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|Press the gun at the target and pull the trigger||1D|
|Shooting range: a stationary target||2D|
|Shooting at a moving a target||3D|
|Target is shooting back||+1D|
|Target has partial cover||+1D|
|Target moving at superhuman speeds||+1D|
Your default combat firefight would involve two or more people running from cover to cover while blasting away at each other. A moving target and somebody shooting back at you would put the default difficulty at 4D, with occasional 5D for some bastard taking cover behind a table or a sofa. The firefight would probably last quite a while and since adventurers tend to be better shots than most of their opposition, it would end in their favour. The problem here is that each die is actually a huge probability step up or down. 5D is tough but feasible (31%) for someone with a skill value of 15. But an average Joe the Cop has a skill value of 11. His odds of hitting the perp behind a table would be 6%. Hmm... If I remove the "unaware" requirement from the hit difficulty table the difficulty drops to 4D (2D for a stationary target, +1D for light cover and +1D since the perp is shooting back. We are back at 24%. Acceptable odds and it makes movement and staying in a decent firing position roughly equal tactical choices.
As a rule of thumb, failing the skill roll means a near miss, although the shooter can still hit something sensitive next to the target. Fumbling the skill roll calls for a 1D roll on the fumble table, with typical results being shooting yourself in the foot, friendly fire or a jam. It is a little funny that the more difficult shots would have greater odds of mechanical failure but the odds of a fumble in general are so small that it does not really matter. 1st degree success means hitting target with the default damage. I have often talked about changing the damage model to a rolled range instead of fixed + explosive dice and this is where it would happen. 2D+2 for a pistol would give a Deep Wound on the average result (9) and would still be enough to blow your guts out at the top of the range (14). Add +1D to damage for each extra degree and the maxed-out damage roll for a pistol becomes 4D+2. That is an average damage 16 (Deep Wound +9 for most people) and a maximum of 26 (Deep Wound +19, for fuck's sake). Even without explosive dice, the 3-degree hit on somebody would do some serious damage.
Nevertheless, the greater range of damage would call for bigger Deep Wound steps. Based on pistol damage, I would go for DW, DW+3, DW+7 and DW+12. For the ordinary person, that'd mean 7-9, 10-13, 14-18 and 19+. This means that an average pistol hit would be a deep wound in the lowest category: enough to be dramatic. A 3rd degree hit (the best shot at vitals you can get) would probably be in the second-worst category on a bad day and has 26% odds of being in the top category, which makes it highly unsurvivable. Add +1D to the base damage roll and we've got ourselves a rifle, with a point or two thrown here and there for different calibers. I toyed with the idea of removing hit locations but players like them so they stay. It also makes the idea of aiming for a location more intuitive.
That leaves the issue of variety. In Praedor, the crudeness of the dice steps is tempered first by having degrees of success and then a reaction roll. The odds of getting at least a 2nd degree success half of the time are not disruptive when an opposing roll can still create nine different outcomes out of it. In a firefight, there is less variety in the outcomes but still enough variables to play with. Given the relatively low odds of hitting, elements that tweak the odds upwards a little are probably the best.
Melee works well with fixed initiatives but in a firefight who does what and when can be a life and death issue. This means that initiative rolls can have dramatic investment and therefore they are worth rolling. Of course, no drama can survive stupid execution so we have to do it right. Cyber-praedor has a secondary attribute called Initiative. This is (AGI+PER)/2, the average of those two attributes. The roll difficulty varies according to circumstances:
|You spent the last round aiming at the target||1D|
|Well-prepared firing position facing into the right direction||2D|
|Mobile combat, ready for all directions||3D|
|Unwieldy weapon for the surroundings (rifles in tight spaces etc.)||+1D|
|Enemies appear behind you!||+1D|
|Recovering from a knockdown, prone, restricted movement||+1D|
If the roll is fumbled, our punk has no actions.
If the roll fails, our punk shoots at Initiative/2 + Weapon Speed but with a +1D penalty to the attack roll.
If the roll succeeds, the punk shoots at Initiative/2 + Weapon Speed.
If the roll is a 2nd degree success the punk shoots at Initiative + Weapon Speed and has +1 accuracy die to the attack.
If the roll is a 3rd degree success the punk shoots first at (Initiative x 2) + Weapon Speed and again at Initiative/2 + Weapon Speed. He has +1 accuracy dice to both attacks.
Accuracy dice are extra dice rolled during the attack roll and can be used to substitute high rolls. For example, if the attack roll is 4D but the punk has 1 accuracy die, he rolls 5D and picks the 4 lowest-scoring dice. On average, an accuracy dice has the same effect as a direct +2 bonus to the attacker skill. However, making the bonuses extra dice fits the Praedor system methodology better.
Our punk has Initiative of 14 and a pistol with Speed of +6. He is in a mobile combat and rolls 8 for Initiative. This is a second degree success, so his turn to shoot comes at 20 (Initiative + Weapon Speed) and he has one extra accuracy die. Since modern pistols can be used to "double-tap", firing more shots per attack, he has good odds for putting someone down since the accuracy die applies to ALL shots.
Some weapons have inherent accuracy dice because of their quality. A high-quality sniper rifle or a laser rifle would have an accuracy of +1. Smart ammo, that can correct its own flight path, would add another accuracy die (and in a near-future setting those things are effective even at less than extreme range). Aiming systems, like a lasersight or a ballistics implant could add another accuracy die but they are not cumulative. Still, using a sniper rifle with smart ammo and all hardwired to a ballistics brain implant would give you +3 accuracy dice. With that kind of aim (adds a full degree of success, on the average) you could almost bend the bullet trajectory around corners.
An attack is either a single shot, a rapid succession of single shots up to the weapon ROF, a preset burst, a wild burst or a full auto attack.
Single shots must all be fired into the same 90-degree facing. The first shot has normal difficulty and extra shots have a cumulative +1D penalty. However, any accuracy dice for the attack affect them all. Switching targets, who all have to be within the 90-degree arc, adds an extra +1D to the difficulty.
The pistol is semiautomatic with a ROF of 3. Our punk fires three shots in rapid succession at a guy crouching behind a table. The target is reloading his weapon, so he is not shooting back and the default difficulty drops to 3D. First shot is 3D, second is 4D and the third one is 5D. With +1 accuracy die the punk has decent odds of putting at least the two first rounds into the target. Alternatively, if there were three targets behind that same table, he could fire one shot at each but the difficulties would be 3D, 5D and finally 7D, which is a bit hardcore even with the accuracy die (roughly 0,6% assuming a skill of 11).
Preset burst counts as a single shot attack but expends a fixed number of ammunition. If the shot hits, the odds are that the target is struck by a tight cluster of bullets. Upon a hit, roll 1D. That many rounds, up to the number of rounds fired, hits the target. They all hit the same location but damage is rolled separately for each. The typical preset burst size is three. 3 x 2D+2 can do some serious damage but if the target is wearing protection in that location, it is likely that none of the bullets cause a deep wound since the armour value is substracted separately from each roll. And yet if that was a 3rd degree hit with a damage of 3 x 4D+2... all that is left of the target is some wet bones and loose change.
Wild burst happens when the gun is put on autofire and the gunner fires controlled stream of bullets, hoping that increased size of the hit pattern will mean more hits. For every 10 rounds fired add +1 accuracy die. It is an easy way to get a kill if you can afford using a whole clip on a single attack. On a 1st degree success, the target is hit by one bullet. On a 2nd degree success, the target is hit by one bullet with +1D to damage and another bullet with a normal damage. On a 3rd degree success, the target is hit by one bullet with +2D damage, a second bullet with +1D damage and a third bullet with standard damage. The locations of these hits are rolled separately. A wild burst can be very effective in some circumstances but the vast majority of bullets fired will always miss.
Full auto is an area attack where skill has no bearing. Divide the number of rounds fired with the width of the area in metres (width + height if three dimensional). Halve it if the targets have some cover. Reduce 1 for every 10 metres of range, up to the effective range of the weapon. Beyond that no effective killing field can be created. The end result is the number of potential hits on a target within that area. Roll 1D for each potential hit and each roll of 1 is a 1st degree hit on a random location. Still, machineguns wreaked hell and havoc in World War I. For the interests of playability, unless the player characters are right where the killing sweep starts, they can have time to react as their buddies (and everything around them) gets drilled. A Dodge/Agility roll of 2D + 1D for every 5 potential hits gets them out of harm's way (and leaves them prone behind nearest cover).
Flechette Rifle has 90 rounds in the magazine. The punk takes aim at a 5-metre hangar entrance 50 metres away. When enemies assault the hangar, he squeezes his gun dry into the doorway. 90/5 - 5 = 13 potential hits per target. The gamemaster does not bother rolling that many dice and decides it will be 2 hits for each target, expect 1 for that guy who was taking cover behind the main line of his buddies. Since the targets were lightly armoured renta-cops, he does not bother to roll for damage either. The doorway becomes a meat grinder and most attackers are dead or dying. That one chap is severely wounded.
Dodging this wind of lead would mean an Agility roll of 4D (2D + 1D for each full 5 potential hits) but that would also mean staying on the ground and keeping your head down. THAT is the purpose of cover fire and automatic weapons do it so very, very well.
Quite of a lot dice rolling but there is usually no separate defence roll. Apart from rapid fire attacks, there are not any more rolls than you would make in Praedor. More importantly, all rolls beyond the hit roll depend on the hit. If the attack misses (and the odds for missing are much better than in Praedor), nothing else is rolled and we can move on to the next combatant.
Even so, one way to speed things up is to ditch the hit locations. Players like them, I know, but you could adopt a Twilight 2K-style of system where players have hit locations but the enemies don't (unless the players aim at them or the location is needed for dramatic reasons). Armour value recalculated to be 50% of the torso armor and +1 for helmet, greaves and leg protection (+2, if wearing hard armour), cumulatively. Anyone taking a first category Deep Wound is out of the game for two rounds and later rejoins with an extra +1D penalty per wound. Anyone taking a second category Deep Wound is immobilized but after two rounds can start shooting back with a +3D penalty, if they've got the guts for it (literally). Third category or worse means being out of the fight for good.
Finally, the objective of all armour in Praedor system is to reduce the effect of deep wounds. Light armour would have protection ratings of 1-3, enough to push the average pistol wound back into the flesh wound category. Medium armour, the hardest stuff you can get in soft materials, has a protective rating of 4-7. Anything beyond that means wearing hard armour, a modern-day platemail with enough stopping power to halt a rifle round and enough visibility to get you shot on sight in most places (as soon as they can find a big enough gun for the job). Hard armour protects against almost everything. Soft and medium armour types have their protective values halved against arrows, armour piercing rounds and bladed weapons. Of course, a Q-blade (read Brasyl) would still cut through hard armour like a hot knife cuts through butter.
I feel like a winner today. It is all here, actually, but I'll explain it anyway. This year, 86 game development projects from all over the Nordic Countries applied for Nordic Games Fund grant. Because of the number of applicants, the Fund issued six larger and four smaller grants and two of the large grants and handed them out for the ten most promising projects by whatever selection criteria. Two of the big grants, 67000 euros each, went to Finland:
I was the narrative designer for Earth No More for the first 19 months and from what I've heard, they're still using the original high-level design. I am the concept designer, the game designer and the application writer for Crown of Byzantium. Of course, my ties to Earth No More are rather symbolic in these days and even the high-level story was a compromise between various parties. I can't claim all the credit for the Casual Continent application either (yes, boss) but still, I can't help feeling like a sports manager whose protegés have just scored a double victory. Whatever the circumstances of my departure from Recoil Games, I wish them well and hope they score big with Earth No More. They are a great bunch and deserve it. And as for the Crown of Byzantium, well, that thing is supposed to pay for my salary in the future, isn't it? 67000 euros may not sound like much but it does buy you well over a man-year of work. In a specialist-driven industry like ours that can be enough to make or break a project.
In other jubilant news, my publisher has finally got the suggested revisions for Elämäpeli sorted out and put them in the mail. As I feared, there is a *lot* of them and it could be that my Amsterdam experience this year will be like a writer's riverboat camp (not a bad idea, actually). The original format for Elämäpeli was spontaneous, improvised and blog-like. BTJ is asking for some rather big changes to the structure of the book because they think it is currently a mess of aggressively written personal experiences mixed with instruction pieces that would be right at home in Pelintekijän käsikirja. This is more or less what the original idea for the book was all about but they are now having second thoughts. And these people know their shit, so I take their advice very seriously. I am not that eager to bury myself into Elämäpeli at such depth again but if it the book will be better for it, I'll do it.
