Au Revoir

Very soon this page will be shutting down.

But! This doesn’t necessitate a long-winded, heartfelt goodbye. I simply moved my page to the WordPress.org platform instead, for better usability and control, as well as to be in keeping with my rebranding. When I started this blog, I’d intended on using my initials, S.T. Burkholder, as my pen name. I’ve obviously reconsidered and any writer knows how important consistency is across all their various digital footprints.

If you’re still interested in keeping up with me and reading what I have to say, head over to shane-burkholder.com and (re)subscribe there.

If not, thanks for all the memories! It’s been real.

Valheim: Fast Track to Valhalla

I wanted to get to this sooner–rather, I thought I would have more time–but my new obsession gained Two. Million. new players almost overnight. It’s shattered almost all other benchmarks set by previous fan favorites on Steam, from concurrent players to peak players to players in general. Which is just insane. I don’t even remember where I spotted what I thought then was a diamond in the rough of Early Access games, but it was the equivalent of finding a Grade A adventure in the bargain bin at GameStop. Then, a few days later, my joy was everyone else’s. And I couldn’t be happier.

Let’s start with the basics, shall we?

No game is likely to disappoint that begins with a gigantic bird providing air taxi services to a dark and mysterious land filled with danger and death. The list of those games right now, off the top of my head, contains only two: Valheim, of course, and Dark Souls. But that’s beside the point. It’s a hell of a way to kick off a party. And there you are, the life of the party, dropped into what seems at first a peaceful meadow. How sweet, how nice. Like any other survival game, you quickly find yourself picking berries and chopping wood. Maybe you have a house by nightfall. Hopefully. Otherwise, when that sound cue hits and the music changes, I guarantee you’ll get a chill up your spine.

And that is perhaps Valheim’s greatest strength, more than likely what sets it apart from so many other games in a similar vein: What would happen if Breath of the Wild and Skyrim had a child that was then adopted by Minecraft? Well, you’d have Valheim! This is something we can find with most games that become startling breakout successes. Somehow, by brewing all these different ingredients in the same pot, the dish comes out fully its own and delectable. Make no mistake, there are plenty of games that try to cross genres and blend diverse mechanics only to end up a hobbling mutated mess. But the ones that carry it off? *chef’s kiss*

Soon after spectacular bird delivery, you will find yourself scurrying through the meadows and forests, plumbing ancient tombs and fighting trolls, and (best of all) braving the waves with spectacular fanfare and sunlit ocean spray. What Valheim accomplishes in spades is not merely its blend of varying genres into a complete experience, but also the feeling with which the game invests your movement through the world. Nothing quite drives this home as well as the first time you set sail, even on just a simple raft, and the exultant music begins. I truly felt at the start of an adventure, which might be the best way of classifying Valheim: as an adventure. And in a time when games have become more and more commodified, to the point that every would-be Adventure game feels scripted to the point of roboticism, this game is truly a shot in the arm.

So too is it the gift that keeps on giving. Every new environment poses new and often unpredictable challenges. Upgrading to new materials (and thus new types of equipment) is askew from the usual means, requiring advancements through what is Valheim’s pseudo questline. More than once I’ve stumbled upon something new, exciting and mysterious in an environment I thought I’d already combed over or explored thoroughly. I’m keeping more than a few things out of this review in hopes that you experience them in full effect for yourself. For a game that can’t really even be classified as Horror-adjacent, let’s just say Valheim serves up plenty of scares. Not unlike Dark Souls, to return to that brief bird-taxi comparison earlier.

The cherry on the top of all this, to use a cliche in reference to a game in which there are none, is that Valheim is not just in Early Access on Steam: it’s in Early-Early Access. Meaning, we’re just getting started, and there’s already so much to do. Indeed, this massive windfall of sales–a leap from thousands of players to millions–can only lift this longship even higher on the wave of success. I’m on the edge of my seat to see what these guys do next.

