Tag Archives: games

farmer’s almanac.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything of substance here. There have been half a dozen potboiler posts bubbling away in my mind and in my drafts folder for the better part of a year, but those never come to anything. If I don’t finish it when I start it, it’s over. As I sit down to write this one, I’ve given myself no out. Phil is sitting on the other end of our weekend Hangouts call, with instructions not to let me finish the weekend without finishing the blog post. So far today, I’ve hung pictures on the walls, rearranged furniture, run an errand, started a laundry and taken a shower. He has asked me four times, “Blog post?” He’s a good partner.  Blog post.

Since mid-March, I’ve been spring cleaning and packing my apartment in NE Portland, in preparation for moving in with a friend a few miles away. She had a spare room. I needed to be paying less rent, and I wanted to break out of a pretty stale work-to-home-to-sleep routine. It’s worked out really happily for both of us. It also happened to coincide with the breakneck busiest time of year for Mavora, where I work. March and April were bumper months for us, and when we’re busy I’m on my feet for long workdays and pushing against the clock all the time to get everything printed and shipped on schedule. For the last 10 weeks, by the time I got home and/or to the weekend, I was pretty much a blank slate. I haven’t made any new jewelry in months, and except for keeping up my daily selfies for my 365 project, I’ve been mostly absent from social media.

During this time, though, there was a world where I’ve been fully present and thriving, hardworking and full of creativity and energy. While I was recovering from daily work and resting my mind being quiet at home, a tiny adorable farmer named Allergy was efficiently conquering every aspect of a place called Stardew Valley.

Summer 13, Year 5

Sparkle Farm, Summer 13, Year 5

I’m a fairly new player of videogames, having only really started playing four years ago. There have been many games that I’ve enjoyed, and a few that I’ve stuck with long enough to feel competent and comfortable. As it turns out, though, I hadn’t yet found my game, the one that hits all the right notes of mechanics, visual world, challenge and reward. Even the sounds are perfect. I had absolutely no idea what could happen when you find that game, but now I know.

Ol One Eye, Spring 21, Year 5

This traveling merchant cart, drawn by a purple fez-wearing pig, is my favorite thing in the entire game.

I have loved playing Stardew Valley so much. I’ve not so much played it as fallen all the way into it. It’s been the exact right thing for me at the exact right time. To begin with, it’s beautiful. It’s a farming/country life RPG, drawn in a retro-looking pixel style, but with tremendous depth and color. It’s the work of one man, Eric Barone, and is entirely created and made by him, from the first line of code to the last note of music. That alone is amazing, and made me want to explore every part of it. Making videogames is complicated, multilayered work, and to create something of this scope and detail by yourself is mind-blowing. The world of Stardew Valley is a place I want to be, listening to the soft chuff-chuff of my footsteps on the ground, walking through drifting cherry tree petals in the spring. Fishing as the shadows of clouds pass over the landscape in the height of summer, and clearing pink and golden foliage from my farmland in fall. The appearance and origin of the game were enough to keep me interested, but the mechanics and goals have also been perfectly appealing to me, and I’ve been completely immersed for two months.

Taking my diamond to town

Urgent diamond business recalls me to town.

The tone of Stardew is a perfect balance between cheerfulness, sadness, and hilarity. It’s essentially a happy game, but it’s tempered with a few moments of genuine seriousness. When the game begins, the scene opens on your grandfather’s deathbed, and he’s telling you that he remembers wonderful days earlier in his life on a farm. As he slips away, he gives you a letter and tells you to open it when you’re at your lowest point. The next scene reveals that you’re an office drone worker for a gigantic corporation called JoJa Co. The camera pans over desk after desk, showing one drooping, dispirited person after another. (An interesting point here, though, is that the developer’s eye for detail has given each of these downtrodden workers their own personality through clothes or cubicle decorations or body language. You only see them that once, but they’re still distinct people. This is a game that’s meticulously well-developed and balanced, and although it has a cartoonish and familiar appearance, it has an incredibly full personality.) Finally the camera reaches your desk, and you slump in discouragement. Then you remember the letter, and open the drawer where you keep it. When you open it, you find that Grandpa has left you the family farm in Stardew Valley, and charged you with keeping the family legacy alive.

