Star Wars and X-Files (Spoilers)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Apparently the moratorium on spoilers for Star Wars is over, although personally I don’t think it should end until a film is released to streaming or rentals. The theater experience is not as good as my house, even though I don’t have an especially great television or sound system like I used to. Movies in theaters are generally awful experiences. There are very few movies that would get me to go to a theater anymore. Not any of the comic book movies, not The Martian, not Interstellar, not any of the upcoming nerdy movies coming out this year, pretty much nothing … except a new Star Wars movie. A Star Wars sequel. With the original cast in it.

So I went. Because obviously I had to go on the first weekend or there would be spoilers everywhere. Because everywhere I go on the Internet would be talking about Star Wars. Probably even in-game. Maybe trying not to spoil it, but probably spoiling it anyway.

Anyway, I loved it. They definitely brought the fun back to the Star Wars universe, and that’s what was missing from the prequels. I loved the new characters. I loved them so much that they completely upstaged the old characters. Don’t get me wrong–Han was fantastic, and Ford did a fantastic job of recreating all of the classic Han-isms (I particularly noticed some very familiar hand gestures and how he kind of flails his body around when he starts running), but I felt his character should have matured a bit more. I mean, he’s still a smuggler? Really? I guess some people never change but you’d think he could find an easier way to make a living after saving the galaxy a few times.

I would have liked to see a little more exposition about what’s happened in the Star Wars universe in the last 30 years. We only got tiny little bits and pieces about a few characters, but not near enough to explain anything. Like, for example, what happened to the Empire? It was still there at the end of Jedi, it just didn’t have an Emperor. And if we assume it collapsed into nothing and the Rebellion “won,” why is the Rebellion still rebelling in Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

But then again, the politics of the Star Wars universe was never what made it such a fun trilogy. It’s not like I cared about what the “Galactic Senate” was that Tarkin said they’d swept away when I watched Star Wars as a kid. I was just like, “Space battles! Blasters! Lightsabers! X-Wings! Tie fighters! Cool!” Only as an adult do I wonder about the galactic ramifications of those space battles.

I do think they should have explained how Coke-bottle-glasses-lady ended up with Luke’s blue lightsaber in her basement, though. Just a sentence. “Oh, I found that in a Cloud City exhaust port, along with this severed hand.” It was the biggest head-scratcher I remember from coming out of the theater.

By the way I’m sure all of the above questions have been answered in some weird Star Wars message board where people have already analyzed every frame of the movie, but my point is that it should have been more obvious to a casual viewer. (I, for example, have only seen it once and am already fuzzy on many of the details.) It doesn’t count if you have to study a movie frame-by-frame to find the answers. :)

Here’s the real spoiler: I pretty much expected Han to die as soon as I heard Harrison Ford was going to be in the movie. “Oh, Harrison signed up, huh? I guess Han dying will be part of the plot.” There’s just no way they could have signed him up without killing off the character. So his death scene was not even a tiny bit surprising to me. It was so obviously going to happen that I wasn’t even a tiny bit emotionally affected by it. I was just like, “Oh, okay, checked that off the list.”

Like I said, to be honest, I cared more about the new characters. The part that did emotionally affect me was when Rey pulled that light saber away from Kylo Ren, and that classic Star Wars music swelled (which I’m almost positive was a cue from the original movie–the one with the best music–I feel like it was around the time that Luke was looking at the burned corpses of his aunt and uncle), and Rey was standing there looking like she had just found her true purpose in life (just like when Luke was looking at those burned corpses). I got really choked up at that. And that last scene where Rey held out that light saber to Luke and you could just feel the gravity of it all in their expressions. I was like, yeah, this is what Star Wars is all about.

Speaking of light sabers, I loved how they went back to the old-style fighting, where the light sabers looked like they weighed 100 pounds and everyone was flailing them all over the place. That’s some classic Star Wars, too.

