TOTC covers “What can DC learn from Sci-Fi?”

Tales of the Con’s Washington DC correspondent David Campbell was in attendance for a panel titled “What can DC learn from Sc-Fi?”.  Here is his coverage:

 

What Can DC Learn from Sci-Fi?” this was the name of the panel covered by Tales of the Con (TOTC) on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. This panel was comprised of Kevin Bankston, Director of the Open Technology Institute at New America, Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst & Editor at the Free Future blog, and bestselling science-fiction author Charles Stross.

Within the first few words of Kevin Bankston’s introductory remarks it became remarkably clear why this was an important panel for TOTC to cover. His opening statements hit the nail of TOTC spirit square on the head:

In a very real way, I do what I do – working in the public interest to ensure that every community benefits equitably from advances in digital technology – because of science-fiction. Science-fiction is one of the things that inspired me to dedicate my career to technology policy and reading new science-fiction is what helps keep me inspired… and I’m not alone”

This is exactly the spirit of TOTC and what we hope to coax out of others. Using the inspiration one finds in fantasy, science-fiction, and counter-culture to propel oneself forward in a positive way is what TOTC is about. For Kevin Bankston, he harnessed that inspiration and focused it towards a career dedicated to the public interest and advances in technology. For the TOTC crew, a platform for social connectedness and a sense of community was established. For others, the opportunities and directions are endless. Bankston continued his opening remarks in a similar fashion to the previous quote and explained that so many of the people he has met in DC, White House staffers, think-tankers, policy advocates, analysts, and many others all find the inspiration and creative drive to do what they do, in large part, because of their interest in science-fiction. This was the important take away from the evening and is what leads us to the meat and potatoes of the actual question… “What can DC Learn from Sci-fi?”

The answer to this question is multifaceted and complex but, at the same time, invariably simple… A LOT! Many of the topics covered by the panel – space exploration and colonization, defiant artificial intelligence and singularity, a variety of dystopian futures, and many others – are topics that policy makers and academics the world over are scrambling to address as they rapidly emerge from the abstraction of fiction to the crushing reality of non-fiction. Though, science-fiction, comic-book, and nerd cultures have been thinking about these topics for years… and in grotesque detail! In fact, as discussed by the panel, many of the great moments in recent history were either prophesied or closely worked out by the science fiction novels that predated them. As Charles Stross quite clearly stated during the panel, “space exploration has always been science fiction, until in 1969 when it wasn’t” and this isn’t the only example. Consider the innumerable sci-fi gadgets that have flooded the market in recent years and earlier. Drones, 3D printers, video calls, oculus rift, the list goes on and on. We can harness the energy from the sun to electrify our cities; we are on the verge of widespread driverless cars; we can access the world’s entire archive of human knowledge with the device in our pockets; and privately funded citizens are launching their own spaceships. These are all things that were dreamt up as science-fiction just a few short years ago but are now positioned firmly in our everyday reality. So how has the policy world responded to this ever-expanding bridge between science-fiction and reality? I personally believe the trend is for policy folk to claw their way through the murk and the mire of ambiguity, uncertainty, fear, and confusion until they decide they understand the changing pace of the world and pass laws to restrict its expansion. In terms of solar technology and the laws governing drone use, I think our current policy folk are underwater in terms of how we adjust today’s reality to function properly with yesterday’s science-fiction.

Having a personal affinity toward Dungeons & Dragons, I can attest to the level of meticulous detail, planning, and forethought that goes into developing a fantasy world. When developing policy in DC, as with developing policy in the fantasy realm, considerations have to be made in regard to people, the environment, political structure, international governmental relations, and the serious wide-reaching implications of every decision made at every level of policy development. The strange part is how untapped, disregarded, and seemingly disrespected the sci-fi, comic-book, and nerd communities are in the mainstream… regardless of how vibrantly creative and deeply thoughtful the individuals who occupy these spaces actually are. Instead of tapping into the creative wealth that this sub-culture has to offer in terms of its real life potential for policy research, development, and implementation what you see instead is disconnection, suppression, and discouragement. In reality, you see legions of young freshly accredited academics march into Washington with the intention of influencing policy. These legions carry with them degrees from highly respected institutions that they wield like swords to cut their way into the policy world and they are often successful in chopping down their competition. Unfortunately, and in large numbers, the creative edge of that sword has been dulled by their adherence to the structure and rigor of mainstream academic success. They often lack the imaginative depth that our evolving policy world so desperately needs. As technology advances and the far-future of science fiction becomes the not-so-distant future of reality our policy designers and DC decision makers will continue to scramble and paw their way towards answers unless they tap into the well of experience that nerd-culture has to offer.

