Hollow Earth

The Graveyard


And now for the melancholy. I recently checked out the short game the Graveyard by the same Tale of Tales mentioned in the previous post. While it is short (it takes around 10 minutes) it, like Tale of Tales’ other games, is quite beautiful.

Similar to The Endless Forest, the Graveyard has a very simple concept. You are an old lady. In The Endless Forest, you are a deer. In the Graveyard (The Endless Graveyard?) you are an old lady. You’re walking in, wait for it… a graveyard. As with The Endless Forest, calling it like watching paint dry would leave you feeling guilty for belittling the engaging sport of watching paint dry… right?

Not quite. Right off the bat, the graphics are amazing (I played first in fullscreen at normal quality and then shrunk it as small as I could to run “fantastic” without lag). Birds fly around, tree seeds fall to the ground, and thick clouds cast shadows on the ground. The game is in grayscale and has the feeling of walking through an Edward Gorey drawing. You start at the graveyard gate (you pass through the gates to exit the game, which first perplexed me as I tried to find the cursor or the [X] button) and can move the character forwards along the path to the bench. You may also move her along the side paths, but they only go a short distance. If she walks too long (roughly 8 steps) she limps and goes slightly slower (though resting takes longer). Once you get to the bench, you can slowly turn her around and back her up to it where, after a few moments rest, she sits. What follows is a sad song (in Flemish) about the many friends and family the woman has seen pass away and about the woman’s own coming death. The scene plays out with the old woman’s deep-wrinkled profile overlayed on the right and tombstones intermittently-overlayed on the bottom. You can get up at any point during the song and leave.

Now for the more controversial, depending on your opinion. The version most people first see is the “trial” version. The “full” version, Tale of Tales says, only contains the single added feature of the possibility of the woman’s death. The full version costs $5, which comes out to $0.50 a minute if you spend the whole ten minutes. The game, they say, was an experiment in making an engaging game in a short time-frame and on a small budget. So, for me, that money is more a way to support the company than some morbid “gimme five bucks to watch her die” idea.

Lastly about the game. I think they succeeded in making an engaging game as I’ve played it several times. It’s such a simple game and yet there is a depth there hard to convey and that this very simple game can invoke emotions and empathy is a grand achievement. It would have been fine and thought-provoking enough had it been in other forms of media. A picture, the music, a short film on YouTube– but the medium of the game seems to tie it all together better than even the most cohesive of the above media (the film) could do. It is that direct source of empathy, that you can connect to the character, that makes this an amazing game.

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Filed under: Reviews

The Endless Forest

The last in my series of would-be homes– as we come up on the deadline and the possibility of news regarding Uru– deals with a rather odd and unique MMO with some big issues, but one that, interestingly, is also the most fun. It’s called Tale of Tale’s The Endless Forest.

So, as was often asked when I talked about the game to a few fellow Uru fans, what’s the “point” of the game? What do you do? In the simplest sense, explore and have fun with friends. In a more complicated sense, you look into an artistic experiment into the core of social interaction in today’s games.

A little description of the game. You are a deer. With a humanoid face, but a deer none-the-less. You have all the benefits and limitations of being a deer. You have no chat interface. You have no switches to hit, etc. Your day consists of rubbing trees, drinking at the lakes, and prancing around as a happy, somewhat-creepy-faced deer. Boring as whittling a toothpick from a sequoia, you’d say if you didn’t want to disrespect those who go about whittling toothpicks from sequoias, right?

So would I have said if you had given me the premise. And yet, while a bunch of us are on Skype, the game leaves everyone laughing and having a great time and having a hard time going to sleep, eating, bathing, etc. There are only seven distinct areas in the game (two types of forest, a church ruin, a large oak tree, a large pond, a pile of rocks known as the playground, and a pair of strange rocks that represent/are the “gods” in the game) so it’s unclear to me just WHY it’s entertaining. Maybe it’s the adorable way the fawns (how you start out in the game if you name your deer) call out. Maybe it’s the ease and simplicity of the interface. Maybe it’s the mysterious and intriguing-if-somewhat-low-detail areas. Maybe it’s because it’s free.

