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Minecraft, Technically Speaking

I make no secret of it, I got bored with Minecraft a few weeks before its full release. I’m not denying that it is a thoroughly excellent game. Few things in this world have the power to connect total strangers in quite the same manner as Minecraft. Everyone gets something different from it and yet people get common experiences and stories they can bond over. My thing was always survival mode; I’m not in any way artistic enough to play in creative mode. But once you’ve survived everything where do you go from there? You build a fort, pyramid, bunker, levitating city, whatever you call home. You have diamond weapons and tools, diamond armour. You look like the Star of Africa, honestly. What do you do with all that? You can sit in your city, glinting in the sunlight or make it your mission to slay every creeper ever as retaliation for that one that knocked a hole in your wall while you were trying to craft. Either way it wears thin pretty quickly.

If anyone asks, yeah I’m still big on Minecraft. It’s a lie, a white lie, but damn, if it isn’t a conversation starter.

I am entirely aware that a lot was added to the game upon launch but for me it was too little, too late. So I now have the opportunity to grind countless more hours of gameplay yet again just to unlock a dragon to fight? A fight so needlessly convoluted that it took three of the Yogscast team over fifteen minutes to fight using cheats, god mode and flying. You know, I’m good, thanks. I can live without that experience.

Not your father’s Minecraft

All the above negative cynicism is rendered invalid in the light of new developments though. A compilation of Minecraft mods known as the Technic Pack (or Tekkit in multiplayer) has recently made itself known. It’s been around for a while; Lewis of the Yogscast demonstrated it some time ago, but at the time I thought it looked unnecessarily convoluted. A nice diversion, if you’re into that kind of thing, but I wasn’t. The rest of the Yogscast crew, it seems, have continued playing it in comparative obscurity, with Duncan providing a well made in-depth tutorial of nearly everything in it. Duncan has now joined Simon and Lewis to use Tekkit to build a Jaffa cake factory, getting distracted along the way in their usual inimitable style. This was the inspiration it took to garner my interest, it would seem. Such a creative and uniquely inspired idea, and definitely only possible with a lot of trial, error and learning new things in Tekkit.

So I promptly installed the Technic Pack (what with the BM Minecraft server being unsuccessful and all) and dived in. I was easily a couple of hours in before I even got to building machines, the amount of content added is so great. I was tripping over exciting new features right from the start. I spawned in front of a pyramid – and not one of those vanilla MC ones with a silly TNT trap – this had bedrock catacombs stretching the length of the desert, terrifyingly complex, especially for a player starting out with few resources. Finally making it, dirty, sweaty and hungry, outside with my loot I was greeted by and slain by a werewolf. A werewolf! I’ve had bad nights in Minecraft; once I lost two pet wolves to a creeper. The werewolf tops it, though. It’s fast, vicious and damn near unstoppable (I now know it’s weak to golden weapons. Isn’t hindsight wonderful?).

So I sheltered in a nearby Japanese town (courtesy of Millenaire, long before the Testificates appeared on the scene) and set up a better camp in daylight. I got a few simple automated systems going. I moved on to building a factory. The Equivalent Exchange mod uses alchemy to transform any item into resources of equal value. Around eight thousand dirt blocks are equal to one diamond, so getting enough stone to build a rather large factory building was trivial. Power was now the consideration, coal wouldn’t last forever. Wind was my first attempt, but being set up near sea level, the resources needed to reach the altitudes necessary were excessive. Water mills worked but produced so little power as to be near worthless. Solar, then. Solar produces a much better output, wiring it up won’t cost you all your diamonds, but as in real life it’s only going to work on sunny days. It was a massive learning experience, just to make things switch on. But once things worked, the satisfaction was immense.

So now, I have a quarry automatically digging up half the continent, with specialised tubes to sort everything it finds into valuable items, ores which end up smelted into metal bars and useless junk which gets alchemically converted into whatever I happen to need. It runs off three solar arrays which produces just enough excess power to keep my electric jet pack charged up. That last bit? Yeah, the jet pack. Now that’s the best bit. You haven’t lived in Minecraftia until you have a jet pack.

