The Long-form Emotion

By Phill Cameron on March 30th, 2010 at 5:00 pm.

Man, it's perpetually hard to illustrate these two games.
Since November, I’ve been playing one of two games all day, every day.

I’ve not been at my computer the whole time, but I’ve been playing. I’ve been thinking about how best to out-think my opponents. How to manoeuvre my troops into a position that provides me the best opportunity to attack. I’m not usually one to enjoy strategy games, but when I’m given the time to let it occupy one of my lesser brain functions for a while, somehow it all clicks. For the past four months, strategy has controlled my mind.

The two games in question are Solium Infernum, and Neptune’s Pride. The first is a play by email diplomatic strategy game set in hell that can take anywhere up to two months to get through a game. Some days will be good, and you’ll get more than one turn done, but most will just give you one development. But it works, because that gives you a good twenty-three hours and fifty minutes spent thinking about what you’re going to do, rather than the ten minutes it actually takes to do it.

Neptune’s Pride is a different beast entirely. You take control of a galactic empire, starting off with a single star system, through slowly building up ships and taking over the surrounding systems, until eventually fighting wars with your neighbours all in a bid to get control. Ships take thirty minutes to prep their engines for hyper-space, and quite often take about half a day to get from one star to the next. These games take, at the very least, a few weeks to complete. And that’s a few weeks of checking in on your empire every spare minute you’ve got, adjusting flight paths and second-guessing your enemies. Sending off messages into the aether attempting to form mutually beneficial alliances that you can break at the opportune moment.

It makes me appreciate chess masters. They take an incredibly short amount of time to evaluate the board and come up with plans, counter-plans and contingency plans, all figuring out every possible move that their opponent can play. They’re thinking dozens of moves ahead, while they play the one right in front of them. I’m spending an entire day deliberating over one choice, and I can hardly think more than a few turns ahead. Their brains must be massive.

All this comes at a price, though. When you’re playing a normal game, it might last ten minutes, or at most an hour or two. In that time you’re experiencing the highs and lows of the play, from the satisfaction of pulling off a headshot or the glory of amassing a large force to take out your opponent in a strategy games. These emotions last for minutes at the most, purely transitory, to a degree where by the time you play the next game they’re all but forgotten about. When your game lasts weeks and months, the entire opposite happens.

It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. You get to see every single detail of the sudden violence in front of you, and there’s little you can do to stop it. Except when there is, and you get to feel like a god slowing down time, allowing you to react faster than you have any right to. It’s gaming as the master of time, manipulating things to benefit yourself. Except you’re not the only timelord on the pitch, and everyone else gets the same advantage that you do. Every single emotion you feel is amplified to an unbearable degree. Each victory is that much sweeter, every defeat infinitely more crushing. You form plots like some sort of deranged Machiavelli, engineering circumstances until your enemies are locked in a chessmate, just open for you to manipulate and black mail.

But these games don’t exist purely in the glacier-like speed that they play out on. Sure, you might watch a fleet of starships slowly crawl along the map, but you can easily communicate with the other players, be it inside the game or outside, and form and break alliances in the split second. It serves to confuse and split your mind, creating an illusion of control and power that you don’t really have. You can talk someone around as much as you like, but they can hardly take back that fleet they send at your homeworld the other hour. It’s inevitability mixed with hope, each combating the other.

It does mean, however, that all the worst tropes of the strategy game become that much more amplified as a result. Neptune’s Pride is perhaps more guilty than Solium Infernum, but, as with most strategy games, by the half-way point of any game it’s usually pretty clear who’s won, and far more clear who’s lost. Try as you might, if you’re not with the front of the pack by that point, it’s going to take a miracle to get you back. And that realisation is that much worse when you have to accept that this is going to take days, if not a week or so, to finish up. That’s a week of losing, and trying not to accept it as reality.

It’s easy to slip into pretension and compare the level of emotion felt at these games is close to what historical generals must have felt when they get to the point of having to accept defeat. Their pain isn’t going to be over quickly either, and that crushing pressure of having to endure loss after loss makes you yearn for a ‘quit’ button more than in any other gaming experience I can think of. The urge to give into anarchy and blow your load on one last attack, attempting to cause as much damage as you can before going out is almost overwhelming. But in many ways, that’d be worse.