I think, though, that it’s the concept that makes it interesting. You cannot talk in game. My Skype sessions with some friends are rare compared to me just wandering around and finding other deer. Without chat or violence there is no such thing as griefing. The most I could suppose a creative griefer could do is stand inside your avatar (which makes a nice yellow glow) or change a part of you against your will (however you can take off masks etc you’ve gotten one at a time).

This last bit is what may also add to the game’s intrigue. Your deer are “magic”. By performing certain tasks (rubbing a pine tree and eating the cone, kneeling before the statue of the world’s “gods”, etc.) you gain the ability to change other deer’s face masks, fur, antlers, or entire shape (you already turn into a frog if you go into a deep patch of water). As a fawn, however, you don’t keep these changes more than a few minutes and no one can change their own appearance. You have to get someone else to help you if you want a certain appearance.

If you’re interested, the first thing to do is download it and see if you like what you get. Then name your deer and begin your fawn period. You’re a fawn for a month and then you become an adult deer. Fawns don’t keep their magical changes for long, but adults do. And that’s essentially it. Explore, bay, have fun. It’s easier with Skype or another voip client so you can hear other’s reactions. Though, if you want the real experience, have no chat at all and communicate via gestures.

All in all, while weird, the game is very bold and often funny with what you can do.

Filed under: Reviews

Lord of the Rings Online

I began the week by setting up the appropriate accounts for my week-long trial of Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO). I chose this week because I wasn’t going to be as busy as I normally am and figured I had plenty of time to try it out.

And halfway through I’m writing my review. This is telling of the game.

Alright, the first thing that obviously has to be said is that the game keeps you busy. Compared to the relative lack of “quests” in Uru, this is a good thing for LOTRO. Unfortunately, it seems like the only good thing.

Next, my experience. Well I started off by getting the client and installing it a few weeks ago. Then I set up a turbine account (a somewhat confusing process, but I did it anyhow). I then went into the long process of downloading updates. I put in my info and selected the area (aka Server) I wanted to go to. Logged in, and set up my character. Race, profession, eye color, hair style, beard style for my dwarf (hey, Uru’s in a cavern, of course I’m a dwarf). And I then set upon meeting people and seeing what the game had to offer.

Only I didn’t. What I did was begin my questing with a mess of cut-scenes and scripted events where random nobodies were killed off while I was conveniently “dizzy.”(I seem to get these random dizzy spells every time a notable member of the Fellowship of the Ring pops up by me. I’m either fainting from their awesomeness or bored into a coma from their verbose monologues and I’m wagering on the second option). Either that or I’m killing other dwarves/goblins/ugly horned things/kittens (okay, they’re called “highland cubs,” but they’re still kittens). The important point here is that it never stops. While that’s good in terms of keeping me busy, so far I haven’t seen many people. Two or three who never spoke. The rest are NPCs. I have no way of getting in touch with a group of people like I do in Uru or EVE. I want to chat with people or at least see other’s chat. Instead I’m running back and forth doing people’s errands.

Another thing to be said about LOTRO is the graphics. They’re terrible. Only Warcraft does them worse. The models are fairly low on polygons, the environments are rather simple and the textures are small and blurry.

Okay, I thought, maybe I’m just being hard on it because I liked EVE so much. So I tried a new “area” (server) and a new race (elf). And I was slightly right, but only slightly. I fought a battle with the elves, got dizzy when Elrond came into view, and then ended up in the dwarf’s land. So I can replay these quests from the perspectives of each race, which is neat. But, really, the game didn’t seem to ever open up. I was stuck in un-ending quests.