The call-to-arms that I felt boiling out of the panel, as well as what I am trying to put across in this article, is that those science-fiction authors, comic-book nerds, and all those who occupy the spaces outside of the mundane who are currently shunned from the mainstream need to be recognized for what they have to offer in this changing world. As we move towards the Mad Max style dystopia that Charles Stross prophesied during the panel, who is better suited to tackle the changing political, social, and environmental challenges than those who have been obsessively scrutinizing every detail of that scenario since before the 1980’s? Nerd culture has a special set of tools at its disposal that those outside of it lack – they have been deeply considering, analyzing, and logically answering the questions that will be and are currently baffling our nation’s leaders. So, what can DC learn from Sci-fi? Well, from this sub-culture of incredible intellectuals who are well versed in answering the questions of tomorrow and solving the problems that those questions bring, again, I say A LOT!

For more details of the panel discussion please visit: https://www.newamerica.org/oti/events/what-can-dc-learn-sci-fi/

TOTC plays Super Combat Junior II (and more!)

Some of the TOTC crew got together and played games live on our twitch channel. We threw those broadcasts up on YouTube for your viewing disgust pleasure. Check them out below.

We started the evening with Super Combat Junior II, a local multiplayer indie game still in development. The devs approached us and asked if we would give it a playthrough and share our opinion.  We had a blast! It’s intense and fun local butt-on-couch multiplayer very reminiscent of the chaos of Zelda: Four swords. Please visit their site at https://interdimensional.itch.io Toss them a few bucks, grab some controllers, your friends, and kick some ass. (Don’t forget the beer!)

Later in the evening we screwed around with some N64 games. Mario Kart 64, Waverace 64, and a few others. We ended with Donkey Kong 64 at a viewer request. (We’ll continue that one at some point soon.)

 

 

 

Follow us and catch more streams in the near future, we’ll usually give you a heads up on social networking.

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Tabletop gaming – Tales of the Con

What IS National Tabletop Day, and why should you care? Why should anyone care – it’s another marketing holiday set up by people who wanted to sell something. Does Nerd Culture really prevail over Late Capitalism every year and succeed in bringing disparate people together over cardboard armies and laser-printed anime art forever etched onto plastic slates? Or is our fascination with media built to create yet another isolated social group focused more on products than ideas.

We’re nerds so by default we have to buy things to take part in our hobbies. This is really no different from anything else that involves any sort of large fan culture – but Tabletop Day can offer a day a year for a great deal of us to take part in some hobbies we can’t normally afford to participate in. There is an unfortunate gatekeeper to this culture so many of us want to represent, and that’s economics.

As Video Games become largely focus on the realm outside of physical space, they of course also largely sacrifice the feeling of playing games next to someone. Though this criticism is not as weighty as it would be if I were writing this in say, 2008, but it is still worth speaking up about. While it’s true there’s a part of the videogame world meant for couch co-op, it has largely been replaced by online interactions.

Sooner or later the rise of tabletop games had to happen. Social interaction is always valued even in the digital era, and tabletop games give us something to interact over.  The scene seems to expand exponentially every year. Especially when you put Kickstarter on top of it and the popularity culture of nerdom, getting a tabletop game launched is easier than ever, so every week it seems like there’s a new avenue for playing games face to face with people.

That popularity culture that brings us together means our interests are always keenly the same: Star Wars, H.P Lovecraft, epic fantasy, grimdark doom, and murderin’ Space Marines. Boardgames also explore areas covered by videogames too: Economic Simulators, City Building, and Travel – and expound upon it with things like subterfuge roleplaying games that pit players against each other in battles of lies.

