacking Denerim, I figured that was the conclusion, but you never know--the dragon might have flown away to some darkspawn HQ that opened up a brand new set of maps.

Anyway, it's not so much the size of the maps in Wizardry V that makes the game take a long time. I haven't gotten all the way to Level 10 yet, but I'd be willing to bet that, just like the first game, the literal distance between the dungeon entrance and the final square--owing to elevators and portals and such--is less than 100 steps. If you had a party with a high-enough level, I'll bet you could finish it in less than an hour--something that would be impossible with Skyrim. The difficulty comes from the sheer risk associated with exploration. In a permanent-death game, you put your party in peril with every step that you take, and when the levels are more than double the size of Wizardry, that's a lot more chances to run into a party of monsters that kills you. I lost three members of my Christmas-themed party to failed resurrections, including my mage, and I began to dread the prospect of grinding up new ones again.

So when my wife, who has this week off--a week that I'm away on business--announced her intention to do nothing, aside from her daily treadmill session, but sit on the couch and re-watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I hit upon an idea.

"How about you do a little light work for me on your laptop while you're watching TV?" I asked.

"No."

"Come on. You owe me a favor." This, strictly speaking, wasn't true. But I'm absent-minded enough that it's possible she owed me a favor and I just forgot. The look she gave me told me that not only was I wrong, but that even suggesting such a thing after putting up with my Skyrim epoch was pushing things too far.

So I pulled out my nuclear option, which I'll tell you about at the end of the posting. She listened, asked a lot of questions, and finally agreed, with one annoying condition: the party had to be good.

"It really doesn't make any difference. It's not like Dragon Age--you don't really make any choices that...." I stopped because I could see I was getting nowhere.

We installed the game on her laptop and spent some time side-by-side rolling up a new party. This took a lot less time with double the computing power, and she seemed to have a lot more luck on the high bonus rolls than I did. She even got a lord. I spent some time getting them up to Level 8 or so while showing her the basics of the game.


The new party.


And so, for the next week, while I'm attending a conference in Los Angeles, she'll be sitting on the couch, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and grinding my party away. I honestly don't know if she'll be fanatical about it, and I'll come home to Level 40 characters, or if she'll just get them up to the level of the three characters I just ditched, which was around 13.

Her task is easy. There's a portal on Level 1 that takes you to an area of Level 2 where you can get an elevator to Levels 3, 4, and 5. I made her memorize the way and gave her the following set of instructions:

1. The moment you get to Level 2, cast LOMILWA (light), LITOFEIT (float so as to avoid traps), and MAPORFIC (protection, which the priest doesn't have yet but should before long).

2. Stand just outside the portal on Level 2. Spin in place and let the monsters come to you. Concentrate your attacks and use mass-damage spells (she has a list, including those she should expect to get later) on any groups of 3 or more.

3. At any point that you run out of damage spells, have less than half your healing spells, the party has less than half its hit points, or any character is afraid, paralyzed, or poisoned, immediately go back into the portal and return to the surface and heal everyone.

4. When you're able to win at least 15 combats before returning to the surface, take the elevator to Level 3 and do the same thing--spin in place right next to the elevator, fight, follow the same rules, and jump back into the elevator if you encounter problems. Once you can win 15 combats in a row there, go to Level 4. She's not to proceed any further than Level 4, though--there are some enemies on Level 5 that can kill even high-level characters in one hit.

To help with the combat and healing, I left her the items and gold from my previous party. I don't think that's cheating, since the game seems to encourage you to swap party members in and out--the key unit of gameplay is the "scenario," not the specific party. I told her just to drop any new items--I figure her chances of finding anything better than the party already has (the previous party had been to Level 5) is low. If she messes up and loses anyone, I still have three characters from the old party alive. We'll have a Buffy/Christmas Story crossover.

So what did I have to promise? Here it is: Irene's mother died of breast cancer three years ago, and for the past two years, she's done the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. She has to raise $1,600 by April, and with few family members left and mostly-poor co-workers, she finds it difficult. I told her I would raise the money for her. In a few days, I'll be posting a link in the sidebar of my blog, and if you're feeling charitable, you can contribute to cancer research in the name of the mother of the woman whose tolerance makes this blog possible. (Please, no pressure, though: I have other ways to raise the money, too.)