Criticisms: A little too many coincidences. A little too much comedy. A little too much crammed into one movie. Not enough backstory. Kind of a shame we didn’t get to see the old gang together anywhere.

By the way, I didn’t mind the similarities to the original Star Wars because The Hero’s Journey was a classic story with classic archetypes long before Star Wars ever came out.

The X-Files

As if a new Star Wars wasn’t enough, The X-Files is back!

I thought the first episode was a little shaky and had too much compressed into a short time. I didn’t like the “history lesson” at the beginning, and while it was a blast to see the classic credit sequence, I feel like they should have brought it up to date. As far as the episode itself, I honestly couldn’t follow what was going on the first time I watched. Was it an alien conspiracy or a government conspiracy? A government conspiracy, but with aliens on the side, apparently. It was never clear to me why “they” wanted to take over America. But in a way, that’s how The X-Files mythology episodes always were, especially toward the end: Most of the story was in what the characters didn’t say. You had to read between the lines, and watch the episodes more than once. And a lot of things were left to the imagination.

While I was a bit nervous after the first episode, I thought the second episode really nailed the classic X-Files experience. It was a classic Mulder and Scully whodunnit. It’s really surreal to watch these episodes (on live television, with real commercials!). Everything is the same, but everything is totally different. The actors are obviously older, and the characters have obviously evolved (Scully acts so tired all the time, and Mulder looks like he’s barely clinging to his sanity), but they’re still basically the same as they ever were, doing things the same way they always did.

I never missed any episodes of The X-Files for the first seven seasons, then I got a bit spotty on the last two seasons. Not that I didn’t like them, per se. Just my life circumstances changed, and of course back then you actually had to be in front of the television at the right time to see the shows you wanted to see, or wait a year for an expensive DVD set. In fact I kind of liked Doggett and Reyes and I kind of wish we could have seen where those characters were 13 years later. (It’s possible they’re both dead and I just don’t know it… I don’t think I ever watched the entire ninth season… but I feel like they were both in the Series Finale somewhere. I guess they’ve been erased from the canon since then.)

I also wish there was a way for them to work in The Lone Gunmen somewhere, but, well, you know. At least if you watched that short-lived series, you do.

Anyway, can’t wait to watch more. I’m watching them live and also later on-demand to maximize my influence on the ratings. :)


ARK – So Good Yet So Bad

If anyone looks at my YouTube channel*, you can tell I’m still playing a fair amount of ARK. I’m in a very “I want to be by myself” gaming mood right now and toodling around by myself on a giant island of dinosaurs is a good fix.

Thanks to a suggestion from Aywren I’ve customized my server settings to make the game a little more palatable. I haven’t altered it much, just a few tweaks to GameUserSettings.ini to minimize the annoyances:


I find night time fairly annoying, so I shortened it a bit. (Night time is seriously dark.) I originally started with a 2.5 player damage but over time it started to feel overpowered, so I turned it back down. The taming speed multiplier is absolutely mandatory. I’m thinking of turning it up again to something like 100.0. I despise the needlessly time-consuming taming mechanic in ARK.

And because it drives me crazy how rare metal is, even with a metal pick, I added this to Game.ini:


At the default setting, I was barely mining enough metal to keep the metal pick repaired. (I might tone it down again because I discovered there are metal deposits in the game–rocks which provide tons of metal.)

Overall I’m a little surprised that I’m still playing ARK, but I think I know why. For one thing, like I said, it fits my current mood perfectly. For another thing, the game is designed to be very addictive. It quite literally punishes you for logging off. All of your “stuff” is on a ticking timer that winds down the longer you leave it alone. Things on the ground decompose and disappear (including your corpse if you die–you can’t logoff if you die). All of the things you build decompose and require constant repair, requiring you to constantly keep gathering materials and resources. All of your food spoils, requiring you to constantly keep finding or growing or killing more. If you have dinosaur pets, you also need to keep them fed, and sometimes predators come along and kill them, requiring you to run out and tame more (cough Alpha Raptor cough). All of your gardens use up fertilizer, requiring you to constantly keep picking up dinosaur poop to put in your composting bin. And all of that stuff keeps happening when you’re offline. When you log on a day later, all of your food is gone, and your fertilizer is gone, and you have to run around doing errands before you can even start to do anything new.

