Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: Your Own Private WestWorld

I ride up to the crest of a hill, my trusty mare stamping at the earth as we come to a stop. Across the valley (modeled after Colorado, it seems), a stagecoach pulls into view, rolling down the deep ruts of a well-traveled road, unaware of the danger that awaits it.

I check my pocket watch. It’s right on time, like my informant at the train station promised. Through binoculars, I can see two men riding atop the wagon, one driver, one riding shotgun. A few riders flank the vehicle, rifles in hand.

Nothing too serious. With the right tool, I’ll make quick work of the guards and the driver. If my lock-breaker won’t do the trick, a well-placed stick of dynamite will open the strongbox that holds my reward. I just need my lever-action rifle to kick things off, the one I’ve customized with dark wood covered in dark leather, black metal accented with gold engraving.

Unfortunately, I have to open up a menu and scroll through more than a dozen longarms to get what I’m looking for. It’s a game, so maybe I could live with that, but I’m tacitly asked by to ignore the massive hammerspace my horse must have in the invisible quantum field that surrounds my saddle. Having to choose what to take with me when I leave camp would have been far more interesting.

That’s been my experience of the game in the (frankly embarrassing) amount of time I’ve spent on it. Things seem great until the game’s systems ruin the immersion with rigid, often-nonsensical responses.

On an HD TV and and Xbox One X, the game is stunningly beautiful–except for the people. Their expressions are just a bit much, their faces waxen and on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. Not too beautiful, but still inhuman.

The physics of the game veers from the believable to the frustratingly sudden. I’ve lost a number of horses (typically after reaching the max level of bonding–and thus unlocks–with them) to having them suddenly run headlong into trains or wagons (after I’ve jumped onto said train or wagon). Likewise, in the midst of thrilling chases, I’ve been launched ragdoll-like, my horse crumpling beneath me on some unseen sharp edge of the terrain.

But it’s not the physics of the game that really destroys the immersive potential. It’s the asininity of subsystems of the game that infuriate. For a game about the last outlaws of the Old West, it makes little sense to include an “Honor” system that rewards not doing many of the game’s draws–robbery, theft, gunfights and bucking the law. What’s worse, the Honor system has nothing to do with getting caught by others. Even without witnesses, you lose Honor for looting a body or taking something that’s not yours. That’s not fun.

This is exacerbated by the fact that “restoring” or improving your Honor to a high level (where there are in-game perks) is tedious and uninteresting. Help people in radiant events while traveling, kindly greet all the people you come across, perform repetitive and dull chores (“move this from here to there” in camp). There’s nothing interesting about being a white-hat in the game except for mechanical benefits. Being a roleplayer first and foremost, I see that as exceptionally bad form in design.

The “law enforcement” system also makes little sense. There is one fun/interesting aspect: witnesses to crimes will try to run away and contact the sheriff or other members of “the Law.” You can chase them down and threaten them to keep them from tattling. Unfortunately, everything’s downhill from there. The witnesses don’t actually have to run to a specific point to summon the Law–once they make it far enough, they simply disappear to be replaced by lawdogs.

The excitement of this is further diminished by a number of other flaws: rob a store and an alert automatically goes up to the law when the robbery begins (unless you’re robbing a business’s secret side business). Wearing a mask only slightly delays identification of you as the perpetrator, even in a place where no one should know your name. Of course, if you can evade fast enough, you can leave the scene of the crime, hide out for a few minutes, and come back like nothing ever happened. Without changing your appearance.

Be identified while committing crimes and a bounty will be placed on your head–this bounty increases for each infraction, but killing an officer of the law only raises it by $20. According to the internet, the 2016 value of that amount is about $2,891.65.

If your bounty gets high enough, bounty hunters will start to seek you out–though they appear randomly and without cause for being able to track you down in the wilderness. Of course, you can avoid this by going to any Post Office and paying off your accumulated bounty. Apparently the Old West works off of the ancient Germanic weregild system rather than 19th century American justice.

This is complicated by the fact that many of the “iconic” outlaw activities of the Old West net very little income compared to bounty you’re likely to generate during the activity. For instance, robbing a train got me about $100 in goods and cash while generating a bounty of $380 for defending myself from the near-instantaneous onslaught of lawmen from their hiding places in the wilderness where they must have been waiting for just such an offense to occur.