It’s rare enough that I enjoy a game this much, but rarer still that I enjoy it to the point I believe the hype is not only warranted but something I get caught up in myself. If you have the cash, and the time, I urge you to go and pick this amazing experience up as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed.

Update 04: I’m Still Here (Again)

I’m still alive. It’s surreal, to say the least, that I can no longer say that euphemistically. I really, truly almost did not make it out of 2020 alive. But since then I’ve had a full plate of contemplating life and piecing myself back together. I’m thankful to have had a not inconsiderable amount of help from my wife, my family and the good friends who stuck with me. Oh, and my therapist. Another area in which I’ve been working overtime, but I’ll admit getting on the right medication did most of the heavy lifting.

Suffice it to say, all of this has meant coming to terms with my diagnosis as well as a (fairly) recent attempt at self-annihilation. Perhaps it’s no surprise at all that this wasn’t the insurmountable horror I expect.

My sense of self returned, and with it a greater understanding of who I am without the burden of mental illness. For fellow sufferers, I don’t need to tell you how impossible it is to address your problems and behaviors when the solution ceases to mean anything (and so becomes no solution at all). If everything hurts, it’s hard to find the wound. But now that I’ve found it, it’s already begun to scar over. With new perspective, I’ve gained intentionality. That is, the ability finally to choose a path as opposed to hurtling down whichever presented itself.

All that said, it’s taken some getting used to. Gone are the lengths of time in which I had inexhaustible energy, forgoing sleep and food to work and work and work. The illusion that I am now less productive is hard to fight. After all, on the surface, my output during my hypomanic states was nothing short of insane. Thousands of words during the day, game design and world-building at night, not to mention the not inconsiderable times I was able to maintain some consistency with learning different disciplines. But of course this necessitated a depressive episode shortly thereafter, which even with antidepressants proved insurmountable by comparison to hypomania (itself incensed further by the antidepressants). Funny how happiness can become melancholy by states of comparison.

It’s easy enough to pierce that illusion now.

I’ve taken a step back from writing by choice for the first time in a (very) long time. A much needed break is in order, and other projects long put off beg for attention. Among them: finally knuckling down and learning 3D modeling and programming; designing the tabletop RPG system to accompany my books; and fleshing out the world in which both these last take place. It’s proved to be immensely rewarding in a way that it was not before.

These are things I’ve attempted to do, but ultimately gave up more than once. Writing always came naturally to me, otherwise I might’ve done the same with that. An element of the bright side to my brush with death and proper diagnosis is the fact that I’ve lost the freneticism that came with unmedicated Bipolar II. I can sit for longer and focus harder. The work comes at a slower pace (albeit the same output in the long run), but that’s only meant I have the patience now that I never did before. I was never exactly hyper, but restless constantly.

All in all, despite everything, I’m glad I can at least begin to plan and set realistic goals without getting down. As you can probably imagine, a heightened altered state gives you a very bizarre idea of success and a depressed altered state gives you the idea that success is impossible. I won’t say I’m excited about the days to come. Things are still pretty rough and will be for some time. Not just for myself, but for everyone. Covid, climate change, the total clusterfuck of our political landscape. It’ll be difficult. But I’m glad to be able to face that difficulty with a realistic perspective and an understanding that maybe (just maybe) this too shall pass–and not merely as a poetical musing of my tired, tired mind.

My goals for this year are only a little less lofty than last year: complete the sequel to my debut novel that I released last year (see the Books tab for details); assemble a function beta test of my TTRPG system (tentative title, Pale Age: Aberrant); and complete one back-to-front game, by which I mean program and model and write. Being that considerable work has gone into at least the first two and a decent among into the last, I think it’ll be less arduous than it sounds. I’m excited to see the results, and I hope you are too.

See you on the other side of tomorrow.

The Difficulty of Zen

I used to be notorious for holding grudges, often long enough to enact some form of revenge. Almost always justified, mind you. I’m no saint but neither am I a vindictive monster. Over the years, though, I’ve done significant work to leave that part of me behind. Resentment is a poison, and eventually the rot sets in.