Grandpa is pleased Spring 1 Year 3

 

Off you go, you own a farm. It’s a shambolic mess, several acres full of trees and boulders and detritus. It just needs a little care and attention! It’ll be great! Off you go. Off I went, and from the very first morning on Sparkle Farm (of course I called it Sparkle Farm), I was smitten.

Vintner Spring 2 Year 3

 

It was damn hard work, though. Videogame farming shares some exhaustion and some heartbreak with real life farming. In my second year, I could finally afford a few fruit tree saplings. I planted six, only to have two of them struck by lightning and burned to stumps. Welp. (And no insurance options available at Sparkle Farm, either. In a recent update, lightning results have been changed and now just scorch a tree for three days instead of burning it down. That is kinder, but the total loss of the expensive trees to an arbitrary act of weather felt real.) At the beginning, my only goal was to get sprinklers for my crops so that I didn’t have to spend half the day watering them with a watering can that I had to keep refilling. From that one simple goal, I began looking at what I needed to do, and I could see the entire game full of tasks unfold in front of me, filling in little imaginary slots in my head. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a wholecloth picture of what I needed to do, and in what order, right from the beginning of a game. That is due, in main, to the perfect balance that’s built into the game. There is no aspect of play that you can master without needing to achieve competence in other levels to support you along the way. It was enormously satisfying, even in the very early stages, to tick something off that massive flowchart of goals and build the next piece onto it.

New pig Rumptydoolie

I bought a pig.

As my real world home was increasingly chaotic and unrestful, piles of boxes in the corners, and an ever-fresh heap of bags to donate collecting by the door, my farm home was coming together in adorable and rewarding ways. I learned how to mine and I made sprinklers. I got better at fighting monsters, went deeper in the mines, and made better sprinklers. With better sprinklers, I grew more crops. With more crops, I made more money. With more money, I built a coop and a barn and bought livestock. I contributed to town infrastructure and started to make friends with the villagers. I bought flower seeds and did a little landscaping. Hey, if I’m growing flowers, I should probably make some beehives to make honey.

Artisan Harvest 2, Summer 13, Year 5 Artisan Harvest, Summer 13, Year 5

 

From there, I ventured into artisan farming, making goat cheese and wine and pickles. There is nothing more satisfying than collecting entire rows of pickles, jams, wines and cheeses, to the accompaniment of a little popping sound as you pluck each one from its keg or press. As I mastered those tasks, I started to learn cooking, and to bring better gifts to the villagers. As those relationships developed, they unlocked further areas and abilities of the game. And so on and on, ticking things off my master plan, and knocking one achievement after another off the game board.

sparkle-quick

Gourmet Chef, Summer 3, Year 5

Gourmet Chef Achievement: cook every recipe

The only thing I ignored for a long stretch was fishing. There’s a fishing mini game, and it’s staggeringly hard when you first start out. Hard to the point where I failed over and over again and thought, well, I may never even get beginner-level able to do this. I’ll at least leave it until there’s nothing else to do, or until it’s necessary to move forward. Of course, there came a point when it was necessary to master fishing to move forward. It was maddening, and I was so bad at it for so long, but in the end I beat it. I finally caught a fish, and then another, and then a harder one. Eventually, my fishing skills hit the max level, and I caught every fish in the game, including five legendary fish that you can catch only once. I am stupid proud of my fishing achievement. Ask me about my fishing achievement. The eye patch you’ll see Allergy wearing in a couple of these screenshots is earned with that achievement.

The Legend!, Spring 18, Year 5

 

Most of the time, I have a very sensible (for “sensible,” you may also read “lazy”) approach to lists. I’m pretty happy to postpone, reorganize, or abandon as necessary. To-do lists must be flexible, or we make ourselves ill. It’s not often that a goal really gets under my skin in an uncompromising way, but this one did. I had to finish ticking it off or slowly itch myself to death. The day I caught the last legendary fish and saw that whole collection filled in, I felt an actual physical sense of accomplishment. When I was playing Guild Wars 2, and I finally got good at climbing vistas, I felt a similar sense of pride and satisfaction, but this was personal in a way that never was.

