Weekly Update: Steam Demos, Persepolis Rising, Blog Preview

What I’ve been Playing: Steam Demos

It was the Steam Next festival this week, which meant a lot of free demos available for gameplay. Last one of these they had, I discovered Narita Boy, which is a weird bit of 80’s Tron-like nostalgia, and something else I’ve been playing this week. But I wanted to focus on the Steam demos, because they’re quick fun.

Nountown (VR)

I’m very excited about this game, though the demo was sadly locking in content.  It drops you into a town with various objects to pick up and identify.  If you hold up the object to your ear, you can hear the spoken form of the word, which you’re then required to repeat. If you correctly pronounce the word, the item colorizes.  Unfortunately there were only four items in the demo to test this on, but the premise itself is wildly exciting with great implications for language learning—though there’s a lack of repetition, so retention may be a challenge.


Fruit Ninja 2 VR

Everyone knows Fruit Ninja, the popular mobile game where you slash fruit flying in the air. A VR variation was released too, where you wildly slash at an entire fruit counter, or flying fruit or other things. Great fun.

Fruit Ninja 2 looked much more expansive, with a whole beautiful world and multiple courses and challenges to complete, and archery in addition to slashing games.  Their bow-and-arrow mechanic was not well-integrated with the Knuckle controllers, though, and the archery contests were a lot more difficult than I expected for a Fruit Ninja game. I also couldn’t figure out where most of the exercises were. It looked pretty, though, and I hope they iron out the problems.


Firegirl

I’d seen an early trailer for this—adorable firefighter character clears out burning buildings, fighting off “fire monsters” and smashing down doors to rescue people so they could earn money to upgrade their fire station.  When I played it, the firehose needed some polish, particularly when you were supposed to use it to jump up another level. But the art was good and the animation smooth.


Siruby

This game was fun, clever, and colorful—like a pixelated Megaman. It also, though, didn’t really come across as anything special or new. I couldn’t see myself spending any more than five dollars for it.


Anno Mutationem

I was excited about this after trailers I’d seen, and the demo lived up to expectations.  Not a lot of choice involved—it seems to follow a mostly linear story and upgrade tree. But the art was something really special and made you believe in the cyber-city, and there were just enough info teases to make you curious about what was going on.


Smelted Kin

Bought this one because the cover art looked nice, and the game did indeed have a neat style, with cool robots and aliens. I really wanted to like it, because in so many ways the animation and gameplay reminded me forcefully of old Adobe Flash games from Kongregate or Armor Games. Unfortunately, the gameplay was repetitive and had a difficulty curve that would jump ridiculously high at random intervals, so I ended up dropping it out of frustration. I hope, though, that someone sometime makes a game that deliberately invokes the tropes of Flash Gaming.


Fractured Atmosphere

VR spaceship scavenging. You make your way through ruined spaceships searching for loot, dodging hazards like sparking electricity and finding keycards and power switches to help you move farther in the ship. I imagined a game like this in the early days of VR, though my idea involved procedurally generated ships and asymetricly-controlled enemies, which probably means it would be too complicated to make on an indie budget. I really wanted to like it, but this game really needs a better tutorial–once I figured stuff out, it was better fun, but it took me forever to even get out of my own ship, let alone float to the ruined one. And I was very disappointed that the movement was not zero-g floating, but instead purely moving around with the Index thumbsticks. Ruined immersion. Still. It’s still in development. I really hope the Devs put together a nicer package before release as I think it could be a lot of fun.

What I’m Reading: The Expanse—Persepolis Rising [No Spoilers]

I know I said I was going to do indie books weekly, but I got so into this one I couldn’t help myself. I swear I’ll give a review of the indie book I’m reading next weekend.

I got into The Expanse through the excellent Amazon adaptation (The trailer for the last season dropped just today!), and picked up reading where the series left off. I’ll stick to generalities to avoid spoilers for the early series, but suffice to say that the series as a whole is quite good, with a refreshing amount of hard science around fun characters and exciting action, with just enough reflection thrown in to make it fulfilling.

