Kind of a cool image, huh? Creepy. Evocative. But how does the level play, you rightfully ask. Okay. Fair enough.
I have no idea. My PlayStation is currently waging a war with my LAN. This happens. Usually when there’s an update for either the system or for LBP. My network and that game just don’t get along. The update process starts and my Internet connection gets banished. So this week’s level is one I played a few weeks ago that I meant to revisit. I’d love to do so, but, you know…the war. That’s actually okay, though, since another game has had my full attention all this week, and it requires neither my PlayStation nor my home network.
After the jump, banished and it feels so good
Let me just give you a bit of advice. A mild warning. When you first start playing Ascension on whatever device you’re playing it on and you’re waiting for friends to accept your Game Center requests and new game invitations, it may be tempting to use the Find Game feature to get into a game with a stranger. Go ahead and do that. That’s fine. Your friends may take days to respond. They’ve got lives, dude. Relax. But please, for the love of the Lidless Eye, pay attention to the little counter that describes game time limits. You do not want to be getting into thirty minute games when you start out. In point of fact, you probably do not want to be getting into them at all. At some point you may want to, I grant that. Fine. But not at first.
The timer here is like a chess timer. If you jump into a thirty minute game, you’ve got exactly thirty minutes to complete that game. Real time. If you don’t complete that game in thirty minutes, you forfeit. Which means you lose. And that loss goes on your record. That may not matter to you now, as you’re still learning the game and waiting for that goofball friend of yours to accept the game invite you sent to him twelve hours ago. Eventually it will matter, though, because eventually you’ll be tooling around and will click on the little profile button in the menu and there you will see your record. Those stupid losses you acquired while fumbling around in a couple thirty minute games because fourteen days seemed like a ridiculous amount of time will stick with you forever.
I’m not bitter. Really.
A game will probably never take you fourteen days, or seven for that matter, but it gives you breathing room. Given that you’ll be exchanging turns with folks all over the world, you’ll want this breathing room. I’ve got friends on the East Coast of the United States that work all day and cannot play their turns during their work days for whatever reason. Weird reception at work or they play on a spouse’s iPad only when at home. They may be playing turns at the precise moment I’m going to bed, and vice versa. So you want that buffer.
I actually love this time-management obstacle. I’ve never played a turn-based game like this, and I love how it makes me think. Because I’m suddenly so addicted to this game, I’ve got several games going at once. That in itself is no big deal. I suspect most folks are like this. It is new to me though. What I love about it is that I have to retune my brain every time I take a turn. Where am I in this particular game again? What is the honor count at? What did he do on his last turn? I find my attention to the details of the replay of my opponent’s turn has evolved over the course of the last week. At first I wasn’t really paying attention to anything but the point spread. I’d just listen to the satisfying snick of the cards and clang of the points and watch his honor counter change while I focused on the cards in my upcoming hand. Then I started to focus on the cards he played and what he was doing with them. Finally I got to the point where I’d really focus on the cards in the center of the table to see what he was drawing. Eventually I’ll get to the point where I really try to track what is actually in his deck, much the way I do while playing the actual tabletop version of the game. I suppose I could slow down the replay speed and track all of this more easily, I just haven’t bothered to do that. Mainly because I like the way the default speed sounds.
The thing I truly love about the time-management obstacle, though, is the odd moment when I fall into real-time turn-swapping in one of my games. Most of the time you get a turn notification–btw, I love the sound my iPhone has chosen to let me know when I have an Ascension turn ready; it is such a pleasing, almost reverential sound, such a lovely counterpoint to that nerve-jangling glass bell noise that alerts me to texts all day long–and you go in and play your turn and then wait a time for your opponent to get around to his. Every now and again I’ll be sitting down to my evening ESPN Tivo-ing (PTI, Dan Le Batard) after putting my kid to bed and I’ll find myself in that sweet spot of West Coast prime time and East Coast bed time where an opponent is doing his final turns before turning in for the night. Without planning to at all we fall into a rhythm of playing our turns back and forth right then and there. I don’t know what it is that delights me so about this back and forth when it happens. It feels oddly intimate. I suppose that’s weird, but it’s a point of connection with someone I might never have met, an Internet friend, and I love it.
What I don’t like, and this is really my only gripe with Ascension on my iPhone, is that there is no mechanism for communication with my opponent in the game. Your only communication is what you do with your cards, and I really don’t like that. I know for many players this is a huge plus, this not having to deal with sending messages or hearing voices. I’ve heard enough ugly things over my headset and have accidently wound up in plenty of tedious chat sessions because I forgot to make myself invisible while online to get that point of view. But I crave a bit of communication in Ascension. Even just the ability to text a ‘gg’ would be nice.