You might get one last victory out of it, but it would be beyond hollow. You’d have to sacrifice all personal defence to pull it off, and even if you did cause any damage it could be quickly healed. I guess I’m focusing too much on specific flaws in this kind of game, but instead of hairline fractures, they’re becoming yawning chasms of frustration and annoyance when the game you’re playing lasts so very, very long.

Mostly though, it’s the exhaustion that really hits. That whole ‘spending every waking moment thing’ isn’t a hyperbole. It’s pure fact; this is the default that your brain slips back to, to the degree where sleeping is a mistake, and having a meal away from your computer is a risky endeavour. People start to track your habits, watching when you’re away from the computer, because that’s the best time to launch their attack. This is far more true of Neptune’s Pride, but it’s similarly present in Solium Infernum; time not spent formulating plans is time lost. And, for the most part, game lost.

There’s an element of this that seems almost educational. You start to get introspective, looking at yourself, and why you’re playing, at what you’re playing for. Do you really want to win, or do you just want to have one last ditch attempt at feeling like you’ve got some element of control over the game? It’s the reason I became a Blood Vassal for Quinns; it was part asylum seeking, part securing myself a place that wasn’t last. It’s also how people stay alive in Neptune’s Pride; make yourself too troublesome to eradicate, and suddenly you become a potential ally. And potential allies tend to survive a little longer.

I suppose the most powerful emotion in all of this is relief. It’s waking up the day after the whole thing has ended, and not having to fire up your computer that second to check what damage your unconsciousness has caused. Suddenly you’re free, and it’s glorious. It almost makes it all completely worth it.

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41 Comments »

  1. SPindaden says:

    “It’s waking up the day after the whole thing has ended, and not having to fire up your computer that second to check what damage your unconsciousness has caused. Suddenly you’re free, and it’s glorious.”

    I quit my first and only game of Neptune’s Pride after a little over a week’s play when I was arguably in the lead because I simply couldn’t do it any more. I was embroilled in a war with a very skilled player (donkey if you happen to see this, sorry I bailed). He was able to react to my every move seemingly never slept and my obsession began to affect my family life as I was checking in at every opportunity.

    The relief when I woke up one morning after having had a terrible night’s sleep agonising over fleet movements and decided to just not log in any more was incredible.

    I don’t want to badmouth the game because it really is excellent, but it can require a time investment akin to guild leading in wow or something, 5 years ago I’d be all over it, but that’s not me any more.

    • P7uen says:

      ‘require’ is a strong word. You can always set up either game with a bunch of friends or like-minded RPS chaps in the same time zone.

      Also, you can play 4x or 0.5x speed games which dramatically affect the amount of time and effort you’re ‘required’ to put into it.

      (Yes, I’m a huge fan)

    • dadioflex says:

      Yeah. I mean this: “That whole ’spending every waking moment thing’ isn’t a hyperbole. It’s pure fact; this is the default that your brain slips back to, to the degree where sleeping is a mistake, and having a meal away from your computer is a risky endeavour. ” Just doesn’t seem healthy. It’s more or less admitting game addiction is a fact.

  2. P7uen says:

    And then you join a new game immediately.

    For NP, I’ve heard a lot about this exhaustion but not particularly experienced it myself. The best game I have played so far I was kingmaker for a complete stranger. It was the most effort and cunning, mixed in with a few miracles, to let the underdog win.

    I got nothing out of it, yet it was easily the most satisfying gaming experience I’ve had this year.

    In fact, rather than when the game is over, I find it’s once you know you’re dead that you feel the elation and relief, the guerilla tactics and kamikaze runs being pure fun without the weight of the galaxy on your shoulders.

  3. Shalrath says:

    Neptune’s Pride has one glaring fault, in my eyes, that made it so I won’t be going back. While it IS true that two weaker players CAN defeat a stronger one, what happens when the two strongest team up? They simply wipe out everyone else, then vie for 1st.

    And it happens all the time.

    Also, as mentioned above, the time required to play is insane once larger wars start.

  4. Heliocentric says:

    You were talking about Neptunes pride far more, i ruined a fair chunk of my life on these games (tdzk). Never again, sol however? To me a totally different story, you simply do your time for 10 minutes then dwell on it afterwards.