The last thought on LOTRO is about expectations and how they pertain to Uru’s past and future. I came into LOTRO with the expectation that I could relax with some old Uru friends and enjoy a world that, while not as beautiful as Uru’s, was still an interesting world; as well as enjoying the fantasy world of Tolkien. What I found was a typical leveling MMO only slightly veiled in the world of Tolkien. And this ties into Uru’s expectations. I’m sure people in the game (or at least I’d hope there are people in the game) who would tell me that there’s this going on and this and this, etc. But the strong usage of quests without the open-ness I expected (of being able to talk to friends, etc.) turned me off. As anyone will tell you, this was part of Uru’s downfall. People came into this game with varying expectations (expecting a game with more puzzles like Myst or large ages like the previous Uru). And while, from a fans perspective, those expectations are unfair and easily explained: the problem, sadly, was that those expectations were not tempered from the start or otherwise met. Hopefully any further incarnations of Uru will deal with this problem more effectively.

Filed under: Reviews

EVE Online

I’ve been trying out (by accident) the MMO EVE Online. As Uru was my only experience in MMO gaming, I must admit this is an odd feeling. It’s almost like looking for a new car before you’ve paid off the old one. Or, in this case, a starship.

First, the basics. EVE Online is a space community simulator. Similar to Uru, the game spans many fields and even my definition hardly encompasses them all. It has many features common to all MMOs and hides them in various ways. Typical MMO leveling is thinly disguised in the “skills” area of the game. Gold is replaced with “Kredits”, a name which makes me shudder. Combat is combat, and you can mine for resources as in other games. Not much new, you think.

True, the game sticks very much to traditional cliches. However, there are some unique portions of the game that got me interested in this game, though not to the point that it replaces what I have in Uru, but I’ll get to that later. First the interesting parts. The game is in one persistent instance. Everyone is there. Okay, it is somewhat of a stretch. The world is really divided into “solar systems” which one must jump to via portal-like “stargates”. So, while everyone is on the same server and in the same instance, it’s not quite what they claim it to be.

“Unlike most MMOGs that split a large player base up among small clones of the same game world (called “shards”) containing no more than 3,000 people, EVE is unique in that all of its players inhabit the same game world.”

Second, the game has a large market where items are bought, sold, etc. Unlike any other game I’ve heard of, the market has pretty much everything, for a price. Lastly, there is no one set “quest” as in Uru or the other games I’ve looked into. There are quests (Agent Missions, they’re called) but you can profit and enjoy yourself in-game without doing any of them.

So, my experience so far with about 7 days remaining on my 14 day trial. I set my race, bloodline, backstory, education, and specialty (you essentially build your life, which effects what bonuses you get, etc., which is another interesting feature of the game. All players begin with a basic rookie ship named the Ibis. After a lengthy tutorial explaining the rather complex game controls (this is NOT Uru where most controls are intuitive) I moved on to the part of the game I had the most interest in, mining. It’s the same kind of mining any other game has. You use a tool (which is always slow) to extract the resources from the rock (which never really shows any signs that you DID anything, when the asteroid is depleted, it just vanishes). It’s the typical boring busy work needed to maintain subscriptions. You can either sell the ore or refine it into essential minerals and sell those (or you can keep the minerals and build ships or weapons with them, which I still haven’t figured out how a crystal gets turned into metal for a ship).

Combat’s not my thing, so my ship is purely for mining. Space for the ore, good mining lasers, and bookmarks for the best ore areas. So when my ship was destroyed a few days ago, naturally I had a non-combative response. Warping away from the debris in my “pod” (the little craft that jettisons from your ship if it’s destroyed so you don’t die initially [though you can still get killed in that]), I calmly collected a few things and warped back to one of the stations I had items stored in and picked a new mining ship out of the group I had just constructed. The loss, literally, cost me nothing as I then sold the rest of the batch of ships at a price to make up for the cost of producing the one I took.

I bring this up because it shows you don’t have to be combative or violent to still enjoy this game. You just have to be smart. Were I forced to play this game, I would likely do more long term things, but as my time here is coming to a close (for now) I’m focusing on short term things. You can have an interesting time there no matter what your style and, in that way, it is very much like Uru.

