Games

ZA Critrique: Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space

What Weird Worlds offers is an enormous deck of variables: what aliens you meet and what gear you find, and shuffles them up every game.

The roguelike is a genre that is about developing skills to compete with randomness. While a basic core set of rules make-up the gameplay, the things that you will be encountering will always be presented randomly. There will be a different set of items for you to find, a different way that you’ll progress through the world, and the player must rely on their judgment and skill to progress. For many players in competitive games, the goal is to find as many ways as possible to reduce the effects of randomness so that they can always win. Greg Costikyan notes in an excellent post about randomness in games that “if we feel that we just got lucky -- or, worse, that someone else won even though we were obviously the smarter player, because they just got lucky -- we're likely to think less of the game”. Yet creating a balanced game design where the randomness keeps players on their toes without seeming unfair is hard to do. One of the best examples of balanced randomness is the indie classic Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. Playing like a cross between Solitaire and Star Control 2, it offers an interesting take on games that randomly create their worlds because many sessions do boil down to pure luck. It still stays engaging precisely because the strategy of the game is learning to work with what you’ve got.

At the start of each session, you’re asked if you want to operate as a scientist, pirate, or military vessel. Ship type will decide which scoring system will apply to that session: military awards points for signing treaties and defeating enemies while science awards points for collecting artifacts and animals. The size of the galaxy that you’re in adjusts how long the play session will be, enemy strength can be adjusted for those wanting to rev up the combat, and nebula mass can be changed to make navigating the map more difficult. Less nebulae means that the galaxy can be travelled around much faster. Playing as the science vessel is a fairly calm experience, you don’t have enough weapons to do much combat. You move around the galaxy collecting artifacts and trying to find ways to get various aliens to talk to you. The military version, on the other hand, is a tough grind as you search for stronger weapons then start taking on anyone that you think you’ve got an edge on. Piracy is a bit more random as you snatch anything that you can find. The scientist mission usually ends peacefully because you never bother with fighting while military missions typically end violently with you biting off more than you can chew.

In the post mentioned above, Costikyan explains the various effects of randomness in games. He points out that most games have some amount of randomness in them such as an FPS using a multiplier to decide hit damage to change things up. An example of low randomness is betting on horse races, you can study the stats and minimize the effect of randomness by knowing which horse does well on what track. There is always the chance of an accident, but that’s an understood risk in betting that can be overcome because most of the time it works out the way that you expect. A game with a much higher random factor is poker, where an unskilled player might still beat a more experienced opponent because of a lucky hand. Learning to read tells, calculate the odds of what everyone has in their hands, and knowing when to fold is how you undermine that possibility. On a long enough timeline, the skilled poker player will win more than the beginner. Losing occasionally to the inferior player is just a part of the equation. Applying the principle to war games, Costikyan justifies random variables that break away from the pure skill of chess because no general can claim to know the outcome of a battle. He writes, “As in Poker, military command is a matter of minimizing risks and making the best bets that you can, but as in Poker, you cannot be sure of the outcome”.

What Weird Worlds does is offer an enormous deck of variables, what aliens you meet and what gear you find, and shuffles them up every game. All aliens are hostile unless you find an item that they want or you defeat them in battle. If you find the crystal fish relatively early in the game, for example, you’ll be able to strike an alliance with the almost impossible to defeat Tchorak aliens. Occasionally you’ll be able to rescue a crashed alien ship and strike an alliance through this act of good will. Getting access to the planets that these aliens are guarding is essential because there is only one of each advanced artifact per map. There is only one cloaking device for example. So if you’re taking the military route, you need to get a hold of strong shields, weapons, and hopefully the cloaking device if you plan to dominate the game by fighting. The challenge is being able to find all that gear in one session. The science or pirate route is easier because you just need to collect stuff but scoring well means getting past the aliens somehow. The scientists are going to need a special coat that makes most aliens want to ally with you while the pirates inevitably need to find the fold space drive to move across the galaxy fast enough. A skilled player can tell within five to ten minutes of play how the level is going to work out. If you haven’t found the aliens who like to trade equipment at about the five minute marker, a military player will have to get creative with tactics. If a scientist ship hasn’t found an engine that will let them get through nebula mass by the half-way point, they won’t be able to get near several key planets. Like poker, Weird Worlds is randomness that you develop a tactical relationship with instead of just winning or losing as a result of that randomness.

The pleasure of the game comes from constantly experimenting and pushing your luck in brief play sessions of five to ten minutes. Getting blown up happens a lot, but it is never much of a problem because you’ve only been playing for a few minutes anyways. When you do finally have the super shields, the best engines, and all the super weapons, the pleasure of plowing through fleet after fleet has that rare form of satisfaction that can only come from true scarcity. Fleshing out this basic item hunt are dozens of different random events. If a play session is going particularly well, a super alien ship will randomly arrive and start systematically blowing up planets. You will sometimes find a giant warship that has more weapons and equipment than any other ship in the game. Sometimes saboteurs wreck your ship, you’ll be able to strike quick alliances if two aliens are warring with one another, and derelict ships always hold new promises. Costikyan writes, “The point at which strategy begins to dominate over randomness depends on how much effect strategy has -- in a game where random elements are small and strategy vital, strategy dominates with even a handful of random tests, while if strategy is a relatively modest dictator of outcomes, then many random tests are required before strategy dominates”. After years of playing the game as a quick break, I still can’t guarantee that I’m always going to win. Like all good randomly generated games, what makes Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space engaging is striking that balance between strategy and randomness. It’s all just a matter of what cards you’re dealt.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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Blending a dazzling array of musical influences and directions for more than two decades now, Thievery Corporation have come to represent one of the 21st century's boldest bands in both genre-blending style and lyrical impact.

The Halloween season is in full effect on this crisp Sunday evening in San Francisco that precedes All Hallows Eve by two days. With the traditional holiday falling on a Tuesday, music fans are out for as much costumed fun as they can get as evidenced by the costumed revelers here at the Masonic in the Nob Hill area. Thievery Corporation is in town, and the Bay Area "thieves" as the band's fans are known are ready to let it all hang out with one of the few bands in the music industry that isn't shy on telling listeners the truth about what's going on in the world.

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