    You’ll never wake up in sol and find out you lost in a way that could have been avoided by staying up all night.

    • Phill Cameron says:

      I think I focused more on NP because it was more recent in my mind at the time of writing. But you’re right; Sol Inf doesn’t share the same flaws, but has its own, although perhaps not quite as glaring.

  5. The Codicier says:

    I’m just entering the twilight days of my very 1st game of NP. And many of the things Phill says do resonate with me.

    I do feel exhausted, the game is relentless becuase the only way to win is to co-operate, to trust someone with no gaurantee they will not turn and stab you in the back.
    I’ve spent the last couple of weeks while playing NP(if not more) waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when i am finally betrayed i feel relief.
    No more indecision, no having to form contingency plans, i know my enemy and i will destroy him because there is no other option.

    Its a reasonably well known psychology theory that the one thing which induces more stress in any animal is not pain or fear, but uncertainty, and NP provides this by the bucket load.

    I would take issue however with the idea that you can tell the winner of any game of NP early on.

    A couple of days in to my current game both the most northern, and most southern players quit a day or 2 in giving the players adjacent to them 2-3 times the territory to expand into than the other players.
    By the end of the 1st week these 2 players had huge empires bristling with the best weapons and the vast armadas of ships.
    And yet a week later these players are both gone, their empires dust after the smaller players managed to halt the tide of their advance while co-operating(each player researching a different tech tree’s) to slowly but surely push these mega empires back.
    Even after this 1st reversal the game wasn’t done throwing up surprises, my two allies turned on me, i really should be dust by now but somehow im winning.
    Only just mind you and it could all come tumbling down at any moment, but these long form games offer the chance of such a dramatic turn around of fortunes that other faster games simply do not.

    All in all NP is one of the most brutal games i have ever played. Victory is everything and second place meaningless. And although i have found the high’s and lows of my 1st game intoxicating im still unsure if i will play a second.

    P.s /wave at Kingmarten one of the players of my game who mentioned reading the RPS diary in the chat and thanks for your part in what’s been a really interesting game(same to any of the other Epsilon Sarir players).

  6. Rich says:

    I think NP would be better if turn based, then the game would run as slow as the least active player, like Sol Inf. Also, if trade agreements were more integrated, such as being able to automatically send new tech as you get it, you wouldn’t have people always welshing on their trade deals.

    • The Codicier says:

      I think turn based play and automated treaties go against what makes NP so compelling.
      Not that I think that’s a bad game idea just NP pride wouldn’t be NP if betrayal wasn’t such a ever present danger.
      As P7uen says you can if you wish slow the game from its already stately pace to a positively glacial speed if you so desire when you make a game.
      You have to also remember that this is only the beta of the game, and allot about it is likely to change. Having things like that as optional extras might be nice but im not sure its essential.

      But I think make or break will be if they can make better AI players for when people drop out, and possibly some use of AI sub-commanders which can be given orders to attack defend ect within a limited scope in the times when you cant directly control your empire.

      Just as you wouldn’t expect your troops to stand there and not return fire in a RTS it can feel immensely frustrating when someone takes a system in NP not because of any tactical or strategic choice but because they launched a attack while you were at the pub and by the time you come back its to late.

  7. JuJuCam says:

    I also gave up on NP after a week despite being in close second place with a wide margin till third, for a variety of reasons. Firstly all but the greatest of my opponents had been taken over by the Borg AI, who is ruthless and doesn’t honour treaties, and secondly I saw what Shalrath saw, that it was an exceedingly long form variation on kdice. Kdice is great but I don’t want to be playing one round of it for weeks, wondering if I invested my meager earnings wisely, and I really didn’t like the idea of a month long endgame to determine the ultimate winner. In gaming terms it operates on a truly galactic scale, which feels great to begin with but quickly becomes at once tedious and nerve-racking.

  8. MrMud says:

    I was playing a game of NP with people from RPS and we all quit after about a week because we couldnt handle it anymore. A few of the people in that game had just come from a lovely game of SI that I was playing but we just couldnt deal with NP.

    The problem is that it is so incredibly important to be able to react instantly to any enemy fleet movements.

  9. ChaosSmurf says:

    I’ve just quit Neptune’s Pride after my first game (was a victory). I _loathe_ it. It’s like the 5 minutes of losing an RTS game STRETCHED ACROSS A WEEK. I couldn’t agree more, basically, Phil.