Every Fish, Spring 18, Year 5

 

Partly because I’m so impressed with and attracted to the world of Stardew Valley, and partly because of this chaotic and transitional time in my life, mastering the elements of building a home and community in that world has created a response in me that I’ve never felt for any other game. The more accomplished I became, the more determined I was to truly finish the game: to completely cross off every single element. The one exception to this is a social achievement: you have the option to marry one of several townspeople, and to have or adopt two children (same sex marriages are available, and there are no gender restrictions on character appearance – yet another reason to love it). In-game marriage and kids don’t appeal to me, and the kid aspect in particular I find a bit disturbing (they never age past toddler.) I have no interest in pursuing that element of the game. I find the conversations with townspeople fairly natural, if a little repetitive (that in itself is natural in a small town – everybody’s tracks are very well-worn). The ways your relationships with them develop is comfortable and moderately realistic. But adding a courtship element to those rote conversations would make them stop feeling authentic to me. So I enjoyed building my relationships with the townspeople, but I didn’t want to marry any of them. That achievement will have to remain unticked on the master list, but this run-through feels complete without it. (There may be a second run-through with a different character at some point, if I find I’m obsessing over getting every achievement.)

Rawr

Rawr.

For now, though, I’ve nearly completed my list, and it feels like my time in Stardew Valley is winding down. I tumbled through completing five of my last seven achievements this week: catching all the fish, cooking every item, selling every item, crafting every item, and reaching a max friendship level with 8 characters. Those were the ones that felt truly compelling to me, and the last two are longer-play goals that I can continue to chip away at over time. After this week, though, I don’t think I’ll be spending hours at a time on Sparkle Farm anymore. It looks more or less as I want it to, and it has carried me through an exhausted and depleted time in the real world. It gave me joy and organization and peace in chaos, and I am profoundly grateful for every maddening and adorable minute I spent there. I’m proud of my thorough knowledge of something I admire so much, and it’s always going to feel like home every time I walk through the gate.

Full greenhouse, Summer 13, Year 5

Onward now, to the next world, the new home.

NOTES:

If you’re interested in playing Stardew Valley, there are three great resources I’ve relied on throughout (and more being developed every day, but these are the ones I used most often):

The official Stardew Valley Wiki, created and maintained by ConcernedApe and the player community. Really, really helpful and thorough.

The Stardew Planner, which allows you to workshop your full farm space with all available buildings, farming implements and plants.

Stardew.farm, where you can download software that captures a screenshot of your full farm at the end of every game day and saves it to the website. This is new and a bit glitchy (there are some frames missing from the gif Phil made for me because there was an update to the way they posted), but still a really cool tool. If you’re using it, make sure the software is active in your taskbar before you end a day. As long as that’s running, it will grab the screenshots even if the website that displays them is glitching. They’ll turn up there eventually.

blaugust #30: outliving the outlander.

I hadn’t really planned on spending the bulk of Sunday wrestling with my outlander in T2, but here we are. When I logged in this morning, I was just going to do a little fishing and tidy my inventory. I’ve had an urge to make biscuits for a couple of days now, and I have a good book that I’m halfway through. I was just going to fish while the water boiled for tea. That was four hours ago.

Ozzy’s just been such a difficult puzzle that I kept banging my head against it, dying over and over again. There were my existing problems of needing a lot of potions, and not having a lot of power to my ammo. And then my pet is really double-secret useless. I know they’ve all got the same base stats on them, so I can’t explain why this panther runs away and dies so much faster than any of my other pets. Maybe that’s a function of higher difficulty. He doesn’t have especially good tags on just yet, but neither did my other pets early on. He has the best things available equipped. Even as a warsnout in regular mob fights, he’s dead almost immediately. So I’ve basically just been ignoring him. I’ve had to step lively to keep myself going, so I’m not stopping to heal him. When I can get Vampiric Spider Eggs, that seems to do the trick for him and he’s much stronger and does great damage. [Side note: he is a blockily animated panther in a game that doesn’t take itself especially seriously, but it still feels really, really bad to ignore him while he limps away and keels over in a corner.]

So there I was, slogging away in the best gear I could equip, with my potions stacked to the rafters, dying and dying and dying. I could kill anything out in the world. I could kill anything in dungeons, but it was expensive and took ages. But I could not kill a single boss. All the Act I quests I did up to the boss fights, and then died almost immediately in those. Because I’ve not played either an outlander or this difficulty level before, I wasn’t sure what combination of those things was making this so hard. I looked for a better shotgunne, but couldn’t find any for sale. So I just kept slogging on, leaving all the bosses unfinished. It was insanely frustrating, but not boring. There was just enough progress I could make that I didn’t want to give up.