Considering how much influence the BTJ editor has on my published works, I wonder if it is the same with all authors? With changes like these, you could almost call the editor a co-author but they are rarely, if ever, recognized in the book credits. By the way, BTJ is also contemplating the book name. Elämäpeli could become Pelielämää before this is over.
There is much more to xenological research and artifact smuggling around Zo-n than the Yakuza but they are the side of things that stalkers mostly have to deal with.
As with most things orient, the Yakuza are many things and draw back on centuries of tradition. An important thing to remember about them is that although she does not look like it today, Japan is still very much a caste society. Some castes have blended together into what you might call a middle class but everything above, below or outside it retain their caste status. The Yakuza tattoos are not for show: in fact, most try to hide them in public. They are a caste symbol, a tangible mark of the criminal class. Maybe this is why the Yakuza tend to dress smartly, businesslike or in the fashion of American movies in the 50s. Long sleeves and coats even in the heat of summer help keep the tattoos hidden. There is a reason for it as well. People with tattoos tend to have hard time entering bath houses, restaurants or clubs. Yakuza must hang out with their own kind, and the comfort girls. Apart from a few exceptions, the yakuza are predominantly male and women have very low status in the criminal community.
While law enforcement is somewhat reluctant to tangle with the organized crime everywhere, in Japan it is doubly so the Yakuza are spiritually untouchable. You don't deal with them without risking the purity of your soul. And on the other hand, their presence keeps crime bottled up into specific segments of the society. Sure, it is troublesome at times but Japan actually has very little violent gang-crime. Even pickpockets, such a plague in most other metropolises around the world, are very rare in Japan. Without the Yakuza, things could be very different. And while most criminal organisations are at odds with the everyday society, the Yakuza still feel part of it. So much so, that in Japanese fiction they often have the role of a Robin Hood -type of gangster organisation.
This is not without merit. For example, Kobe earthquake in 1995 left an entire city without water, power or transport of supplies. While the Japanese bureaucracy was burying itself in red tape, the Yakuza began distributing water and supplies from Gods knows where and kept it up for two days until the Japanese military finally moved in. Even in the best of times, the Japanese society has its cracks. There are no safety nets for people who fall into them, except for the Yakuza. For the police and the politicians, removing the Yakuza from the scene would mean taking on a host of social problems the mainstream society would rather pretend do not exist. It is not pretty but it is convenient and had gone on for a long time already before the Visitation. Today, many of the outcasts hiding in Sapporo can do so only because of they are either part of the Yakuza network, or receive handouts from them in exchange for menial tasks. No other criminal organisation in the world has such a strong presence among the Zone refugees as the Yakuza.
This is not to say modern times would not have eroded some of these traditions. In an increasingly non-traditional society, the Yakuza have been forced to lower their recruiting standards. The line between the old traditional yakuza and newer criminal groups like bikers (bosozuku) is becoming blurred. This is also eroding away the fear and the respect other social classes have had for the Yakuza. The old clanheads still see the Yakuza as a breed apart from common street criminals but down on the street the distinction is less than obvious. To complicate things further, there is a growing group of wanna-be Yakuzas, mostly youngsters rebelling against the tightly stratified Japanese society by getting tattooed and pretending they are toughened criminals. Some yakuza gangs use these pretenders for menial tasks (or as cannon fodder) but most would prefer to dump them into Tokyo Bay with weights hanging on.
Becoming a Yakuza involves a ritual between the leader, oyabun (literally "father role") and the recruit kobun ("child role"). Kobun's finger is pricked with a needle and blood smeared over the picture of a saint, which the kobun then holds in a fire. Finally, he and the oyabun drink specially prepared sake from each other's cups and from that moment on, the Yakuza is the kobun's first family, taking precedence over his blood relatives or spouse. By tradition, kobun are bound by the code of the samurai, Bushido, the willingness to die for your oyabun. In the modern world, such qualities are rare and life in the upper levels of Yakuza can be quite machiavellian. There is also a ritual for resigning from the Yakuza by breaking the sake cup but this runs the same risk as trying to leave any other modern criminal organisation.
The yakuza are generally less eager to kill their fellow clan members for infractions and offences than most other criminal organisations. This is because they have a highly distinctive ritual of penance, yubitsume. By this method, even very serious mistakes can be atoned for. No words are involved. The oyabun gives the kobun a knife (traditionally a tanto but any sharp knife will do) and a string to stop the bleeding. The kobun then cuts off the first digit of his left little finger (or right, or other fingers if this ritual has been performed before) and hands the fingertip to the oyabun in a silk cloth. The oyabun nods and smiles in assent and so the offense has been compensated for.
Your average yakuza gang has 10 to 50 members. It is lead by the oyabun and assisted by a number of lieutenants responsible for more special and confidential activities. One of them commands the guys on the street, smaller groups of street gangsters consisting of wakashu (junior leader) in charge of a few shatei (younger brothers). These gangs are in turn part of a Yakuza clan, lead by kumicho (supreme boss) and his own circle of lieutenants. In Osaka, the Yakuza capital, there can be as many as five layers of branching hierarchies, where oyabuns have their own oyabuns in the form of lieutenants from higher gangs. The clans have unique names and identities and it is such clans, some of them numbering 10,000 people or more, that are involved in the sutakuteru (stalker) war.
But while these numbers are impressive, it is important to remember that stalker activity concerns a very small group of people in each clan. The rest are watching over brothels, drug dens, extorted businesses, semi-legitimate fronts for smuggling operations and pachinko halls, perhaps even unaware of their clans involvement with stalkers. Attacking these thousands and thousands of footsoldiers would be a bloodbath for all sides, so clans wage an espionage war to determine the key people in the each clan. When they think they have identified the target, they strike to kill or capture.
Some stalker groups have become integrated into Yakuza clans and their leaders enjoy a lieutenant status, making the rest of the group is effectively one of the gangs. However, most stalker groups have not become kobun and their relationship with the Yakuza is strictly business. This means less information, less money and less friends but also less chance of being targeted by rival yakuza clans. Clan lieutenants typically include people with keiretsu or government connections. They act as middlemen and the stalkers rarely know where their missions or equipment are coming from, or how much the artifacts and samples brought back from Zo-n are actually worth. While there have been incidents of every variety between stalkers and their yakuza "partners", the relationship is usually smooth and straightforward. The Yakuza make a lot of money by dealing with goods that only stalkers can provide. Once you have a good team, it is a sensible strategy to hold on to them, trying to build up their loyalty and eventually enticing them into becoming kobun. This rarely works, especially on foreign stalker aces, but it never hurts to try.
Where things really get complicated is the yakuza-keiretsu relationship. There is no love lost between the two and both sides are trying to screw each other as much as they can. For example, the keiretsu pays the yakuza to organize an expedition and provides equipment for it. The yakuza relay the equipment and relevant information to their stalkers, help them set up the expedition and organize extraction from the border area once the stalkers are back across the boundary. The yakuza then buy any finds off the stalkers and with or without their help arrange a little field study to determine what they are. The involvement of stalkers in the trade should end there.
If the artifacts are of relatively low value, the keiretsu gets them for the agreed price. Sometimes the gear is returned along with it but in better-working business relationships the stalkers get to keep them as long as the yakuza-keiretsu relationship holds. Now, if any of the artifacts was of surprisingly high value, the stalkers might get a bonus for it but the yakuza would then try to squeeze more money out of the keiretsu. The keiretsu would seek to independently verify if the yakuza claims about the artifact are true or if they have really been presented with all the artifacts found during the expedition. This sometimes involves contacting the stalkers directly, which again risks the very cover the keiretsu was using the yakuza for in the first place. It also sows seeds of mistrust between the yakuza and their stalkers.
It gets even worse. Keiretsus are also spying on each other and often have bitter internal rivalries between high-level teams. A rare find can attract bids from rival keiretsus, or multiple bids from withing the same keiretsu, not to mention attempts by rival yakuza clans or competing factions within the same clan trying to seize these finds for themselves. The Institute has its ear to the ground in Sapporo where these deals take place. While they haven't been able to crack open the yakuza, they have collaborators in the keiretsus. And while non-kobun stalkers are not really hit targets in the yakuza war, they are assets that can be fought over with threats, bribery, extortion and knocking out their existing yakuza contacts which would force them to seek out a new dealer. This threatens to pull keiretsus into the war as well. An expedition funded and outfitted by keiretsu A can end up benefiting keiretsu B because of yakuza conflicts, so both keiretsus try to pull strings to make sure that does not happen. Even a straightforward grab'n'run op into the Zo-n can get real messy once the stalkers are back across the boundary.
Finally, keiretsus are not the only ones paying the yakuza for samples and artifacts. There are all sorts of political clubs and secret societies in Japan, as well as no shortage of wacky cults with dubious amounts of money. The yakuza as such are an international operation so they can also be contracted by foreign governments, intelligence agencies or even factions within the Institute. Money was always a factor but it was really these new contacts and the growing influence abroad that had the southern Yakuza clans worried. They needed to get a piece of that action as well, or the northern clans would grow big enough to threaten the balance of power onn Honshu as well. Unfortunately, the Osaka and Tokyo factions, consisting of nine and six clans respectively, could not agree on how the spoils of this war ought to be shared. So far, the four clans of the Sapporo faction have been holding out despite the odds.
There is one other thing, rarely mentioned but one that keeps the Institute inspectors in Japan awake at night. Not all of the artifacts bought off from stalkers make it to keiretsus or their foreign counterparts. Could the yakuza be hoarding artifacts and if so, to what end? Is the conflict between the Yakuza clans about to go xenological with weaponized artifacts? Or is the real target somewhere else, somewhere among the more traditional enemies of the yakuza? Like the law enforcement.
I have a little trouble deciding what to write in part 4 for of Stalker Japan, so I decided to take this break and write some meta before the next entry. All in all, I am envisioning Stalker Japan as a 5-part series and if certain people find it inspiring enough, making it into its own booklet or a supplement at some point. The most keen-eyed and frequent readers may have noticed subtle changes in the previous entry over the last few days. The problem with writing stuff straight out into the public media is that when you get a better idea or spot a problem, you have to change stuff that is already "set" for some people. I know that Petri and myself have been trumpeting this idea of nothing being canon but most people rely on us for the "official version" anyway, whether we like it or not. So it is awkward. More so for me perhaps, because people could already be building their fictional structures on top of mine.
It is funny how these things get started. I wanted another Stalker campaign besides the one I am running (at the less than blistering rate of one session per month) to my old University group (sheesh, it's been a long time!). My mind was set on Stalker or variations of thereof but it was obvious that the second campaign would have to be radically different from my current one. So, I read up the short Zone Japan description in the rulebook and began elaborating from there. What would the look and feel be like and what separates it from Zone France? How are the temporal anomalies mentioned in the rulebook experienced on site? What radical differences can I introduce into the role and nature of stalkers that both fits the setting but does not take it too far from the original concept? And instead of writing into the desk drawer, I put it out right away so that the people complaining about the lack of supplements would shut up.
Frankly, I think it turned out pretty awesome. Stalker Japan is more futuristic and high-tech, mixing the new outsider subculture of stalkers with the ancient outsider subculture of the Yakuza, or at least the Yakuza in the way it is portrtayed in Western entertainment. It is a blend of scifi, superstition, corporation intrigue and Twilight Zone-level experiences within Zo-n itself. It all comes at the expense of social commentary and the post-holocaust feel of Zone France but as a Westerner it is not really my place to write social commentary about the Japanese society anyway. My next entry would probably be about the Yakuza as such and how the Yakuza-Stalker relationship works in practice. Then I would conclude the whole series with a look at the high-tech equipment and tools I've been talking so much about.