If it fits these things – or adapts a genre favorite like Steampunk into a realm that allows us to play with it, there’s a very good chance that players at large will be interested and soon there will be the latest Steampunk Zombie H.P Lovecraft game delivered to your doorstep (if you back it on Kickstarter)

Is that the sole reason Tabletop games become popular – or do they also additionally strike up a balance between the physicality of these kinds of games as the medium vs. how abstract our possession of other things we covet has become lately? Even most comic books, long considered a brick and mortar ran industry propagated mostly by small comic shops can be largely replaced by digital subscriptions and online-only offerings (see: The Private Eye, recently released physical)

If this sounds a little bit cynical, it’s because when you talk about something organized around products purely, it helps to be. What is more interesting about National Tabletop Day is ideas that bring people together. We went to Cab Comics in Flagstaff, Arizona this last weekend to support one of our local favorites, Tom Filsinger of Filsinger games. Not because his product appeals to us (it does!) but because we like the kind of dude Tom is and how he turned his hobby and love of wrestling into something he could share with other people.

That sharing of ideas – whether it’s stories, techniques or even simply the act of moving pieces on a board and having to wait patiently while your opponent judges the tactics you’re trying to represent, is what we at TOTC think draws people the ever burgeoning tabletop world.

As expansive and confusing as that world can sometimes be, what National Tabletop Day also represents is another chance for someone who may not have the necessary time to learn a game they can play with their friends in a dark room pouring over rulebooks, to participate and feel welcome in the hobby.  These games create stories that people can tell to each other after the fact, who the hell doesn’t like keeping a record of every brutal defeat or that time everyone pulled together to accomplish a goal. It’s just, y’know, sometimes that goal is defeating an eldritch horror without going stark raving mad.

CAB Comics in Flagstaff had staff on hand for just that – they were waiting by for us to pick a game while Tom Filsinger and The Chief ran Champions of the Galaxy for the folk curious about it right next to us.
Really – it didn’t matter if The Offender and I had ended up rolling a TOTC house roleplaying table or playing Machi koro (surprise: we did both).

What mattered was that eventually, people saw what we were playing and that there were open seats, and came to join us. So we played cardboard strategies with people we didn’t know and got the chance to meet a few new faces. Was it the joy of tabletop that brought them over, or something else entirely? I don’t know – even after working the holiday like we did.

What I do know is that in the back of my head the thought has been burning a hole – which maybe it’s not really the tabletop games or the culture that brings people together, but the simple celebration of ideas that comes from any hobby that requires participants and creators both be creative.

Stardew Valley Double Feature

Like a double album or a back to back movie, Tales of the Con brings you the A-side and B-side on the Stardew Valley.  Two different players, two different perspectives.

 

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Stardew Valley Has Harvested My Fucking Soul  

By: Grim Glamfire


When I was doing my regular round-tour of places I read the other week, one of the articles that stood out the most to me was one of the writers I read often’s thoughts about Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery, and how some games are impossible to duplicate.
Their reason was that Superbrothers is more about conveying a particular mood than any genre contrivances. While being inspired by dozens of other games and works, it’s only superficially like them because the developers had specific things they wanted to represent with their creation.

Lofty claims like that are generally frequently used by journalists, especially when considering any titles that critics and the gaming public deemed noteworthy. Yes that writer might have thought it was specifically attributable to Superbrothers than any other game, but I can only say for myself that I don’t think it’s the specific example.

Stardew Valley epitomizes the kind of game that manages to still adhere to other formats of genre contrivance within one of its key inspirations, Harvest Moon while still being something completely distinct.

Where the appeal is in this game has a lot to do with the mood it cultivates. Stardew Valley is the kind of the thing that can grip the deepest, most manic parts of our brains that are addicted to improvement and forward momentum. Every day in Stardew Valley is another day where a goal is ticked off of your list.

Really, there’s a startling lack of vocabulary for the people that enjoy these sorts of games. Most of them really are just about creating a compulsion in the player to maximize the output of whatever plot of land or space station or company they’ve been given. Even Harvest Moon itself with its marriage and age aspects never really, really takes the ideas it presents anywhere further.  

