I am going to begin this entry by talking about Dwarf Fortress.  There is a reason for that – the entry is not mis-titled!  It’s a sort of two-fer, I guess.

Dwarf Fortress is popular enough now that you may have heard of it, but even then it is likely that you didn’t really play it.  It is a 10MB ASCII game.  That probably also doesn’t mean very much, unless you know a bit about ASCII games and roguelikes and you realize that most of the biggest ones are about 500kb.  10MBs is a really fucking huge ASCII game.  It is a game where you build a Dwarf Fortress (amazingly appropriate, isn’t it) and everything is lovingly coded, from pedantic details about geology to the physics of water which allow people to build monstrous aqueducts powered by steam engines, if they so desire.  The world takes a long chunk of time to generate, writing in backstories for all the civilizations that live there, and calculating where all the volcanoes and aquifers might be located. Every dwarf has a personality, forms relationships (friends, lovers, bitter enemies…), forms preferences for certain kinds of foods or shiny materials, decides whether to worship a god…  every body part is an individual unit which can be injured, healed, lopped off… and if your fortress is decimated by monster sieges, you can build a new one elsewhere in the world and send adventurers into the ruins to collect the artifacts you created in your time there.  It might be an ASCII game but it is making so many calculations that it will blow the mind of a lesser CPU.  It’s quite remarkable.  And it’s free!

But in today’s world of fancy graphics, most people don’t have the patience to deal with ASCII art, and control schemes where you press ambiguous keys which access more text which you may or may not understand the relevance of.  The Dwarf Fortress control scheme is particularly obtuse, and it is the biggest barrier to entry.  There was a beginners walkthrough that started with directions like “press x three times to move the menu to the right side of the screen so that you have a better look at what’s going on”, and even once you get to that point you have to figure out which characters represent grass and which ones represent werewolves that are going to fuck your shit up if you don’t deal with it.  Is that speckly square an open space, or lava?  Which key designates a storage space and which one examines an object?  Which key cancels a command?  Once you spend a few hours with it (particularly if you already like ASCII roguelikes) it all becomes muscle memory, but for a beginner, the assault of seemingly random coloured text characters is too much.  Some attempts at tilesets have been made, some quite successfully, but they’re working with someone else’s game and sometimes the hassles and bugs of interfacing different bits of code that change every patch are just too daunting.

Along comes Gnomoria.  Gnomoria is basically Dwarf Fortress, but designed with graphics!  I will be extremely impressed when someone manages to duplicate the scale of the original Dwarf Fortress in a graphical format (neglecting graphics is one of the reasons the code can be so intricate… imagine what would happen to your poor computer if it had to think about 3D pixels at the same time as all that other shit) but Gnomoria makes a good start at it.  A lot of the complexity is gone – It does not literally generate an entire world and history of that world, the gnomes lack a lot of the personality quirks that the dwarves accumulate over time, and a myriad of other details are probably simplified as well, but the basics are intact.  You dig into the ground, design your fortress, create workshops and work chains, create goods to trade, and try to keep your gnomes healthy and happy through the occasional goblin siege.  All with an interface that allows you to choose between clicking buttons at the bottom of the screen, or right clicking and choosing from a menu (which consists of several sub-menus and kind of jumps away from your mouse sometimes, making you start over.  But the option is there!)

I’ve only played a few hours so far so I can’t comment much more on the advanced gameplay.  My game got to the point where I was excavating a lower level to collect some ore to get my metalworks up and running, when some goblins showed up to ruin my day.  A goblin fighter took down three gnomes and was given a special name due to his notoriety.  He then went on to slay my three yaks which were grazing in their pasture.  RIP yaks :(.  The remaining gnomes managed to overwhelm one of the goblins, which dropped some armor and a weapon.  I hunted through my survivors and found the one with the best combat scores, and told her to form a military squad.  From there, I was able to outfit her with the goblin’s discarded goods, and send her after the notorious goblin.  She was victorious and the fortress was safe!  She suffered some minor wounds, so I created a hospital area stocked with straw beds, and she quickly ran in there and lay down to recover.