Playing the game, I can’t help but compare it to WestWorld. The game seems more like an Old West themepark than any verisimilitudinous experience. Scripted actions, often clearly weighted toward “game balance” rather than any sense of authenticity serves as a constant reminder that the whole thing is a conceit, a game. NPCs are robotic and caught in activity loops, wooden and predictable. Actions have only short-term consequences before everything is reset to its “natural state.”

The story missions are mostly good and the characters within Dutch van der Linde’s gang have at least a modicum of depth–though most of the dialogue is canned and you have very little opportunity to control Arthur Morgan’s treatment of his companions (which, again, makes the Honor system seem arbitrary and ridiculous).

Red Dead Redemption 2 is being hailed as a massive success in open-world gaming, but I just can’t agree. The game doesn’t do anything that Witcher 3 didn’t do better–and more believably. And when a fantasy setting feels more real than a pseudohistorical one, its hard not to think that the creators have strayed pretty far from the goal.

Is the game fun? Yes, yes it is, but only as a game. Does it feel like the systems of Grand Theft Auto have been conveniently ported to the Old West without much scrutiny. Yep. If you’re looking for immersion that gives you an easy time imagining yourself in Arthur Morgan’s shoes, you’ll find ocassionally satisfying bits (particularly while hunting, where animal behaviors are linked to some real-world expectations–at least in terms of diurnal/nocturnal cycles) but you’re ultimately going to be disappointed. I don’t regret picking up the game (even in limited edition at full price) and I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it, but I just can’t help but feel that the game could have been much more.

I’ll probably keep playing it for the time being to kill time, but not without the feeling that I could be employing my time to higher and better purpose. If I manage to finish it before Fallout 76 drops, then I’ll finish it. If not, I doubt I ever will. Certainly not in the near future given the games set to release before the end of the year or in 2019.

Review: Far Cry 5: No There There

As a writer of both fiction and theology, the premise of the latest Far Cry game (creatively entitled “Far Cry 5”) quickly piqued my interest. Where the previous games in the series played upon the otherness of exotic locales, the latest installment brings the action close to home, setting us in (fictitious, though the geography is based on real geography in the southwest corner of the state) Hope County, Montana, a strange community of traditional heartland folks, stereotypical “preppers”–and a mysterious and dangerous cult calling itself the “Project at Eden’s Gate.”

The premise of such a location is full of narrative possibility, particularly in the current political and religious background of America. Here are some of the things I hoped to find within the game:

  1. Some investigation of the interplay between certain types of Christian fundamentalism and the Prepper mentality. Though entirely unscientific, my own experience with Prepper culture (some of which is through personal encounters, but most of which is through the admittedly not-entirely-trustworthy media of the internet and reality TV) seems to indicate a strong correlation between pre-millennial dispensational theology and Prepper culture. On the more disturbing end are those with even more extreme spiritually-based conspiracy theories that create within them the fears that lead to prepping for the end-times. Here, I should mention an unsettlingly-common belief that demons or fallen angels have infiltrated American government (and/or foreign governments) and are purposefully driving us to apocalypse. Yikes! This whole subject merits a post of its own, I think, but that’s for another time.
  2. Narrative that deals with the interplay between Trumpism and Christianity–the ways in which Trumpism distorts Christianity into a self-justifying parody of itself and the ways in which more honest Christianity defies the values of Trump and his compatriots.
  3. Tension between cult beliefs and traditional Christian beliefs.

Was I naive to expect any of these things? Of course I was. On the other hand, as video games are pushing into a more maintsream and respectable narrative medium, we should be expecting our games to push the envelope, to make philosophical arguments and investigate both theological ideas and political ones. Spec Ops: The Line is an excellent example of a game that’s already done this, as are the Bioshock series (is there much that’s more interesting than a well-crafted video game that investigates a philosophical system like Rand’s Objectivism?) and games like Heavy Rain.

And to be fair, the game starts off in a misleadingly promissing way for my hopes. You play as a rookie deputy sheriff in Hope County, Montana; the game starts with you in a helicopter as part of a joint sheriff’s office and federal agent task force to arrest Joseph Seed, the “father” and prophet of the Project at Eden’s Gate. Walking through the Eden’s Gate compound, surrounded by tense believers with automatic rifles, knowing what you’re there to do creates a great dramatic moment with which to launch a story.

