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Outer Wilds and Millenial Dread by Caleb Sawyer

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Playing Outer Wilds prompted a mental reaction I have never had before. 

Somewhere in the space between planets, as I sought out the clues to solve this rapidly decaying universe, I found the answer to a question I never asked. 

I have as much trouble describing the mental distress Outer Wilds caused as I do just describing the game itself. There is nothing quite like the first reveal, the slow burn of you realizing what it means, all followed by the slow and meticulous uncovering of hints and clues. It all plays out like this very intimate mystery, despite its clear implications for the universe the game takes place in. 

I remember the first time I saw my uncle play Metal Gear Solid and fight Psycho Mantis. I often think about the implications that a game could encourage the player to do something physical, in the real world, to interact with it. I am even often disappointed by the fact that very few games actually prompt such interactions. 

Outer Wilds never asks you to do something in the physical world to complete it. Nothing I saw. But what I did encounter was a strange and deep urge to disengage with the game entirely.

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The impending doom of Outer Wilds, and its 22 minute time-loops, triggered a particularly millennial, frighteningly familiar fear: You will never have enough time to get to everything done that needs to be done. Every time a new loop starts, you head into your ship and read through your discoveries from the last loop. As the game progresses, each time you repeat this process the questions become more vague at the same time they become more precise. Putting together the mystery you are tasked with solving does not, innately make the game less obtuse. In fact, there are several moments where learning something scrambles the assumptions you previously had, leaving you staring at a bowl of plot spaghetti rather than the network of info highways you thought you had. It is through this process of misdirection and partial learning the game gets you to keep saying, “one more loop.” 

However, there was a moment about twenty hours into my playthrough, when I realized I had never ventured to Giant’s Deep. Here I was hours and hours into trying to solve this mystery, and I had left an entire fucking planet out of the equation. 

I remember sitting in my office, staring at the screen thinking, “But, I felt so close…”, and then turning my xbox off. I didn’t return for an entire week. It was crippling. 

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When I came back, aside from kicking myself for such a strange lapse in memory, I began to panic. I scrambled to Giant’s Deep hoping to earn some kind of reward for showing up and found absolutely nothing. Of course, the result I should have expected. Outer Wilds is adept at making players take their time, despite their being a constant invisible timer. You will want to rush while playing this game. Don’t. The music denoting the end of the loop began to play, I stared at a room I couldn’t access, realized how to get there in the same moment I realized my time had run out, and I just waited for the supernova to wash over me.

It was this strange battle I fought with myself over time which led to a lot of my stresses playing Outer Wilds. Each new loop, I wanted to break through in some way, find another clue, discover something new. The strange and cryptic messages left behind by the Nomai would feed me just enough information. Without failure, the loop would end just as I realized something else and I would have to wait for time the pass in the next loop for the conditions to be just right to access the info my revelation 22 minutes earlier had clued me in to.  

All of this led to a vicious love/hate relationship with the title. I loved finding clues and I despised running out of time. I loved the feeling of discovery and hated the overwhelming feelingI would never have enough time to discover it all. 

Then I got to the end. 

This entire game was offset, oddly enough, by the release of an album I latched onto in a way I have never experienced. Thank You Scientist’s album Terraformer came out on June 14th, a little over two weeks after Outer Wilds’ release and almost exactly when I found the time to start playing. The album is incredible, which I realize is subjective, but I couldn’t help but hear the songs as I thought of the game. Track Everyday Ghosts breaks into a chorus which says, “Sometimes I feel so ordinary / Sometimes I struggle with who I am.” I felt this in most every moment of Outer Wilds. I felt overwhelmingly normal, tasked with solving a mystery so far beyond me. 

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The album rests firmly in the Progressive genre, and I found a great deal of pleasure figuring out when and how the many time changes would play out. Without going into laborious detail on the album’s lyrical choices, suffice it to say I felt the words of each song spoke on some level to a facet of the game. No song better than Geronimo, a track devoted to helping its listener learn the best way through life is to understand there are some things that are just outside of your control. The end of Outer Wilds drove this home tenfold. 