Which is where I ran into an issue.  You see, the yaks were providing my fortress with yak milk.  My brewery was still a work in progress, so I hadn’t managed to secure a second source of drink.  I tried to rush a build job on a well, but the stored yak milk was quickly depleted…  My injured military hero was thirsty, but since she was hanging out in the hospital, she wouldn’t go to the well to fetch a drink.  In Dwarf Fortress they will carry water to injured dwarves in the infirmary, but I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work in Gnomoria.  I even tried suspending the hospital section hoping she would give up on recovery, but she wouldn’t leave the bed.

I rushed the build job on the brewery by going through all the other workshops and moving its pending bits to the top of the queue.  They managed to build it and I started brewing some wine, but by this point everyone was getting cranky about the lack of drinks (apparently well water just isn’t good enough, bah).  The instant wine was brewed, some greedy gnome would yoink it, so my counter basically went from 0…………………….. 1, 0. …………………1, 0. The saviour of the fortress died of thirst in the hospital, despite having perfectly working legs.  /facepalm.

So, I dunno.  I probably could have planned a bit better there and I almost certainly did something wrong with the hospital section, but I also feel like there are some rough patches that are still being ironed out, which makes sense since it’s still in perpetual development.  Which, ironically, probably makes it even more like Dwarf Fortress!  But if you’ve ever heard about Dwarf Fortress and were intimidated by the interface, Gnomoria is a good way to get your feet wet.

Follow up post with more comparisons

Jack Reacher

I hate writing reviews about things I don’t feel very strongly about, but to be honest I barely remember watching this.  The most exciting thing that happened was both of us falling asleep and then turning it off.

Our experiences were probably coloured a little bit by watching Mission Impossible 4 recently, but I feel like even if you didn’t compare the movie to massive explosions and scaling the side of a building using malfunctioning spider-man gloves and crawling through the insides of a massive overheating computer… nothing much happens in Jack Reacher.  A sniper shoots some people in a seemingly random attack and everyone talks about why.  And they keep talking about why for the next hour and a half.  I hate to sound like one of “those“, who need explosions and gunfire to stay interested… but by the time the (completely unremarkable) answers start to be revealed, you don’t give a shit anymore.


Tunnels (Tunnels, #1)Tunnels by Roderick Gordon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So much to say about this book.

Quick synopsis: Will Burrows is the son of an archaeologist who likes to dig excavation tunnels (Burrows. GET IT??) around town and uncover artifacts for his museum. His father has had the credit for several “big” finds stolen from him, so when he stumbles on something important, he becomes secretive and withdrawn. Eventually, he disappears. Will takes it upon himself to find out what has happened.

It sounds promising, doesn’t it? And to some degree it is – the environments are intricately detailed and a decent sense of claustrophobic wonder is conveyed throughout. It didn’t quite reach the “Indiana Jones” level of swashbuckling archaeology I was sort of hoping for, but it was interesting enough to keep the pages turning.
Unfortunately it was also bad enough to keep me writing snarky notes.

I’m not quite sure where the line is between “Amateur” writing and “Lazy” writing. I often run into this problem with young adult books, and I can never tell if the authors themselves are actually inexperienced with writing and finding their way, or if they’re like “the kids who will be reading this haven’t read enough yet to recognize how lazy this is” while taking shortcuts to get things done faster.

The very first thing I started bitching about in my notes were similes. The book starts off with a fair amount of description, and for some reason it seems like it was impossible to describe an object or action without coming up with some sort of simile to throw at it. I did a search: The word “Like” appears in this book 344 times. We can probably assume some of those are not similes, but the phrase “It was as if” also appears 186 times. Fortunately it stops drowning in similes towards the end – it felt like the writing was trying much too hard to be “fancy”, but once the plot got rolling it forgot all about trying to show off and focused more on actually describing what was happening, and it was much better for it.