While she does my level-grinding for me, in California, I'll be exploring dnd and making my revisit to The Bard's Tale III. When I get back next weekend, I'll try to finish up Wizardry V with my newly-buff party. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What I Hate Most about Skyrim

I know you're all looking forward to me moving on from Skyrim and getting back to my regular blogging, and I promise it's coming up soon. I'll win this game this weekend, and then the X-box goes to the nearest yard sale. In the meantime, I thought I'd commiserate with you on my biggest pet peeve of the game.

***

I'm walking outside of some place like Solitude, enjoying the sunshine, the birds flying overhead, the architecture, and the conversations between NPCs working the farm. I'm dangerously close to lollygagging.

I come upon a Khajiit sitting cross-legged on the ground. "Huh!" I say. "I don't think I've spoken to him before. Let's see what he has to say."

ME: "Greetings"

KHAJIIT: "Be wary, my friend, for you greet S'am the Murderer!"

GAME: Ba-da-BUM.




ME: "Wait. What? I don't want another quest."

KHAJIIT: "S'am the Murderer is tired of murder today, though. Perhaps you can fulfill my latest contract for me? I'll teach you everything I know about stealth."

ME: "No! I don't want to help you murder people! Get off my quest board!"

KHAJIIT: "How...unfortunate. I'll remain here until you decide to be reasonable."

ME: "I'm not going to 'be reasonable'! I'm going to turn you in to the nearest guard!"

KHAJIIT: "Ha! As if you have any dialogue options when talking with guards. No, I'm just going to hang out here. You'll come back eventually."

ME: [ends conversation]. "Well, maybe it won't be so bad. Maybe he wants me to kill some Thalmor or something. Let's check..." [opens quest log].


Yeah, I don't have Photoshop, all right? I did this in PowerPoint.


ME: "The hell with that! I'm not murdering young lovers! My character is supposed to be good!

A peal of thunder ripples across the sky as every Daedra lord in the game simultaneously chuckles.

I run up to the nearest guard. "Hey!"

GUARD: "...I'm not kidding you. Not for one second. Curved. Swords. I mean, how the #&*# do you forge a..."

ME: "AAAAARGH!"

I run back to the Khajiit, whip out my Blade of Woe, coat it with poison of lingering damage, sneak up behind S'am, and score a 15x damage hit.

S'am falls to his knees and catches his breath. Again and again I strike him, to no avail.

KHAJIIT: "Have you changed your mind about the contract?"

GUARD: "Stop right there, criminal scum!"

I go charging off into the distance. Pausing the game, I grab my notebook from my desk and vow to write down my own quests from now on and never look at the quest log again.

Three hours later, after all my quests are completed except one.

ME: "You know, I never really did like Mjoll the Lioness. She's probably secretly working with the Thieves' Guild..."

***

Now, I made this one up, of course, but there are plenty of quests that you literally cannot avoid, and the only way to get them off your list is to do something horrible. [Spoilers follow.] Perhaps the worst is in Solitude, where you almost immediately get a miscellaneous quest to "Talk to Jaree-Ra about possible employment." Say three words to him, and you're locked into a quest to put out the fire in a lighthouse, run a ship full of innocent people aground, and loot the wreckage. Even though a nearby guard talks about wanting to arrest Jaree-Ra, you can't talk to him about it. You can't kill Jaree-Ra. There's no way out of it except to ignore the quest in your quest list, which is really hard. I'm not the only one who has that problem, right? Right?


I don't think I'm racist, but if I was, it would be towards Argonians. Just...look at them.