Why this isn’t my choice over Uru. For all the (somewhat) unique thing EVE does, it doesn’t do as many nor nearly as good as Cyan. While some areas are beautiful, they are difficult to get to (whether by way of distance or combative players). While the game’s community is helpful (and even has a volunteer help system like the Greeters) it is also horrible in more ways than Uru’s can be. You want to talk about pride and corruption in Uru, there are gangs in EVE that think they control certain sectors and seem to enjoy exercising their will. You also can spend an hour in-game and see more swearing than I’ve seen in the history of Uru. The economic focus is riddled with poorly-hidden or blatant MMO cliches. The modeling, while at Uru levels in terms of texturing, is too blocky. In short, the game is far too “typical” to surpass a game like Uru as long as there’s still hope. It is close, though, and a serious contender. While it is only the first other MMO I’ve tried out, it seems as close as I’ve seen an MMO get to breaking new ground, which leads to the last point.

What Uru could learn from EVE. EVE has a number of things that could, conceivably, be put into Uru. Some more practical than others.

  1. Multiple chat channels with easy creation and destruction of said channels. This is something sorely needed.
  2. Easy-to-use chat display. Going hand-in-hand with #1, I was shocked at how seemless the chat was, how easily it notified me, how people didn’t randomly poof from the list, and how I never lost chat in a “link”.
  3. Simple info cards. Each person or place or item has an info card you can pull up at any time to read about it. This kind of thing could make contact in Uru so much easier.
  4. Info-filled site. I knew this would be an area where any other game would have an advantage not because of Tweek and amonre’s work, but because of the time constraints on Cyan and their general air of “here’s a hint, but we’ll let you figure it out” which I think should stay. If you look at the EVE site, particularly the FAQ, you notice it’s filled with info even new gamers are going to know, it’s simply written, and puts out all the info to be simply accessed. Information about what the game is, what you can do, pricing, computer requirements, etc. While most if not all of that is on the MOUL site, it is sometimes difficult to find and a crucial thing is missing, a guide to the KI. The EVE FAQ also talks about some of the failings of the game, or at least its constraints.

There are likely more Cyan could learn from. Having your avatar remain in the age you leave it in (perhaps sleeping when you’re offline) except for public places. A full-fledged tutorial at the game’s start. Mining busywork with a Cyan touch (clearing a tunnel to a new area), etc. It all depends on what Cyan does. I still have some hope we’ll get a UU2, and hope that Cyan can, one day, put in place these changes.

Filed under: Reviews

MO:UL Season I: Review

Well, I wanted to wait until Exodus was over and, with Yeesha’s speech, I think it’s safe to say it is.

I’m reviewing this on Content, Story, Community, and Bugs. Content: What was released. Story: The story that went with those releases Community: How good the community was and what the community did/responded to the season. How creative we were, etc. Bugs: How many bugs there were, how bad they were, and how quickly they were fixed. Of course, most of this is from memory and so I will miss some things.

Content:

For the sake of fairness to the group of explorers I belong to (the so-called “Old Guard” who have been here since some point before Uru Live. Whether that’s DIRT or Prologue or UU) I will not count the initial journey ages or the hoods, Nexus, GZ, or City as content for Uru Live.

While this isn’t fair to Cyan (who had to re-code the ages to work with the new physics and game engine) it is more realistic to what I expect. I am going to count the PotS ages and areas and any ages that were not released in Prologue.

So what did we get? Quite a lot if you look closely. We got: Eder Delin, Eder Tsogahl, Negilahn, Dereno, Payiferen, Tetsonot, Minkata, Er’cana, Jalak, Ahnonay, Kirel, Phil’s Relto, the Watcher’s Pub, the Guild Pubs, and K’veer, as well as small areas like the spyroom, the silo, Myst Library, and the new Bahro caves.

Delin and Tsogahl, while they are re-textures of Kemo, they are still very unique and I enjoy Delin more than most of the other ages (I hope we get more of these mini gardens next season).

