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Lives, Witchers, And Bores, Oh My!

Long time, no update.  This has been a miserable few months, but I finally got a chance to get a bit of quality gaming in.  Yesterday was spent giving the latest huge update of Starbound a spin, and the day before completing the first free roaming area in The Witcher 3.

Witchin' Around.

The Witcher 3 is about as good as PC action RPGs get.  It features a hand crafted, open-ended world with elaborate attention to detail, a host of richly explored characters that are well portrayed in game, and fairly slick gameplay mechanics.  About the only bad thing I can say about it is that the mouse-and-keyboard interface is a tad awkward, resulting in my jiggling the camera view as I frantically click the mouse to launch a barrage of fast attacks.

The ridiculous alpha male that is Geralt of Rivera, your central protagonist throughout the game, is a likable enough fellow for a leathery scarred wreck that can't stop it with the sass-mouth.  I can't really blame him for being a bit cynical considering his world is one of nonstop violence.  Monsters roam the earth, it's a Witcher's job to put them down (for a price), and Geralt is one of the best.  However, wherever he goes, you will witness far more signs of strife caused by men, not monsters.  Thanks to the magical process of becoming a Witcher, Geralt is about a century old, so he has plenty of reason to be a bitter old man.

That same process also made him impotent but virile enough in vitality and appearance, so he's basically the closest thing a medieval woman can hope find in birth control.  Thus, Geralt's monster-slaying, alpha male image is completed by womanizing freely, and for some people that's part of the appeal of the game.  Personally, I'm a little annoyed that they've the gall to try to work an overarching love triangle into it, portraying Geralt as a sympathetic character torn between his two great loves, while ignoring that he was racking up women as card collectibles in the previous games.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, The Witcher 3 isn't really about that.  It's basically an offshoot of The Elder Scrolls style of game, with a skeletal treatment of the Batman: Arkham Asylum combat mechanics thrown in for good measure.  Honestly, it's no wonder I'm such a jaded gamer when I can already see almost everything that this game did done better elsewhere, but The Witcher 3 is a reasonable sum of its parts.  Uniquely, it brings an excellent treatment of its lore... but then, that's always been the highlight of the series.

I completed the White Orchard area fairly exhaustively, investigating every point of interest on the map and doing all the quests there.  When I reached the next open-ended area, Valen, I found it to be a larger area that was looking to be more of the same.  I'm sure a fun time could be had there, but I really pine for more in the way of emergence than this kind of prefab content can provide; the trouble with hand-crafted content is is that it's often static, prescripted, and that's not all that exciting.  That leads me to the next game I went on to play.

Bound by stars and other overreaching expectations.

Starbound is a bit of a rags to riches story, a rag-tag team of indie developers ran a kickstarter in which they promised the space grail and managed to get several million dollars of crowd funding for what was basically just more Terraria but in space.

Terraria could be justly called, "Minecraft if it was 2D," but if you get into the details of what that means then it's actually not that terrible: you take all the development savings of what would have spent on adding that third dimension and instead add content.  Thus, Terraria has a TON of content, and they just keep adding more to it.  In many ways, I think Terraria is the better game than Minecraft because having all those things to do adds some much-needed context.
http://brennrambles.blogspot.com/2014/07/reinventing-fun-starbound.html
Terraria's rapid expansion puts Starbound in a bit of an awkward position.  There's not nearly as much content in Starbound, but your focus is largely the same: defeat a chain of bosses to unlock the next set of activities.  What Starbound gets is a sci-fi setting, a somewhat more advanced engine, the ability to play any of six races, and jump aboard your very own ship and go to other planets.  However, that's pretty much the only advantages Starbound has over Terraria, and arguably not nearly enough for a 2D game with a multi-million dollar budget.

At times, I have to wonder if the utilization of the travel mechanic to produce functionally unlimited maps, Starbound's greatest advantage, is also its greatest disadvantage.  Throughout the play of Terraria, you first are driven to make yourself a home, and then explore the world map, familiarizing yourself with it.  Later, the map is transformed under the world-shaking events of beating up the bosses, making it more dangerous but also possessing more incredible treasures, which enhances the story of the place further.  In comparison, throughout your play of Starbound, you move on to more dangerous planets to find better ores to make better armor, leaving the previous planets behind and often irrelevant.  Consequently, despite Starbound giving the players a lot more space, the space in Terraria is a lot more significant to its players.

There may be an important lesson about virtual worlds in there somewhere, but is that lesson, "Don't offer too much space, or it becomes less important to the players." or is it, "If you are going to offer a ton of space, you'd better include a ton of content and reasons why that space should be relevant."  Call me greedy but, as a gamer, would prefer the latter: more space, more content to make use of that space, and greater context to make that space valuable.  Maybe, in time, Starbound will provide these things, in which case it is actually half way towards a greater potential due to the original decision to have multiple planets.
I thought one of those things might have been added, because the whole reason I was giving Starbound another spin yesterday was because it introduced Colony Deeds.  These can be placed inside of finished dwellings, where they will summon a tenant NPC to occupy it, the type of which depending on how the dwelling is decked out.  This essentially allows you to build your own colonies!  This is a step further than the rudimentary village growth mechanics in vanilla Minecraft or Terraria because there's a much greater bit of player agency involved and the Starbound NPCs have a wider range of behaviors.

In practice, I found the NPCs it summons to be a reasonably emergent, in that they emote and wander around the house doing things a lot.  However, I am disappointed that there's no real logistics involved: you don't need to worry about feeding your tenants or anything like that; you just build the house, invite over a tenant, and they will periodically cough up a tribute in thanks.  At least there is the consideration of building regular guard quarters to attract guard tenants to stop the monsters from killing your other tenants.

After playing Starbound through pretty much an entire day off, I was disappointed to see how little I accomplished: I built one hut, which I rented out to a tenant who turned out to be a cook (meaning I had more cooking blocks than anything), explored the surface of three planets, dug to the core of two planets, and completed the first mission.  I'm at armor tier two out of five.  I spent most of that night browsing the Starbound wiki and actually being pretty disappointed how little content was left.

Ho hum, what next?  Back to Witcher 3?  More Starbound?  Maybe give the latest Terraria version a try now that I've talked it up?  Actually, isn't Minecraft with the latest version of the Minecraft Comes Alive mod is at least equivalent in overall value to what I've seen any survival game do for NPCs?  The nice thing about Minecraft modding is that I can throw in something like Buildcraft and get some automated block production that blows away this supposed "Sci-Fi" backdrop that Starbound gives me.  Once again, I've pigeonholed myself out of being able to enjoy anything; might as well get back to studying Unity 3D to make my own game if I'm that picky.

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