And then I finally caught a break. A better shotgunne dropped, and when I equipped it, it cracked the game open. The numbers weren’t crazy higher – about 20% more than what I’d had – but because Ozzy’s build is entirely wrapped up in shotgunne skills, it made a huge difference. I started being able to do dungeon monsters without going through piles of potions, and I went back and finished off all the bosses I’d left hanging. It still took ages, and lots of healing, but I did all the bosses but one without dying. That gave me about three more levels, which is that much more strength and dexterity, and then I got a shotgunne that was better still.

It’s still difficult, and I’m going through way more potions than I ever have on other characters. My panther is still not a great source of help. But I have a handle on surviving and moving forward now, and it feels really satisfying. A year ago, I’d have rage-quit this, and now I can keep myself going, and make progress. On top of being fun, that feels really good.

(This is the eve of the end of Blaugust, dear readers.)

blaugust #08: badger me

I spent several hours playing Torchlight 2 with Phil this morning. It’s been The Year of Trying Games around here; I’ve forayed into everything from Shelter to EVE Online. There have been several that I enjoyed, and a few that I loved. Phil and I have played several things together, with varying degrees of success and/or longevity. But Torchlight 2 seems to hit a sweet spot of seasoned-gamer-plays-with-relative-newbie for us. The game’s balance of challenging-to-unfussy is the most satisfying of any I’ve played so far, and I really love it. We both like the mechanics of the game, and its Diablo 3-like sandbox appearance. It’s got a lot of really nice quality of life features, like being able to send your pet back to town to sell gear and restock potions for you. The character builds are flexible and not fussy (I’m learning, but I still get overwhelmed when I look at a skill tree and see dozens of options branching out in every direction). You can apply almost any combination of magic/strength skills to any character.

Which is how I ended up playing an engineer whose entire build is magic, in order to power a gigantic hammer with fire. THIS IS EXACTLY AS FUN AS IT SOUNDS. Her name is Rime. She has shock-white hair, aviator goggles, a steampunk backpack that puffs smoke, a HUGE hammer, and a pet badger. She hits the ground with her hammer, and a sizzling pinwheel of five fiery spokes shoots out around her, striking foes and causing mayhem. It’s immensely satisfying.

Rime in early days, when flaming maces were all the rage.

My only disappointment with the game so far is that the world feels fairly small. There are three segments to the storyline, and three main towns that lead out into the maps. We’ve gone through two of the three already. I know there’s quite a bit more to do, with achievements and random dungeons. I don’t feel like the game itself will be over soon. But I wish there was more to just wander around and explore.

My second character is an embermage, and she’s a good bit squishier than the engineer. I play her on my own (I play the engineer with Phil, so in addition to being just a stronger class she also has backup), and she’s died quite a bit more than Rime has. After I finished the first segment of storyline with the mage, she needed some bulking up before she was ready to take on the second section by herself. I ran her around every inch of the first section of the world, killing every last spider and tiny, quivering rodent until she was strong enough to move on. I wish there had been more room to wander. That may come with the higher levels and later section of the game, but after playing WoW and Guild Wars 2, I’m a bit spoiled for worlds to wander in for their own sake.

The satisfaction I’m getting out of this one more than makes up for that slightly small feeling, though, and I’ll be sticking with it for a long while yet.

(Today marks the start of week 2 of Blaugust. One week down!)

blaugust #02: much road, so hop.

 

I loved Frogger when I was a kid. I can, and will, go further. I ruled at Frogger. My dad used to bring an Apple Mac home a couple of nights a Apple_1984_Macweek for work (back when those two terms were not synonymous, and Apple had other models not called Macs). It was a desktop portable (also used to be a thing), and had a cube-shaped zip case for carrying. We were allowed to play on it for a few precious turns at a time. My drugs of choice were Frogger and Lode Runner (the only game I have ever broken – I played it until I perfected all 150 levels).

A couple of months ago, our friend Matt mentioned a free phone game he’s been playing, Crossy Road. It’s basically endless Frogger: you cross the road forever, until you drown or are eaten or run over. It’s brutal, it’s hilarious, and it’s deeply, deeply satisfying. I CAN’T STOP.

