All posts by ryandarden

What Video Games May Come!

I first noticed my regular dream cycles ceased in 2003.  Star Wars Galaxies had just come out and I was spending countless hours online till 2 or 3 in the morning, then getting up to prep stages at Sony Pictures at 6 am.   I was young and had the stamina, I guess.  One thing that occurred to me during this early MMORPG period was that I stopped having nightmares.  In the beginning I remember vividly being able to control what was happening inside of my nightly fantasies.  If I had an encounter with a monster or some no-faced-villain chasing me I would instead of run, turn and attack them with an axe that somehow morphed into my hand.  For months I could “wake” myself inside of a dream and take on superman like powers that made me Godlike.  It sounds cliché, but I would stop, look down at my feet and say, “this is just a dream,” and poof I had the ability to change the outcome of my experience.    I could do anything I wanted; fly, shoot amazing guns at cars that were chasing me or pick up an attractive woman that I would normally be too shy around (which in every case turned out to be my wife with different colored hair).  I had heard the words lucid dreams, probably from a re-watching of Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, and every time I told someone my new found skill I would try to remember the exact terminology, but usually resorted to just saying, “it’s the coolest thing ever.”  For several years I thought I was special.  Then I stopped remembering my dreams all together.  I started telling people I broke them.

As a kid I would look under my bed every night and have a waking nightmare at least once a month.  Have you ever had REM Paralysis, where you feel like you woke up, but you can’t move? It’s freaky to say the least, and the memory of one can keep you up all night.  I had night terrors and sleep disruptions for years, but now with age or maybe with my new found skill, I haven’t had a nightmare in at least 5 years.   I came across an article about Jayne Gackenbach in 2007 about the time that I realized that my dreams had started to subside, or at least the memories of them did.  It was also about the time that quirky well-educated researchers were telling us that Video Games may not be all that bad for us (Take that Mom and Dad.)  She published an article that has been sited at least once a year since titled “Video Game Play and Lucid Dreams.”  In her work and subsequent studies, she found that consciousness in sleep can be directly related to video game play, creating the benefit of lucid dreaming, i.e. I can now vanquish my nightmare monsters with flaming swords.   She also found other benefits for me and other “high-end gamers,” included less motion sickness (more deep sea fishing trips), better spatial ability (rubric’s cubes tremble in my path), and vestibular integrity (I could now perform the devastating Karate Kid Kick while balanced on a stump).  Thanks to Gackenbach’s studies I didn’t feel as special, but I did feel that I wasn’t alone, or at least now I could explain my circumstance.

Moving across two time zones and still staying up passed 2 hasn’t changed my sleep habits (although I do now wake up much later.)  For the last 10 years I can count my bad dreams on one hand.  The lucid dreams have become a distant memory, now I can’t remember the last time I remembered a dream.  I wake up each day still tired of course, but without much recollection of what transpired in my slumber.  My wife however fights with sleep, on some occasions I mean that literally.  She struggles with a lot of mental issues, but most have been normalized through medication and therapy, at least to our “crazy” standards.  She does still have night terrors though, possibly brought on by early childhood trauma.  At least once a week, sometimes as many as 3 times a night she will slowly awake screaming.  I can usually hear it or sense it coming (what I call “reving up” because it sounds like she’s imitating a car motor) and will wake her before the scream comes out.  It’s a blood curdling scream if it reaches peak and I try to console her before the neighbors call the cops thinking I’m murdering her.  If I don’t arouse her to complete consciousness she will go right back into her nightmare and eventual rev back up to a scream.   She’s spoken with doctors and therapists and they usually tell her it’s daily stress.  Most night terrors occur during weeks when she is unhappy at work, however the nightmares and work do not correlate in reverie, meaning she’s not being chased a round by a murderous boss or cut to death from overdue paperwork.  She usually goes to bed watching something peaceful like Full House or Star Trek the Next Generation, but her morning frustrations catch up to her and cause the restless sleep.   I thought it was normal for her condition, it wasn’t until she said “I wish I could just fall asleep like you,” did I realize I could help. 