If nothing else happens, that will be it. However, if my Stalker illustrators are reading this and feel like they could come up with cool pictures, I will re-write this stuff into a proper Finnish supplemental book, top it off with more fiction, creature descriptions, an in-depth look into wacky applications of Xenotech, a more detailed (purpose-drawn) Zo-n map, more exposition on Reiriku and finally 5-10 adventures and a full overleaf of adventure nuggets set in Japan. STALKER: JAPAN will then become the first official supplement I have ever published for anything. You've all seen and read the core idea from this blog already so you can now make up your minds as to whether it is worth it.
In distantly related news, Sami Koponen asked me (and a bunch of other people) to come forward with my roleplaying history. I don't know his motives but to put his money where his mouth is, he wrote his own in such detail that I can only marvel at this memory. My 25 years at it are much fuzzier but they have also been covered in Roolipelaaja when Stalker RPG came out. I have nothing to add to that article, so look it up if you are interested. He then suggested I might also explain the history of Burger Games a little. That I actually considered. But frankly, it is not something I can do sober. The story of Burger Games is a harrowing tale of hard work, wasted money, disappointments, broken dreams, envy and sorrow. The triumphs have been few and far between. Some of my experiences are familiar to other RPG authors and it seems like we are all bound to make at least some of the same mistakes.
Burger Games has been around for 12 years. Miekkamies, that started it all, for 15. I am a product of Burger Games myself; personally, artistically and in these days also professionally. Not all that different from the games really, even if this one has only one player. And I have rolled some criticals. Praedor delivered me from the shadows of Taiga but it really took the bungling of the would-be rules modders to make me realise how good the Praedor system really was. And finally Stalker put an end to the envy I have felt towards the Swedish RPG scene. There is nothing quite like Stalker anywhere. So who gives a fuck about the early days? If you weren't there, you would not understand anyway. I sure don't and I was there, for crying out loud.
D&D Games Days announcements in Roolipelaaja forums prompted me to throw in a couple of dates of my own. Just for laughs, really (and judging from Nordic's offer to sponsor the dice for Stalker Games Day he got the joke). I am not really arranging anything but if I had to choose some dates, those would be good candidates. Praedor first came out of the printers on December 8th, 2000 and Arkadi Strugatsky died on October 23rd, 1991. The other alternative would be to use the publishing date of Stalker RPG which is sometime in April (2008). I forget the exact date. However, October 23rd is also the first day of this year's Alternative Party, so if I am arranging anything for Stalker, it'll be there.
Speaking of Alternative Party, the theme for this year is cyberpunk, which is great news. Just stay away from Piritta Paananen's bloggings in the altparty.org blog. It almost spoiled my appetite for the event to read how someone so relevant to this event could be so ignorant and close-minded about its theme at the same time. If you type "cyberpunk" into Wikipedia, you get a pretty excellent summary on the subject and a good list of references beyond some anime or RPGs. And If you then decide that cyberpunk isn't your thing, it is all well and good. But if that's the case, What The Hell are you doing here?
For the most part, the Zone Japan (zo-n) is not difficult traverse. The anomalous area in Zone France is certainly much harder and while most anomalies in Europe would squash you like a grape, in Zo-n it is possible to weave through danger spots if you know what you are doing. The alley with Temporals in the previous entry was a case in point. Temporals are generally thought to echoes of matter, energy and movement that have become disjointed in the time axis and now fade in and out of our own temporal dimension. They can be best observed through their effects on their surroundings, which range from footprints in the snow to leaving a man-sized (and shaped) hole in the wall, if the temporal hails from a time period when the wall wasn't there. They usually appear in groups, indicating that the anomaly is an area rather than the entities themselves. Temporals are dangerous or lethal to touch, taking piece of you with them into alternate temporal dimensions.
Or that's the theory anyway.
Anomalies concerning time, energy and spatial dislocation are typical of Zo-n and most of the suspected inorganisms follow the same pattern. While some anomalies can also be found in other zones, like the Mosquito Mange (a concentration of gravity), they are rare and usually do not last a long time. Of the anomalies also found in Zone France, only Paintings tend to be much more common in Zo-n. Inorganisms are either very primitive, moving with all the strategy and cunning of a single-cell amoeba, or very poorly understood mobile anomalous effects like Temporals that put the very definition of an entity in question.
However, the danger that claims the most lives in Zo-n is also entirely unique to it: Shifts. The entire Zo-n is a jigsaw puzzle of temporal pocket dimensions, even within the larger transitions of light and darkness it is so famous for. Movement within these pockets is relatively easy but crossing Shifts is difficult and can be dangerous, especially if the conditions within the pockets are very different. While sometimes nearly invisible, Shifts can usually be recognized by visual, auditory or extrasensory observations. For example, sounds from across the Shift can be muffled, delayed, or missing entirely. Areas beyond it may appear fuzzy or misty, or there can be optical distortions, moving curtains of light or even illusons of pre-Visit activity. Temporals are sometimes visible across a Shift. Shifts can also create physical effects, which may also pose a danger to observers in themselves, such as electrical discharges or strong and sudden air currents, emissions of heat or radiation, gravity anomalies, or even time-induced changes on materials along the Shift. As temporal pockets move, grind against each other, merge and divide, walls may appear to deteriorate and then repair themselves, spots of rust grow and diminish, or an object that seemed intact across the Shift turns to ashes when the Shift passes over it.
Pocket dimensions move, shrink, grow or change shape. Stalkers can opt to move with the pocket but since they are relatively small, about the size of a football field and sometimes even less, they must cross dozens of Shifts during each expedition. Japanese stalkers talk of wind (kaze), the choosing of pockets moving into the right direction and staying with them to minimize Shift transitions. When a Shift has to be crossed, it is best to look for a passive one and stay away from "corners", where Shifts from multiple pockets meet. If conditions across the Shift appear very similar to this side and the throwing of stones or bolts at the Shift does not reveal anything too dramatic, it is usually fairly safe to attempt a crossing. This is best done quickly, minimizing the exposure to the shift and before it can become more active. Even so, the experience can be painful, nauseating or even cause superficial injuries like burns or minor bleeding.
Because of Shifts, the direct route between two locations is usually blocked and the stalkers have to navigate their way through a maze of pockets, possibly with the help of off-Zone observers or even satellite imagery. Their presence imposes some very hard requirements on exploration. It is very dangerous to set up a camp anywhere; indoors, outdoors, it does not matter to a Shift. It is also dangerous to explore locations with only one or two escape routes, because if you become trapped in a dead end by a deadly Shift, you're toast. Stalkers do camp out in Zo-n but it usually means relocating two or more times per night to avoid hitting Shifts or Dusk/Dawnbreaks.
Sometimes the temporal pockets themselves are dangerous. Zo-n has inflicted more radiation poisonings than any other Zone when stalkers have stumbled into a pocket with a high background radiation due to changes in radiation spectrum. Air can be foul with quasichemicals, or just pollutants leaking from ruined industrial plants and getting trapped inside the pocket. Gravity may be different, sounds may behave oddly, the overall lighting and colouring of things can be different and a raging whirlwind in one pocket does not necessarily trigger even a breeze in another. As a rule, winds coming from outside exist also in Zo-n but the temporal pockets also retain winds locked in time. How these two can co-exist is anyone's guess and on occasion even tornadoes have become trapped in these pockets. Temporal conditions are often different, meaning that after crossing the Shift things look much more deteriorated, possibly because the pocket is situated further away into the future. This also means that team members cannot always see each other across the Shift, which sometimes leads to accidents or scattering of teams. Then there are legends of pockets that are outright deadly to anyone who enters. There is no hard evidence of such things. Maybe those who found them never came back.
Last but not least there is the issue of the superanomalies Day and Dark, the slowly shifting columns of light and shadow Zo-n is so famous for. There is a debate over whether the pockets and Shifts inside a Day or a Dark area have any kind of pattern to them, or whether Day and Dark are completely separate phenomena. For a stalker in Zo-n, the point is academic. Day and Dark areas can be several kilometres across. In a Day, the conditions are just like during bright daylight, although the light has no discernible source and is dispersed, like on a cloudy day when shadows cease to exist. Temperatures rise towards normal levels for the season but the Day never lasts long enough to compensate for the bitter cold of the Dark.
Inside a Dark, the skies are black and usually clear so that you can see the stars, aurorae, or even the Milky Way if you are deep enough inside Zo-n. Constellations appear to be normal but no one has undertaken a serious study of astronomy from within Zo-n. It is bitterly cold, well below freezing and wind tends to die down as air becomes heavier. Some speculate that if it was not for the considerable residual heat in the ground and air, conditions in a Dark would become similar to what they would be on Earth without the Sun (cold enough to freeze the air itself). There is much less snowfall in Zo-n than there ought to be but even so a Dark usually triggers light snowfall which then evaporates by Day. However, year-round snow cover persists in sheltered spots, especially in the northern half of the Zo-n. Darks are also the reason why Keiriku is so cold. Not only do they block sunlight but the prevailing winds from South pass through Zo-n and are much colder by the time they reach Keiriku. Over time, centuries or so, both Zo-n and Keiriku may be covered with glaciers.
Duskbreak and Dawnbreak are transitions between a Day and a Dark. While Shifts kill more people, these are what stalkers fear the most. Crossing most Shifts is easy, or at least possible. Crossing Duskbreak or Dawnbreak is lethal. Curtains of light dance along the Day/Dark boundary, like an aurora that reaches all the way the ground. Almost invisible at any practical distance, it rapidly becomes the brighter, even painfully so, as it gets up close. At their approach, stalkers seek shelter, preferably some sturdy hardcover to between themselves and the deadly lights on the sky. The effects of these lights are usually devastating, if also irregular, on anything brought to Zo-n from the outside, while leaving Zo-n itself practically untouched. Whether it is a a stalker, a protective suit, an SDF main battle tank does not really matter.
In general, crossing open terrain is to be avoided unless you have a clear fix of where the Duskbreak and Dawnbreak currently are. Anomalies which exist in the Dark usually disappear for the Day and vice versa. Also entities present in one are not necessarily present in the other but return once the lighting changes once more. This has given rise to speculation that Zo-n actually has two Zones with very different conditions overlapping each other. The Zone that stalkers are experiencing is actually a rift between these two and while all Zo-n phenomena exists only in Dark or Day, a human from outside Zo-n would experience the worst of both worlds.
Contrary to what one might expect, radio communication usually does work within Zo-n. Within a temporal pocket it is clear and while transmissions across Shifts can be delayed or distorted, they usually get through. To make things spookier, radio amateurs across Japan have picked up garbled but often recognizable radio signals from different time periods emanating from Zo-n, sometimes repeating over and over again like the transmission event was caught in a time loop. Besides enabling radio communication between team members, tight-beam tranceivers are used to talk to off-Zone observers for the best routes and sudden changes. It is now illegal to take high-powered optical telescopes or camera lenses up the slopes of the nearby mountains but since Zo-n is so photogenic even tourists keep breaking this rule all the time.
Oops, I did it again. Cats can be hypnotized with a laser pointer dot. I can be mesmerized by dangling a half-way decent WW2 submarine warfare simulator in front of me. With a new machine that kicks ass and Silent Hunter 4 patched up to a version 1.4 that actually does run for five minutes straight, I've been hooked again. And now that I have neglected sleep, food, work and personal relationships because of virtual convoy battles, it is time to write a more thorough review of the game and compare it with the previous king of the genre, Silent Hunter 3.
Those of you who were already born 1994 might remember the original Silent Hunter, a sprite-based WW2 submarine simulator about kicking Japanese ass and with such bad AI troubles that I soon figured out that the winning tactic was to lure harbor escorts into running aground and wait for the airplanes to hit a mountain. I sort of skipped Silent Hunter 2 but grabbed Silent Hunter 3 and it grabbed me back, hard. Silent Hunter 3 is, by far, the best simulation of being a German submarine skipper in the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. The game is also extremely user-friendly, highly realistic if also very adjustable and the net is simply bursting with mods to alter the game one way or the other. You can, of course, edit configuration files yourself and I decided to remove the crew fatigue feature because I am the fucking captain and don't need to tell people to go to bed for crying out loud. With semi-official add-ons like the Battle of Mediterranean and the much-vaunted Grey Wolves expansion, it is still a fucking good game. My only gripe is the screen resolution as the game does not support widescreen in any format. Of course, some of the other graphics could do with an upgrade but they are not that bad and once you are out to sea, who gives a damn of how many polygons the harbour orchestra members have?