It gets better. You approach Joseph Seed to arrest him, and he does not resist. He does tell you that God will not let you take him. Exactly what you’d expect a cult leader to say. But his prophecy becomes reality. As you return to the helicopter and it attempts to take off, fanatical cultists swarm the vehicle, with some even throwing themselves into the rotor to cause the chopper to crash. Joseph leaves the wreck remarkably unscathed and with the obligatory, “I told you so.”

That’s where the narrative peaks, unfortunately–right when it poses the following fascinating questions:

  1. Was it divine intervention that Joseph Seed walked away from the crash, or was it simply fanatical human action combined with coincidence and luck? This search for an understanding of whether some felt but unprovable synchronicity lurking behind human events is real or merely imagined is a fundamental existentional question.
  2. As a corrollary to the first, is Joseph Seed right? Is he a prophet? Of course, we never really get a clear view of the theology of Eden’s Gate, so this question falls quickly by the wayside.
  3. Has America, through its recent history, culture and politics created a landscape ripe for the likes of extremist cults?
  4. What do you do when faced with a violent cult using the trappings of Christianity but promoting patently non-Christian courses of action (Eden’s Gate are murderers, thieves, abusers, drug pushers, kidnappers and a whole slew of things that you’d think would give some of its members pause, but this is never really addressed). Is violence a legitimate means for the Christian to resist evil being done in the name of Christ (though I don’t think that Joseph actually ever mentions or alludes to Jesus in the game if I remember correctly). Under what circumstances? Can a cult like this really be taken down by violence, when the expectation of violence and aggression from external sources feeds directly into their eschatological expectations?

Instead, we are treated with a two-dimensional bad guy, a stereotype onto which the elements of religiosity have been crudely grafted. Joseph Seed is made to look distinctly like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, complete with 90’s-style yellow-tinted aviator glasses. He quotes (paraphrases, really) the Book of Revelations, but never mentions any other part of the Bible and never makes any concrete theological assertion–only claiming that the end is coming and people must repent and be cleansed of their sin. By sin, he apparently means the extra-biblical “seven deadlies.” One minor caveat to this–the signboard of the church in Fall’s End (the one non-Eden’s Gate church in the game) does have a reference to a verse (but not the text of the verse) in Jeremiah that warns to beware of false prophets.

The game sends you on a blood-soaked path of murderous resistance to Eden’s Gate without sufficient self-awarness to question what that really means, underlining it only with a repeated chorus of “America, Fuck Yeah!” The other characters in the story are likewise various survivalist and prepper stereotypes that bleed into a muddy morass that deprives the game of any real humanity.

And the cultists aren’t really even that convincing. Turns out, it’s drugs, not beliefs, that create the fanaticism of the “PEGgies,” as the game calls them. The enemies are dehumanized and the bodies in your wake only a tally of progress. This may be lamentably American, and perhaps that disturbed me most about the game (kudos to the writers and designers for that if it was intentional and not a sad symptom of our culture).

If you came to this post looking for a review of what gameplay is like, I’ll have to direct you elsewhere, as there are already a plethora of reviews to handle that. But I will admit that, if you like the previous Far Cry games, you will enjoy playing Far Cry 5. It’s the “theme-park” experience to be expected in this line of games and it does have a humor and gameplay style deep enough to entertain. I played through the entire campaign and–so long as I didn’t think about it too much–enjoyed it.

But I finished the game disappointed, as is common when some narrative promises us great ideas and interesting story in the previews but fails to adequately exploit and explore those ideas in the actual doing of the thing. In my struggle to ideologically bolster the lackluster storytelling, I even watched (yesterday) the half-hour movie teaser that Ubisoft made for the game (it’s on Amazon Video). This did nothing for me (though I did like the one they put out for The Division some time back).

And maybe that’s the greatest commentary about current culture to get from this game, whether the creators made the commentary intentionally or just happen to magnify this running theme. And that’s the idea that much of American Christianity is really only the cultural stylings of the faith appended to ideas that may be “American” but almost certainly aren’t Christian–the idea that Christianity is a style of doing things rather than a substantive approach to existence. Then again, that could be a concern of mine fully projected onto the game in a desperate attempt to create some meaning where I could find none.