The second major problem is that the book doesn’t seem to know what its point is. It is full of so much filler that you never actually resolve anything that happens.  In some places it even describes the same things repeatedly, back to back in each paragraph (“he has big fingers.  He has sausage fingers.  He has fat fingers.”  WE GET IT.) that it makes me wonder if they were revised, but then not edited to remove the duplicates. The search for Will’s father takes a back seat early on and isn’t really revitalized until the final chapter. It turns out it’s the start of a series, so perhaps that was intentional… but the sheer amount of wasted space in this book would make me question if it’s just a “milking” move to try to sell more books, which just annoys me. You could have fit a lot more plot into this book, but instead it is full of similes, like a pinata full of IOU coupons… (look look I am using a simile!)

I don’t have a good “spoiler tag” solution yet so I should probably mention that I bitch about plot points from here on out.  If you intend to read this book, it will either ruin or enhance your reading experience – You decide!

The plot that IS there feels a lot like “bullied kid escapist fantasy”. The main character has albinism which makes him get picked on at school, and his family is highly dysfunctional. The ONLY scenes involving his mother hammer home over and over and over and over that she is mentally ill, and yet this has absolutely no bearing on the story as a whole except to further hammer home how sick she is when she fails to do anything about anything (like… her husband vanishing). His sister is apparently left to run the entire household (quite efficiently!) at the ripe old age of twelve, is incredibly bitchy, and seems to have OCD to a disturbing degree, especially considering the context of the family unit. But hey that’s okay because she’s actually not from his family at all because he’s actually from this super special colony underground (see he’s an albino, and people underground don’t get much light…) so really he DOESN’T belong to this fucked up family at all!  And she was placed there to spy on him! … which feels like it was written up against a wall and then brainstormed a bit going “hmmmm what’s the most shocking and unexpected thing that can happen right now. Oh, I know!” except it is unexpected because it makes so little sense. For that matter, Will’s age doesn’t seem quite right either. He’s supposedly 14 which makes a bit more sense than 12, but all of the characters act a bit too mature for their prospective age ranges, and I think it would have made more sense to make them all older. But perhaps that would have placed the characters out of the age group they were hoping would identify with them. Hrm.

By the way, in a completely arbitrary filler scene that serves no other purpose, they also beat the shit out of the bullies with their super special underground cat-dog, which makes the bullies cry and run away.  What bullied kid doesn’t have that fantasy, right?

I’m not done bitching about characters! I still need to bitch about motivations! The bad guys in the book (which encompasses the entire fucking cast except for like, two people I think) are all assholes. What is it about living underground that makes you a colossal asshole? Do they need more vitamin D? But it’s not just that they’re assholes, it’s that they’re moustache-twirling assholes. They are purely evil for the sake of being evil. When Rebecca shows back up in her evil role, they even go to great lengths to describe how her hair has been super greased and slicked back, like some sort of Bond villain. There are some vague references to “we don’t like topsiders because they will reveal our civilization” and that is the whole of the motivations for all of these people.  Apparently that gives you license to flat out persecute and torture people, gloating the whole time. It appears to be an entire underground race of empathy-less totalitarian jerks. The vast majority of characters behave in such an unbelievable fashion that it feels like watching a B movie full of bad actors who are hideously over-acting their parts. The non-asshole characters were largely unsympathetic too, because they spend the entire book whining, so I found there was no one I could really latch onto. You root for Will because the narrative is locked onto him, and there’s really nothing else to do.

So I ask again: What was the point of this book? Did the dysfunction of his family serve some sort of purpose? Was that making a point? What is the underground population supposed to represent? They’re not even sympathetic in any fashion, and the characters gleefully slaughter them during their escape attempts. We never even find his father, so what was the point of going down there and getting caught in the first place?

I suspect the point is to get people to read the next book… but if it comes to an amazing culmination later in the series, I’m afraid it failed to convince me to continue on and discover it.

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Winter Treacle Porter

After the fantastic success of the Irish Whiskey Cask Beer, I saw Winter Treacle Porter by Innis and Gunn and thought “Hmm, I should try it.”  I’m certain I’ve tried some of their other offerings before, but I can’t remember being overly impressed.