Ubisoft decided it would be best to take the franchise back to its roots and released Silent Hunter 4, to the effect of torpedoing your computer. Crashes far outnumbered depth charges in the release version. Now version 1.4 actually stays upright "fairly" well. Not perfect but certainly playable.
The opening cinematic is easily the coolest submarine game intro ever. But while I never paid real attention to the user-friendliness of the SH3 interface, the lack of it in SH4 underscores how excellent it really was. From the menus to the actual game interface, SH4 developers have ignored the lessons from SH3. Part of the challenge in this game is making sense of the stupid and unintuitive interface and if this is realism as far as US submarines were concerned, then the American engineers of the time were bloody idiots compared to their German counterparts. Then again, they did manage to have even worse torpedoes in 1942 than Germans had in 1939, so I guess they were. SH3 also lets you adjust all the right things. For example, the height of the periscope. This is completely up to the player in SH3 but in SH4 there are only up and down positions. And as far as the visibility is concerned, this is actually pretty damn important, so the only way to make fine adjustments to it is shifting the depth of the entire boat ever so slightly.
Well, you do learn the controls and if you don't have a background in SH3 you probably won't have the same complaints that I do. The boat handles just as clumsily as they did in real-life, so bonuses for that. The American crew is not made of sugar and can fire their deck-gun in less than mirror-calm seas, which is also a plus. Furthermore, they are pretty good at it, so it is best to leave guns on autopilot (and thus we can ignore the fact that deck gun controls suck ass). Then again, the map screen is strangely unfriendly and I really miss the scaled grids of SH3. You have them in a very low zoom level but then the grids are too large to be of any sensible use. It is very hard to judge distances on the fly with this map. Also, there seems to be very little logic as to what distances enemies are visible or can see you. Or at least I can't figure out these modifiers. This is not helped by the vague mission objectives. I had to check the web for what I was supposed to do in each mission type because the game orders are just plain confusing and the manual does not have anything useful on that. Not that some of the solutions made any sense but what the heck. These are not Germans.
Still, I have to admit that the battles are fun. Better graphics and cursing at the turds American subs use for torpedoes is hilarious. But that's just it. It is fun. Not dramatic or epic. Maybe it is the topic: American submarines fight in sunlit tropical waters, against an enemy that does not know its ass from its elbow. I once sneaked into the Kobe harbour and sank battleships Ise and Fuso right there, at their anchorchains. Since nobody seemed to pay any attention, I proceeded going inside the harbour and blew up the aicraft carrier Zuikaku for good measure. I don't think anybody in Kobe even woke up. Later, I was caught pants down teabagging a passenger liner in the mouth of Tokyo Bay and easily evaded three destroyers by running in a straight line back to open sea.
The worst reality-killer came at the middle of the Osaka bay, which is a spawning point for new Japanese convoys. There is a jumble of ships going about, ramming into each other, catching fire and sinking without your intervention. Meanwhile, the mountaineous terrain of Japan poses a hazard to observation planes (which are such a pain in the ass at sea as there is a million of them and they seem to have insane operating ranges). I watched how four airplanes flying the same route all smashed into the mountainside, one after the other. Not that the Japanese are the only ones. The only way to land a plane into Pearl Harbour airbase seems to be crashing it into the coastal cliffs.
Then I learned something that is worth keel-hauling the game designer, or rather, the concept designer. Modern submarine games tend to have this vast open campaign battlefield. In SH3 it spans the Atlantic Ocean (although most action happens up north). In SH4 it is the Pacific, which is like 4 times the size. Distances are enormous: my submarine sails out of Pearl and has barely enough fuel to make it to Japan on slow speed. If you do any maneouvering while there you can forget the trip back. What the hell? The only way to play the game is with the Unlimited fuel option on?! I am fairly sure the real submarines did something differently. The enormous expanse of ocean is a pain in the ass in other ways too. Even with 8000x time, moving about takes ages and zoom levels practical for ocean travel make everything a jumble when something happens up close (like meeting one of the million 5000-klik range scout planes Japs seem to have everywhere). I know SH3 could use a higher time acceleration ratio (it takes half an hour to get to the South American coast even if there are no interruptions) but these huge distances are just an unnecessary pain in the ass. The original Silent Hunter resolved this issue by using smaller patrol areas. You are assigned to a patrol area and can then operate inside that sandbox. Thus the pain of having to travel 9000 kilometres to where the action is was avoided and I would have liked something like that in this game as well.
Then I also learned that the primary focus of the game is aimed wrong. The default player role is that of a submarine skipper out of Pearl Harbour (with all the ravaged battleships still in there; very cute). Your primary operations areas are the East China Sea and the Japanese Home Islands. Never once have I been sent to Wake, Truk or any other interesting location. Then you also have the option of playing in the South Asia Fleet, which means older boats and having to navigate the nooks and crannies of Philippines and the present-day Indonesia. When you score up a few kills there, the game starts hinting that you should move to a better boat and if you do, ships you off into Pearl without a warning. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia and those islands are where the action is. While you are stuck somewhere in the North Pacific, you get newsflashes of big battles down south. You know, the places you just left behind? And there is no way to get transferred back there.
Finally, SH4 is too easy. I play with 57% realism and at the same level SH3 puts up a real fight. But in SH4, I have just reached December 1942 with over 400,000 tons under my belt and no close calls to speak off. Heck, there is still 3 years of Pacific war left and I am already bored out of my skull!
So is it a crappy game?
No, it is not. It is a decent submarine simulator with good graphics. It's only fault is being of the same franchise as SH3. Maybe it is the harder fights, the better usability and user-friendliness, the more varied upgrade options, the more sensibly scaled battlefield. Or perhaps the tragedy of it all. The Americans won their war. The Germans lost it and 3 out of 4 submariners never returned home. All their efforts, all that sacrifice, was for nothing. But they came closer to winning than many people realise. Much closer than the Japanese ever did.
The next time we will be talking about Stalker Japan some more. Although I am not sure if anyone is interested.
We are in the Night and it is bitterly cold. The suit is heated but I can still feel the cold in the extremities. Of course, the lacy ice crystals forming on my supposedly frost-proof visor are also a pretty good hint. The sky above is dark. It is just past noon but I can see the stars through the ghostly veils of the aurorae. Just two kilometres to the north, a mall complex with its parking lot is basking in the sunlight. I can't see the Sun but I can see its light reflecting off the buildings in the distance. Maybe even from the air, since the parking lot seems to swimming with golden haze. It could be something deadly but most likely it is just water vapour as warm air moves over frozen ground. These patches of daylight and night move about, drifting past one another like blocks of ice and oil, flexible but never mixing. There is no Twilight in this Zone. Only Day and Night.
"Beige, where's the dawn right now?" I say into the headset.
"800 metres and closing. 10 minutes, maybe less", the radio talks back.
Visor display triangulates the source of the transmission somewhere 355 metres to the southeast. Nifty gadget, too bad it can't measure anything past the treshold. Something flashes to the south, like a huge electrical discharge. Background radiation spikes and dies down. I am having a discharge of my own and turn the detonator key. Series of small explosives shatters the ice sheet covering a basketball field. There is an ear-shattering boom but we are quite safe. Nobody outside this patch of Night will hear a thing. Let alone anyone on the Zone Boundary.
"Mako, see anything?"
"Just a second", another voice responds.
Visor pinpoints the signal origin to the balcony of blackened, partially collapsed building. Mako is using some kind of spectrometer that looks like small binoculars on top of a pistol grip.
"Anomalous refraction at eleven o'clock!" she shouts excitedly. "Eight meters!"
I drop down on all fours and start moving towards it, shifting through the icy mush with my gloved hands. Then something wraps itself around my left glove and I know we hit paydirt. Like a coil of gold wire, except that it flows and shifts like liquid. It did not grab my hand. Rather I just stuck my hand in it by accident like it was a pile of cow-droppings. I half-push, half-pour it from my hand into the container. It really feels like thick gel, or soft bubblegum. The container clicks shut and lid indicators switch from red to green. Quarantine complete.
"I got it!" and turn to wave the container at Mako. She is not there. The spectrometer rests at the railing of the balcony. I know she would not leave it behind.
"Mako? Come in, baby! Come on!"
Nothing. Not a beep. And all of the sudden I realise that there's something else on the balcony, crawling over the edge. I see a claw, or a tentacle, of twisted iron dragging forward a bulk of junk. Something glows orange inside it. It is as if it had pulled all this scrap onto itself to shield itself from the dark and cold. Mako is part of it in her suit, now integrated into the inorganism and bending into impossible positions as the entity moves. She must be mangled to a pulp inside her suit. It is too dark to see if the suit is leaking blood.
"Whitecap? Mako? Everything OK there?" says the radio and the noise feels deafening against the silence. The entity hears it too and its loose tentacles constrict, hardening into spindly legs that can support the glowing core up in the air, away from the ice on the ground. I supress a sudden urge to start firing at it and instead turn around and start running. Somewhere. Anywhere. Unlike it, I am not afraid of the ice.
"Mako's dead!" I shout into the microphone. "Something grabbed her."
"Fucking gone! Moving out!"
I am shouting. Why am I shouting? And there is something in my eyes. I can't see properly. Darkness and tears are playing tricks on me and every one of them is deadly.
"Shit! Four minutes! Find some cover!"
I run, not sure where and suddenly slip, stumble and fall, rolling onwards on sheer momentum for what seems like forever. Couple of seconds, tops, really. Then a brick walls catches me and the visor of my helmet cracks under the impact. I tear my whole helmet off and the frigid air shocks me back to my senses. I half-expected the inorganism to be upon me by now but it is nowhere in sight. Instead, I am in some kind of an alleyway. Everything to my left is silhuetted against a growing brightness on the ground-level horizon. Dawn is fast approaching.
"Fuck!", shouts Beige. "This pit is holed! See any cover out there?"
With the increasing light, you do. A hole in the wall, like a giant had punched right through the bricks. It is at the far end of this alley. A gaping maw with teeth of rusty (and now frosty) iron.
"Do you see my location?" I ask from Beige.
"I am in an alley. At the far end to the north is a hole into a basement. I am heading there now! Keep coming towards me until you find it!"
I start running and get half-way there when a crunching sound stops me in my tracks. Footprints, or actually shoeprints, appear into the frosty blacktop, crushing the delicate fuzz of the ice crystals flat. The steam from my breathing is swirling funnily, skirting the outline of an invisible obstacle moving past me. And there are more them, like invisible people moving up and down this alley. They are temporals, so in a way they are, I guess. I roll of out of the way and invisible feet tread a path right through where I just was.
"Temporals! Switch to EM!"
There is no real response. Just heavy breathing over the radio. Beige must be running like hell. My flight from the entity has put us farther apart than you originally planned for but as you duck and weave through the footprints, praying all the way to the hole. I guess it worked because the insides are empty. No growths, no quasichemicals, no nothing. Just a black maw into the depths of the building. Light grows stronger. Since it comes from the ground level and not from the sky, shadows grow long and sharp. And after an impossibly long wait, I see him turn into the mouth of the alley. There is a roaring sound now, like an approaching flash flood. Or a runaway freight train.
Beige still has his helmet on and the visor looks intact. Temporals are invisible only to the naked eye so it is nothing our visors couldn't handle. Just activate the electromagnetic emission display on top of the visual field and you are set. Then Beige runs into something and it splits his upper body. Or rather, a flash of multispectrum radiation eats away half of his head and torso. Instantly, just like that. For the briefest of moments I think the hole in his torso has the shape of a man's shoulder and an arm but the illusion ends when he falls down, squirting blood from a thousand arteries. Some of them were split along their length. And the suit did nothing. Nothing! It is cut away just as sharply.
Dawnbreak is so bright it makes my eyes water. For the briefest of moments I think I can see the temporals, humanoid shapes of distorted glass, silhuetted against the bright, deadly beams of light shining down from the sky. But they vanish, along with the temporal state that summoned them into being. Beige, or what is left of him, is not so lucky. The curtain of light passes over his body and the suit crumples under the immaterial blow. I wait for quite a while after it has passed before crawling out of this hole. The skies are blue now and both the sunlight and the gentle breeze feel warm and moist. All the ice and frost have vanished like they were never there. Still, a cool mist flows along the surface of the asphalt. It seems like the earth remembers the wintery darkness even if water does not. And looking at the mouth of the alley, I can see that the hills outside the town are now dark, almost black. Like they cut-outs of black cardboard pasted onto the horizon or something.