Now, I am no doctor, so please do not say what I am about to suggest is proper medical care for depression (The following may cause Broken Alarm Clock Syndrome and Turn That Off Outbursts).  I find that nights where she unwinds playing a fast-paced video game have greatly decreased her night terrors. Compared with evenings where she watches a show or plays a mindless puzzle, the shooter nights have all but squashed her nightmares.  Even nights where she plays after a long stressful day are more restful.   It’s gotten to the point where I am begging her to play Fortnite or Plants Vs. Zombies with my son just so I will feel better about laying down beside her.  She didn’t come to these games on her own.  Thanks to my son’s spectacular first-person shooter skills that he acquired from his aging Obi-Wan-like father, we were able to introduce bright and colorful shooters to her.   Unfortunately, she hasn’t had a lucid dream that she can remember but I’m hoping she will know it when she “sees” it.  Maybe the somewhat violent shooters are allowing her to get out some aggression and therefore putting her mind at ease. Maybe her endorphins are raised, forcing her body to shut down to a lower REM level.  Whatever the case, I’m positive the gaming is helping to keep her night terrors at bay.  My eventual goal is to have the entire family squading up after dinner for a restful night’s sleep, but for now I’m keeping a watch on her stress levels and throwing a controller her way when I see the sadness emerging.  I’m starting to wonder if I can write off loot crates as a medical expense. 

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Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

From the boot screen I was desperately hoping this game would take me back to my Command and Conquer days of the 1990s.  I had skipped hours of Geology and 4th year Spanish mining Tiberian and I was looking forward to placing my GDI looking forces.  Never having played a Homeworld game, I knew they were a reliable RTS series earning enough following to warrant a Remastered version of their first game.  But I was hesitant seeing the screenshots.  During every mission the land remains the same, sand everywhere. Deserts of Kharak really lives up to its name.  I was waiting for a sandworm to jut out like an Alien emerging from Kane’s chest.  If you are looking for diversity in your environments this game is not for you.  What makes the game interesting is how Gearbox uses the height of sand dunes to influence your strategy.  Some units can’t fire over larger dunes and as Sun Ztu taught us as well as a younger Obi Won Kenobi the high ground is always better.  Outposts dot the desert landscape, according to the map at least, and you visit several on your continuing journey to find the Jaraci Object a mineral that is supposed to change the planet.  Several automated robots roam around the stations and it’s interesting to see how the bases have been constructed in the middle of nowhere.  Controls are pretty standard for an RTS, and if you’ve played one in the last decade you will feel right at home rotating the camera and selecting multiple units, but there is a small tutorial if you aren’t up to speed. The minimalist approach to the menu and pause screen was most inviting. 

We learn that the world is at war and there is a resource in the planet that could help save it.  The hero rover seems snatched directly from Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, and the first cutscene’s art style looks a bit like Borderlands which is also a Gearbox property.  Over the course of several missions you see your Command Carrier directed by Science Commander Rachel S’jet enter into Gaalsian territory headed for the mysterious object.  The first time meeting the Gaalsians via video call/broadcast you can taste the C&C Red Alert influence. The aircraft carrier on treads looking Command Carrier is a bit derivative but I liked it, especially when the on-board rockets and guns opened up protecting my smaller vehicles.  I could see how it would easily get stuck in the large sand dunes out in the desert, but a little exaggeration is expected in Sci-fi. 

I loved the camera perspective, especially when inside the base seeing all of the smaller robots moving around collecting who knows what, but I deemed everything to be a bit too tiny.  Once I got into battle though, my perception changed. I needed to zoom out further and there wasn’t an option except to go to the scanner view, which was a bit too wide.  The super-wide view felt like the zoom out on games like Anomoly where you could control units even as little dots. It works in most cases but like most good RTS’s my left hand was on the arrow keys while my right was on the mouse in order to keep up with my units. 

Your missions boil down to balancing fighting, building units, repairing and resource collecting. In the first round I already felt overwhelmed by tiny continuously attacking units.   The Powerful Rail Gun Tanks always attacking my veteran units which I try to horde like the last drop of syrup on a dry pancake.  Losing a piece of myself with each of their tiny deaths.  Once you find out that those units move with you from mission to mission, their loss is even more substantial.  The intensity continued over to the later missions with vehicles seeming to pop over the dunes at inopportune moments and Sand Storms that destroy even the quickest units.  Your Command Center can spit out new units but at the same time you are offered new engineering upgrades that can make the difference in a heated battle. What do you do with your limited resource: crank out two new battle tanks or upgrade your single unit with armor plating?  And what’s better: 2 Strike Fighters that can fly over the battlefield at great speeds or a harvester to collect the remaining deposits.  I always go with the Strike Fighter.

