The Calico Experience

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I normally try to get usernames on Internet services based on my real name: @seanshannon on Twitter, sshannon on Facebook, and so on. Part of that is just me being used to having usernames assigned on that basis by colleges and so on, back before people started creating “handles” for themselves with their Hotmail accounts and MySpace pages and so on, and part of it is also me being aware of my need to market my name as a way to extend the reach of my books and other work that’s already out there with “Sean Shannon” indelibly marked on it. More than that, though, I want to distance myself from the whole phenomenon of the construction of “online personas” based on usernames instead of real names. I tried that “online persona” thing out in those early years of the Internet, and that really didn’t work out well for me; a big part of my desire to launch the .org nearly twenty-one years ago was to create an online space where I could be truly, authentically me — for good or for ill — and not have to worry about that stuff any longer. Over two decades later, I still see that as one of the few good decisions I made at a time of my life when I was making lots and lots of bad ones.

When I finally signed up for an account on Twitch, though, all the usernames I normally use based on my real name were taken. I didn’t want to overthink my name on there, so I tried a couple of different possibilities, and finally found out that I could be profsean on there. I always ask my students to call me Sean (and I’m not comfortable with professional titles in general), so using a shortening of “professor” in my Twitch username didn’t sit entirely right with me at the time. After I started streaming regularly at the end of 2019, though, I began to see how that username could work out for me.

Like the .org, and everyplace else I’m active online, I want to present the real me as much as possible on Twitch. I don’t have the kind of skills with video games that would attract people to watch me kick butt at them, and I don’t have the outsized personality that has helped other Internet personalities develop huge followings. What I do have, though, is forty years of experience playing video and computer games (heck, I programmed my first computer game in 1981, on an old ZX-80), and I tend to play video games with a strong emphasis on story, something I’m at least kind of qualified to talk about with my academic training and experience as a writer. Building a Twitch channel around the idea of being “Professor Sean” on there didn’t seem that far-fetched, and I’ve never felt that I’ve been inauthentic on Twitch at any time. In that respect, the “Professor Sean” name turned out well for me.

As I’ve streamed regularly over the past year and a half, though, I’ve found myself wanting to talk less and less as I play games on there. One big reason for that is because of my sensitivity as an artist to the work of other artists; I don’t want my own meanderings to interfere with viewers’ experiences of different video games. (This is why I avoid the flashy high-tech graphics and annoying sound alerts of so many other streamers.) Perhaps a bigger reason is that even though I’ve played video games for forty years now, I played them a lot more in the first two decades of that time than I did in the most recent two. In a lot of ways, buying a PlayStation 4 in 2019 was the start of a lot of remedial education for me in terms of video gaming stuff I missed out on while I was finishing college and starting my teaching career and working on my first novel.

These past few days, I’ve felt that lack of modern gaming knowledge a lot more painfully as I’ve experimented with a recent independently-produced video game called Calico. On one level, I don’t think I can recommend Calico highly enough for the sheer experience it provides. The graphics and music and characters do almost too good of a job in creating a tranquil atmosphere that provides a deep level of calm that I desperately need right now in this ultra-chaotic time in our world. Even when I’m not playing the game, just thinking about it has induced that calm in me, simply because it’s that immersive. My brain is wired a lot differently than most people’s, so I’m not sure if that many people would have as strong of a reaction to the game as I’ve had, but if it works even one-tenth as well for others as it has for me, then Calico is more than worth its $12 asking price.

The reason I recommend Calico for its experience, though, is that as a game, it feels almost comically incomplete, despite the fact that it’s been out for over a year and has had several bug patches. I’m not one of those English instructors who gets hung up on grammar and spelling, but the sheer number of run-on sentences, missing apostrophes, and other non-standard English usages in the game’s dialogue are impossible to ignore. I don’t know if this is a common problem with modern indie games, but if any independent game developers are looking for a proofreader, I’ll work for cheap. (I’m totally serious about this. I’m also willing to help with stories and characters, but that would cost more.) The game also has more than its share of graphical glitches; few things in the video games I’ve played in recent years have disturbed me more than watching my character in Calico pick a cat up from the top of her head, then pull the cat through her back to get it into a position where the cat is being held in front of her. I’m obviously not that knowledgeable when it comes to the production of modern video games, but I should think that it would be relatively simple to make sure the character moves her arms forward when taking animals off the top of her head to hold in front of her.

More problematic, though, is the game’s lack of logic controls. The various non-player characters in Calico sometimes hang out at their homes or workplaces, but sometimes they go to visit other NPCs, which provides a nice verisimilitude compared to older games where NPCs never moved more than a few yards from their assigned “home” spot (if they ever moved at all). Some of the missions in Calico, however, are based on the idea of helping two NPCs who haven’t seen each other in a while, or helping pass along uncomfortable messages to people far apart from one another. In a quick test run of the game I did this past Saturday, I had to do missions like these when the characters were literally standing right next to each other. Despite this fact, the NPCs said things to me like, “I haven’t seen [name] in ages” when the character being referred to was within kissing distance of both of us, or “Don’t tell [name] about this” when the named character was literally shoulder-to-shoulder with them. (I recorded my play session, and I may end up making a video out of this to help demonstrate the absurdity of these missions.)

I certainly played a lot of shareware games in the nineties when the Internet was so new and shiny to most of us, but I’ve never played a game that I paid for that had such glaring issues, and I’m not sure how to respond to them. I understand that independent game developers can’t afford to go through the same strenuous testing of their games that big game development studios can, but these flaws seem like the kind of thing that should have been taken care of ages ago, especially since the game is still being patched to take care of other issues. At the same time, though, even knowing these things about the game now, I would still gladly pay $12 for it, and probably even more, just because experiencing the game is so therapeutic to me, so I feel like I can’t get that worked up over these problems.

What’s complicating my conundrums about Calico even more is the fact that I’m going to be beta-testing an upcoming independent game starting this week. I recently backed another “cozy game” on Kickstarter called Bunhouse, because it’s a game that I really want to see succeed, and I paid extra money to join the beta testing for the purpose of doing my part to ensure that success. Part of the reason I bought and played Calico was to prepare myself for this testing experience, which should begin in the next few days. As I prepare to help the developer produce the best game possible, though, I now have to wonder if I should point out things like non-standard grammar, or logic issues that render a scripted scenario farcical, simply because these kinds of things are tolerated, or maybe even expected, in indie games. As much research as I’ve done on this subject, I’m not getting any answers to my questions, and I can’t help worrying that I’m coming into this beta unprepared for what’s to be expected of me.

I’ll be streaming Calico on my Twitch channel starting this Tuesday, and once the developer of Bunhouse okays streaming of its beta, I hope to show that game off as well. As with all the other stuff I’ve done on Twitch, I’m hoping that I can provide some entertainment for people, and maybe some education, but when it comes to being able to adequately judge indie games like Calico and Bunhouse on their merits, I feel more like a failing student than a professor.

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