When you finally piece together the final parts of the mystery Outer Wilds sends you on one last trip. And boy is it a trip. As I pieced together the last moments of the game I was hit by this unavoidable wave of relief, accomplishment, and oddly enough, reassurance. The game is full of heartbreaking discoveries. As you traverse the solar system you encounter the remains of Nomai scientists who have been trying to solve the same mystery as you, and who have obviously failed. You see their jubilant cheers when they make a breakthrough. You see their somber replies when they hit walls. 

But then you figure it out.

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I found myself trekking the pine needled earth of a forest, a single light source ahead of me, and infinite night sky overhead. The stars tumbling in the infinite black. As I followed the prompts I found instruments playing in the dark. I brought them back to the fire. As I brought each instrument back, their musician would appear, sitting around the crackling wood and flickering light. I assembled them all and then went to speak to them. “Should I start playing?” They would each ask this question. One by one I said yes and each instrument began to hum, strum, and drum. Each added a stream of smoke above the fire pit. When I went to speak to each of the players again they said something I’m not quite sure I was ready for. 

“Even if it’s over now, I had a great time learning.”

“The past is past, now, but that’s…you know, that’s ok! It’s never really got completely. The future is always built on the past, even if we don’t get to see it.”

“I tell you what, this has been really fun. And I got to help make something pretty cool, so I’ve got no complaints.”

Each statement an admission that, “I didn’t get everything done, but that’s ok!” It was a prescription to a sickness I didn’t want to admit I had. All of this fear I would never have time to get it all done began to wash away. I saw the face of my grandfather, smiling, happy that, while his chapter was over, he was given the opportunity to play a part. All at once I was made to realize, it’s not about doing it all in one go. It’s about playing your part to the best of your ability, lending to the next crescendo, contributing to the confluence. 

As I internalized this I stepped into the smoke above the fire, detonated existence, and set the ground work for a new universe to come. The futility of my endeavor to stop the end of existence was replaced by the satisfaction that some things simply must happen, and it is our responsibility to make sure when they do, even before they do, we just do our best. 

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All the time I spent with this game was fraught with tension and trepidation until I knew what I was meant to do; A lesson with surprising connections to one’s journey through life. One which hopes to help you find pleasure in trying to figure it all out. 

~Caleb
@LubWub

Outer Wilds Website

Thank You Scientist

Bouncing Off: Why it's Okay by Caleb Sawyer

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When I was a kid, in fact, when most of us were kids, our options for games to play were limited. I still remember planning out what game or two I would have for summer break. Final Fantasy VII, XIII (the amazing title from Ubisoft), Final Fantasy VIII. The list was small, always. My gaming as a kid was almost entirely dictated by the money my parents were willing to siphon into my recreational habits, and baseball was expensive. Occasionally a lent disc.

Between the years 2003 and 2004 three online marketplaces for games launched: XBLA, PSN, Steam. Between September 12th, 2003 and December 4th, 2004, those three platforms revolutionized game distribution. Small companies no longer needed to fund physical releases. Instead, they could publish their titles on multiple digital networks. Instant visibility. Instant access. Over the next 15 years the game industry would swing more and more towards digital distribution as a primary means of distribution.

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The surge of indie titles over this period was LARGE, and while I have had a hard time tracking down hard data, it isn’t hard to assume in the following years, the number of small market games able to self-publish to these marketplaces skyrocketed. On Steam alone, just 7 games were released in 2004, in 2018 the number sat at 9,050. A nearly 1300% increase in 14 years.

But why am I saying all of this?

When I finally got an Xbox 360, in 2009, there were a lot of titles available. Over the last 10 years, I have learned how to find the games I like. Specifically me. This ability to find content, and tailor your gaming experience based on your preferences, has led to a multitude of diverse and hyper-specialized experiences. You like first-person puzzlers and explorers? Grab Talos Principle, The Witness, Q.U.B.E., or Portal. You prefer retro-style side scrollers or dungeon crawlers? Snatch up Hyperlight Drifter, Below, Katana Zero, or Dead Cells. And those aren’t even the hyper-specific games. Like the retro-RPG feel, music, and XCOM-style strategy games? Try Wargroove. Third-person, focused linear story, cover-based shooters, with a more open world? Try on Spec-Ops: The Line or the Uncharted Series. Love dungeon crawlers and pinball/breakout mechanics? Look no further than Creature in the Well. 