Like the whiskey cask beer, this beer is also 7.4% alcohol.  Unlike the whiskey cask beer, you notice.  My first sip kind of felt like taking a sup of straight rum.  It was just so… boozy.  The actual beer flavour started to improve about halfway through the bottle (more alcohol will make everything better with time, right??!) but I was still never really impressed.  It’s certainly a better option than most of the cheap “WOOO GET DRUNK FAST!!!” type beers you usually find north of 7%, but I wouldn’t get it again.

Long Time Coming

Long Time ComingLong Time Coming by Robert Goddard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I give up. I hate leaving books unfinished, but when I put off reading for several months, it’s time to move on and read something interesting again.

It started out so promising! Mysterious motivations and intrigue, espionage and promises of action, plot twists! And somewhere roughly 30-40% of the way in, it all became so… so… incredibly generic. All the words started blurring together and I just didn’t give a shit anymore. But I couldn’t stop reading – what if it got better!!!! I spent several weeks of opting to watch late-night TV rather than read (there’s the first clue…) and then I picked up the book, determined to take a chunk out of it, and went “Oh, they’re in jail now? When did that happen? …who was that again? ….. do I care?” and I knew it was time to give up.

This is probably an absolutely thrilling story for someone out there. But not me…

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Don’t Starve

I have not once starved in Don’t Starve.  I have died in countless of other ways, but not ONCE did I starve!  Therefore I have mastered this game.

Then again, I haven’t actually made it to winter yet.  So…

Don’t Starve is a title that is so new that it’s not even out of beta yet!  It’s exactly the kind of game I like to mess around with, so I bought it awhile back.  The amount of updates to it since then have been incredible, and I feel like it’s time to start talking about it.  If you buy it right now you get the beta version (release date is apparently April 23rd!), with all the potential bugs that come along with that, along with the caveat that your save file might be rendered obsolete by major updates.  Buying early gets you a discount AND a second copy to gift to someone though (or at least you do on Steam…), so if it sounds interesting to you it might be the right time to jump on the bandwagon.  There’s plenty of game right now, with more coming.

Don’t Starve is probably best described as a survival simulator/roguelike.  You are a dude who gets dropped in the woods and you must survive by gathering resources, securing food sources (don’t starve!), and defending yourself through the night.  You fashion axes from twigs and flint, chop down trees, collect berries, weave grass into rope, smash rocks to search for gold, build science machines to research new inventions… if you played Minecraft for the “oh god monsters are coming at night what can I combine to make myself more likely to survive” aspect more than the “I can build ANYTHING I FUCKING WANT!” aspect, you will love this game.  I played the shit out of an old game called “Stranded II” which was almost literally this game but with less to do (and 3D, although the polygon count made that a dubious decision) so I knew instantly that I would enjoy it.  There are plenty of things to work up to and build, and you find yourself thinking “I absolutely do not need to build that thing and I should spend the day collecting wood so I don’t die tonight… but I can totally build that if I go smash the shit out of those spiders.  How hard can they be, right?”

It currently doesn’t have much in the way of plot (the objective is literally “survive as many days as you can”), but a story mode seems to be in the works which will shed light on why you’re chucked into the woods in the first place, with potential for revenge and/or escape.  There is also a bit of a “carrot” hook in that you gain experience based on how well you do, which unlocks different characters with different attributes that can change things up on subsequent playthroughs.

As I alluded to, the game is not 3D.  It’s a sort of isometric view with a somewhat charming “Burton-esque” cartoony style.  The stylistic choices really shine when you accidentally eat a bad mushroom and start hallucinating hideous shadow beasts all around you.  I started the game to get a screenshot of the graphics to illustrate this entry, but a couple of hours later I was eaten by a tree monster that was angry about my wanton murdering of its brethren.  As I went back to the menu screen I said “Oh shit, screenshot.”  I may update this later with a proper screenshot, but the game will have to stop being so damn interesting first…