Granted, as you gain levels, it becomes easier and easier to maintain that status quo because you have better technology available to you. You get a preserving bin to store food in, for example. You get a feeding trough to store berries in. But preserved food still spoils eventually–it just takes longer.

It’s a brilliantly evil, addictive design, and I think it’s a big part of why the game is popular. You have to keep logging in to keep up.

The other brilliant thing about ARK is that you can run private servers. Until ARK, I never considered how much of a great thing private servers might be. I can’t even tell you how awesome it is to play an MMORPG-like game without having to worry about running into another player. :) I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes I really don’t want to deal with wondering whether that other player I meet is going to try to talk to me, or role-play with me, or try to kill me, or steal my kills, or take my resources, or ask to join me, or invite me to join them, or something like that. (I know this is a weird social anxiety thing, but my biggest fear when I run into another player** out in the wilderness is that they are going to invite me to join a group. I feel so bad declining those invites, but on a bad day I feel trapped and cornered and claustrophobic and like I want to shut off my computer and run and hide in the corner of my room if I accept a group invite–needless to say, it’s not fun to play a game when you’re feeling like that.) ARK reminds me a lot of Mortal Online, a game that I like, but I eventually stopped playing because other players were too stressful–even the friendly ones.

I really like the gathering and crafting systems in ARK, too. There’s a perfect balance between simplicity and depth. And I absolutely love the base-building aspect of the game. Starting with a campfire and turning it into a thatch hut and then expanding it into a wooden lodge and then building it up into a multi-level fort with walls is awesome. It really gives you a sense of ownership in the spot you’ve picked out to settle.

So the good parts of ARK are really good, but then there are the bad parts. The bad parts are really, really bad.

Of course there are the graphics that everyone knows about. The graphics optimization is the worst I’ve ever seen. Unless you’re running a $10,000 gaming rig, you’re going to have to turn the settings down to low to get anything better than a slide show. My PC is not quite two years old and runs almost every other game fine at the highest settings. But not ARK.

The combat system in ARK is so very bad. Ranged combat with a bow is moderately okay, but if you end up trying to stab a dinosaur with a spear, it’s god awful. It almost doesn’t matter which direction you point your spear. What you see on the screen seems irrelevant to the calculations. As best I can tell, everything is random. It seems to figure out whether you can hit the dinosaur based solely on your proximity to it. And sometimes you don’t even have to be next to it. The spear sometimes hits even if the dinosaur is nowhere near the spear tip. And the amount of damage seems completely random, too. Sometimes it takes five hits to kill a dinosaur, but next time, the same type of dinosaur at the same level is killed in one hit. It makes no sense at all. And of course even on the lowest graphics settings your frame rate drops to a slide show every time you’re in combat, making it that much worse.

The imprecision in targeting extends to picking up stones, too. You don’t have to be pointing at stones to pick them up. In fact the stone can be behind you and it will still pick it up. There’s a similar issue with chopping trees and mining. It doesn’t figure out what you’re mining by where you’re pointing, only by what is closest to your character.

I just discovered rafts. Rafts are fantastic for quickly moving up and down the coast, but the controls for rafting are the worst I’ve ever seen in a game. As best I can tell, the raft moves toward the direction your view is pointing. Which is fine until you want to look at any of the scenery you’re passing. There is no moving backward. Rafts routinely get stuck on terrain geometry. It’s almost impossible to get onto a raft from the water–you usually end up swimming underneath. It’s horrible.

The taming mechanic is inexplicable to me. I don’t understand why it needs to take so long. The only thing I can figure is that they wanted it to use up a lot of food resources to tame something, but if that’s the case why not make the taming subject eat faster? Why have it wait to eat one item every minute? Why not one every second? Why? Why??