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Honestly, the categorization and customization of your personal playlist is nearly infinitely wide and unfathomably deep. There is something for everyone out there, it just takes the know how of how to find it. 

This abundance isn’t without its setbacks though. As one would assume, the highly specific nature of many games, and the ability to hone specific likes and interests leaves more ample space for disappointment or, what industry professionals and gamers like to call “bouncing off” of a game. As I have developed my tastes I have become very familiar with this feeling. 

In 2018, Rare released Sea of Thieves, and open world, sea faring, pirate game giving its players the freedom to do just about anything they wanted. Sail the seas looking for treasure on age-worn maps? Do it. Challenge ancient evils and defeat hordes of Skellys (skeletons) to unlock the vault on the island? Sharpen your blades. Hunt other players down in true buccaneer fashion and sink their ships, making off with their hard earned treasures? Avast! But I had grown more accustomed to being told more story along with my gameplay and Sea of Thieves, when it launched, just didn’t offer what I wanted. I played Sea of Thieves for about 12 hours before I just couldn’t play anymore. My enamor in staring at the beautiful water and unique sailing mechanics just wore off. Instead, traversal between points of interest became dull busywork, and I legitimately began catching myself falling asleep while playing, only to wake right up when I switched to Rocket League.

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I ran into the same issue with Elite Dangerous, a space sim which falls into very similar categories as Sea of Thieves. You can do anything, be anything, so long as you take the time to find out how to do it. I needed more. I wanted a few story missions to hold my hand through the core processes and functions, even if just a little. I wanted to be introduced to the games ecosystem and universe. Not to just be dumped into a sandbox with a pile of tools and no instructions. I bounced off of those games hard. I have returned as they have added additional features, sure, but they didn’t become career games like Battlefield or Rocket League did.

I have a long standing feud with my family over Warframe. My uncle and grandmother absolutely love the game, and for good reason. Digital Extremes is unrivaled in their community interaction, feature addition, and bare knuckled persistence. Warframe is deep, and shows no signs of showing down. There is just one problem: I just can’t force myself to like it. The introduction, specifically the portion of the game you have to play before the story really “gets good” takes close to 30 hours. Your time before said moment is spent digging through a series of relatively unremarkable levels, recycling mission objectives, and frequently plowing through enemies like some kind of space Dynasty Warriors game. It is pretty, smooth, and mechanically sound in every way. I just don’t particularly care for the gameplay loop. Give me more substantial rewards. Give me more story. Give me more unique objectives. Give me enemies with consequence. 

I don’t want people to see this as a piece solely devoted to bashing Warframe, because it isn’t. What I am trying to point out is, I have tailored my tastes around a few key genres with a more diverse subset of sub-genres mixed in. No matter how hard I try, Warframe just doesn’t click enough of those boxes. Sea of Thieves didn’t originally tick those boxes. Hell, I bounced off of Doom 2016. Something about the speed of player movement and the specific setting didn’t jive with my desired gameplay or sensibilities at the time and I ricocheted hard. Like…I played 4 hours. Tops.

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The hardest part, in all of this; the hardest part about bouncing off of a game, in today’s gaming environment, is dealing with the feeling of guilt you get when it happens. Often times for me it is a self inflicted guilt, but the guilt is easily compounded when you have friends who do like the thing you can’t get into. My family’s Warframe feud has largely subsided, but when it was at its peak, I genuinely felt like I had failed them, not being able to get into something they loved so much. 