Out of all of the harvesting that goes on in Stardew Valley, I come away from each session feeling like the only thing really getting harvested is my fucking soul. Yeah it never takes its core ideas to some super smart place like I want it to – but it also gives me the freedom to farm for eight hours, or to never even break earth with a plow if I don’t want to.

Sure, Stardew Valley hits some kind of deep primal itch for creating and managing something that is uniquely ours that all of these farming and crafting games do, but what really sets apart Stardew Valley is I don’t have to do any work if I don’t want to.

Want to go spelunking through a cave and ignore all of your responsibilities like some kind of gross dirt covered, well, spelunker? Yeah sure, you’re enabled to not work on your farm and there are more than enough outlets for you otherwise.

We bill games like this as simulations, but is there any place for storytelling in a simulation – or does that directly contradict the nature of real life? I can cut down trees or raise the money to build a barn – but doing any of this is just a way to veil that no matter how impressive my farm gets all I’m really working towards is giving more people gifts so I can finish their storyarcs.

Does this make Stardew Valley any less playable? Not at all – because even though that is reducing the game to its simplest terms, it still presents a compelling argument in favor of if. What is the purpose of producing anything, if not for the benefit of the community, anyway?

 

Maybe I’m getting ahead a little bit, and that seems to describe something that not a lot of people would play. Considering contemporaries, or even the games that inspired it; most of them involved building a farm with the end goal of the player getting married and passing it along.

If you turn the examination of Stardew Valley being about giving back to the community more inward – you can see that it’s built into the fabric of the way the game tells its story. The best possible situation involves repairing what parts of the community have fallen apart and driving off any forces capable of hemorrhaging the work you’ve done.

The story being built while you play is of course more important than the one the game hands you, and by letting you decide what to do with your time Stardew Valley shows you that it prioritizes how you want to live. Maybe I want to live running through a forest and managing my stamina, hoping to have just enough energy by the end of the day to tie up the last of my chores. Maybe I want to live my life pretending to be a pansexual robot farmer, attempting to fuck their way through a small town while fighting the evils of corporate capitalism.

Stardew Valley hands you a story about the ever encroaching realities of big business being able to loom over the small community you find yourself in. Just a few weeks spent in the Valley and your efforts go towards staving off the fingers of capitalism working their way beneath the fertile soil and poisoning it.

There’s certainly no scene in any of the Harvest Moon games that deal with the struggle of rural homelessness and poverty (which actually seem to be, at least rural poverty, one of the dominant themes of the game)

Whimsy is a word I would still use to describe not only the world, but the players role in it. As the aforementioned farming sex robot I’ve crawled dungeons and romanced people, but I’ve also investigated magical sprites and hunted dense forests in the middle of the night for the right plants to unlock rewards given out by them.

You can step away from the farm for a day or forever, but you will never stop exploring every nook and cranny of the game that presents itself. Sometimes I don’t water my plants just to see if they die, and the game enables that too.  Maybe you do make life better for someone, or everyone, in town. Maybe you fuck up your farm catastrophically and forage in the wilderness after pillaging the lowest levels of the sewers struggling to fight hazardous waste monsters. Stardew Valley presents a world and expects you to try and live in it, even though it will never truly be simulating anything real.

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Stardew Valley: Harvest Moon beyond

By: Red

I grew up playing Harvest Moon. Played it from the GameBoy, up through the N64 (arguably the best) on through Magical Melody. I would get done with work or school, come home and instantly start playing. For some reason the simplicity of it drew me in, while giving you goals and things to achieve that made it worthwhile. It probably didn’t hurt that I grew up on a farm.  I’ve tried Terraria and Minecraft. Both games scratched an “itch” to play Harvest Moon. And both are good, but nothing like Harvest Moon. The most common story line of the series involves the player taking over a farm that no longer has an owner tending to it, growing crops, raising livestock, making friends with the town’s people, and creating a family while running a successful farm. Each game provides objects to collect or goals to complete, whether it is befriending villagers, collecting musical notes, finding sprites, making rainbows, or ringing bells. Money is obtained by growing crops, raising livestock, fishing, mining, and foraging. With a limited time and limited energy, the player has to find a balance between the two in order to accomplish their work for the day.