The bad things wouldn’t bother me if I had any sense that the developers planned to fix them or even recognized that they were problems. But when you look at their release history and their plans for new releases, they give every indication that they intend to ignore all of the major problems and concentrate on throwing more and more crap into the game. Rafts have been in the game since 207.0 (September), and they appear to be just as buggy today as they were at the start. ARK looks to me like a textbook example of an undisciplined development team–when you put in a new feature and then immediately move on to other things without spending any time fixing the bugs in that new feature, that’s a bad sign. That probably means the developers are working on the things that are fun to work on, and not the things that are work.

But hey, I only spent $20 on it, so I guess I shouldn’t complain that much.

* Blog readers typically don’t watch videos (including me), so I don’t mention it much. Also I suck at making videos so I don’t want anybody to know about it. :)

** This phenomenon typically only occurs when I encounter one or two other people in the wild. I’m usually fine with bigger groups of people because I can just blend in and not be noticed.

Looking At Unity 5 and Unreal 4

I totally stole this image from
(I totally stole this image from

One weekend I got the idea that it would be simple for me to write a hit video game, make tons of money, and leave my day job*. I’ve dabbled at writing games now and then since I first learned programming back in the 80s, so this is nothing new (I have yet to actually complete a game, though). Anyway, I started reading up on popular 3D game engines. From what I can gather, there are basically two choices: Unity 5 or Unreal 4.

Unity 5

I started with Unity, looking at tutorial videos. I liked what I saw right away. The IDE looks nice and clean, the framework is well-organized and easy to understand, code is written in C# (which I use in my day job so that’s a big plus there), the tutorials are thorough. From a developer standpoint, I don’t see how a game engine could get much better.

My biggest worry, though, is that it won’t scale well. It seems perfect for small, simple games, but what about a large, complex, multi-tiered, multi-player game? What about a full-blown MMORPG with millions of players? What about a twitch game where maximum performance is vitally important? Will all that overhead that makes the engine so simple to use eventually slow down the game’s execution? Will the developer have to spend all of his time optimizing and tweaking and even replacing things to get around the limitations of the engine? Will all the abstraction layers keep the developer from truly optimizing the game? I don’t know the answers to those questions.

There is also a somewhat disturbing amount of designer-style editing that can be done in the IDE, at least in the tutorials. I equate it to ASP.NET development. There are a lot of nice visual web designers and drag-and-drop gizmos and data binding tools in Visual Studio but I sometimes (ie. almost always) find it faster and easier to write out code by hand for large-scale projects. Dragging-and-dropping something once or twice is okay, but dragging-and-dropping things a thousand times is a nightmare of maintenance issues. I hope there are code equivalents to all of the automatic stuff that happens when you drag-and-drop things around in the IDE.

Still, it’s a pretty popular engine. I looked over a list of games that use the Unity engine and found some fairly impressive results. The Forest is a beautiful game that runs pretty well, about which I once wrote: “Whatever engine this game is using should be used for all future MMORPGs, in my humble opinion.” Guns of Icarus also looks fantastic. Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a fine game. Besiege and Kerbal Space Program don’t focus on graphics but they are really fun. Shroud of the Avatar, which I haven’t yet seen in person, looks pretty nice in screenshots and videos.

And they are all indie games. I suppose now that I’ve looked into Unity I can see why smaller and/or newer teams would want to use it. It’s got a very low barrier to entry. I can easily see brand new programmers stepping out of college right into Unity.

Unreal 4

Next I looked at the Unreal engine. I gather that Unreal is the more “pro” option that big budget AAA studios use. I don’t know if that’s because it’s actually better or just that it’s been around longer and is more entrenched.

I ran into problems with the Unreal engine right away. The first problem is the tutorial videos. They aren’t good. They definitely assume you already have some knowledge about not just object-oriented game engines, but Unreal itself. They don’t walk you through a logical process of building a game from start to finish but rather skip around in somewhat puzzling directions. Most of them assume you have a huge library of 3D assets lying around waiting to be imported as well.