  10. Sonic Goo says:

    Has the AI for singleplayer Solium Infernum improved yet? I remember people saying it wasn’t that good…

    • mandaya says:

      the AI is a sparring dummy, not much more. I’d recommend playing the AI with different builds (cunning, destruction, wrath, praetor combat etc), saving in the last third and then filing these away for testing out strategies in PBEM games.
      the game is breathtaking against real players and will keep you obsessing for weeks. no joke.

  11. Quirk says:

    In fairness, chess is quite a different experience. (I spent a good chunk of my life playing chess competitively – not at a very high level, merely as a strong club player).

    In chess, the brain develops pattern-matching skills that allow you to instantly discard large swathes of moves as irrelevant or unsafe and focus on a few possibilities and the best responses to those moves. You have a very good model of your opponent – if you assume your opponent is also seeking to play the best possible move, as long as you’re similarly good at seeing that best move, you’re able to prepare for it. The payoff is generally rapid to spot, as well; material gained is especially obvious even to a novice, but latterly seeing positional advantage is second nature as well.

    In multiplayer games where several players are advantaged against one, a new dynamic enters; being the threat everyone fears most is a swift path to punishment. Swiftly and lethally overrunning your nearest neighbour with superior tactics is strategic suicide; you will be hurt in the process, and you will almost certainly end up facing a coalition of the remaining. It’s impossible to foretell the direction of the next few turns with any certainty as you walk the tightrope of being just a little less dangerous than the threshold that will provoke everyone to turn on you. And whereas facing an irrational opponent across a chessboard or go board is a quick road to victory, irrational opponents in a multiplayer game are to be feared.

    So, in a nutshell, I guess I’m saying that the chess expert isn’t necessarily going to be any better than you are at games like Solium Infernum, Phill; in fact, if they’re not used to multiplayer games and the politics that hold sway there, their instincts may betray them as they go for swift sure tactical gains and find themselves facing too many foes to fight at once. Uncertainty will come to plague them just the same way: “Sure, it’s not in Kieron’s best interest to fight me, but has he worked that out? And can I spare the troops to guard that border and still have my plans elsewhere succeed?”

    And once the question is no longer simply “is this a tactically smart move?” as it broadens to encompass “are my opponents even sane?” – well, there’s a question you can ponder all day and go on to lose sleep over. :)

    • boldoran says:

      Nice writeup. I recently bought galcon fusion in a steam sale and played a few multiplayer matches. I lost all of them because I was too aggressive. I usualy overhelmed my nearest neighbour by taking his biggest planets and got promplty wiped out by a third player how was just waiting to overrun my thinned out forces.

      After that I learned to wait. And so did everybody else. This usually resulted in some sort of mexican standoff as no player wanted to make the first move.

  12. Tyndareus says:

    Solium Infernum is an excellent game in concept and beautifully executed. I’m still learning how to play -with the nagging suspicion that I’ll never be able to master the game, or that it is even possible to master it- and there’s just so many ways to go about winning.

    Since I’m not very good at it right now, the AI can be challenging (especially if the AI Houses perceive you as “weak” early on) but I think it goes without saying that there’s no match for human opponents. From what I’ve observed so far, the AI has trouble “ganging up” on the leading House (in my latest game that’s me) but they do go after weak houses quite a bit: once I get a few single-player games under my belt, I’ll venture into the scary world of PBEM, where I’m more than certain it will be a humbling experience.

    • qrter says:

      I’d stop playing against AI immediately and jump into PBEM, if I were you. The AI won’t prepare you, the best way to learn is in “live” games. Sure, you’ll get trounced repeatedly, but in a new and interesting way, every single time!

  13. Jonathan Hartley says:

    Same emotion-enhancing effect occurs in Nethack, in which games last days or weeks, and which doesn’t allow saves (or rather, everything you do is persistent. You can close the application and then resume where you left off, but you can never go back to a previous saved state.)

    As a result, players become very emotionally attached to their character, and the massive good and bad events that occur throughout the game become a huge emotional roller-coaster. If your get turned into a worm, you actually have to push through and keep on playing like that, rather than give up and start over. And sometimes, with massive elation, you pull it off.

