Video games and fear – Dark Souls diary

I woke up at an ungodly hour this morning and decided that there was no choice but to either watch paid programming on cable or finally knuckle down and make some headway in Dark Souls, which has been languishing in my Xbox 360, unplayed, for the past two weeks.

I should note here that I’ll be including a couple spoilers, so if you’re new to (or intending to play) the game, you may want to look elsewhere.

What had happened was I’d gone on a bit of a Dark Souls jag recently, after previously hitting a similar wall. Killing the Bell Gargoyles at the top of the Undead Burg, I’d been filled with renewed vigor for the game, and had plunged headlong through several new areas — the Darkroot Garden, Lower Undead Burg, and the Depths. Each presented its own challenges, but I was eventually able to overcome them using the skills and equipment I’d accumulated so far. A longsword I’d picked up earlier had been re-forged by a helpful blacksmith into a weapon with added divine power, I had several new armor sets (including a lightweight set of thief’s leathers), and I’d bumped up my stats to the point that I was able to carry more and still remain nimble.

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Return to Black Mesa

I’ve been thinking recently about how video games seem to provide the best “horror” (as a genre) experiences, and one of the games that immediately came up as I was discussing this topic on Twitter was Valve Software’s 1997 breakout mega-hit Half-Life. Fortuitously enough, a group of hardcore fans has reworked most of the original Half-Life (which, let’s be honest, the years have not been especially kind to) in a more current version that uses Valve’s 2007 Source SDK.

“Get in there, Freeman. We’re not about to mess up our matching ties.”

Part of what made Half-Life so successful and revolutionary was the way it took the first-person shooter and turned it into a genuinely immersive experience. You step into the relatively frail role of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist working as a research associate at a somewhat sinister facility called Black Mesa in New Mexico, to which you are introduced by a guided monorail tour as the game opens.

This kind of intro sequence is fairly stock now, but it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary it was in 1997, and how terrifying it was. The introduction is only marginally sinister, but playing the game in the late ’90s, it was clear that in Half-Life, all the rules we’d grown accustomed to playing games like Doom and Quake were now null and void. Walking around in the Black Mesa facility felt real — as dated as the graphics look now — and it was full of real-seeming people: fellow scientists and security personnel who would acknowledge your presence as you walked by, even looking at you as you moved around them.

Black Mesa — which is free, and which I’ll explain how to download at the bottom of this post — doesn’t exactly recreate the same sense of dread that the original game created, but for anyone who did play Half-Life, returning to Gordon Freeman’s headcrab-stomping grounds in this reboot is a great nostalgia trip. It’s not going to set any benchmarks for graphics, because this categorically does not look like a game made in 2012… but then again, it is a massive graphical update to the original. It also includes brand-new voice acting, sound effects, and thousands of high-definition textures, so it feels modern enough to prevent that weird retro feeling one sometimes gets playing older FPS games.

And it’s worthwhile just to kind of marvel at a genuine labor of love. Plus, like I said, the price is right.

To download, you’ll have to take several steps.

  • First, you’ll need to have Valve’s Steam client installed. (You really should do that anyway.)
  • Once that’s set up, go to your games “Library.” Select “Tools” from the “View” dropdown menu. Then scroll down to find “Source SDK Base 2007” and double-click to install it. It won’t take too long.
  • Then you’ll need to download three files from one of the servers the Black Mesa team is hosting the game on. Pick a folder (your “downloads” folder is okay for this, as long as they all go there), save all the files there, and then run the Black Mesa install file. That’ll take care of the rest.
  • Once the game’s installed you’ll be able to monkey with the graphics and controls options. A weird tic I found was that the game’s screen resolutions are tied to specific aspect ratios, so to set it to my screen’s optimal 1600×900, I first had to select the 16:9 aspect ratio.

Then prepare to ride into the depths of the Black Mesa Research Facility and fight some headcrabs.

Dota 2 beginner’s diary – Chapter 2

I may – may – have turned a corner the other day playing Dota 2. I’ve played a few more hours’ worth of Crystal Maiden since my last entry, and something amazing has been happening.

Crystal Maiden drops her “ultimate” ability upon the unsuspecting heads of her hapless foes!

My efforts led to only one actual team win, but my overall play record has improved drastically. Whereas before I would usually wind up with a kills/deaths/assists score of something like 1/12/7, now I’m pulling down numbers more in the vicinity of 6/8/15, or even 8/2/12. Killing more, dying less, and helping out with more kills than I had been. All that is good for your team’s and character’s economy and experience edge, often times determining the tide of the game.