Then there is C++. That automatically gives it a much steeper learning curve than Unity. I’ve been around the programming block a few times so C++ doesn’t necessarily bother me, but it definitely gives me pause. I’m just one person, and writing C++ is time-consuming. Yes, it’s fast and efficient and exactly what you want to use to write games. But with so much of the computationally-intensive work done by the engine framework or the graphics card, it leaves mainly game logic for you to write, and there’s a lot of overhead to deal with in C++ just to write a bunch of if-then logic.


Since there is almost no chance of me actually completing a game, let alone getting it into a marketable state, I figure I should make things easy on myself and use the simple framework. That’s definitely Unity 5.

Now if only there was an easy way to make 3D models.

* My goals are always very realistic.

2015 Winter Steam Sale List

This was a post I intended to publish somewhere near the beginning of January.

Steam Winter Sale

I bought a lot of things in the 2015 Steam Winter sale, but I kept all of my purchases to 7.99 or less, so I consider that a relative success. I even installed some of them. :)

Undertale. 7.99. It didn’t look like my kind of game, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. I installed and played it briefly … but it isn’t really my kind of game. At least in my current frame of mind.

Shelter 2. 7.49. I loved the novelty of it, and had it on my wish list for a while. Installed and played about an hour. I loved it right up until I experienced the trauma of not being able to save one of my kittens from starvation. The game does a fantastic job of making you feel a strong emotional connection to the lynx mother and her kittens, which makes watching one of your kittens starve to death about as much fun as watching someone kick puppies to death. Since “losing” the game is so devastating, I imagine “winning” it would be a triumphant, joyful experience, but I don’t think I have the fortitude to get there.

Frozen State. 6.99. Another survival game I’ve had on my wish list for a while. Early Access. Haven’t played yet.

Ryse: Son of Rome. 6.79. Saw it before and thought it looked cool. It came up on the front page so I impulse bought it. Haven’t played yet.

Lego: Star Wars. 5.99. I got this because someone at work kept talking about the Lego games and I happened to see it in the sale. Haven’t played yet.

Remember Me. 5.99. This one came up on the front page and I thought it looked cool. Haven’t played yet.

Dawn of Discovery. 4.99. A city-builder kind of game that had been on my wish list for a while. Haven’t played yet.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. 4.99. I saw this on the front page and thought the setting looked interesting (who doesn’t love post-apocalyptic stories–not me, that’s who). I didn’t expect much when I installed it but it’s actually a fun (if not very deep) story-driven game in the vein of Uncharted or Tomb Raider. Definitely worth 4.99, although I only got halfway through before I lost interest in the gameplay. Still haven’t uninstalled it, though.

Guns of Icarus Online. 4.99. Saw this one on the front page and remembered it was a game I’ve heard about and wanted to see. I installed and played it for about an hour. It’s a neat concept with beautiful visuals but unfortunately it’s entirely multi-player and I don’t particularly want to enter that community this many years too late.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North. 4.99. Saw it on the front page and thought I’d give it a try. Haven’t played yet.

Creeper World 3. 4.94. Saw it on the front page and thought it might be an interesting twist on Civilization-style games. Haven’t played yet.

Sir, You Are Being Hunted. 3.99. I think I had this on my wish list, or if I didn’t I’ve wanted to try this game since I first saw it in Early Access, and the price was finally right. Played a few hours and thought it was cool, although stealth games aren’t really my thing so I probably won’t play much more. The big problem I have with stealth games is that it just takes too long to do things.

Spelunky. 3.74. Platformers aren’t my thing but I’ve heard a lot of good things about this game so I had to give it a try. I played for an hour or so and it turns out … it’s not really my thing.

Never Alone. 3.74. This stylish-looking game had been on my wish list for a while. I just wanted to see it, but I haven’t played it yet.