I had to double check my graphics option half way through the second mission, they were all set to ultra, however the GFX were not up to my normal 4K standards.  The maps and smaller text seemed jagged and pixelated.  Not to mention the cut scenes looked like upresed 480p. Unit detail however, was pretty realistic including the smaller dune buggy like units taking flight over larger dunes.  But lighting effects on those units broke up under closer inspection.   Zooming in doesn’t show much more than units and empty sand, lots of it.  I kept the perspective zoomed out to keep the GFX looking their best, and because I want to feel like God. 

A new RTS player should feel comfortable picking up this gameplay.  Without having to build buildings and dealing with distant resources helps to keep the number of keyboard presses to a minimum.  Hitting the space bar to zoom out to the sensor mode definitely allows a player to ease into the game.  I would recommend a beefier tutorial explaining the different units but I didn’t feel there were too many to differentiate between.  They did emphasize numerous times how dune height plays an important role in line of site and I personally needed that.  I’ve seen large trees become invisible in other RTS games, it was nice to see the environment play a factor in unit placement. 

I fell in love with Rachel S’jet and her story.  The narrative was light and reduced to nothing but text and photo, but if felt real enough and just right for a fast paced RTS.  I also loved my Command Center.  Placing it on wheels and having the ability to collect resources and create craft on the move was unique.  Whatever you do, don’t link your Command Center with your attack group, sometimes they have to split up.  By linking them together the slow lumbering carrier will take its own route leading into enemy territory.  On missions where I had to separate my main force from my base, I found myself hitting the F1 button to cycle back to my Command Center in order to do an update or protect it from incoming units.  I desperately looked forward to lulls in fighting to have time to repair badly damaged vehicles and check my resources which deplete quickly. 

Gearing up to attack the main enemy base or finish off the remaining units always makes me nervous. I save about 4 or 5 times before reaching the enemy.  Every unit has to be just so, or I don’t feel confident enough in my attack.  I don’t want to lose a single man, especially those that level up in the heat of battle.  At first, I wanted my units to move in a single file line to hide their number but finding no Imperials on the planet I allowed the AI to spread out units evenly.  It was fun to watch them lumber into place at varying speeds, feeling more lifelike.  My carrier, the Kapisi, held its own while they attacked, having put all of my command points towards weapons, instead of shields or repair which is a waste.  If it spawned grave markers I would have placed one down for every one of my brave fighters.  They were a tough group of misfits; they will be missed. 

A Game A Day Keeps The Therapist Away

Islanders

A Game a Day is a series of game reviews by a household of family members battling with mental health disorders.  We focus on games that are family friendly, fast paced and fun.  We won’t always agree, well um, we might never agree, but at least we’ll play.  And everyone knows a family that plays together stays together. 

Today we are reviewing Islanders by GrizzlyGames

“I like mindless games that are relaxing, the marketing was perfect for me.”

When islanders first popped up on my Steam “You May Also Like” list I knew it was the game for my wife.   Cute, colorful and peaceful.  She loved the X-Box game A World of Keflings and I thought this might become her new night time ritual.  Having played several rounds of the game myself I sat them both down separately with a keyboard and mouse and clicked the New Game button to get them started.   All comments and quotes are factual word for word accounts of what happened.

“Where’s the tutorial?”

I paused game. 

“They don’t do tutorials for games any more.  They like people to learn by experiencing the game. It’s more fun this way, I like learning this way don’t you?”

“No, it sucks. Why do they only show me how to rotate the camera?  What do I do with this house?”

There is no tutorial to start and despite what my wife thought it was easy to pick up and play.  In the very beginning selecting a house or building forces a hint bubble to pop up in the left corner and let you know how placement and scoring occurs. 

“I died.  I wouldn’t think you could die in this game.”

“This looks like shit.  YOU can’t move stuff.”  