The cycle of retribution often becomes more tiring and costly than the initial act being revenged, and to end the cycle before it starts requires such a retribution that your own moral center is put at hazard. One might even say that this was the foundational concept of our first law codes: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, commonly misrepresented as the cycle of revenge it was designed to stop through restorative justice.

To ignore this and instead pursue bald reprisal is not unlike throwing coins into a maelstrom, hoping to gain some surfeit in return. It is ridiculous, but most things are when viewed from a vantage outside the situation at hand. The only way to conquer the maelstrom is to turn away from it. Put simpler, the only way to win is not to play. This sounds easy, but it isn’t. Take it from one who knows, turning the other cheek is incredibly difficult.

It is very human to desire your enemies’ destruction. How else do you protect what’s yours? Or at least that’s the question your lizard brain asks and answers in times of crisis. But more than this, rejecting the inclination to vengeance is made that much more difficult by the light in which its opposite is cast. By which I mean, the inherent cowardice of allowing others to abuse you in the name of a moral victory. A moral victory is no victory at all, as anyone can tell who has been brutalized and seen their brutalizer evade any sort of karmic justice.

There is an argument to be made that these philosophies are a way to make peace with a cruel world and to absolve oneself of the pain that comes with wanting to change it and finding yourself powerless to do so. That argument certainly holds water. But this does not mean the act of turning the other cheek must be couched in forgiveness and the meek expectation of divine reward. And the alternative goes back to that rot which sets in with a grudge, that cycle of revenge we too often can see stretching out before us and yet rush into headlong anyway.

There is value in turning the other cheek when we recognize the servicing of a grudge will bring us more pain than the act which spawned it, where we understand that the temporary elation of wounding our enemies as they have wounded us will soon be replaced with the fear or expectation of reprisal, which then of course will beg further reprisal from us. And is that elation truly worth it? Or is it better to nurse our pride instead with the zen-like thought that this truly does not matter? That this pain is only temporary if we do not give in and repay the pain in kind.

The moral purity that is conferred upon those who refuse to “stoop to their level” is often without value. The moral thing, the *just* thing, is to punish wrongdoing through an impassive and inarguable instrument (i.e. what the law is *supposed* to be). Divine reward isn’t coming to us for refusing to take that work on ourselves. Understanding this, we can then understand the refusal to stoop to their level not as a means to righteousness, but to avoid enmeshing oneself in the labyrinthine tangle of returning hurt for hurt. Of further involving yourself with creatures whose only desire is to cause pain, either through neglect or joy for your own. For unless you’re as sadistic and heartless as the person to whom your wound is owed, you will quickly find yourself exhausted where they will grow energized.

Every fire needs fuel to burn and these interactions provide theirs. They feed off the opportunity to cause further misery, it is the only way for them to quiet their own personal maelstrom whirling within. And, unless you share this with them, the only way to quiet yours is to disassociate from their company. To stop feeding the maelstrom. Let the waves churn all they like but recognize the churning for the illusion that it is, much like the karmic wheel itself. The only thing real in the world is peace and to achieve it, not its mirage of purity, is to recognize the things of the Platonic cave for what they are and leave them behind. They are shadows on the wall. And playing with them will only make you a shadow of yourself.

But then again: Sometimes they really do have it coming, don’t they?

Halo: the Demise of the Arcade in Favor of the Real

Like any true millennial nerd, reared in the lap of Microsoft and Sony, I’ve recently been playing through the now completed (I think) Halo: Master Chief Collection. As the name implies, it’s all the games rolled now into one volume. And a total delight. Most of my teenage existence revolved around Halo. All my friends played it. My brother’s friends played it. Everyone played it and played it religiously. So to have the means to play through them all as (for all intents and purposes) one continuous experience? What a thrill and, surprisingly enough, enlightening.