That ultimate emptiness and sense of unfulfilment was all that remained after I finished the game and when I think back on the hours I spent playing it–a great opportunity lost by the writers, either because they did not understand the subject matter well enough to intelligently comment on it while coopting the trappings for the style of their game or because they opted not to make any particular commentary for fear of hurting sales. That’s understandable in a commercial sense, and money often influences all forms of art. But I can’t help but feel that it’s a cop-out anyway.

So, for the TL;DR (I know, it should be at the beginning, not the end): Far Cry 5, a game to play for mindless fun and a few cheap laughs, but don’t expect any depth. There is no there there.

For the Love of the Game: Sea of Thieves (Mini) Review

I love to sail, but I have few opportunities to do so. K’s not a fan, and I do not own a sailboat. We probably live close enough to water where I could rent a sailboat, but it’s something I’ve never really thought to do (though I’m thinking about it now!).

As you well know, I also like to play video games. I have to admit, though, that this is a guilty pleasure. Most of the time I’m playing games–though I’m enjoying that time–I wish I was doing something more productive (like writing). Perhaps what frustrates me most is that I recognize I’m often falling victim to the addiction cycle purposefully designed into modern games–do repetitive acts to be rewarded with more prestigious (but ultimately meaningless) rewards for your efforts.

This is what I like about Sea of Thieves. It has the typical multiplayer online game addiction cycle, but it’s just not that addicting. The game content is relatively limited and will certainly need to be expanded for the game to survive (I have some recommendations if Microsoft or Rare would only ask), but for now, I think it’s a benefit. It’s a benefit because I find only one good reason to play the game: because you enjoy it.

The “analog” feel of the game is its strongest point. Want to read a map? You have to hold it up to your face and read it. Need to count paces to buried treasure? Hold up your compass to count your steps. Need to sail the ship? You need to work the anchor, the wheel the length of the sails and their angle to the wind. I certainly wouldn’t call the physics perfect, but it provides enough realism that you can gain advantage when attacking another ship by holding the wind gauge, can use the anchor to execute a bootlegger turn, can (and sometimes must) effectively tack into the wind and generally get the feel for sailing.

If your ship takes damage, you’ll need to get out your wooden planks to patch the hull, and then you’ll need to get out your trusty bucket to bail out water.

Although I’ve been completing “voyages” (the games version of missions or quests), it has been the enjoyment of sailing, of searching for treasure, of moving around the ship to do all the things that must be done to effectively sail or fight, that keeps me coming back to the game.

I’ve been a big fan of the game “Artemis,” in which you and friends operate the various stations of a Star Trek-like spaceship to accomplish missions (mostly defending space stations and destroying enemy ships). I love the necessary cooperation of that game, and Sea of Thieves hits that sweet spot in a more polished game. Working with my friends to effectively sail a galleon has been great fun and–sometimes–realistically frustrating.

It’s the game for the game’s sake that is so refreshing. Play of the game is player-driven and somewhat open-ended. Will this keep me coming back over the long term? I don’t know, but I hope the immersive style of the game that begs you to play just to play becomes a future trend in games as a whole.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance – Playing at History (an early review).

I backed Kingdom Come (KC:D) a long time ago–maybe more than two years. An open-world historical medieval RPG? Yes, please! Just the sort of thing that pulls at the desires of a person whose favorite video game is the Witcher 3 and who, for a time, was a professional student of the medieval.

There was, of course, a long roller-coaster of development that followed–teasers, delays, the realization that my computer wouldn’t be able to run the game, the revelation that it would be released on console and so my computer didn’t matter, etc., etc.

Finally, it arrived this week, and I’ve spent some significant time becoming immersed in the Bohemia of 1403. With the caveat that I’m nowhere near finished with this game, this is what I have to report to the present:

If you are the type of person who plays Fallout and Skyrim on survival mode, this game will appeal to you. You must sleep and eat. Your food rots over time, and spoilt food will make you sick. Eat too much and you’ll be sluggish. Take an injury (whether in combat or not!) and you might begin to bleed. Fix it with a bandage quickly or prepare to die. Keep your weapons and armor in good repair or they’ll become ineffective. Get your clothes bloody or dirty and people will notice–and they don’t take you as seriously when they do. Carry weights are (relatively) realistic, and you improve your skills by using them–not easy to do when it comes to using a sword.

The game is relatively “on rails” for the first few hours of play–while you can do your own thing for long whiles at a time, only advancing the main quest will get you to the point where you can seriously begin to play the game. It’s a slow start that left me, at first, with an unfavorable impression of how gameplay with develop that is still being dispelled as I move through the game.