The hero, James Holden, fascinates me, because he shouldn’t work. He’s the precisely the sort of unambiguously good hero that’s hard to believe in, particularly in a show that bills itself on being realistic.  He’s good-hearted almost to the point of stupidity, and yet he works and never comes across as forced or unrealistic.  Partly, I think, because he’s characterized as slightly stupid and clueless. He does good things almost without thinking about them.  Numerous times, characters comment that if anyone else were doing this, they’d assume it wouldn’t work or that there was an ulterior motive at play, but James Holden is so guilelessly good-hearted that they want to believe in him.  He’s a bit like Ted Lasso, except much less goofy.

Persepolis Rising in particular (again, no spoilers), has a fascinating theme about the necessity of accomodating different points of view, how while dissent and argument may keep things from getting done, they’re much better than a system, however noble, that refuses any dissent whatsoever.

“Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it. Even if everyone else is trying to shout it down. Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

-James Holden, Persepolis Rising

I’m honestly not sure whether to consider the central villain a fascist or psychopath–because while he does some horrible things, you can follow his logic perfectly. That’s exemplary writing.

One unfortunate note—ever since I learned one of the authors behind The Expanse series was a former writer for the Star Wars EU, I keep seeing the series where the series is distinctly echoing Star Wars, despite the entire thing being much more sober and grounded in science and philosophy than George Lucas’ iconic space fantasy. Still. No jedis or laser swords (yet).

What I’m Writing: Future blog on VR Gaming

I’m still writing on The Teutonic Doctrine, but I don’t want to give too much of that away, so instead I’ll post an excerpt from the VR Gaming blog post I want to put up next week.

This is around when I got interested in VR.  It started out when a friend at Baylor University mentioned they’d used the Oculus in their work to prepare astronauts for potential Mars missions. They spoke of the Oculus in glowing terms, so when I saw a Oculus demo available at the local Best Buy, I signed up.

Everybody says its hard to describe what it’s like in VR. It truly is. You forget entirely where you are. I think it’s the moment when you realize you can look all around—behind yourself, even, and move about in the space, that it really starts to hit you how big it is.  I’m pretty sure I heard the attendant laughing (or someone laughing) as I oohed and aahed over the beautiful garden environment, but I really really did not care.  I played a magic combat game (The Unspoken).  I made an ice shield just by holding up my arm, and a fireball by clenching my fist. An enormous fire snake erupted from the ground, it was looming over me, and I was terrified and took the helmet off.  A week later I went back, faced down my terrors, and blasted the snake into oblivion.  It was a mind-blowing experience.

I wanted a VR headset, but it was wildly irresponsible to even think about buying one on a grad student’s “salary.”  Back then, an Oculus cost 800 dollars and a Vive cost 1000—and that was if you had a computer with an adequate graphics card, which I did not. I tided myself over with videos of VR reactions, which are still among my favorite videos to watch—there’s something magical about people’s first encounter with VR, the closest thing to childlike glee I’ve seen. It’s why I still am annoyingly persistent about introducing friends and family to VR.

I finally got a VR set in 2017 during my first year of teaching, when the Vive was very much on sale and I’d just received a Christmas bonus from my school. (And, as I said earlier, I immediately had cause to regret this when  I got in an accident necessitating major repairs to my vehicle.) My apartment was tiny, but just large enough to allow for a standing environment (One of my picture frames still has a cracked pane from where I tried to punch a monster in VR.) I burned off stress from my terrible students by punching notes to a beat in SoundBoxing. I dealt with my lack of friends by meeting and playing with people in Rec Room. And I came nose-to-nose with an elephant in Youtube VR. I would probably have made it through my first year without it, but my goodness did it make it easier.

Over the years my initial VR mania has somewhat faded—I went for long months without touching the headset, though I did get something of a revival when Valve released the Index with the Knuckles. A lot of companies, which invested in VR early on, have yet to see the meteoric rise they’d hoped for from the new tech, and even with Oculus/Facebook’s Quest headset, which eliminates a lot of the barriers to VR (Cost, space, inconvenience, peripherals), adoption has been slow, to where some have suggested the market is dead, like 3D film.

The market isn’t dead.  The market, quite frankly, can’t die at this point.  It may not take off, but this isn’t 3D film. It’s a wholly new experience, different from movies and flatscreen video games as they are from radio and ping-pong. We may not see any definitive blockbuster moments when it becomes “mainstream,” but it will become mainstream.  And that leads to some interesting—and disturbing—questions.


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