It gets even better. Read a freaking book and you get tagged with "Boethiah's Calling," which ultimately requires you to sacrifice a follower on Boethiah's altar. I couldn't get it off my list even when I massacred all of her followers in front of her shrine--she apparently enjoys that. Want to avoid joining the Thieves' Guild? Ha! Not if you want to solve the Stones of Barenziah quest. Not to mention that you get roped into the Thieves' Guild the moment you have to talk to one of its members during the main quest. Oh, and if a noble-looking knight asks for your help clearing evil from an abandoned house in Markarth, don't do it; you'll end up having to kill not only him, but an innocent priest. Have a problem murdering old ladies? Don't talk to Aventus Aretino in Windhelm. Don't even go near his house.

The problem is so prevalent that when I did find a way out of two quests--joining the Dark Brotherhood and eating dead people--by turning my sword on the quest-givers, I was astonished that it worked. I've never played a game that simultaneously amazed me with the scope and variety of its quests and infuriated me with the inescapability of them. What makes it worse are the quest items that you can't get out of your damned inventory. I'm carrying six or seven things that, because of bugs or some non-traditional approach that I took, I can  neither use nor drop.

The kind of hand-holding evidenced by un-killable NPCs and un-droppable items drives me mad. Morrowind had neither of these "features" and did fine. If you killed someone that broke the main quest, you got a warning, but otherwise you could backstab anyone that offended your sense of morality. Even Oblivion, though it had a few un-killable NPCs, just told you that the quest was over because some key person had died. It didn't try to protect everyone in the game who might some day give you 150 gold pieces. (My favorite approach was in Baldur's Gate, where if you killed a crucial NPC, he'd be replaced in all his future scenes by "Biff the Understudy.") On my current Skyrim playthrough, I got so mad at the citizens of Markarth that I decided to kill every one of them (I partly justified it because I was a vampire at the time) and found that half of them just wouldn't perish, no matter how long I stood over them, swinging my blade, screaming "Why...won't...you...die?!"

Okay, calm down, Chester. It's just a game. And it's a good game. I'm going to give you a mock GIMLET on in when I finish, and I'm sure it'll rank high. But damn, it's got some annoying quirks and bugs. With the effort that they put into all other aspects of the game, I don't understand why they couldn't have put just a little more into the quest options and given me the opportunity to FUS-RO-DAH Jaree-Ra off the castle ramparts.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

The CRPG Compulsive?

Me and Irene--if I was dumb enough to face my computer in such way that she could walk up behind me and see what I was doing without me noticing.


If you're like many people, today is the first day of a new set of resolutions to finally get your life on track. Or tomorrow, since who starts resolutions on a weekend? Actually, I forgot: tomorrow is a holiday for most people. So Tuesday would be better. Definitely Tuesday.

Most resolutions have something to do with addiction. Quit smoking; quit drinking (or drink less); stop eating so much; stop spending so much. We tend to think about certain resolutions in terms of habits that we want to adopt, but most of the time, this means getting rid of a habit that we want to break. Going to the gym more means watching TV less. Spending more time with the family means spending less time on computer games.

Now before you get worried, I didn't make a resolution to stop playing games, though it would probably be better for my life if I did. But it's not something I should dismiss lightly. Unfortunately, I don't mean "CRPG Addict" as a metaphor. If I had a blog called "The Booze Addict"* in which I described my adventures drinking alcohol night after night, spending at least six hours with each brand before rating them on a custom scale you'd all regard it with numb horror, and my comments would be filled with pleas to get help and hyperlinks to Alcoholics Anonymous. But people can read "CRPG Addict" and think that it's meant in a cutesy way, like "chocoholic."

(After I wrote this, I typed http://boozeaddict.blogspot.com into the browser header, and found that it's a real blog, titled "My Family and My Booze: Daily reports on getting off my alcohol addiction." The blogger posted four consecutive days in a row between December 21, 2001 and December 24, 2001, and then never again. I really, really hope that he just discovered that he didn't like blogging.)

I don't mean to suggest that video game addiction is as devastating, or as hard to kick, as alcohol or drug addiction, but it's still a problem. Consider this: I played Skyrim from 3:00 p.m. yesterday until 7:00 a.m. this morning. The only reason that I didn't start playing until 3:00 p.m. yesterday is because I slept until 2:00 after playing until 6:00 a.m. yesterday morning. In fact, in the last seven days, I have done nothing but sleep, bathe, and play Skyrim, save for a couple hours here and there that I used to answer e-mail and crank out my posting on PEDIT5.