So far, the game doesn’t feel as “open world” as I had hoped. It is true that there are sidequests (and perhaps I just haven’t discovered many of them yet) and you can easily spend hours just “living” in the medieval world–practicing a trade, acting as a merchant, traveling and fighting bandits, etc. In a certain way, I think you could ignore the quests altogether and simply view the game as a “medieval emulator.”

Further, there seems to be an intimation that the world will be expanded and even more opportunities for self-directed tasks will become available as the game progresses. Despite my several hours of play, I’m sure that I just have no gotten that far into the story yet.

And that main story is, at least, an interesting one. Set within a discrete historical event–King Sigismund of Hungary’s invasion of Bohemia on “behalf” of his half-brother King Wenceslaus IV (“the Idle”), who Sigismund had kidnapped, you are thrust into the world as the son of a blacksmith and the vassal of a lord loyal to Wenceslaus and targeted by Sigimunds’ invading army.

The attitudes and motivations of the characters seem deep. You get the expected behavior of some nobility toward the peasantry (particularly in Sir Hans), but this is never flat or without nuance:you earn the friendship and respect of Sir Hans as the story progresses and he is–in private at least–willing to admit his own faults and the shortcomings of his behavior. The struggle between adherence to duty and ideals when faced with the grim necessities of the day plays out on multiple levels, both personal and political. No assumption of medieval life is treated as straightforward, with a range of different lifestyles and living situations that more accurately portrays the era in a way we often miss in movies, dry history books and, especially, fantasy roleplaying, where the “medieval” is more often a pastiche or a facade than an actual description of setting.

Despite this, at least as far as I’ve played, the real joy of the game is in the way it immerses you into the historical world with a sense of realism and reasonableness. For instance, fighting several poorly armed bandits by yourself is difficult; attacking multiple well-armed or well-trained enemies (to say nothing of those who are both) is near suicidal. Unless you use tricks, like stealth, surprise and ambush, weakening the enemy with ranged weapons, hit and run tactics and any other approach that generally makes the fight less fair. This was the reality of the middle ages, just as it is today–no matter how good you are, fights are brutal and deadly, and fighting honorably will likely just get you killed.

Each fight is, however, very interesting. As a student of historical medieval martial arts myself, as both scholar (my Master’s Thesis was entitled “Shakespeare, the Sword and Self-fashioning”) and a martial artist (mostly with the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts or ARMA), I’m especially keen on in-game fighting that captures something of the speed, grace and precision of actual swordplay–something very difficult to do in a video-game because of the infinite array of techniques, maneuvers and responses in combat with a blade. KC:D does the best I’ve seen yet, with the combat not only accounting for the directionality of attacks, but incorporating parries, feints, grappling, counter-attacks and animations that perfectly capture some of the techniques used. This is no clumsy hack-and-slash; the only video game that has even come close to this kind of swordplay was Mount & Blade (whose new edition should be out later this year). While satisfying, this also means that combat is difficult and partially based upon your own twitchy-skill. It should be noted that there is only one difficulty mode for the game (so far as I’ve discovered): realistic.

As a side note, I am note a fan of the Dark Souls games. I just feel that should be said when I communicate how much I’ve enjoyed the difficulty of the game.

For the first few hours of the game, I was very frustrated by the save system. The game automatically saves when you sleep, complete an important quest step, or drink Saviour Schnapps. Saviour Schnapps is expensive, takes up inventory space, and can get you drink. At the beginning, when your skills are low and the game is at its most difficult, you will die a lot and have to replay moderate sections of the game (at least I did). As I progressed into the game and got into the mindset, I actually began to enjoy the save system. In a game that strives for immersion and realism, this save system reinforces these without becoming full-on rogue-like. You cannot get lucky for a minimal gain, save, and replay until you get the next minimal gain and save again. Three men in armor down that path? Best just to go a different way. This goes a long way into breaking the hero mentality we usually carry with us into video games; I particularly respect that.

This is not to say that playing heroic (or superheroic) characters in games is not appropriate, good design, or fulfilling–it certainly can be. But the occasional game that makes us live in an alternate world as a regular person–even one who may be an exceptional fighter (though still clearly mortal) provides a truly rewarding exception as well. In some sense, I do wish the game had some aspect of the fantastic to it, but that’s really only because I’m such a fan of fantasy. Realistically (and more sensibly), it’s great to see such an enjoyable game and interesting world and narrative created without any need to resort to the “unrealistic.”