Or a Lightsaber

I’ve barely scratched the surface, this much is abundantly clear. There are entire mods within the pack I haven’t even begun to touch. Forestry, I know at least lets you automate all types of farming for starters, likely more I don’t know about. I’ve seen beehives dotted around the world, and I know you can take up bee-keeping if that’s your bag (insert “covered in bees!” joke here). Most of the items in the absolutely invaluable recipe book look distinctly arcane, both literally and figuratively, I don’t even know what mod they’re in.

Ultimately, the sheer amount of depth this pack adds to the game has given it a new lease of life that I never thought possible. If you have a spark of an idea, it’s probably possible to do it somehow. My grand plan is to glass the desert I spawned in. Quarry it, smelt the sand to glass, grind the stone to sand and smelt that to glass, and then put it all back. But making Jaffa cakes is a noble cause, too.

The Technic Pack is a free mod for players of Minecraft.

Penny Arcade’s: Fanservice 3

Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is a niche appeal title, there’s no escaping that particular fact. It’s been perfectly constructed from the ground up to appeal to fans of the Penny Arcade webcomic leaving all others both befuddled and bewildered. Fortunately, I’ve been a fan for many a year, so it’s definitely one for me.

Don't act like it's weird

The third title in a planned quadrilogy, headed up by Zeboyd Games after Hothead Games dropped it in favour of working on their Deathspank series, the game takes the series in a new direction from its predecessors. Where the earlier games attempted to mimic Mike Krahulik’s comic art style as closely as possible, with Krahulik himself acting as artistic lead, Zeboyd have instead favoured their own pixel-art retro RPG style. Likewise, the first two games played out in a traditional turn-based RPG style, but this now attempts to modernise a lot of the old mechanics. It’s a joyous blend of the very old and the very new.

One thing has remained mercifully constant. The writing – in its entirety – was forged at the pen (or keyboard, whatever) of Jerry Holkins. A man I hold an immense respect for, he has a way with words like no other mortal. He has constructed a Lovecraftian world of mysticism, the occult and deities that can be slain if you only hit them with a rake hard enough. A dark world with an even darker plot, very liberally filled with puns, slapstick, general silliness and far more Penny Arcade references than you could imagine existed. And yet somehow, it all works. Don’t ask me how; on the creative scale, he’s building whole worlds and I’m just playing with a bucket and spade building sand castles.

Practically Shakespearean

In terms of gameplay, Zeboyd has done a lot right. It’s a lot of little things. Things like your characters fully heal after every fight and items have limited number of uses per battle but fully regenerate afterwards. Where historically games would make you trek back to town if your party was getting ragged or you didn’t have enough potions, this cuts out a lot of the tedious legwork. It’s essentially saying “yes, we know you have the option to go and do that so let’s just assume you did”. There’s no grind, either, which sounds an absurd sentence to ever commit to an RPG title, but it’s true. There are no random battles, they’re all predetermined, with every fight gradually tougher than the last. You’ll enter every fight thinking “Oh God, these guys look tough” when in fact it feels like it’s all very, very carefully calculated to be exactly the right difficulty. It would be quite easy to dismiss this as being more ‘modern game hand-holding’, but enough of the fights are a good challenge without the solution ever being that of ‘go back to the last bit and kill 50 more dudes so that you’re stronger’. A bit of strategy and finesse is required.

And speaking of strategy. Every character has one base class but can learn two more from a selection of fourteen, and these can be swapped around at will between battles because they manifest themselves as badges. By wearing two of the badges your intrepid heroes can become a Tube Samurai or a Cordwainer or a Slacker or a Dinosorcerer or a Crabomancer (among others) in addition to their standard class. Most of them are just as silly as they sound; the Cordwainer (a wonderful old term for a shoemaker) primarily deals damage through an ability called ‘Sole Calibur’ and the Gardenar (sic) can create a garden of dangerous bees that will damage all enemies every turn. By mixing and matching badges you can enhance characters strengths or compensate for their weaknesses and play out battles however you like.

The mighty Elemenstor! With power over elemenst?

Overall, I’d still find it hard to recommend to someone who hasn’t read the webcomic. There’s a quite a lot, damn near all of it if we’re honest, that would just go over their head. It’s too heavy on in-jokes from a comic that’s been running consistently three times a week for over thirteen years. On the other hand, if you’ve ever read Penny Arcade you won’t want to miss this. Zeboyd has worked hard to make it accessible even to those who haven’t played the first two and it’s priced staggeringly cheap for a game of this calibre.

Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is £3 on Steam or 400MS points on Xbox Live Arcade.

Get Back in the Kitchen: Women in Gaming

Gaming has long been a boys’ club, this much is widely accepted. Games are given to boys growing up, whereas girls get to play with their dolls. They are marketed at men; badass dudes setting out to rescue the sexy yet helpless girl with lots of violence along the way. But the trend is changing, statistics suggesting that 47% of all gamers are women, and yet, as an industry – and indeed as a community – we rarely welcome this fact. E3, the biggest game expo in the world, continues selling everything through the medium of booth babes year in, year out, managing to alienate the entire female audience in one fell swoop.

Even when someone has the audacity to suggest that hey, maybe we could all get along, or maybe narratives that aren’t overwhelmingly sexist stereotypes could also be fun to play, the backlash is always astonishing. The sheer amount of malice that can come from some gamers when you suggest that broader appeal games could share a shelf with ultra-macho hack’n’slash or war simulator titles has to be seen to be believed.

Earlier this year, Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler was on the receiving end of this backlash. In an interview taken almost five years ago, she confessed to not being much of a gamer and felt that reduced-action options for those gamers who enjoyed narrative more than blasting through crowds would be a nice addition so that people like her could enjoy the medium. This seems like a reasonable suggestion, after all it would in no way affect those who still wanted to kill and maim their way to victory, while offering an alternate option for people like herself who wanted to enjoy gaming but found themselves lacking the wherewithal to finish titles. With her words taken thoroughly out of context and further quotes fabricated entirely a picture showed up on the internet alongside the cruel nickname “Hamburger Helper”. Quickly circulated around the usual places, 4chan and Reddit’s gaming forum, thousands of angry gamer guys set out, pitchforks brandished, to make life miserable for poor Hepler. She spent several days bombarded with hate mail and even death threats for something she’d said 5 years prior because she embodied “everything that’s wrong with gaming”. Never mind the fact that she is a writer and would have no say in gameplay design decisions, or the fact that in reality she was in no way involved in the writing for Mass Effect 3 (something she was accused of ruining), no, this writer, who happened to be female and have minimal gaming experience was single-handedly destroying the games industry. I can’t help but wonder what if Jennifer had been a man quoted as saying such things. We’ll never know, but I suspect the worst that could have happened would have been that he was dismissed out of hand. I think “everything that is wrong with gaming” is this ridiculous mob mentality hell-bent on destroying everything and everyone who doesn’t conform to the mob’s demands. There’s plenty of room for developers to make different products for different audiences, and even to include options within products to make it accessible to a bigger audience; there’s no justifiable excuse for sending death threats to a person who doesn’t want to spend their life making products tailored solely to one small audience.

And now just this week, the undesirables of the internet once again seized the chance to make life hell for the latest woman to speak out on the issue. Anita Sarkeesian of blog hoped to use Kickstarter to raise funding to create a series of videos to raise awareness of the issues surrounding gender in gaming. A noble cause, and one worth supporting, one might think. The internet hate machine had other plans, however, and she has been met with much the same response as Hepler.

In a much more positive twist this time, though, Sarkeesian received an overwhelming outpouring of support as well. Smashing her fundraising target of $6000 in no time she has now reached a staggering $150,000, over twenty-five times her goal. Unfazed by the haters, she’s now aiming to make twelve videos in total with a much higher production quality, having started with the expectation that she would only make 5. Hoping to spark discussion about female representation in the media and video games especially, we may yet hope to see female game characters with more personality than their chainmail bikinis.

As positive as it might be, I think it’s unlikely to change the attitudes of the gaming community at large. That’s something that will need a lot more work by a lot more than one person. It’s up to all of us. When you see someone in chat spouting racism or sexism, the easy response, one a lot of people will probably take (and I know I’ve been guilty of this too) is to ignore or mute them. Sure that’ll give you peace of mind for five minutes but they’ll only go on to do it elsewhere to someone else. Next time you see someone giving anyone else a hard time for being different to them take a stand, shout them down, tell them it’s not okay. You might be pleasantly surprised to find mob mentality works both ways. If you take the first step and tell them to knock it off, you can find others will back you up quite readily. If we can make this the norm, we might all be able to enjoy our chosen hobby a great deal more.

Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project is Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and at the time of publication has 9 hours remaining to pledge support.