  14. hide says:

    In NP every morning, no matter what, when i wake up and watch the fleet i sent the day before i tell myself “what a stupid move ! I lost 10H for nothing at least !”

    But as the day pass i find solutions and everything kinda clicks. Feel strange.

    And as my first game finally come to an end I can’t agree more to what was said. Exhausting, mesmerizing, time-vampiring, words, other word…

  15. Scoteh says:

    If anyone is still interested in Solium Infernum games, we’ve still a nice little community running, RPSatan, on steam where we regularly organise games, including the occasional live ones if you ever just wish you could get most of an SI game done in the one night.

    Chat is lively every night, although I must admit its mostly GMT. Hop by if you’re still as obsessed with this game as we are!

  16. Tycow says:

    For anyone who is a fan of 4x space games, I would thoroughly recommend Distant Worlds. It’s a RTS 4X developed by an indie dev in New Zealand. It’s got much, MUCH more depth than Sins, and is generally awesome. It’s definitely an example of gameplay over graphics, but you soon get engrossed.

    Some teething problems with economy bugs, but they’ve been patched pretty quickly, with more content on the way (the dev is active on the forums). :)

    Website, with links to youtoob videos: http://codeforce.co.nz/ :-)

    • Rich says:

      Looks interesting. Graphics look quite nice.
      Combat visuals look like a cross between Escape Velocity and Gratuitous Space Battles.

  17. CdrJameson says:

    Back in my play-by-email Laser Squad Nemesis days, the unofficial slogan was ‘f5′.

    Worst thing about it, if nothing was happening, you could always start another game. That’s how you end up playing against a dozen people at the same time…

  18. autarch says:

    What are some other high-quality long form multiplayer games that people have played (either PBEM or web-based)? I tried looking on the internet, but I didn’t find many good resources other then http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/pbm_list/ which presents a somewhat daunting list.

  19. Tyndareus says:

    Actually, I would consider it if I knew enough people playing SI; I could try the CC fora or elsewhere, but I admit I’m a bit reluctant playing against strangers, when the impression I got from the (excellent) AAR published here, was that the back-stabbing nature of the game caused some tensions among the RPS crew and their friends.

    Eventually I’ll have to try it, I know. For the time being I try to recruit friends, but it’s hard to “sell” them a game without fancy 3D graphics and all the glitz we’ve come to expect from the so-called AAA titles. Which is a shame, I think, because Solium Infernum is a gem.

    • Tyndareus says:

      (that was supposed to be a reply to qrter’s comment on my previous message…Oh well)

    • mandaya says:

      buy it and try, even if you don’t have friends who want to play it with you. SI is a great game to play with strangers, as long as you agree to keep it going at minimum 1 turn/day. don’t be put off by all the “FULL” games on the official forums – they’re all full because it takes on average no more than 6 hours to get people to join you! so buy it, destroy the AI a few times, feel confident, start a PBEM game with “n00bs” in the title on the official forums and discover that you’re far, far away from grasping all the intricacies of this great game. and then try again and pwn your opponents in game 2.

    • qrter says:

      SI is a lot more.. anonymous than most multiplayer games. So you will indeed stab backs and have your back stabbed, repeatedly – but it won’t matter, as you’ll be playing with strangers. ;)

      I really dislike multiplayer games, but have no problem with SI, because of its play-by-mailness.

      The RPS Satan group on Steam is perfect for finding a game, or creating one.

  20. Darren says:

    Ok I live in Australia. I do not wish to give my mobile number out for verification. My number is a silent one so google or anyone else for that matter will not be getting it. As a result, I can not play Neptune. Very big sad face.

    I was wondering, are there any good free pbm games out there that you guys can recommend? Mainly Scifi based strat games. I am very new to this type of game so any help would be great. Yes I am asking the same thing that Autarch said. I went to that site and could not even begin to pick one ;)

    Cheers folks.

  21. Schmung says:

    NP is killing me. I’ve come close to winning twice now, but never managed it. Both times I convinced other weak players to gang up and smash the big bad, only to discover I’d come out of it worse and was destined to lose. Mind you, I’ve had two people go completely ballistic at my sudden, but inevitable betrayal.