I'd like to say a few words over the body of Beige but I have no clue what the last rites of Shinto are. His suit looks like it had been left out in the sunlight for a century or so. The plastic surface is bleached and chipped to reveal the ceramics underneath. The smooth edges of the cut are now rough and corrded. And inside the suit there is nothing. Well, maybe a handful of grey dust with some white flakes of burnt bone. It all fits easily into my second container. While I have no idea what Beige really believed in, I know that natives take gifts and offerings to the graves of their loved ones. I hope the rascal is happy for his $25,000 urn because I sure as hell ain't giving it back to that Yamada suit.
Sapporo, Japan. The northernmost of the gleaming metropolises that give Japan its urban, high-tech image. Home to 3 million. Down on the streets, amidst the well-dressed execs, smart-looking students and the occasional tattooed gangster, life goes on. There is no sense of urgency or crisis here. No mention of anything extraordinary or out of place. Nothing at all.
Then you look up and it all comes back to you. Some zones are bigger. Others are deadlier. But none are more photogenic than Zone Japan. Shimmering curtains of light and shadow hang down from space, flaring and intertwining as if pummeled by unseen winds. A waterfall of smoked glass and luminescent silver, its base crackling with lightning. The spectacle is over 100 kilometres tall, even if the zone itself is only 72 kilometres across. Clouds and mountains, although dwarfed by the spectable, seem to glow and dim as they reflect the shifting lights.
Of course, most days are cloudy. The Zone is just a huge patch of darkened skies and flashes of distant thunder, like an enormous stormcloud on the horizon that never goes away. At night, the rays of light amidst the curtains of shadow make the clouds glow. It is as if Sapporo was just a fishing hamlet and the true city, as big as Tokyo itself, was further away on the horizon, its lights reflected on the low-hanging clouds.
Ladies and Gentlemen! Due to my need for a second campaign with some less schedule-challenged players (so that we can play more often), I give you: Zone Japan! This is the island of Hokkaido, North Japan. The red circle is approximately where the Zone would be according to the rulebook descriptions (note: I don't give a damn if the scale is off by a little):
I also made a bigger (500+ kb) map of the Zone and it's immediate area that you can download. Of course, all this is available on Google Map as well.
Hokkaido is the northernmost island in the Japan home islands. It is a land of forests, mountains with a weather not too different from Finland. Before the visitation, summer temperatures were around the 20s and in winter dropped around -10 degrees centigrade. Summers are drier than in rest of Japan as the island is too far north to be really affected by the monsoon. In the winter, there is heavy snowfall, coming down as fine powder up in the mountains. Although the mountains can be very impressive and create scenic landscapes complete with tall waterfalls, they are not really that steep and hiking was a popular sport before the Visitation. Coniferous forests are the dominant type of wild vegetation, while fields and rice paddies dominate the lowlands and valleys.
Sapporo is the regional capital of Hokkaido. Often portrayed as a border city like Toulouse or Derbent, there is actually a 20-kilometre buffer zone between the metropolitan area and the Zone boundary, so the city infrastructure remains intact. Sapporo is also one of the few settlements close to Zones that have actually gained in population. Before the Visit, city had 2.5 million people. Now the population is well over 3 million, with hundreds of thousands having fled there from the northern parts of the island. They are now mingling with tens of thousands of Outcast, survivors from the Zone itself and there is very little social security or even sympathy for either group. Things are not helped by the recent global economic downturn that is hitting Japan harder than most. Probably because they have a longer way to fall.
If Sapporo has its share of problems, it is a catastrophe up north. The Zone forms a 100 kilometres tall and 72 kilometres wide obstacle to sunlight. Its shadow falls over much of the northern Hokkaido and the effects on climate and vegetation have been devastating. In short, the northern half of the island is turning into tundra and you can find snow year-round from the nooks and crannies of the hills. Most of the residents have fled, either due to the abject failure of agriculture, or because they believe the northern areas to be cursed. Some of the industrial facilities are still operational, as are fisheries along the coast but the entire region now has an ill reputation that borders on superstition.
Things are looking better to the east. The zone appeared on the western side of a north-south mountain ridge running through the middle of the island. Although the boundary extends to the eastern slopes, the lowlands towards the coast were spared and were left on the sunny side, while the mountains (and the offshoot to the northeast keep the cold climate at bay. From Sapporo to Kushiro and Nemuro, life is still relatively normal. But beyond the mountains to the north, the Zone has decimated a region several times the size of its surface area. Unlike in the west, the north tends to be avoided by all. The Japanese call this area reiriku, the ghost land.
The Institute maintains a base in the near-abandoned town of Asahikawa (pre-visit population 350,000; it was an important industrial and commercial centre famous for its many restaurants) but has to rely on private security contractors (mostly American) for border patrols as their own local employees would rather resign and neither the local defence contractors nor the Self-Defence Force are willing to send troops "into the shadow". Behind the scenes, this has forced Institute to compromise on many issues. Research licenses for Zone Japan are easier to get than in Europe. While Japanese companies and institutions are active in the south, the north is exploited by many foreign and multinational corporations, some of them merely respectable fronts for agents from other Asian-Pacific governments.
The Zone itself claimed roughly 250,000 lives. There are no reliable figures on the numbers of outcasts and the officials are generally reluctant to even discuss the issue. It completely engulfed a wide plateau leading northwest from Sapporo, cutting all road links to the north. This region was heavily populated, dotted with villages and small towns, that although small by Japanese standards, still had populations of tens of thousands. Now it runs deep into the Zone, continuing all the way to Asahikawa in the north. With relatively level terrain, well-kept roads and an intricate system of irrigation channels and ditches that remains largely intact, it is easy ground for movement. This, of course, says nothing of the difficulties posed by the many anomalies and inorganisms present here, let alone the temporal and spatial shifts that seem to move with the lights and shadows coming from above. The Zone is often also bitterly cold. The former rice paddies can remain frozen year round. The presence of the Zone is also thought to have increased seismic activity and tremors of small earthquakes are felt often throughout Hokkaido.
While the plateau runs through the zone, there are three other distinct regions. In the west, the boundary climbs on a stand-alone mountain range separating it from the sea. This was sparsely populated and difficult terrain to begin with and remains so this very day. Poor weather makes even aerial surveillance difficult, leaving this area wide-open, provided that the intruder is willing to hike up and down mountains, cliffs and forests in pouring (and freezing) rain. It has and continues to be done, by hardy loners or small teams traveling light and never venturing deep into the Zone. This is also one of the two places in Zone Japan where you can find life, still clinging on to sheltered valleys, gorges and caves, withering and mutating like all life in all the Zones (with the possible exception of Zone Russia).
To the east lies the north-south mountain ridge that runs along the entire length of the island. It is also volcanically active with many hot springs, geysers and boiling mud pits. Towards the south there are also three active volcanoes, two of them inside the Zone and one just barely outside it. A massive volcanic eruption in the Zone is one of the Institute's nightmare scenarios but so far this has not occurred. Some of the cameras monitoring the slopes are still operational and provide tantalizing glimpses inside the Zone when and if the radio link chooses to function. This being Japan, the mountains were far from uninhabited. Some of the finest winter resorts in the world were lost around Furano, along with many prestigious foreign nationals residing there at the time of the Visitation. Again, mountains hold pockets of life, just like in the west.
The far east beyond the central mountain ridge opens onto a plateau east of Furano, with the boundary running right through it almost parallel to road 237. Abandoned and overgrown, this area still easy traverse if you know the terrain. This is stalker country and although patrolled by Institute, they simply do not have the resources to cover 50 kilometres worth of of farmland, mountains and small towns and the wealthy residences at Furano were a tempting target right from the start. More importantly, villages and towns east of the boundary have not been abandoned (even if they are slowly dying). The Institute has to tread carefully when operating outside the relatively narrow 2-kilometre quarantine area outside the boundary. There is no love lost between the Institute and the Japanese authorities even at best of times. Also the presence of foreign companies and security contractors is frowned upon by everybody, from locals to government officials.
While Zone Japan does not have a true border region, many elements normally associated with border regions are still present as part of the local underworld, especially in Sapporo. Scratch the surface or take a wrong turn at night, and the outcasts, the altered, the cults, the gangs, the vigilante groups (especially among Japan's strong ultra-nationalist factions) are all there. Clandestine xenological research is rampant. Many Japanese corporations are involved in both legal and illegal research and make little distinction between the two while the authorities look away. They are less forgiving to foreign companies but on the other hand pay scant attention to what is happening in Reiriku. There are rumours of secret research facilities being built in old power plants, train tunnels and defence installations, and that besides the local finds, the coastal ports and small airfields are busy with smugglers flying in dangerous artifacts from all over the world. It is an exaggeration but not an outright lie...
To be a stalker in Japan means dealing with the Yakuza. There is no way around it. In the tradition of martial arts schools, Yakuza clans in the north maintain "stables" of stalkers, some of which accept foreigners. Yakuza membership is not required but loyalty and commitment is. Rogues and independents are ruthlessly hunted down, so the first step in becoming a stalker in Japan is approaching the local oyabun with some proof that you actually have what it takes. You can retire later on but it is best to leave Japan when you do.
The unfortunate side effect is that stalkers become involved in crime wars. The advent of xenotechnology has shifted the balance of power in the underworld. The small northern Yakuza clans wield disproportionate influence among keiretsu (modern-day zaibatsu), the great corporate conglomerates that have traditionally been dealing with Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto clans. They want in and since Sapporo is too small for them all a major gangster war seems inevitable. While the northern clans are smaller, this is their home turf and they have some support from the corporations, so the outcome of the impending conflict is anyone's guess.
With the average Yakuza being a tattooed street thug, it is somewhat startling to find that stalkers in Japan have access to extremely advanced equipment, undreamed of by stalkers anywhere else and rivalling or even surpassing that of the Institute. In the end, even the Yakuza are only middlemen and it is the corporations that run the show. Japan is famous for its high-tech sector and with the amount of money put into xenological research anything is possible. Corporate research teams assign targets and provide the equipment. Yakuza are needed only for secrecy, unaccountability, security and finding some fools both stupid enough to enter the Zone and good enough to bring back some samples.
Code/X NOMAD is one of those ideas that pop back into my mind every now and then. And when they do that, they also get nudged forward, even if nothing gets done on paper. The concept is really a victim of its own ambitiousness. Code/X is the embodiment of Arcade Roleplaying idea and NOMAD throws the idea out of the window because of its really rather complex and intricate setting. Players need to be schooled about what the hell is going on and that kills the Arcade effect. This does not necessarily make CXN a bad concept, though. I am just not convinced that NOMAD setting and Code/X rules system are the best possible match. Generic system fans probably find this hard to grasp but I see the system a part of the setting. Take Praedor, for example. The system is absolutely essential in creating situations archetypical of the pulp fantasy genre.
In its most recent mental incarnation, Code/X: NOMAD is set on a vast biosphere-ship NOMAD, launched from Earth orbit to colonize other solar systems. Somewhere mid-trip some of the crew awaken from their cryosleep and find out that a deep-space collision with organic "spore" have infected much of the biomass aboard the vessel, with both sapient and non-sapient monsters crawling around in the corridors. The ship AI has gone rogue after decades of fighting the intruders and now builds monsters of its own. Many shipboard systems are down, the intranet is basically hostile environment and nobody knows if the ship is still on course or how much time has elapsed.
These survivors and their descendants form a community that splinters into tribes over the generations, roughly according to the original crew task division. Rocket-science is not something you can teach by home schooling but they struggle to keep essential science and know-how alive, with different tribes focusing on different things. Sure there is cooperation, trade and political marriages between the tribes. But there is also intrigue and conflict over resources, secret societies with dreams of uniting the tribes into whatever twisted utopia suits them best, xenocults that believe the future of tribes lies with closer ties or even merging with the aliens, outlaws that eschew the concept of tribes altogether and so on.
All in all, 100,000 people are living inside a massive U-shaped ship, around 10 kilometres across and with more floorspace than all the capitals of Europe combined. Originally, there were a million people aboard in cryosleep. Most have been devoured by the alien ecosystem and some, of course, awoke to become the forefathers of the tribes (let's call them clans because they are still facets of the same society and I don't want to step on Miska's toes). Some still sleep in their cryocoffins, undisturbed for centuries. And this is where the nomads come in.