The Pods, while small and un-explorable, are fascinating in their variety and the age itself is a wonderful concept (the inverted zoo). The Urwin in Negilahn is thrilling to see even after the fifth time as is its re-textured counterpart in Payiferen. Dereno is a very good spot to relax in the game and Tetsonot is the sort of half-restored age a lot of people were interested in seeing. (I’d like to see more dangerous ages, though I’d like if they were larger than the pods.

Minkata was an amazing age with a wonderfully complex puzzle. It was also beautiful and had many of the small details that were lacking in the previous ages (the crates and flags in the holes). It is, in my opinion, the first “real” age we got in that it is the largest to date and, while not complex, had all the hallmarks of the old journey ages.

The Path of the Shell ages were pretty much as they were in Path of the Shell. Ahnonay’s changes certainly helped me understand what’s actually going on in Ahnonay (certainly better than the offline one did).

Jalak, I think, if the age with the most potential, and the one least capitalized on. A sandbox age with nearly unlimited kinds of games sits pretty much empty. Whenever a group comes there, most ofthe time it devolves into “lets run around and bounce stuff on our heads”

Kirel was a spectacular place to turn into the “guild hood”. While I’d have loved to have had it as the DRC hood (perhaps secretly being given out to DRC supporters) the Guilds are something much more interesting.

I hate to gloss over things like the Watcher’s Pub and Phil’s Relto, however Phil’s Relto is relatively unchanged. It’s not that quiet of a spot, and had I been at the reigns, I would have had Phil bring people there himself. In other words, you’d have to talk to Phil (who I would not have had as a color-babbling fool) and agree with his message (or at least want to come) to go to his Relto. But that doesn’t matter. I’m hoping more interesting events can happen there (such as book releases there, etc.). The Watcher’s Pub was redone very well and is quite spectacular now. I like the new motif, as it reflects how Kadish changed the area to reflect his ownership.

The Guild Pubs, while small like many areas this year, are impressive areas in and of themselves. I wish they would be used more (this is another area I see used less than it should).

Lastly, K’veer. Obviously from a cold perspective, nothing much has changed here. The door to the prison is gone, likely so that Cyan didn’t have to work on coding it. The new thing is the stained glass window and the outside. But if you actually walk through K’veer, there is something more. Again, for me it’s the idea of potential. Think of the groups of people standing around in this beautiful setting just talking. And also the potential of a future season and the potential of MYST V being added to Uru.

Story:

The story has, as you would expect given Cyan’s condition, been relatively light. Nothing like Prologue really. But, then again, Prologue also was made when Cyan had more money and more time to spend on interaction.

Before the episode system (which I think is good as it lets more people see events while still keeping it spontaneous) the story was very, very light and, while laying the necessary groundwork for the coming story, was not executed well. Nick’s flirting and the Anti-DRC-Movement were not well-planned and not taken well (I think largely because Nick’s character seemed too new and odd as no one had really explored Nick back in Prologue. This combined with Sydney’s rather exaggerated way of storytelling and her unique knack for getting people, including your’s truly, angry at her character and sometimes her OOC self).