At the end of an NFL game this year, two coaches got into something of a kerfuffle because one of them was kind of a douche during the post-game handshake. What was weird about this was that, for once, this had nothing to do with Bill Belichick (zing!)…but seriously, what I found notable about this was the cry in some quarters to do away with the whole tradition of shaking hands after games altogether. Apparently this is nothing new. For years certain–Mike Ditka–people have maintained that shaking hands after games is a ridiculous tradition. These guys have just spent a couple of hours beating each other’s heads in; they view each other as enemies and have cultivated a healthy hatred for one another. Why force them to pretend this isn’t so after the struggle has ended, and those emotions are still fresh?
Because it is a valuable part of playing the game, that’s why. I think shepherding a seven-year old through his first years of competitive soccer and trying to teach him the power of sportsmanship has crystalized this for me in a way that playing sports myself as a kid never did. Shaking your opponent’s hand after contending with him not only puts the game in perspective, it allows you to acknowledge his prowess, and him yours, even if only for a millisecond. Doing this lays the foundation for future healthy competition. It allows for an exchange of respect, and, most importantly to me, an exchange of grace. It also lets competitors gush over great moments in the game just played, things that might have excited them even when they were on the losing end. “Nicely done on that last corner kick,” or “Damn that was a nice pass,” or “That Hedron Link Device just totally dropped into your lap right after Avatar of the Fallen, WTF!” Whatever. What I want to focus on right now is that aspect of being gracious.
One of my very first Ascension games was with a guy I’ve never met in RL. He’s a guy on the Qt3 boards I really like, and one of the first people to accept one of my invites. I did not expect to do well. I’ve played a fair amount of the tabletop game, and I absolutely love it, but it’s taken me a while to get into the iPhone version of the game because while I bought it many months ago, I bought it for an iPhone that could not play it, so the game just lay dormant for month after month. Once I upgraded my phone I dragged my feet further because I could not imagine translating those cards to that small screen. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Finally I jumped in–it is absolutely beautiful on the iPhone, by the way–and this guy gave me one of my first games. Well, after I lost a couple of those thirty minute games I mentioned previously.
I pummeled him. It was brutal. I felt great. And I felt bad.
After you complete a game in Ascension the game immediately gives you the option to request a rematch. I didn’t know what to do about this. I’d just slaughtered this guy. What was the etiquette here? Let him request a rematch? Did he even have that option since I’d won? Should I just click the rematch button? Would that be bad form? Or would not giving him a shot at a rematch be bad form? Ack! If only I could ask him. If only I could say something gracious, like “the cards were weird that time, huh?” or “beginner’s luck” or, most simply, “Thank you.”
It’s kind of like that moment in a tennis match when the ball hits the top part of the net and trickles over, and the guy who hit the ball gives that little wave. A little apology. An acknowledgement of fate. I didn’t deserve this. You’ll get it next time.
A subsequent game with this same guy totally came down to the wire. It was beautiful. I thought for sure I had it and then he had an absolutely phenomenal last turn. In Ascension, as you watch an opponent’s turn-replay unfold it can feel like it is going on forever in the late stages of the game. Certain cards allow you to banish cards in your hand or in the center row, and if you do this you can draw new cards. Furthermore, your Constructs (cards you control that stay on the table, mostly) can dictate whether or not you draw more cards during your turn or even add an entire new turn. Added to that, certain monsters you defeat will allow you extend your turn. Watching this guy’s last turn, I felt like I might as well go and make a cup of coffee as it unfolded. After the dust settled it turned out I won by a single point. It was exhilarating, but not so much because I won. That was fine, but not what made me almost whoop out loud and wake up my son. It was just a great round. Great. And I wanted to tell him that. I wanted to be able to say to him how great that last hand was, how he had me on the edge of my seat and I thought for sure he was going to take the game. Even ‘gg’ would have been something. Just a brief moment of grace. But Ascension doesn’t allow for this. I accept it. But I kind of hate it.
In the realm of quibbles, though, this is minor. Because Ascension has totally rocked my world this week. It’s a game that even an amateur like me can play with a certain amount of proficiency, and yet it does not at all feel dumbed down. That is a nifty trick. Some time ago I wrote an email to the podcast of Three Moves Ahead for a listeners’ questions show they were doing. I asked about strategy games that novices and experts could play together. Since I go to a weekly LAN gaming night at a friend’s house, and many of the guys like to play strategy games and I suck at them, I was understandably curious about this. I don’t really remember how they handled the question. It confused them. RTS games don’t tend to scale in that way. I don’t think they really understood where I was coming from, not because they’re the experts in the equation but probably due to the wording of my question, but no matter, because Ascension really is a game that allows for that. This makes the game incredibly exciting for me, and an utterly joyful experience.
I just wish I could communicate that joy to my opponents. My enemies. My friends.
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