Unknown to all but a select few inside the clans, there are still first-generation crewmembers around. Fit, well-trained in the functions of the ship and outfitted with cybernetic implants that push their abilities to superhuman levels, they are a kind of secret society, sometimes blending in with the clans but also taking on hazardous missions in infested sectors to ward off the alien or AI threat, or repair critical systems the AI cannot get to. They also seek out other surviving crewmembers still in cryosleep, or caches of weapons and technology. Nomads can also become embroiled in clan politics and have on occasion assassinated would-be tyrants or cult leaders. For clansmen, they are something of a legend. For clan leaders, they are a threat to be eliminated on sight.
Ok, that was fluff. If you are getting Jedi/superhero vibes of the character concept, you are on the right track. Around them is a post-holocaust society living off the ruins of the ships, their pockets of habitation separates by long stretches of deadly, monster-infested corridors. Character classes, on archetypes in case of Code/X rules are determined by their original function aboard the ship and as always, any sufficiently advanced technology appears as magic and that is what their implanted powers give them. Medics can control nanobot swarms to perform complex surgery in the most appalling conditions. Security detail with their hyper-reflexes and implanted targeting systems make short work of most threats. Labourers can operate all sorts of ancient machinery and although meant to double as forlifts, their enhanced strength also packs a wallop in melee. Techs can jack into the ship intranet, much like shamans can enter the spirit world, and make the ship systems work for them. Scouts, instead of exploring another world somewhere, can now prowl the most dangerous depths of the ship, unseen and unheard with the help of their chameleon fields.
Class names subject to change.
Most adventures would be scifi dungeons, as befits the Code/X style. There is a task that needs to be done, an objective that needs to be reached, a boss enemy that needs to be killed etc. Any web-based dungeon generator will work just fine and off we go on a monster killing spree. The clans and such can be used just as a backdrop but they can also be used to deepen the adventure, provide variety to scifi-dungeoncrawls and give the players something to belong to, identify with or to protect. I have always marvelled at the amount of backstory material Games Workshop crammed in its old Dark Future -car battle game. The game was simple as hell but the world behind it was completely enthralling to post-holocaust fan like myself.
So, that's Code/X: NOMAD. Or at least the current version.
The original entry was a reaction to a writing on a closed mailing list. I should not have written it because it effectively leaked the discussion to outsiders. I am sorry about that. It won't happen again. Ropecon is moving into a direction where I am neither able nor willing to contribute but then again I am a throwback to the ancient times. They don't call "old skool" old for nothing, so don't listen to me.
I'd love to be a super-designer who is never wrong and shits solid gold even when he has a diarrhea. But since that slot is already taken by Shigeru Miyamoto, I have to content with being an ordinary designer who gets his designs shot down every once in a while, like this week at work. It is all part of the normal iteration process and wasn't the first (and won't be the last) time but damn that hurts. I wish I was better at rebounding from setbacks, for rebound we must. And as the guy in charge aptly put it, "it is better to intervene now than after four weeks of production". Yep, that is why the pre-production phase exists. The whole affair is just eating away at my ego, which in some ways can be a good thing.
I promised to talk about the limits of design and boy did I run smack into them this week or what? While the game designer has arguably more power over the product than any other single member of the production team, he is still very much part of the team and in addition subject to economic and policy interests dictated from above (or from outside and if you thought running your own company would let you do the games you want you are terribly mistaken). As I said before, the impetus to write this entry came from hearing about this guy appointed as a designer in a very real project up north, even if it is also part of a games education course. This guy basically came up with the high concept on a scrap of paper, then told the dev team not to wait for specs since "you all know what kind of games these are" and "it's a project for kids so what's the big deal about a project schedule". I am sure everybody reading this can figure out the flaw in this logic. Then again, this guy doesn't and I did not make him up.
For the high-ups, the designer is the guy who listens to the business case of a new project, makes the concept that fits it, presents it and through various stages of iteration the concept gets turned into a design. The more money is involved, the more iteration there will always be. For the production team, this is irrelevant. For them, game designer is the guy who A) makes the specs, B) makes sure it is up to speed and C) is available for consultation regarding anything even remotely connected to game design. Whenever the production team is not sure how something is supposed to go or work, the designer is the guy who has to come up with the answer. Suggestions from the team are welcome but frankly, only the producer has the power to veto it. In practice, if you as a designer disagree on something with 3-6 people also intimately involved with the project, it is usually best to re-examine your stance carefully. But if you do and still think they have it wrong, stick to your guns! That's what you're there for!
Of course, if you don't do the specs because "everybody knows how a game like this works", you deserve to get a gun stuck to you because you are dead weight to the team. And when the production has started, you don't stay of the net because "mailing lists never work anyway" but stay put, waiting to pounce on any question, request or confusion about the design. Production teams can screw up in a million ways but if it is because they did not know or had misunderstood something, it is your fault. And yes, it sucks, because even if a subcontractor half the way across the world is pants-on-retarded, it is YOUR job to make them understand what they're supposed to do. Just because something isn't your fault doesn't mean it is not your responsibility, even if this is grossly unfair at times.
People in general have a poor understanding of what game designers do. This goes double for casual games and mobile. You might remember how Jiituomas went on to trash my games portfolio as a mobile game designer in his royal trashing of Pelintekijän käsikirja. I forgive him since he is merely repeating the popular perception of mobile games (and in all likelyhood has never played any). Personally, I am very proud of my mobile games portfolio and would not hesitate to bring some of them over to Iphone or even PC (Wolf Moon would make one hell of an open-world FPS, so I hope the owner of Rovio is reading this). My big takeaway from three years and 20 titles as a mobile games designer was that nothing is impossible. The restrictions, whether imposed by technology, resources or the market, are not there to prevent you from making good designs. Instead, they define what "good design" means. Let me give you an example:
While almost all my games have won some kind of review awards, deservedly or through corruption, some awards are more prestigious than others. Those you list in your CV. But the actual recognition I am perhaps the most proud of is this. It may be hard to find but if you scroll down to 2006 or so, you'll find that Subsim.com has linked the pocketgamer review of War Diary: Torpedo. The review is glowing but the link is even more important. Submarine game fanbase is as hardcore as it gets. For them to recognize WD:T as a "serious" submarine game is truly an honour. It also showcases the limits of design. If you want to make a submarine simulation for mobile phones, don't go off copying Silent Hunter III. Instead, figure out the hooks of submarine games and cut them off from all the fluff. In this case, it was not the simulation but certain types of situations that the simulations land you in. Then you design a mobile game that allows the players to experience those situations again, without the resource-heavy simulation. If we had been content with "everybody knows what these games are like", War Diary: Torpedo would have never happened.
I am a professional game developer and out of principle, I won't pirate videogames. Ever. But it is actually hard for dedicated PC gamers not to pirate games, because we, the games industry, are also such fucking stupid morons.
I wanted to give "Toxic" something really heavy to chew on and Crysis, infamous for its voracious hardware requirements, seemed to fit the bill. Being a good professional game developer, I downloaded the game from EA's own webstore, EAstore. Along with it came EA Download Manager, which handles everything from the downloads to the DRM. Crysis downloaded, installed and patched up nicely but when I tried to activate it for playing, EA Download Manager told me that there was a problem with "account entitlement" and that I should try again later or contact the customer support if the problem persisted. Fuming, I filed a complaint and went to bed.
Next morning, or rather this morning, I checked the EA Download Manager again. This time the whole game had simply vanished from my Downloads list. Gone. Zilch. Nothing to activate. Nothing to validate. Nothing to enter the activation codes into. Something to charge me for though, since I still had the receipts in my email and the installed, if disabled, game on my hard drive. So yesterday wasn't just a dream but a stupid reality. I updated my complaint and, mad beyond words, went to work (a very productive day at work, btw).
I am writing this at midnight and to this moment, I have not heard a beep from the EA Customer (dis)Service. As far as I am concerned, they took my money and ran. The largest game publisher in the world, with a portfolio second to none and they can't fucking deliver with their own webstore. If you are planning to buy something from EAStore, don't. I am giving EA products a wide berth from now on and it is a shame really: Mirror's Edge, Dead Space and god knows what else. I am missing out on that. Maybe I'll reconsider if these titles become available somewhere else, like Gamersgate. But I am not touching EAstore ever again. Except with an axe.
By the way, Toxic runs Crysis on "high" graphics settings without a hitch. It looks gorgeous on a big monitor and gives a perfectly smooth ride, at least through the first level. But how the hell would I know since the EA Download Manager cannot activate my game? Well, what EA could not do, Pirate Bay could. I downloaded a DRM bypass crack for the 1.2 version of Crysis. This took about five minutes and now the game runs like a dream. And no, I still haven't heard anything from the EA Customer (mis)Service. Pirate Bay just beat the crap out of EA on user-friendliness, customer service, reliability and the speed of delivery. And I did not even have to pirate the fucking game. Gee, I wonder why people prefer torrents to legitimate webshops... If I wasn't such a fucking model citizen, I would pirate all EA games out of spite!
By the Locomotive of Jesus, the bosses in this industry better pull their heads out of their asses on this issue! People are not pirating games because they are greedy or evil! They pirate games because WE SUCK!
That's my out-of-the-box 3DMark score with my new workstation computer and I am not going to tinker with it so I think it'll stay. According to web results, my setup should be able to push past 15K if configured it just right. Nevertheless, "Toxic" runs both S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles and Frontlines: Fuel of War smoothly with all the graphical goodies turned on and at 1900 x 1200 resolution, so I am not complaining. Actually, I think I might finally dare to give some newer games like Crysis or Fallout 3 a go now. This is my first blog entry with the new computer and although Frontpage Express (which gets almost as much flak from web designers as Comic Sans MS gets from graphic designers) complains about a glitch in the registry information, it still works just fine. The only downside of having a new rig is that in Clear Sky it really brings out the leprous bump mapping that most 3D artists refer to as "realistic skin".
Take a look in the mirror, creeps!
We live in interesting times. I am expecting some pretty big, if not necessary good news from the Finnish videogame industry this spring. We've already seen Universomo being hit by a hammer. They cut their workforce by half, threw everyone I knew out on their asses and there are even rumours that the recently opened Helsinki studio is going to close. And it is not really their fault. The word on the street has it that Universomo was doing well but they were acquired by THQ sometime ago. Now THQ has really hit the rock bottom on a global scale and are cutting costs everywhere. I guess a Third World subsidiary somewhere beyond the horizon was an easy target.
Speaking of the economy, the game industry finances training program in Adulta that I am on suddenly became much more dramatic. It turns out that Adulta had scammed government support for years and the government took back the excess cash by witholding its entire aid for this year. That is a hit of around 80% of their entire fucking budget. I don't know the financial dealings behind the training program but I can feel that things have been thrown out of joint. They don't really know what to do with the program anymore but they can't cancel it since they've already signed deals with the various employers and companies we hail from, Burger Games included. I hope Adulta survives this. They are the only training business out there to have offered advanced education course on games. Everybody else is sticking to the basics.
Burger Games submitted its tax report. The year 2008 was one of the best on record, Stalker RPG is already profitable and coupled with IP and consultancy sales BG is in the black with a comfortable margin. Burger Games has turned at least some profit ever since the year 2000 and the losses from Taiga have been covered. Unfortunately, these profits are nowhere near enough to live on, let alone compensate for the lack of unemployment benefits and all other shit that entrepreneurs, even part-time ones, are hit with. But it is a lifestyle choice and suits me very well in my current situation, so as long that continues, BG will be around in one form or the other (not necessarily in the current one).
Did I tell you that I love my dayjob? I just can't talk about it but trust me, it is fucking great right now. What I can talk about are the restrictions of design and the role of the designer in the development process. This is worth its own entry, so you'll have to wait for the next time. The impetus to blog about it came from a piece of news on an absolutely atrocious amateur game designer in an educational game development project doing everything ass-backwards. Of course, idiots have never been in short supply in this world but many people still seem to be confused on what professional game designers do, are responsible for and have to deal with. Any professional game designer could shed some light on that but since you're here it'll have to be me. In short, being a game designer is not like playing "work" in the god mode. You are a cog in an engine that goes by the name "production". If you don't perform or trust your creative freedom a little too much, you can, and should, be replaced. Just like any broken part.