I wanted to speak to those who have found themselves bouncing off of games everyone around them seems to love. It’s ok! Really. There is so much out there to play, so many things to discover, you should never feel like you have to like something. It’s ok if you picked up Red Dead Redemption 2 and just couldn’t stick with the sluggish controls. It’s ok if you tried to dive into Monster Hunter World and just couldn’t fall in love with the hunt (I didn’t either!). 

Instead, keep your head up and keep looking. Austin Walker, on Waypoint, said in a podcast recently, “someone out there is making my favorite game.” Maybe its already out there. Keep looking. And don’t feel bad if you bounce off of a game a lot of your friends love (I’m looking at you Destiny). Games are rarely closed books the day they come out. Most of them will continue to add content, and a lot of the content they add is made to bring more people in or win them back. Stick out the bouncy ones for as long as you can, come back if you are intrigued with new content, and in the spaces between those events keep looking for your favorite game. It’s out there somewhere.

~Caleb
@LubWub

Why I Write About Games by Caleb Sawyer

by @lorenzoherrera

I have been writing about games for 8 years. I started in college, intrigued by an opportunity to write for the Rambler, the school paper. I had just quit playing baseball, a sport I had been committed to for nearly 12 years, and I had an abundance of time, a love for film and games, and an opportunity. I started by reviewing movies. I saw Drive, Contagion, and many other films in the first few months. It wasn’t until I saw an ad for Battlefield 3, an ad with a cheeky dig at Call of Duty claiming that Battlefield went “Above and Beyond the Call”. It was smart. It may seem silly, inconsequential even, but that small ad sparked…something. 

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In the past 8 years I have written about indie games, AAA games, news, studios, conferences. It has been an amazing ride, even if that ride has been bumpy, inconsistent, or even to a smaller audience than I want. I keep writing, as slow or fast as I can, because I couldn’t live with myself if I just decided not to. And that’s just it. I will never stop writing about games, and the reason (for me) is simple: I believe that games have the ability to touch lives deeper than many people think, and I want to make sure as many people realize that as possible. 

When I started writing about games this motivation made itself clear quickly. Unexpectedly, my resignation from competitive sports had a large impact on my immediate mental state. I had a means of expression and a place to take out aggression for over a decade that was suddenly gone. While I continued to play in the summer for a few fo the following years, It never took center stage again. I became depressed, I started smoking, my sleep schedule fell apart. In the spring of 2012 I got the opportunity to go to a journalism conference in Seattle. Within moments of the first session I knew that I wanted to write for the rest of my life. Upon returning from that trip my uncle connected the dots for me. “You love games, you love writing. Why not write about games.” It was like being punched in the face. But in a good way. 

Over that summer I was given the opportunity to work alongside my uncle and write journalistically for several blogs and author a few comic books. Ben (my uncle) is a comic illustrator, and works from home. Adopting his schedule, I wrote forty pieces in the three months of summer for multiple blogs. At the same time we both realized that going back to school in the fall would prove hitting deadlines for other blogs difficult. After a few days of brainstorming, NerdyBits was born. 

I continued to struggle with my newfound depression during this time, and I authored a piece called Why Games Matter. I wrote about how games helped me through my depression in the last year. How Mass Effect 2 helped me feel like I could solve problems. I wrote about how Skyrim saved my life. 

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I don’t want to sound like I’m saying that people who don’t write emotionally about games are doing it wrong. There is a huge need for news, investigative reporting, and editorials based in fact. There are all-stars doing this reporting, this writing. What I decided, in short, was that I would do the writing I wasn’t seeing as much. Drawing from my own life to tell unique stories about the games that I have played. Confident that others would gravitate towards stories with a strong human element.

Over the last several years I have written about criticism in games, why indie games are saving the industry, how playing MLB: The Show reminded me that losing is ok, how a mobile game prepared us for the death of my grandfather, and how Far: Lone Sails helped me cope with that loss. This writing keeps me going. The more I do it, the validation I receive. People connect with these pieces. 

A few months ago I was approached by a friend who wanted to write for NerdyBits. He wanted to tell the story of how Zelda taught him how to be a better brother to his epileptic sister. Learning to help rather than complain, because she needed help, and it’s “dangerous to go alone.”