I think being far more careful about choosing engagements and placement has had something to do with this. But I realize that I’m still no skill player, so I’ve decided to focus my character build on areas where I know I can help my team out in ways that don’t depend on my technical ability. One way I’ve done that is to boost points into Crystal Maiden’s passive aura, which bumps up mana regeneration rates for all friendly heroes. This means my compatriots can use their damaging abilities more times before drying up, which means more damage per second to the enemy team.

I’ve also tried focusing on getting items that can help my team out. In the screenshot above, you can see that A) it’s late-game, as all my abilities are maxed and B) one of the items I’ve built is “Mekansm.” This artifact boosts health regeneration in the immediate area passively, and then when used as an active ability, gives every friendly in the immediate area an immediate health boost. It’s incredibly handy in later-game team fights, as you can get in, do and take a lot of damage, and then get a second wind as your enemies flee.

These have both been gradual and relatively slight adjustments to how I’ve been playing Dota 2, but they’ve combined to put me around a mental corner of some kind, and it’s really great to be seeing some success after so many hours of abject failure and noobness.

Time to suck at StarCraft II… again

It’s a new season of StarCraft II, which means I have a chance to…

Well, it means I will log in, find a multiplayer game, and get demolished over and over. And maintain my place at the bottom of the league. Which is what I did last season until I got dispirited and found something else to play. I’ll update this with a screenshot or two and maybe an update.

Also, it occurs to me that generally speaking, so far I’ve only used this blog to discuss games that I suck at.

Update: As predicted, things did not go particularly well. I played two games — although it counted three, the third one being a game in which my opponent immediately left the game, granting me a “win” that actually counted for league points. Here’s the GG on my final match, a Terran versus Terran match that found me ridiculously outgunned. It’s an indication that I need to do a better job of managing my economy.

Veritas’ gigantic red army of… basically everything mows down my pitiful Terran forces.

Outrun the Slenderman

Do you know of the Slenderman?

If you don’t, there’s a whole literature of user-driven lore online about him – or it, or they – and it ranges from the slightly eerie to the deeply unsettling. For something of the latter, look up “Marble Hornets” on YouTube and start at the beginning.

Where Slender falls into this spectrum is a question you’ll have to answer yourself — but you can download the free game for Windows or Mac, in which you’re dropped into a dark forest with nothing but a flashlight and instructions to find eight pages of crude graffiti. Be assured, the Slenderman is out there… and he doesn’t want you getting your hands on those pages.

If you do decide to run around in Slender, let me know how it goes.

Dota 2 beginner’s diary

I get a rare kill versus the Dire’s Dark Seer during the early game. This is the swamped bridge in the map’s center lane. (Also, I snapped this screenshot while watching the replay – you can see the playback controls near the top right.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been trying to learn the intricacies of Dota 2, the upcoming “multiplayer online battle arena” game from Valve Software. To say the learning curve on this game is “steep” is kind of like saying that giant mutant badgers with rabies are “grumpy,” but I’ve been giving it my best shot anyway.

I’ve mostly been playing as a popular newbie support hero called Crystal Maiden, whose major contributions to a team are meant to be in the form of helping teammates “farm” by using her area-of-effect slowing spell, and by increasing the mana regeneration of all teammates with another upgradeable passive ability. She also has a freezing spell that can be directed at a specific enemy player, and an “ultimate” ability that calls down a damaging ice storm that radiates out from her position.

She’s ranged, which means I can stand back from the actual fray and launch her little glowing blue missiles at enemies without being right in the fray, and as a support, it’s not as big a deal if she dies (especially if in so doing she prevents a “carry” from being killed).

My girl, the Crystal Maiden.

I’ve read the guides, watched tutorials on YouTube, and practiced with her for hours. I still suck. After an early run of luck (I went 3-0 with her when I first started out), my teams have lost every match since.

So what do I have to do to get better? Well, for one thing, I need to learn the role of Dota 2’s items. There are tons of them, and while the shop screen does give you some suggestions for early game, core, and situational items for each specific character, I’m still fuzzy on what a lot of the items actually do. For preference, I try to focus on items with passive boosts — which means I can buy them, have them, and not think about them. I also have to figure out where to find each item and component piece of the advanced items — almost all of the really great, end-game items are created by combining other items, and not all of these are available in the shop near a team’s starting position. Instead, there are two secret and side shops on the map, and it’s helpful to know how to get to each of these and when the ideal time to do so is.

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