I can't help but wonder what I have to show for those 100+ hours. I haven't even won the freaking game. (I would have, of course, if I hadn't started over twice.) I'm way behind on work. I've probably gained 15 pounds, because all my meals have been taken from the couch and generally have involved some form of melted cheese. I only posted one blog entry. I didn't do any of the work in a class I'm taking.

Please, no Skyrim hate in the comments. The issue here isn't whether it's a good game. The issue is that, at least for me, it is an addictive game. Once I start playing it, I literally cannot seem to force myself to stop. "To do" lists, timers, appointments, meals, circadian rhythms, deadlines... Skyrim trumps all of them.


The secret to success surely must be treating your real "to do" list with as much fidelity as this.


This has happened before, of course. I started this blog writing about my "lost weekend" playing Oblivion, and I remember similar stretches of Might & Magic VI and Baldur's Gate in which I pushed the rest of the world aside and did nothing but play games. The advantage was that after about 40 hours, I won them. Skyrim, if you do all the quests--and we must do all the quests, even the bounty hunts and dragon hunts and giant hunts and burglary jobs that keep coming and coming and never actually end yes we must do them too must do them ALL hahahahahaha--must be one of the longest-playing CRPGs ever made--aside from MMORPGs, of course, which I treat like meth. Not even once.

I woke up this morning determined to understand my addiction a little better and, upon reflection, realized that many of my problems have a similar root. Consider:


  • I rarely sit down to play a game unless I know I'm going to have several hours to devote to it. Related, if I do start playing a game knowing that I'll only have a short time to devote to it, I almost always end up exceeding that time.
  • If I decide to cook myself some pasta for dinner, I intentionally make too much (i.e., the whole box) because I'm afraid if I don't, I'll run out of pasta before I'm ready to stop eating pasta (which is well past the point at which I'm full).
  • Although I might go weeks between drinks, when I do drink, I almost never have a single drink. Or even just two drinks.


The problem is, this might not be "addiction." A little time at the dictionary and Wikipedia suggests that addiction is a physical or psychological dependence, such that one suffers withdrawal if the object of the dependence is removed. This isn't quite my problem. I go long stretches--as you're all well aware--without playing any games. I also go long stretches without eating, drinking alcohol, or gambling, too. The problem is that when I do do those things, I tend to do them--just like playing Skyrim--to complete satiation. I have, in short, no sense of moderation. 

I then researched compulsion for a little while, and while it wasn't a perfect fit, either, it seemed to describe my problem a little better. Compulsives feel an inescapable urge to do something long past the point that it becomes sensible to do it. I had always assumed that the thing in question need be unproductive or unpleasurable, but apparently this need not be the case: witness compulsive eating or compulsive gambling.

The odd thing is that for the past two years, I've been feeling better about my computer game problem. Despite the fact that I've been playing and blogging about it, until recently, I haven't had a lot of days in which I've kicked myself for too much game playing. And the literature on compulsion helps me understand why: a key treatment (aside from medication) for compulsive disorders is to force yourself to do something that breaks the pattern. I'm largely not playing Skyrim right now because I ran out of soda earlier today. Having to get properly dressed, leave the house, and go to the store got me out of the Skyrim zone, and by the time I got home, I didn't feel any particular need to get back in it. When I play CRPGs on my computer and blog about them, the process of stopping to write notes and blog entries breaks the pattern of constant playing and keeps me from playing too much.

I have thus made one game-related resolution for 2012: Skyrim will be the last game that I play that is not part of this blog. After that, I don't play anything else unless I'm actively blogging about it. This should both increase the frequency of my postings in 2012 and also decrease my feelings of self-loathing over too much game-playing.

I should mention, before I sign off, that Irene has been an absolute angel, promising not to complain about my obsession or my odd hours as a sort-of Christmas gift, as long as I get it together this coming week. But Monday is a holiday and all, so I really hope she meant starting Tuesday.