CivCity Rome. 2.49. Another city-builder from my wish list. At 2.49, I figure all that is required to recoup my losses is a decent loading screen. Haven’t played yet.

ARK – Another Chance In The New Year

With the start of the new year, I decided to give ARK: Survival Evolved another chance. So many people rave about this game, in streams, podcasts, and blogs. I had a lot of bad feelings to overcome, but I figured it was possible that I was the one who was wrong about it. So on January 1st, I fired up a single player game, determined to play until I “got it.” I ended up playing about 18 hours over the holiday weekend.

What I call my Beach Base on the northern edge of The Island.
What I call my Beach Base on the northern edge of The Island.

I will refrain from writing at length about the poor graphics programming over at Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Efecto Studios, and/or Virtual Basement LLC*. I’ve covered that before. I choked down my outrage over having to reduce the rendering settings to nearly the lowest, blockiest, homeliest settings there were to achieve something resembling 60 fps. (The last time I had to lower my resolution from the maximum my graphics card could handle was sometime around the time of Quake and Quake 2.)

But enough about that. I’m trying to be positive here. I spent a couple of hours figuring out how to find wood, thatch, stone, and flint, craft a pick, build a campfire, kill some penguins and dodos, chop up their corpses for raw meat, cook the meat, craft some clothes, and generally stay alive. The crafting and survival aspects of the game are done fairly well. Perhaps not as good as some, but probably better than most.

The biggest key to surviving in ARK, of course, is running away from large carnivorous dinosaurs, saber-tooth tigers, and giant gravity-defying birds until they (hopefully) lose interest. You also have to hunt for berries and meat almost constantly. The survival, crafting, and gathering parts of the game are fun and interesting, although admittedly once you get it figured out it’s not difficult to get to a place where you can survive indefinitely**. You can last forever on berries, a torch, and the occasional cooked dodo.

That’s where I’m stuck right now. I can survive indefinitely, but I can’t really do anything. I setup my own private LAN server so I have The Island all to myself, and I’ve built up several different bases along the north coast so I have places to go after I respawn. Because inevitably after I venture out to try to tame dodos or explore further, some big monstrosity comes along and one-shots me and it’s back to the drawing board.

The leveling curve in ARK seems slow, but maybe that’s my imagination. After 18 hours I got to level 15, mainly from the experience gained by crafting and gathering. Killing things is somewhat rare for me, since at this point there aren’t many things I can kill with my meager little stone axe and spear. Dodos, penguins, trilobytes, and sometimes the little compys (I call them tinysaurus) are about all I can reliably kill. Running away is often the better choice. (Except with raptors and t-rexes, which I can’t outrun.)

Still, I have to admit that the game has its hooks into me now. It’s very addictive–the kind of game where you look up at the clock and realize you’ve just spent several hours playing without realizing it. For me, that might turn out to be a detriment to playing in a cooperative or multiplayer environment, because it means it’s very time-consuming to advance in ARK. People of the Internet who have more spare time to play are going to have a big advantage over more casual players like me. I’ll come into the game with my spear and dodo pets and everyone else will be using assault rifles and flying spaceships.

ARK has issues beyond the rendering speed, too. Some aspects of the user interface, like the inventory and hotbar system, are rudimentary at best and require a lot of dragging and dropping. (Drag-and-drop has been a crutch for lazy interface designers since the beginning of time–a pet peeve of mine.) At this point, though, with the amazing success of the game, I doubt they will do anything to improve it. They have to please the masses now, so they’ll spend their time adding new dinosaurs and holiday events. Gamers quickly adapt to terrible interfaces when they enjoy the gameplay. (Reading over the patch notes basically confirms this hypothesis.)

But overall it’s a lot more fun than I originally gave it credit for, and I now understand why everyone likes it. The real question now is whether to keep playing it or stop until it’s actually finished.

* Why does this game have four different developers? Is that why it’s such a technical mess?

** At least until a pair of Sabertooths moves into your base camp, kills your dodo army, and runs you out of town.