Like Frogger, the mechanics of Crossy Road are ultra-simple: you tap to move forward, swipe left or right to move sideways, and the rest is just hand-eye coordination, you poor sucker. The game is free to download and free to play. The character you’re given at startup is a chicken, but there are dozens of others to look forward to. Characters can either be earned with in-game coins, or purchased with actual money for amounts between $0.99 and $2.99. The delivery mechanism is a gumball machine. Spend 100c, tap to pull the lever, and a cube reminiscent of a Pokemon ball pops out and delivers your new character. Anything from a ball player to a tree frog, from fish and chips to #thedress. In my modest stable, I have 24 characters. I love The Celebrity, who is followed across intersections by paparazzi wielding cameras. When she gets run over, money flies out of her purse and flutters everywhere. Another favorite is Swift Snail, who is just a plain old snail, but leaves a slug trail behind as he goes. My prize, though, my current favorite, is Nessie. There are several secret characters that aren’t for sale and have to be discovered and earned in-game. I got Nessie by playing my Scottish Piper character for days until Nessie randomly appeared in a river and I jumped on it. On my next game, it was available as a character. It took me days, and it was hugely satisfying when it finally turned up. GOALS.

Meanwhile, my high score is still just all of 116 hops, and my average run is only just under 40. I get hit by my fair share of cars, but my real Waterloo is, well, water. I calculate badly and get swept away before jumping to my next log.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to pinpoint why it is that punishing arcade-style games are so popular and fun, but I’ve come up empty-handed. Like Flappy Bird. Thousands upon thousands of people have spent hours getting no further than 8 or 10 pipes in Flappy Bird, and they were happy to do it. I don’t know why it’s so satisfying to do something (for fun and relaxation) that’s much, much too hard, but it is. For Crossy Road, there’s always the excuse that I’m holding out for the next character (I’m dying to get #thedress and/or Floppy Fish, and the secret character of the game’s creator, Hipster Whale), but I’d still be playing it even if there was only the original plain chicken. It’s the hopping that’s fun. It’s the assumption that it’s easy, how hard could it be, you just count the lanes and time your jumps and ooooooooooh there’s a snapshot of my flattened Cockatoo on the front of a speeding train. In the final analysis, I don’t need to know why it works. I’m just happy it’s there to keep me company on my daily three hours on public transportation (safely inside, not plastered to the nose of the bus). My current goals are to break 200, and to collect every character available from the gumball dispenser, and I’m confident Crossy Road can hold my interest for as long as that takes.

dead cockatoo snapshot

 

(If you’re curious about Blaugust, or want to join in, you can find out all about it here.)

Fortunately, Terraria.

So, Phil and I managed to catch the exact same revolting and gunky head cold over Christmas. From 6,000 miles apart. Do not even attempt to rise to our level of romantic symbiosis, grasshoppers. So relationship. Much cough. Wow.

Fortunately, it was a holiday and we both had several days to lie around moaning and drinking tea. Even more fortunately, we’d started playing Terraria the weekend before Christmas and were just dug in enough to fall very hard down a video game rabbit hole (between naps).

Terraria is an almost-entirely sandbox game, designed to look like an old 8-bit game, but much newer. It’s cute and compulsive and pleasingly unfussy, and I’ve fallen for it hard. The whole game revolves around the building blocks of the world: navigating them, acquiring them, using them to build structures or aid in survival or craft equipment. There are monsters and bosses and pitfalls of terrain, but that’s essentially it. Blocks comma get and use. According to Steam, I’ve played 37 hours in the last not quite three weeks. That’s an iniquitous amount of game time for me. It’s the holidays, so I’m just enjoying it and I’m having so much fun.