Last week I met with another friend, and after explaining my credo for writing games, he told me about a story he wants to write about how doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has made Absolver mean more to him. How doing martial arts in real life has shown him the beauty in movement, the power in swiftness, and the place for self-defense in a fallen world. 

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People connect emotionally to their games. Sometimes that emotional connection is peace in a tumultuous world. Sometimes that connection is a new reason to live. For the next adventure. For the next quest. For the next moment. Sometimes that connection goes unnoticed until someone else, someone like me, puts context to content.

I am going to keep writing this way. I have to. And when I get the opportunity, I will do all I can to signal boost others who want to share similar stories. Because people need to hear them. Because people need to know it is ok to feel strongly about something they played. Because games, and those who make them, need know what their creations can, and frequently do, illicit in their players: Emotion. The kind that sticks with you for the rest of your life.

@LubWub





Apex Legends Crushes First Week by Caleb Sawyer

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UPDATE: Over Apex’s first week, it reached a total of 25 million unique players and more than 2 million concurrent.

While it is too early to tell if Apex Legends will stand the test of time, or even sustain its ridiculous popularity, I feel it is safe to say this: When it comes to guerrilla marketing, surprise, polish, and execution, few multiplayer titles have released with such aplomb. 

Just before the Super Bowl rumors started stirring. Vince Zampella had been abnormally active on Twitter in the last week, streamers were talking about trips to California, in the days leading up to the weekend keywords were being tossed in the air. Free-to-play, Battle Royale, Titanfall. All of them interesting separately, but together, a potentially amazing surprise. Then, during the Super Bowl, Vince sent this tweet:

“Looks like everything is unlocked now? Fun.

So, if you like Respawn, our games or even me, you should tune in tomorrow. Our stream starts at 8am pt and we’ll tell you everything about Apex Legends. Everything.”

There it was. A name. The Apex Predators were a mercenary group in the previous Titanfall games. What does this even mean. Fast forward 18 hours and we got to see Apex Legends, and at the end of the trailer? Available now. Almost literally overnight we got a AAA Battle Royale. For Free. 

The number of times something like this has happened can be counted on one hand (I searched for the actual number and I couldn’t find it). The number of times a AAA title has done this? I am at a loss. What’s more? Apex Legends launched STRONG. With over a million unique players in just the first 8 hours, Apex jumped out of the gate, with barely a hiccup in server consistency. 72 hours in? 10 million players, 1 million concurrent. Dominance.

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For players weary of the Battle Royale craze, this title has an answer for your complaints of there being a lack in originality. Rather than being plain, straight up BR game like PUBG, or having a mechanic as divisive as Fortnite’s building, Apex gives its players Overwatch-esque heroes. Each character (of the 8 present at launch) come with their own Passive, Active, and Super abilities. From Gibraltar’s Mortar Strike to Wraith’s Dimensional Rift to Pathfinder’s Zipline Launcher, the Supers are unique to the BR space. Used well, they are goddamn game changers.

Thirty-nine hours in, Apex is a bundle of nearly endless joy. The controls are buttery-smooth (as per usual Titanfall), the team mechanics are choice, and the map design is solid. I was apprehensive when I heard there were no Titans, and even more worried when I realized there were no jump packs (no wall running). After my time with Apex however, I am glad they aren’t a part of it. Frankly, I have no clue how they could balance a Titan, and the wall running would turn into a mechanic as divisive as Fortnite’s building. 

It is understandable if Titanfall diehards find themselves a little disappointed with this offering. After all, Apex does appear to have come at the cost of Titanfall 3 in 2019 (though Mr. Zampella is trying really hard to confuse us) and, for some, the Titans and free-running are essential to the experience. All of those gripes make sense.

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What I can say is this: Apex takes the Battle Royale game mode in a surprisingly refreshing direction, and it’s one of the most structurally sound shooters released in the last 8 months. They plan to release new guns and characters every three months alongside a battle pass as well. The future of Apex is intriguing, and if its present popularity is any indication, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

@LubWub