The randomly generated island is peaceful and minimalistic.  You, being the empire builder, are asked to select between two different building packs.  For instance, Farm or Woodsman.  Each pack will open with several buildings or objects to place on the empty space on the island.  If you choose farm you may get to place a field, house or barn.  If you instead choose Woodsman you could place a wood cutters hut, house or mill.  You must determine which order to place the buildings and strategize how to place them to gain the most points.  A wood cutters hut will get you 1 point for every tree it is near.  A mill will get you 6 points for every wood cutters it surrounds.   After placing several packs of buildings, you start to figure out the best way to use the space on the limited island. 

“Crap. I died.  Maybe if they didn’t stress how relaxing this was, I wouldn’t be so pissed off.”

“Well that was a problem.  I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.”

And yes, you will lose if you run out of space or don’t make enough points to move to the next island.  It was a bit confusing at first figuring out what the points meant but if any of us had taking the time to consult the hint pop up, we would have found that the higher number is the point total you must reach to get a different pack.  The yellow circle increases to show how close you are to completing the island as well as the fillable grayed out island that appears to the right.  I didn’t pay either score any mind.  Reaching enough points to move on to my next island I wasn’t sure if I should finish up the one I started.  Learning later that there was a maximum number of points you could reach on each island, I decided to stick with each before moving on to see how close to the top score I could get. 

“It made it look easy in the video, now they have me learning math, and I like math.”

“I like how all the buildings are slightly different.”

The game is extremely peaceful with no distractions other than the occasional passing bird.  I did miss seeing people and cars moving from building to building like most placement games.  To me seeing their tiny lives being influenced by my poorly planned decisions makes me feel one with the world.  I’m sorry this game does not allow me that connection.  I didn’t understand the ramification of placing buildings over tress or flowers, it didn’t seem to negative influence my score, but it did get rid of their availability if in the future another building needed to be near them. 

“This looks like crap.  Why does everyone want to be near the statue?” 

“And it lets you just put stuff on top of these big rocks, would you think you could do that?”

There is a kind of cutesy clumsy mess that emerges from placing the buildings to gain the most points.  It became like Tetris, trying to squeeze L shaped buildings into impossible nooks created from my past mistakes. I tended to lump the houses and mansions close together creating a pile of buildings that seemed impractical and didn’t look too aesthetically pleasing.  There isn’t any resource gathering needed to advance, only the placement points received from building.  My strategy quickly went from making the island look nice to randomly scrubbing around to find the highest point total.  It didn’t make for a challenging game in my opinion, but I was in the minority.

“I like it.  The music is charming.”

“Pretty unique.  I think it’s fun.”

After refreshing my wife’s memory of what a plateau was and hearing her yell out “What’s a Resort Oasis,” I checked in on her city.  She was huffing and puffing as she placed the buildings much like I had, randomly at first and then lumping them based on points.  She had just told me she liked it now I wasn’t so sure.

“This is the ugliest town I have ever seen.  It looked relaxing, this ain’t relaxing.” 

I did find it relaxing but relaxing in the way that you might find staring out at an ocean.  It’s cool for a minute but after a while you want to go jump in.  I could see the potential of future islands especially when I ran into the Resort Oasis. The massive object only fit a few places which meant the difference between adding 50 points or subtracting 20.   MY wife and son each played and lost three times but continued their missions.  A lesser game would have been given up on by now.  Once my wife figured out you could rotate the buildings before placing them the complaining about the look of her island subsided.  She isn’t familiar with city building games such as Sim City, Cities or Anno so the inability to connect the buildings with roads and watching the people move around didn’t both her. But my son did.

“There’s something special about seeing the cars moving around.  I miss that.”

So, I was glad he agreed with me.  I watched him zoom around the island constantly, always rotating before placing a building.  It was a little more than he should have but it brought him joy.  I felt the need to zoom in on the first couple of islands but there wasn’t an option.  Once I reached the 3rd island and stared at the large edge of a rock formation I wanted to zoom out.  After being pissed that the only place I could find for a temple would cost me a negative 85 points I opted not to move on to my 4th island.  I was bored but I wasn’t too sad for the developers when I quit and realized there were 50, 000 players with higher scores.  More than anything I wanted my wife to like the game.  After an hour I wasn’t so sure. 

“It was good.”

Blah.  Crap.  I’ll look for another game tomorrow. 

However, the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised.  The family met together for the first time and talked about it.

“I played again last night before bed.  It really is relaxing.”

“Yeah, I want to play again tonight.  Thanks Dad.”

Awesome, Mission Accomplished.