    • Grandstone says:

      @Schmung

      I’m playing as Segismundo on Phi Seginus. I hope I’m not one of the people who went ballistic. So far it’s a pretty good game, I think.

  22. Mario Figueiredo says:

    From you guys comments on Solium Infernum and from the many user comments, I end up buying the game last week, after testing out the demo and see for myself all the good things mentioned. I’m currently going through my first multiplay game over at the official forums.

    For sure SI has been my most enjoyable game experience of late. Even the SP mode is enjoyable because it lets you test your strategies and better understand the game mechanics and how to take advantage of them. It’s been many years since I last played a strategy game that really got me hooked at this level.

    And BTW, RPS is repeatedly mentioned at the official forums as the source of many other gamers decision to buy SI. But of course, you guys know that already.

  23. Dinger says:

    One other thing about the RPS SI steam chatroom: there are people passing through every day looking to play. Sometimes we organize a game. SI + RPSatan is a winning combination: everyone’s in the chatroom (at least for the launch), so you get some chatter. Plus, if you hook up something like DropBox, you can blast through ten turns an hour.
    So you can launch a game, and then convert to a more leisurely pace for the mid-to-late intrigue.

    If there were one request, it would be that the group were granted some Admins, so that events could be set up. I don’t want to bother everyone in the main RPS group paging for an SI event when there’s an RPS group designed especially for the purpose.

    Anyway, if you’re interested in a game, or have questions about it, the group can be found via a search on “Rock, Paper, Satan”

  24. mandaya says:

    I think SI and NP are not really that comparable. while the timeframe is similar, it makes a damn difference if you’re pondering your moves in SI and finally decide to act on your own time, or have to wait for the exact moment your fleet raches that planet to decide on your tactics, which is most usually at 3:30am. the constant need to check and recheck NP ruined it for me; it got damn obsessive and a chore.
    SI on the other hand lets you pick your pace mostly; time spent waiting is hard on the nerves, but basically you can decide when to make your turn.

    Imust say that damn, SI *is* one of the most engrossing gaming experiences I ever had in the last 20 years of gaming. thanks RPS for getting me hooked. that “car crash in slow motion” analogy nails it.

  25. Alguem says:

    I felt great joy in reading this article and commentaries, and identifying with you. I experienced the same exhaustion with NP, perhaps worse in that I foolishly decided to play two games simultaneously, and quit after losing one, while winning the other. It was very relaxing.

    Never looked back; in my shame, I even avoided reading anything about it and deleted the dreaded bookmark. In a way, this article helped me get through it. I even decided to check the result, and it looks like I still placed third and got some credits.

    I did, however, love the handholding-deprived diplomacy. Never had played anything that featured it as such, and it was a lot of fun.

  26. Tom Camfield says:

    I enjoy playing NP, and have never won, and rarely attempt to win. You just play your part in one game, then move on to the next. Winning isn’t really necessary for enjoying the game.

  27. pimorte says:

    I haven’t played Neptune’s Bounty, but it seems to me that it would be good to let a game be restricted to certain GMT hour slots. Have 24 checkboxes when starting up a game, then only allow moves in times that were checked. That’d stop the midnight raid tactic becoming the most effective, and probably would stop the draining effect the game reportedly has.

    SI is brilliant fun for someone who works all week. 10 minutes and you’re done! (Or 45 minutes if you start checking every move and stat >_> )

  28. KungFuMassa says:

    My own game of NP has been quite the roller coaster. I started in a decent spot with a wide gulf between myself and everyone but two players, who I quickly allied with. I traded techs with all the weaker guys in order to keep them balanced and focused on one another while I grew.

    It was great! And when I finally got my war machine underway I was unstoppable! And then my biggest buddy turned on me and has me by the jugular…and who comes to my rescue? One of the little guys I was helping out earlier.

    Yes, the game is excruciating, but the message-based politicking is such a blast. It is half the game. I don’t think I’ll play it again — despite how little time it takes to play, I find myself checking in throughout the day and I don’t think I can take it anymore. Will finish out this game and remember it fondly.

  29. Ovno says:

    [quote]It’s waking up the day after the whole thing has ended, and not having to fire up your computer that second to check what damage your unconsciousness has caused. Suddenly you’re free, and it’s glorious. It almost makes it all completely worth it.[/quote]

    /signed