As is probably indicated by the amount of words I’ve dedicated to this preemptive review, I’m really enjoying this game. If you’re willing to devote the time to acclimate to this game’s approach to play–and you’re willing to accept the design principles on which the game was built–I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

In some ways, at its heart, this game is a history lesson you play–one about everyday living in the medieval world.

Destiny 2: A Horror Story in Reverse

I’d fought my way through waves of countless enemies, scaled strange landscapes and tracked down my quarry, a Fallen Captain supported by underlings, powerful Servitors and other baddies all determined to end me.

Getting to the point where I’d finally cornered my prey and he could no longer flee had cost me dearly–I had no ammunition for my Power weapon, only a handful of rounds left on my Energy weapon, and my Super would not be charged for what seemed like an eternity.

Desperate, I charged in, Kinetic weapon blazing. Return fire shredded me to pieces in milliseconds, my body ripped apart. I died.

Seconds later, I was back, resurrected by my Ghost companion. Seconds after that, I was dead again, but so was one of the Captain’s minions. This process repeated in multiple iterations–I respawned, I took out one more enemy, I died.

But respawning in Destiny is not merely a handwaved mechanic–it is a conceit of the gameworld. As a Guardian of the Light, your Ghost has the ability to reconstitute your body infinitely. There is no death for a Guardian.

As I whittled down the my enemy through sheer will, pure attrition and an unending supply of lives to throw at the problem, I began to think how that Fallen Captain must feel, watching as he repeatedly defeats an enemy who simply returns a few seconds later to destroy more of his brothers-in-arms. Movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween immediately came to mind–the unstoppable, unkillable force who relentless pursues his vengeance.

The terror and helplessness the Captain must have felt surely became too much to bear. I shortly relieved him of his worldly worries, but I can’t say that I felt good about it. Certainly not heroic (no matter what the difficulty level told me).

That’s when I realized it: Destiny 2 is not sci-fi; it’s a horror game where you play the role usually referred to as “the bad guy.” While the world does set things up as a struggle between Light and Darkness, and you are told that you’re on the side of peace, truth and justice, and your enemies do some despicable things, I’m not sure that the gameplay bears that out.

Destiny 2 was not a game I expected to give me some sort of existential crisis; I was only looking for some fun co-op with friends or a mindless activity for my hands while I listened to an audiobook. But what I got was a great uneasiness about the setting, one I can’t seem to shake.

 

Learning for Science! (Or Worldbuilding)

In one of my previous posts (“Worldbuilding – An Education”) I talked about the value of the worldbuilding hobby for expanding one’s educational goals and accomplishments. This time, I’m going to approach the same topic from the other side–how learning helps your worldbuilding. In particular, I want to share some resources that have been helpful to me in my own practice of the pursuit.

As you know, most of my worldbuilding is done for the purpose of creating settings for my speculative fiction (or, less frequently, for roleplaying games). I’d like to pause for a moment for a brief confession: learning for the purpose of gaining knowledge and tools for worldbuilding is something of a safety net for my productivity. Writing is almost always difficult (sometimes the words come easy, but making them say something worth saying in a way that holds attention is far from automatic) and often frustrating. As much as I enjoy it (and feel called to it), writing is often work.

There are many things that I like to do that are not work. Exercising (though it’s only slightly less difficult than writing–particularly running), reading, building things, watching TV, listening to music, pretending I can draw, and–especially–video games (even though Jane McGonigal would not entirely agree that video games are not work of a sort, and I agree). When writing becomes difficult, the seductive call of things that do not feel like work becomes ever more powerful, and discipline in writing is, for me at least, a difficult thing to maintain as it is. So, when I give in to temptation to mindlessly play video games, find some project around the house to help me procrastinate or otherwise avoid what I feel like I should really be doing, I play an audiobook. That way, I’m at least learning something that will be useful to me when I sit back down to write. A lot of what I have to offer in this post are things I’ve come across during that liminal state of wishing I was writing but lacking the motivation to actually be writing.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

I’ve mentioned Dan Carlin several times in various posts on the blog, but it can’t hurt to bring him up one more time. His Hardcore History series covers many topics throughout human history from the 20th century to the very early historical period. A worldbuilder must be a student of history. Fiction is, in some ways, simply created dramatic history. This is often on the personal level, but the fantasy genre also often thrusts its characters into world-shaking events of epic importance. To do that well, or to create a setting that supports any kind of fantasy story, you need to be able to have a general sense for the flow of history–that is how one event influences and shapes those that follow–and for communicating the feeling of history; that is, giving the reader a sense of what it is to be alive and in the culture and history of the setting.