Scars was one of the most impressive episodes. Wheely’s event took up several days with people logging in for hours and hours and days waiting for the slightest whimper from the character. This was, pure and simple, the largest number of people who had actually shown care for a character. If Cyan could make Scars every episode, Uru would succeed even more than it currently seems to be. The night when the Bahro appeared on the roofs and screamed, the “invasion” when Wheely was trapped and before she was killed was awe-inspiring. Sitting late at night with the lights off as Bahro link above you ripping off haunting calls keeps me interested! Cyan got this episode downright to a T. The only critique people gave was their dislike of the way Wheely was killed. A minor tangent: The two critiques of this event were that Cyan was exploiting the death of an innocent child to make a drama, and that the death was too gruesome for the rating. The second may have merits, though I personally find the severed heads and torture devices in Myst’s Mechanical Age much more frightening, scarring, and harmful to children than the alluded shredding of a teenage girl. — The first, however, I think is more of an exaggeration. All stories “exploit” to some degree. They are not exploiting but simply places where our emotions run high. People cared about Wheely and, whether or not she died “because” she was an innocent young girl doesn’t really matter. Because whenever a character dies, your emotions are being “exploited”. The death of a family member or a friend is exploited when you read a book with death in it or watch a movie with death in it. That doesn’t mean we need to outlaw death in drama. Nor should writers feel they need to get a more “unlikable” or “manly” character to die because they fear someone might not like the death of an innocent. In fact, in most cases the real world has far worse things than a teenager being torn to shreds. The lasting pain of child soldiers springs to mind, but there are others. — And that was more than a minor tangent, I realize.

A New Light was, in my opinion, light on story but heavy on content. Either Cyan had burnt itself out on Scars or they lacked the ability to do a Scars each month from the get-go. Regardless, little was really done in that episode, but the content (and the pellets) made up for it.

Familiar Voices seemed to go back to heavier storytelling. Once again, the Bahro were Cyan’s most powerful tool which they have yet to abuse. An appearance generated more interest than any DRC visit could. Phil’s return, while somewhat underwhelming (we had mostly all assumed what Phil said), still was interesting.

Deception continued that returning theme with Engberg and Watson returning. The episode had a sort of “coming together” theme and I somewhat expected the finale to be mostly all these returned people doing something climactic to drive the Bahro out (I don’t know, putting on rings and transforming into the D’ni Rangers? Easy to pick out Watson.)

On that note, Exodus. While less than what my expectations were (the name hinted to me at more biblical end of times-type story), the episode was very good. It was at least as good as Scars, though I don’t think it topped the first episode. Exodus had Bahro appearances, as others had, though now it was in even greater numbers and somewhat more dramatic (I had at least five Bahro swoop down from the GZ and the movements on it were very good. Like a dragon). The Bahro flying around the Arch kept people coming into the game (though less than the Wheely event). And, of course, Yeesha’s appearance; while not a shock, was interesting.

Community:

How good the community was is one of the things I’m reviewing as part of community. What that means is how well we busied ourselves when Cyan couldn’t. With parties and explorations, etc.

Overall, I think the community has been great. The people on the forum have been whiny in some cases, and some wave their payments to Gametap and make demands for things to be one way or another, but the people on the forum are not the only fans, nor are they the most important, the most representative of the entire community, or the most in love with the game.

The community reacted quite well to the numerous releases of Ages, areas, and ideas. Marker games can be found at a central site, as can Jalak games. When the Guilds were first nudged at by Nick, Calam (Kal) first began the Uru Assembly of Guilds. While I’m not particularly happy that neither he nor myself, nor anyone else who worked on the Guilds became their “adviser”, that choice also helps as it expands the number of people invested in the Guilds. The community continues to build more things and, while I don’t think we’re doing enough (and try to add new things as often as I feel I have time), overall we have done a good job.

Bugs:

Bugs are the tricky category to decide on because bug fixes are not as easy to remember as content releases, etc. So all that really can be said is how stable the game currently is. It is very stable as of now. There are a handful of bugs that are frustrating and some server issues (black screen bugs when Ahnonay was released) that really serve to me as a moral booster. The Ahnonay release seemed, to me, a great release. Yes, people waited for a while, but everyone got it and if you didn’t get it in the Pub, you could get it from someone else.

So let’s see:

Content: Plenty of it and a variety of new and interesting areas, puzzles, and rewards. 9/10
Story: While not of the level of Prologue, it was very engaging in most respects once the episode system started up. 7/10
Community: We were, in general, forgiving of Cyan’s problems and helped keep ourselves entertained. 6/10
Bugs: Almost all the major bugs have been squashed. 8/10

So overall, Season I get a 7.5/10

Filed under: Reviews

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