While still waiting to hear more from my publisher and the editing round of Elämäpeli (they recommend that title over Pelintekijän päiväkirja), I have started to write another book. And again, it is as far from anything I intended to write as it possibly can be. Although I can't discuss the finer points of my work at Casual Continent, I can discuss my hobby projects. I have been working on this videogame hobby project with a couple of friends for a while now and... well, you can probably see where this is going. Elämäpeli is a biographical narrative of my games industry experiences and the observations the instructions in Pelintekijän käsikirja were drawn from (with some fiction in the form of novelized gameplay and immersion experiences thrown into the mix). It is also a little rambling and confusing as hell because of the extremely wide scope.
I feel like taking another stab at this topic but this time I'll focus on a single project, from its origins in mental imagery and game fiction, and how chats in a pub turned into a shoestring budget game development project that actually got underway. I'll keep writing for as long as it lasts and if we ever get the game out, I'll throw the script at my publisher. Until then, it is a work in progress and if the project gets buried, I'll bury the script with it. Unlike other development diaries or post-mortems, I plan to include quite a bit of fiction in it. The reason for this is the way I develop ideas. I don't just decide things. Instead, the setting exists and lives a life of its own in the Otherwhere of my head. When I want to find out how something works, I enter that world to take a look (and usually end up seeing way more than I originally expected), while walking headfirst into lamp posts here in the real world. I guess all designers are borderline crazy.
Late cold snap turned the streets white and my lungs into mush. Again. Sliiiightly irritating. Nevertheless, the world goes on without me.
The state is taking Jussi Halla-aho to court for blasphemy because he called Mohammed a pedophile in his blog. Out of all the possible indictments this is the most absurd. If convicted on those grounds, it will be the end political blogging in Finland because of the fuzzy interpretation of respective laws. But at least HA gets a trial so he can speak out in his defence. None of the innocents put on the official web censorship list got that chance and there is no sanctioned avenue of dissent for them. They can't even take their case to the court.
So, was Halla-aho right? Was Prophet Mohammed a pedophile? If we consider the hadith about him consummating the marriage with his 9-year old child bride Aysha (I think the wording in the hadith is much less clear on this than most people seem to assume) according to our norms and values, he meets the popular definition for a pedophile. Then again, there is also the medical definition for a pedophile and if someone rapes a child bride because he has something to gain from the marriage politically, the medical definition is not met. It has been argued that the public definition cannot be applied on Mohammed because the values of the time were different. But if we are to be the ones debating this (and the state has now made sure we are), I cannot see how this could be done outside our own value system. So, yes he was, if that particular interpretation of the hadiths is correct. How the fuck would I know? I didn't write the stupid thing.
While the Finnish State has been busy looking like an ass (rivalled only by a bunch of protesting Nashi youths at Sanomatalo staring in disbelief at their fellow demonstrators from the Finnish Islamic Party), majatalo.org has had a lively debate on the do's and dont's of RPG writing as one of the active members cannot make a single design call by himself. Never before has something so irrelevant been analyzed at such a depth. But I guess I should be happy for a Finnish RPG forum to have any life at all. Ever since making my prediction about the demise of the hobby, scene activists at various events (well, all of them), have made a point of reminding me and the audience that I am wrong. Sometimes I can almost make myself believe them but then, in these long lulls between events, the defeaning silence gets to me. Sure, there are occasional weak noises like the 7DS discussion at majatalo.org but if a dead cow farts when you step on it, is that you or the cow who is making the noise?
My ugly mug has been scaring people in a couple of newspapers lately, namely in Keskisuomalainen and Viikkosanomat (or something like that). I'll put scans of the articles up here sometime next week. The articles are a mixture of the back cover texts of Pelintekijän käsikirja (oh god) and quotes from the actual presentation in Keudu. They did not get all the quotes right but at least I am being portrayed in a positive light. In the text, that is. I always look horrible in pictures, the two exceptions being the staff photo for Recoil Games and the picture in Helsingin Sanomat with the Stalker article.
I have just finished S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Oblivion Lost 2.2 while playing at "Hell" difficulty setting. I must say that I did not really break a sweat and the hardest difficulty level feels easier than the second-lowest I tried with version 2.1. Although the game continues after the storyline ends with the Faction War mod content, I gave it up when I found out that I could not return to Pripyat without being blown to bits by military attack helicopters. I tried revisiting Priboi Story but for some reason it is now very unstable compared to the first time, so this is definitely the time for me to move on. I just wish my new computer would get here as there are great but resource-intensive games piling up in Gamersgate.
I feel thin. Short of stretched. Like butter scraped over too much bread.
It's been a while since I wrote here and a lot has happened since then. First of all, the game project of my dreams (not "the dream" but definitely in the top-10) had me sitting on hot coals for most of last week. Then on Friday I had not one but two public presentations, first to Keudu students in Kerava and then a little more advanced lecture to SCORE-students in Tampere. The Kerava lecture will make its way into two newspapers (Keskisuomalainen and Viikkolehti, I think), while in Tampere I was told that Pelintekijän käsikirja will be adopted as required reading for their game development course (undoubtedly along with many other books but they didn't say that).
Then my publisher, BTJ, made some noise in a good way. While their new head of the publishing department has apparently blacklisted me, their editor was busy reading my script and now let me know her thoughts. It was a glowing first review and soothed my wounded ego which had taken quite a beating when the project had apparently floundered. There will be changes to script, of course. I've been here before. She'll go over it again and propose things like "add something about X here, remove Y because it overlaps with Pelintekijän käsikirja" and so on, but the script is definitely in the pipe. I don't when it will be out but now I know it will be and that alone is enough to give me strength. It is also obvious that she knew which strings to pull. Or maybe the strings are the same for all would-be authors out there?
"Hyvin kirjoitat, kerta kaikkiaan, käsikirjoitus on mielestäni suhteellisen valmista kamaa, todella innostavaa ja ajatuksia herättävää luettavaa."
Anyway, when she does get back to me with the script, I am going to throw myself at it and keep typing all the way through Amsterdam if necessary.
In other news, I ran my second session of my very first Stalker campaign and everything went smoothly right up until the characters got themselves into a fight. Now, reading the campaign logs and descriptions of other people gamemastering Stalker it seems like I am doing a lot worse than most of my fans. I was stumbling compared with how smoothly everything went in the later playtesting session. Live as you preach, they say, but I really failed that part. For some reason, probably because of a mental lapse bordering on a brainfart, I effectively fell back to combat rounds and lost my grip on the FLOW evaluating system when the action began. I should have followed my own teachings and resolved the two separate combat instances as "encounters" rather than round-to-round fights. Looking back on it, here is how it should have happened:
"Malik sees a group of cult members rushing towards him through the undergrowth. He shouts a warning to them and when they don't stop, lets loose with a submachinegun. Two of them go down screaming as bullets tear into them. The rest scatter into the bush, their war cries suddenly silenced."
That is one resolution. The player beat them and broke up their charge. Note how I change from 3rd person to 2nd person between the first and second resolutions. Curious, I guess I do that in games as well.
"Reloading, you can hear them move about in the tall bushes around you, occasionally catching a glimpse of movement. Suddenly a shotgun blast tosses Mikael's corpose off the trunk you set in on. Thinking they've hit you, the cultists charge from all directions. You gun down three to the front, then feel strong hands grab your back and shoulders even as they first three fall. Suddenly a rapid succession of single shots rings out. One of the assailants on your side falls down with a cry. Another one staggers away, clutching his arm. Others mill about in confusion, loosening or even letting go of you."
That was the second resolution, with the help of Aimeé, who had secretly ran up a nearby tree (she can do it, believe me) and opened fire from there.
"Whipping around you use all your momentum to bash the closest face in with the stock of gun. The victim, a woman whose face is bleeding from the pieces of metal stuck in it, goes down with a sickening crunch. Your blow hammers some of the jagged pieces of metal right through her skull. Only two assailants remain. One of them is feverishly reloading his shotgun when the back of his head explodes into a halo of blood and brains. Aimeé nailed him. The other one swings a heavy shovel-turned-battle-axe at you and sends the submachinegun flying. His arms are high up, so you kick him in the crotch and he falls right at your feet, convulsing.
And that would have concluded it, in the "Spirit of the Staircase" -kind of way. Of course, there is no telling what the players would have decided if I had actually described the first encounter this way but something like that is how it should sound like. All that descriptive stuff is not that hard to include if the players do their job properly and you can extrapolate from their own descriptions. But make no mistake, our submachinegun-wielding hunk was a mean, lean killing machine. And while he was outnumbered ten to one, rapid fire is a great equalizer.
While I am still waiting for my new home workstation (and my big monitor walked off to Dell warranty maintenance), S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has been reinventing itself again. Oblivion Lost 2.2. upgrades the previous version with lots of gameplay polish, an open-ended faction wars mod after the endgame (which unfortunately prevents the true endings from being shown) and artefact upgrades. I never got the artefact modding system to work but now you can pick up second- and third-generation artifacts from expert- and master-level stalkers. I also picked up a few right off the floor of lab X18. These kick some serious ass and balancing your artifact load right becomes a big part of the game. What kind of threats am I expecting? Do I have enough radiation buffer for the area ahead? Do I put up with some aggravated bleeding in exchange for never having to worry about endurance? The list goes on and on. OL has always been a great combat upgrade as well, with new weapons to try out and old weapons rebalanced to make them feel real (or just plain useful). Weapons, armour and repairs become major money sinks and even on the lowest difficulty setting I had to spend time looting and exploring just to make ends meet.
Apart from not having a true ending anymore (although you can still fail the game at the Wishgranter), the one downside to Oblivion Lost has always been the overabundance of monsters. The increased spawn rate make things hard enough even at the lowest difficulty level. In 2.1, the next higher difficulty level was so crowded with teeth, claw and psychic monsters that Freedom Base was effectively overrun (trader was killed) and Garbage did not fare much better. In Cordon, monsters ate everybody but Sidorovich himself. It was occasionally fun (sinking your combat knife square into the head of a controller in a desperate last move was downright epic) but it also made trivial things like level transitions frustrating (like when returning to warehouses from the red forest the zone transition drops you right in the middle of a pack of bloodsuckers). I don't know if this has been fixed in 2.2. but I certainly hope so. Maybe I should give the game another go on a higher difficulty setting. After killing Koshey, you can join almost any faction you want. I want to join the military. They now have their own trader in Chernobyl itself.
Since no one else will review this game, I will. It is an English translation of a Russian adventure-RTS-shooter (these games with a bird's eye view and time-stop mechanisms for issuing orders really need their own genre by now). You are a mercenary named Cameron and look down on him from a birds-eye perspective in a 3D landscape, clicking on buttons or stuff in the world to give him orders like "shoot", "sprint mode on" and "move here". Fairly intuitive, once you get the hang of it. All actions have a set time to perform and you can not only speed the game time up or down but the game also has smart pausing in combat, allowing you go through various action options for your next more.
For example, I want to shoot a bandit with a Remington shotgun. An aimed shot takes 3.08 seconds. The game is paused. I go into the shoot mode (right click), left click on the target (it shows me the target health and a verbal description of the odds of hitting and how long it takes before the shot goes off). I unpause the game, watch the seconds tick down from the time and unless the enemy gets to do something to me first, Remington roars when the counter reaches zero. If the enemy manages to shoot at me before the timer runs out, I might get shocked for 6 seconds and timer counts that out before I resume firing. The bad thing is that armed with a pistol, a lucky bandit might take me out by shooting again already before the previous shock wears out. But once my action is taken, the game pauses again. Sometimes annoying but it usually works.
The reason I am doing all this shooting is that I am in a fictional Latin American country that is about as stable as fictional Latin American countries tend to be. My first mission is to hunt down a guy who fleeced some Russian moneybags and now want him (or me) dead. Really an offer a mercenary cannot refuse. On my way to him, I am supposed to pick up more missions, gear, money to hire henchmen and a vehicle to move faster. Locations are smallish 3D-towns that you click on a big jungle map. Having the effects of sunlight change on the map features as time flies by when travelling on it is a nice touch. Once in a location, you can walk around in the 3D landscape, talk to the locals, visit traders, pick up missions and catch on clues. Sometimes you run into bandits or some other bad people, sparking a firefight.