I’ve tried a lot of video games in the last three years, looking for something that will be absorbing enough to take me out of myself, while still being accessible to a newcomer in the world of RPGs, ideally something that Phil and I could play together. Game mechanics and game design are interesting to both of us, and it’s important to have fun things that we can do together from a distance. That’s easier said than done, when you’re looking for a game that allows multiplayer from different continents, is affordable, doesn’t run on too much graphics memory, has interesting and challenging mechanics for players at disparate levels, and doesn’t piss one or the other of us off with appalling stereotypes. I started out with Kingdom of Loathing a couple of years ago, and I loved that, but the restriction on number of turns per day kept me from ever getting as deeply into it as I wanted. It’s brilliant and hilarious and challenging, but you have to play untold hours before those turn limits disappear and I didn’t have the patience. Since then, I’ve tried World of Warcraft (enjoyable, but not obsessive, and frequently offensive in storyline and quest objectives; I abandoned my subscription when Blizzard took to Twitter with inflexible and offensive statements about women in gaming and game design); Lord of the Rings (oh God, so cute, so grinding, so boring, so slow it melted the face of my laptop); Rift (I actually really like this one, and it has a number of clever and friendly MMO mechanics. Still, I haven’t stuck with it, and I have some shouty issues with the gendering of equipment. I’ve kept it on my laptop, though, and I go back to it from time to time); Spiral Knights (again so cute, so grinding, so dull in the final analysis); and EVE. I’ve stuck with EVE, but with a caveat: I’m really only in it for the pretty. I like to fly around and explore space and take screenshots. The game mechanic I particularly enjoy is the scanning, so that’s all I do. I fly around, I scan down wormholes and exploration sites (mini game within the game, which I really like), and I take screenshots of prettypretty simulated space. It’s a perfect relaxing game and can be played while I’m watching TV. But it’s not the “I will chew my own arm off if I don’t get to play this today” game I’ve been looking for.

Enter Terraria, on a Black Friday Sale from Steam for $2.99. Phil had played it a bit a while back and recommended it, so I bought it and then forgot about it for a couple of weeks. Then the weekend before Christmas we remembered and I installed it first thing on a Saturday morning and the next thing I knew it was Sunday night, quite late. I love this one. I love the make-your-own-fun of it, the ability to log in and fight monsters or explore new territory or obsessively pursue a specific goal or continue adding dirt blocks and trees and mushrooms to my ever-expanding house. I love the lack of quests and direction. There are some quests available, should you want that sort of thing, but advancing through the game doesn’t depend on accessing them. You can take it or leave it. I always thought I preferred quests in RPGs – checking things off a list is endlessly satisfying to me – but it turns out I really like the freedom of no quests. I still have a list to check things off, it’s just of my own making and far less guided and restrictive than most of the games I’ve played. There’s no leveling, just general improvement (read: less dying) as you find and craft better equipment, all of which is readily available to you through exploring the general environment. It’s easy to figure out and it’s beautifully uncluttered, while still being an interesting challenge with just the right amount of click-click-keep-on-clicking obsessiveness to take me out of a stressful day. We can toggle back and forth easily between single- and multiplayer modes, and we can share a world that we work on together while each having our own to mess around with. So far, it checks every box for gameplay for me. Simple, without being stupid. Flexible and player-friendly. Visually appealing. Not sexist. You choose a male or female character to play, but beyond the initial outfit they appear in, there’s no gendering of equipment or tasks. I can put on a yellow slicker and rain hat dropped in combat by a zombie and pick up my sword that summons bees to attack monsters and go forth into the forest to chop down trees to build my house. I can plan an elaborate underground library (and I am. I am. It will be entirely cosmetic and quite huge and will hold all my novelty furniture and monster-killing banners and will be lit by chandeliers and bonfires.). Phil built a Hellavator – a mine shaft that goes straight down from the surface of his world all the way to the molten lava level at the very bottom. It’s impressive and hilarious and a thing of beauty. I can’t survive down there yet; I just went down to look and spent the whole time chugging health potions until I died. I can dig endless tunnels underground, searching for specific materials to craft armor, and fighting monsters. I can say fun stuff like, “Did you know a candy cane pickaxe can’t mine demonite ore?” I’ve spent hours on the wiki looking up ways to breathe underwater, or figuring out how to summon a boss, or tracking down a bug that’s keeping me from finding a specific item I need to craft my next armor. I squealed with triumph when I got a piece of equipment that will allow me to swim.

It’s been so fun to finally hit that vein of obsessive enjoyment for a specific game, and it’s been my luck to have two long holiday weekends in a row to indulge it (in between naps and cold medicine, because I’m still not quite right). What happens when I go back to work on my regular schedule is anyone’s guess, but I think I’ll still be building that underground library.