Halo: Reach, the last game in the series to be developed by the original studio, Bungie, is conversely the first game in the continuity. The story follows a squad of Spartans (cybernetic supersoldiers) as they fend off an alien invasion of the planet Reach and is a direct precursor to the very first game, Halo: Combat Evolved. Reach itself is an action-packed romp that brings together all the highlights that the series is known for and adds a few more finishing touches to round out what is an excellent experience. At the time, the game was at the pinnacle of game design for first-person shooters. But this isn’t meant to be a review of a game that was released 10 years ago.

Naturally, having beaten Reach, I flowed right into Halo: CE. And the transition was almost disorienting. Everything had been stripped away. All the ephemera gone, not even the ability to sprint left behind. I wasn’t playing through someone’s idea of a real futuristic war anymore. This was a game. There are few other instances that so starkly juxtapose how much game design has changed, two different eras right on top of each other. I noticed the small but fundamental differences almost immediately.

Something strange happened on the second level, right after you make “planetfall” on the eponymous ringworld, Halo. I’m driving along in the now-famous Warthog battle humvee with my marines in the side seat and manning the turret. Things are just as I remember. What a joy. Then I roll into the first interior environment. Your stay is brief, but revelatory. There is a pitfall ahead. Harmless. Simply drive back up the ramp and approach from a different angle to get the lift needed to jump the gap. Then off you go on your way to avenge the human race against the alien Covenant. An entirely forgettable experience, until of course you remember.

When I played Combat Evolved for the first time as a wee lad, I questioned nothing. It was a fun little puzzle and, as any self-respecting Halo player knows, one of the most entertaining things to do in the game is to wreck your Warthog in new and inventive ways. But now, as a full-blown Lad, I see the structure for what it is: something designed, ostensibly by a sentient race of beings. This creates an obvious question. Why is there a random pitfall? The answer is also obvious. Because it’s fun.

That will seem strange to anyone reading this who started their gaming odyssey after the advent of Xbox Live and the widespread adoption of consoles. But aren’t games still fun, you ask? Don’t I have fun while I’m playing a game? Of course I do. Otherwise what’s the point! What indeed. It’s not so much that games are devoid of fun now; rather that their sort of fun is of a different kind. It isn’t the fun of ‘play’. It’s the fun of simulation, of immersion. Of feeling like you are really there on the battlefield. Visceral.

I thought back to my time playing Reach, which offered such a different experience than that which I was playing through now. Fighting from point to point, guided again and again by markers on my HUD, linear path after linear path after linear path. I thought about the years between the titles, a not inconsiderable decade of changes and advancements in tech and design. I realized one change in particular had snuck by. Over the years, hidden in the undercarriage of massive leaps in graphics and artificial intelligence. An Achilles Heel, almost: gone were the jumps and pitfalls of Halo: CE, arrived were the linear levels and boxy buildings of Halo: Reach.

These days pure playful fun seems to be a lost art in modern gaming. When you’re playing Combat Evolved, you’re playing a game and conscious of playing a game. You’re not playing a simulator. You’re playing a game. That isn’t true anymore. Which is why Halo: Reach feels so different. It’s why many games these days feel so different and something of the original feeling of playing a game can only be recaptured by playing Nintendo titles like Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey. Those experiences alone disprove the theory of nostalgia warping the idea that games are different now. And it’s worth noting that Nintendo remains an industry force simply by keeping alive that kind of game design.

Halo is an interesting series to examine in this light. The first installment, Combat Evolved, came at a turning point in gaming. Real gaming. Not arcades and Super Mario, but as an art form. It had the unique experience of bridging the gap between these two eras. Halo: CE launched the industry into the next era and popularized video games in ways never before seen; and yet it also retained enough of its roots to still feel like a game, something light and fun, down to even the awkward movement and buoyancy of the vehicles.

One of the hallmarks that transcended each game in the series, like a piece of retro DNA, were the incredibly high and incredibly slow jump mechanics. These moon leaps were so baked into the gameplay that the multiplayer almost centered around them. While everything else changed, elements like these remained the same. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Halo also remained a stalwart of multiplayer gaming even as the story stagnated under the care of new developers. It’s such an almost metaphysical quality, a secret sauce, that there’s really only one word to describe it: fun.