Sounds great, right?
Yeah, I thought so too. Done properly, I would love this game. The small unit combat works and time stops would enable the management of entire mercenary squads. The whole thing has some of the charm of Silent Storm to it but it is much more casual and faster to play. Ever since dreaming up Badlands, I have had hots for mercenaries in the tropics and Total Overdose has shown me how fun Latin American towns can be with guns and dialogue.
However, I would like to stamp the word "fine-tuning" into the foreheads of every Russian game designer and producer. The idea of locals of every variety in the towns is great but they either stand stiffly, repeating the same dialogue over and over again, or take short walks so it becomes even more difficult to talk to them because the target you have to hit to start the dialogue is both ridiculously small and apparently little off from the person itself. You are forced to talk to them to gather clues or missions but there are dozens of them, scattered throughout the city and you can't really tell which ones are relevant unless you talk to them all. Of course, the relevance also changes with game events so you probably have to do it all over again after each mission. I cannot even begin to describe how annoying this turned out to be.
I was delighted to learn that some guy in another town would have a mission for me. For once, I would not have to click through all those zombies! But no, he did have a mission but told me I am not up. That was that. Why the fuck did I get the hint if the mission was not active, you pricks? The talk animation is an immersion killer, because it means your character runs to a certain distance from the target and starts talking from there. This is a bit funny when talking to a guy inside a bar while you are standing on the outside, facing the brick wall between you. And don't get me started on NPCs getting stuck (and blocking) doorways and staircases (which are hard to move through even at best of times). You have to exit to the big map and come back to clear their positions.
As usual, the camera is also a pain in the ass. I learned the basics fairly quickly but people hovering in the air confused me, until I realised they were upstairs in the building I had just entered. The game draws all the people in (or on) the building but only the floor you are on. The effect is very disturbing and sometimes also confuses when you don't know which floor you are clicking. But that is nothing. Whenever you pick something up, search a corpse or otherwise have something to do with your inventory, the camera lowers itself to the ground and spins into a random direction, usually so that you are not visible in the screen anymore.
At the start of the game, our hot-shot mercenary is armed with just a Tokarev pistol. Remember me not to do this in Badlands. He can't carry practically anything because he starts with just his two pockets and has to buy belts and backpacks separately. Remind me not to do this in Badlands either. Finally, there is a weight limit as to what you can carry but space runs out much faster and none of the vendors in the first five cities have anything useful. Remind me not to do this in Badlands. I kind of understand why Marked One starts out with a pistol in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. but I cannot understand why the Russian bankers would inflict the same torment on Cameron (or Lt. Priboi for that matter). Give me some fucking gear to start with, you pricks!
Graphics are good enough (as my standards are low). However, the zombified NPCs standing around are an eyesore even for me. For heaven's sake, they could do it better in Deus Ex 1 and Diablo 2. What the fuck is the matter with you people? Also, it is sometimes hard to determine where you can or cannot go by looking at the terrain. Why can't I enter a hollowed-out building if part of the roof has collapsed something like 10 meters away and there would be a window that would give me a perfect firing position on the bad guys?
But the worst of all is the frustration of not knowing what to do or where to go. I can't go after my first target because the big map won't let me into that area. Later, I got a passport to enter it but told the guy issuing it that "I will be back when I am ready to enter" for some reason and no new locations became available. By talking to people, I have managed to get one mission and the failed hint of another I mentioned previously. I did the mission I got and now there is nothing to do, until I start clicking through every one of these motherfuckers again. I really, really, can't be arsed. Give me something to shoot at! And something with which I can drag the loot off to the vendor!
*Sigh*. This is one of my risky Gamersgate purchases but while I mostly buy Russian stuff on a whim, I was actually waiting for this one. However, even if I do like the "Casual Storm" combat and the overall theme, I cannot recommend it. Not to action gamers, not to strategy fans and not to RPGrs, although it has elements from them all. It works, so I give it one star for that. You can't take that for granted with the Russian translations. Graphics are appealing and the Remington does enough damage to call itself a shotgun. Another star for those. But with a little more polish and an NPC dialogue system that does not make me cry would have been worth two more stars.
** out of 5.
The game reputedly has an active modding community. Let me guess: all the mods are in Russian?
Maybe I'll give Alpha Antiterror another go. Sure, it is hard as hell and has framerate issues, frustrating controls, annoying theme and graphics spoiled by the sudden drop at the level edge. But at least I don't have to talk to anyone and know what I am supposed to do.
The PDF manual that comes with the download is nearly unreadable because of a terrible choice of font but that and some web info made me find my way forward. You really need a walkthrough with this thing or otherwise knowing which NPCs to talk to is really pure guesswork. On the other hand, after destroying the Marauder gang in Santa Maria, bandits in the capital and defending a con man against gangsters in Puetro Villejo, I have to say that I really like the way this game handles combat. "Smart pause" makes it half-turn-based but you can still do neat tricks, like crawling behind a truck, shooting a bandit, rolling sideways behind the truck wheel to take cover again while bandit bullets ricochet off the truck and walls. I have to see if I can disable the shock effect on player from the config files somehow. Then this might be real fun. Looks like I will keep playing this game after all. Let's give it *** out of 5 if you are using all the goodies.
Hmm... maybe a reference to the dichotomy of good and evil would have made a better headline. The problem with working in the games industry is that I can never talk about my work. Hush-hush, NDA, company secrets etc. Although Casual Continent does not strip-search me in case I have stuck a USB stick full of company secrets up my ass (actually, I sometimes take the whole work laptop at home and no, not in my ass), shouting them out loud on a personal blog feels kind of unethical to me. So let's just say that I have good news and be happy at that. Much better than what I though I would have when I joined the company. Life is a like a box of chocolates. Sometimes you get the one with caramel filling.
On the downside, some moron in Germany gunned down 19 people (the total changes constantly so don't take it from me). It has since then been revealed that he was a fan of horror films and an eager Counterstrike player, although given his age, sex and education the odds of this were pretty good to begin with. News like this has invariably two effects: some question the role of violent entertainment (nowadays videogames since movies are passé) in the incident and the more vocal gamers explode in defence of their hobby long before the other side has even fired a shot. Instead of rightful indignation for being indirectly blamed for the tragedy, I am somewhat embarrassed at the defensive barrage of the gamers that usually focuses on the fact that since A) virtually everybody younger than me is a gamer nowadays and B) the overwhelming majority of them don't do anything that stupid, videogame violence has no effect on people.
Speaking from within the industry, ladies and gentlemen, why the hell would we have it in the games if it did not have an effect? It is a well-known dirty little secret that violence and bloodshed is a selling point for core gamers on any platform. Even the family-friendly Wii has House of the Dead and Madworld to prove me right. Thus bloodshed must have some inherent appeal, so let's do a statistically so very perfectly valid study, with exactly one test subject, me. In other words, what happens to me when I play violent videogames? Or why do I prefer violent videogames to non-violent ones, at least up to a point? S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a good example, although I could do with less battle in it.
Firstly, there is the simulated danger. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a very immersive game and the damage resolution in Oblivion Lost can be absolutely deadly. I am not saying that I would not be more afraid in a real firefight but this is bad enough. Adrenaline is flowing, my heart is beating, I sweat like a pig... my body is reacting to the simulated danger the way it would to a real one and I feel alert and ready. I feel alive and that sensation in itself is worth striving for. I bet every adrenaline junkie feels the same way but my kicks are safer than riding trains on the outside of a train, or doing parkour on the roof of the Empire State Building.
During the battle, I make countless of tiny choices, including things like going for cover, aiming and firing or prioritizing threats. My brain has a tendency, built there by evolution, to enourage my survival by rewarding choices and actions that promote this goal. When I've made the right decision or just aimed correctly and see the enemy stagger back with a splash of blood, I get a sensation of pleasure. "Keep it up!" my brain is telling me through endorphines, "We might make it yet!" I hold down the trigger... no that is the left mouse button... and my AK-74 hammers the enemy, stitching a string of hits from the chest to the head as recoil lifts the muzzle. Ragdoll physics throw the enemy violently down from the last impact. He almost does a backwards somersault.
He is dead, the threat is eliminated and somewhere within my brain a primal ape lifts its bloodied claws to the heavens and bellows in triumph. Like everyone else's, my brain is hardwired to pick up blood splashes because they are indicators of danger. Now the game uses them as flags to indicate my success and superiority, making sure my eyes stay glued to that enemy the tiny fraction of a second longer it takes for the ragdoll effect to go through. My anxiety ends in a blissful release of breath and muscle tension. Not all that different from a mild orgasm, actually. Then it is over. I am glad that Isurvived and I dread the next combat encounter, while simultaneously yearning for it because it would allow me to go through the cycle of emotions, anxiety and release all over again. Movies, books, videogames... it does not matter. I yearn that experience and thus I consume violent fiction, interactive and otherwise.
To say that it has not had an effect on me would be intellectual dishonesty. Of course, I have the excuse of having being trained to kill by the government (the indoctrination to kill in a conscription-based army is actually a pretty scary thing when you stop to think about it). But watching through the sniper's scope how somebody's head explodes for the 200th time (very literally and in slow-motion if playing Sniper Elite) has made me a little jaded to news images of wars and corposes. On the other hand, traffic accident pictures still terrify me and somehow, watching a documentary where pedestrians in besieged Sarajevo keel over from sniper shots fired from the surrounding hills enraged me. And not least because I could imagine the scene and the mental act of shooting from the sniper's point of view. So easy. So fucking easy and a real joy on top of that if he was really set on seeing his targets as enemies.
I'd like to get that asshole in my sights...
I just returned from the Capital of Civilization (some people still refer to it as London) and checked on the Finnish RPG scene by reading the majatalo.org forums as usual. This turned out to be a mistake. I would have preferred to die of old age without knowing that Finnish gamers can be so so inept and unimaginative that they cannot create a vamp (referring to a woman with high ambitions and loose morals rather than blood-sucking goth losers) using a simple pick-a-talent system like Stalker. So, I gave it a go, soon discovering that with 80 talents to choose from I had multiple stereotypical vamp profiles open for me. I settled for the classic club-going socialite in the proud tradition of film noir and used the shadows to give her a more modern background, lifestyle and all the associated problems. All in all, creating her took me about 15 minutes. So what the hell is the problem? Christ, I know I recommended Stalker only for experienced gamers but if something like this is really in deep end of the pool, D&D4 was probably the best thing that ever happened to this hobby.
While certain individuals were busy undermining my pride for being a Finnish roleplayer, I was in London and very delighted to find RPG stores there loaded with substantial selections of games, unlike in Amsterdam, for example. The venerable Orc's Nest at Earlham Street was my primary target and I picked up three games there: Corporation, Hollow Earth Expedition and Dragon Warriors (the most boring website ever). I also picked up Post-Holocaust Hero for Hero System but it is not a game so it doesn't count. Of those three games, Corporation and Dragon Warriors are British originals and I had never heard of them until now, so I count them as British Indie or in anycase pretty damn close to it. As a game, Corporation was more interesting of the two and there seems to be a 2nd edition out. I only found the 1st edition game but even so the production quality is quite admirable. I wonder how many copies Corporation has sold by now?
Meanwhile, GSC Worlds decided that I had not advertised S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl enough on this website. After Oblivion Lost (which made SoC the best FPS I have ever played) and Priboi Story (close but no cigar due to enemy positioning in Red Forest and otherwise deteriorating game design towards the end), I thought there was nothing the devs and the modder community could do to floor me again. Wrong! In what might be a first in the history of game development, they have released the development version from 2004 into the open. I have yet to try it but it is supposed to have all the original features, locations(!!!), monsters, RPG elements etc. still in place, from the time before THQ ordered them to be cut out to speed up development. Of course, it is incomplete, unrefined, imbalanced, buggy as hell, all in Russian etc. but there is already a fan-made hotfix to make it crash a little less often. The modder community for SoC has already worked wonders on the release version. If they can give this stuff the same kind of workover they did with Oblivion Lost, my addiction cycle will start all over again. And now I know where the lush vegetation in Priboi Story was coming from.
A promising start for this spring.