Dan Carlin is an excellent historian in general I think (though he doesn’t describe himself as such). Where he really shines is in communicating the feeling of history. When you listen to one of Carlin’s series, he takes the time to ask the questions and give the descriptions that invite you to imaginatively and emotionally participate in the events discussed. So, I’d recommend him both for the substance of his histories and for his method of historiography. Carlin gives us an example of how to think about histories–real or fictitious–in ways that bring them to life.

Great Courses

I love the Great Courses series (www.thegreatcourses.com; also available through Audible.com and Amazon). This is partially just because I’d be a perpetual student if I could be. Nevertheless, the breadth and scope of courses offered by The Great Courses company allows you to target specific points in history or culture (or science or politics and many other subjects for that matter) and delve deeply into that subject–for tens of hours.

If you’re not familiar, the Great Courses are essentially recorded undergraduate classes comprised of 30-45 minute lectures prepared and given by some of the foremost professors in the higher education systems of the Western world.

Here are a few courses I’ve personally found useful (your mileage may vary, as they say):

“Buddhism” by Prof. Malcolm David Eckel

“Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” by Prof. Glenn S. Holland

“Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History” by Prof. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

“The Italian Renaissance” by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett

“The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations” by Prof. Andrew C. Fix

“The Late Middle Ages” by Prof. Philip Daileader

“The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity” by Prof. Kenneth W. Harl

“The Medieval World” by Prof. Dorsey Armstrong

“Medieval Heroines in History and Legend” by Prof. Bonnie Wheeler

“The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World” by Prof. Robert Garland

As a note: I have a master’s degree in medieval and renaissance literature and my B.A. in History also focused on that time span, and yet I always gain something new and fascinating in these courses. Knowledge is funny that way, I guess.

Curiosity Stream

Curiosity Stream is a subscription, on-demand service like Netflix except that it is only for documentaries. Feeling lazy and want to veg while watching TV? Here’s your excuse to do so and still like your making some progress on your worldbuilding.

The best part of Curiosity Stream is the source of many of its documentaries–BBC and Sky from the UK and various subtitled or dubbed documentaries from the rest of Europe. This gives you access to docs you won’t find on Netflix or Amazon Prime (the selections on which I often find disappointing) and gives you a look at topics from other than an American worldview (this, also, is essential for good worldbuilding–your cultures must stand on their own, not as representations, modifications or critiques of your own culture).

Worldbuilding Books

To be honest, there are few worldbuilding books that seem worth the investment of time once I’ve gone through them. Some are just too generic and obvious to be helpful; others want you to dive so deeply into things like plate tectonics and the albedo of your planet that (unless you’re writing something where such details are important to setting or story–I’m looking at you, hard sci-fi) you’ll end up wasting hours making calculations that (if you’re like me) probably end up wrong and that you’ll forget and never use anyway. Still, you do need to be able to avoid (or, I suppose, willing to ignore) glaring mistakes in the creation of a world that will distract its visits from the willing suspension of disbelief.

One example–rivers tend to converge; they do not tend to (but on rare occasions do) split into multiple major waterways (with the occasional exception of the river delta, though that’s different, I’d say). Maps or geographic descriptions that do not follow real-world data (and that do not have some sort of in-setting explanation for the variance) will annoy those with the specialized knowledge to point out the error and may even unsettle others who have a sense that something doesn’t add up even if they can’t put their finger on it.

Most of us do not have the time to become intimately familiar and comfortable with such diverse fields as geography, geology, planetary physics, ecology and biology, etc. Having a worldbuilding book that helps manage some of these issues can be a great time-saver (and an interesting read).

I only have two recommendations in this category that I’m really comfortable making:

The Planet Construction Kit, by Mark Rosenfelder. This is a great book for negotiating some of the larger scientific issues if you need to create a whole planet or want your setting to be that detailed.

Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic. This book outlines many aspects of culture that a worldbuilder might want to define, along with some writing exercises to bring that information into narrative form. I won’t say that this book alone is going to inspire you to create a culture, but it is very good at asking the questions you ought to ask while building a culture.

Both Rosenfelder and Lisle have a number of other books on worldbuilding (and language construction, if you’re into that sort of thing) available, but the two above are the only ones I would say should definitely sit on a worldbuilder’s bookshelf (or in the memory of her Kindle or iPad or whatever).

PBS’s SpaceTime Series

This is a recent discovery for me. It’s a show viewable on YouTube (without any subscription) that tackles advanced physics questions in ways understandable to a lay audience. If you’re into hard-science settings (or at least high-plausibility in your sci-fi), there’s a wealth of information here on how to accurate depict artificial gravity (using centrifugal force at the proper radius and rotation speed to achieve 1G while minimizing the Coriolis effect), the feasibility of various sublight and FTL drives, etc.

Have you, dear readers, found some valuable fonts of knowledge and learning that have helped you in your own worldbuilding? Please share through a comment!

 

 

What Tom Clancy’s The Division Teaches Us About Humanity

I’m a big fan of Tom Clancy games in general, but The Division really hit a chord with me. I don’t usually devote much time to MMO games, but I’ve remained steadily involved with the game since its release back in March. This is partially because I have good friends to play it with; friends make everything better.

But this is not a review. Instead, I want to talk about some of my observations in the game.

If you’re not familiar, the game has a place called the “Dark Zone”, a smallpox-contaminated part of Manhattan quarantined from the rest of New York City. The Dark Zone is the game’s PvP (Player versus Player) area. Some of the toughest computer-controlled bad guys are in the Dark Zone, as are some of the best rewards. To eliminate these bad guys and reap the rewards, one typically needs to form a group with other players. Once you’ve grabbed the loot, you have to go to a special area and call in a helicopter to extract the items before you “own” them. They are contaminated, after all.

Before you’ve extracted items, any other player can kill you and steal those items. Lone wanderer players make easy targets to teams of other players and—especially when you get the drop on them—are often easier to kill than the non-player character bad guys.

This is supposed to be part of the draw of the game—the cat and mouse of stalking and evading other players, the team-on-team direct combat against player opponents and, most of all, the tension the system creates. There are few people you can actually trust, and I’ve had more than a few encounters where, randomly encountering another player, we both have to scope each other out, not wanting to fight, but unsure of the other’s intentions. That nervousness is in some way satisfying because it is so immersive; it brings you into post-disaster New York in a personal and experiential way. I like that.

On the other hand, particularly because I’m introverted and often avoid linking up with random players (only joining teams of people I actually know in real life), I often find myself navigating the Dark Zone by myself. Consequently, I often find myself getting killed and my stuff ganked because I’m outnumbered, outgunned, or simply stabbed in the back by an opportunist while I’m trying to defeat the Zone’s tough computer-controlled hostiles.

My time playing has taught me that there are three groups of people when it comes to the Dark Zone. The first is where I find myself, reluctant to “go rogue” to kill and steal from other players even when I’m in a group and confident I can get away with it. I’ve encountered only a few other players with this view. The second group is probably largest. They understand that this is a game—there are winners and losers, and those who play have agreed to the rules that govern the game. This group probably enjoys the game the most because they fully play out the game’s possibilities—sometimes going rogue and killing other players in ambushes or pitched battles. But they don’t strike me as the type who would probably act that way were the game real life. They know the difference in the stakes and consequences of a game versus the real thing.

The last group is the one that I find so simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. These are the bullies, those whose primary joy in the game is picking on players less powerful than themselves. These are the ones who, having killed you in an unfair fight (usually extremely so—four to one odds and they strike when you’re otherwise occupied) come up and stand next to your body to laugh and mock you until you’re able to respawn. These are players with malice aforethought.

At the end of the day, it’s still a game, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to make a presumption about a stranger’s moral capacity in the real world based on behavior in a digitally-manufactured world. On the other hand, I’m a believer that the anonymity of the internet (including multiplayer games) allows people a release from the social conventions that normally restrain their baser selves.

When playing the game (admittedly, perhaps more to relieve my own frustration than any objective reality) I am constantly reminded that maybe there really is a fine line between social order and the chaos of those with more power and less restraint.