I was always personally drawn to Harvest Moon games not only for the simplicity of the play, but how deceptively deep it could be in the different parts. Anyone can just grow crops, but figuring the best growing pattern, the best crops to sell, which were best for recipes, or making other products took time. And that was just the basic. Other aspects include: fishing, with its patience and mini-games; mining, which was sometimes seasonal; different animals, with different needs and wants. Adding to that was the variety of towns, towns people, events, and possible travel areas. It all added up to make it something that keeps me coming back. But then I saw a few teasers about StarDew Valley, and I honestly couldn’t wait to try it ….

Now I will give Eric Barone (aka ConcernedApe) credit: for one man building this massive game from the ground up, he did it well and in a relatively short amount of time. And there was a LOT of anticipation for this game from the community. It was given a Greenlight status on Steam. Though apparently that doesn’t mean as much as it first did. It’s sadly a broken system, but the thought behind it was that the game idea was well received by Valve employees and the Steam community members.

Right off the bat, my first impression of the game; “Holy Shit, the options!”. It’s not just “Are you male or female? What do you call the farm?” No no. It’s hair, skin, eyes, accessories, style of clothes, and even choosing your favorite activity. Once you have settled on an avatar, you’re then treated to a cinematic very reminiscent of Harvest Moon games of the past where you see that you hate your city life, and have been given a rundown family farm that you have to now fix up. You also find out that much of the nearby town broken down and need fixing also. Most of that fixing will come from helping the “elves” of this realm. They have goals set up in an old abandoned building, that you can look at by way of plaques on the floor in different rooms. Once you start these collections, you can work on them as quickly or as slowly as you’d like.

The inspiration for ConcernedApe’s elements is obvious. The farm and town setup from Harvest Moon, the mining from Terraria, the customization and crafting of MineCraft. So far the only thing I’ve come against that I haven’t liked is the fishing aspect. The mini-game for collecting fish isn’t explained well, nor is it easy to accomplish once you figure it out. You have a window pop up that shows a fishing pole, a fish with a bar behind it and a completion meter to show how close you are to actually catching the fish. The fish will start moving up and down in it’s section and it’s your job to keep the bar behind it. You click the mouse button to raise the bar and you let go of the mouse to drop the bar. But the second you left go of the button, the bar drops immediately. It’s the same for raising the bar.  It’s almost counter-intuitive the way the bar moves. As you lose contact of the bar and fish, the completion meter drops. Once it is gone, you lose the fish. I’ve rarely succeeded in catching fish because the “catch” bar is either full fledge flying up or dropping senselessly to the bottom. But I have recently found out there are sanctioned mods and a mod manager; one of the mods can ease the fishing or get rid of the mini-game entirely.

Learning the ins and outs of the game has been the best part.  Figuring out the crafting, the combat, and the overall farming aspect has made me very happy. The combat is actually fun. It is a very basic PvE. You swing a weapon and smack them. It does give you an arc as you swing so there can be a broad hit area, but hits are directional. So you must face and click on the side of your body you want the swing. Each weapon has a set of damage range points per swing, each mob has a set amount of health, simple math to defeat them. And they start easy with simple hopping blobs, then grow in difficulty as you get further into the mines. You’ll just have to discover those for yourself. My favorite part of any mining area is getting far down into the mine, as there is usually better items and a greater amount. ConcernedApe also added a reward system of sorts. There is a treasure chest every 10 levels. I have yet to hit the bottom, but I can’t wait to see what I can find there. There is a much larger scale of plants to grow and I can’t wait to see how the greenhouse will change the amounts of crops I grow. I have yet to get into the animal husbandry. I did figure out that you do need a silo to hold the feed, and already have mine full. While there has been a learning curve as far as foraging and general gameplay, the steam community forums have an infinite source of knowledge that has been handy.

I was excited to see this game announced, more excited to continue playing it, and can’t wait to see what stories are to come. And there’s no end to it either, at least not an official ending. And this game will have multiplayer possibilities in the future, which makes it even better. It’s everything I have been wanting in a Harvest Moon style game, and even addressed things I hadn’t thought of. I think Eric Barone has done a wonderful job and look forward to all that he has in store for a game that he has so thoughtfully created.

-Red