On Classic Strategy Games, War Elephants and Elaborate but Ultimately Pointless Names
Let’s kick off the “silly” side of this blog with a look at why I chose the title “a bunch of stuff”. At first glance it might seem the kind of moronic title into which precisely no thought has gone, but that is very much not the case. Well… it kind of is, but it’s a moronic title that was first used in a rather different context, and there’s a mildly interesting story behind the lack of thought.
And the story takes us way back to somewhere around 2003.
So back when I was a young teenager me and my brother didn’t own any game consoles aside from a Gameboy Colour and our trusty windows 98 PC. We both got a lot of mileage out of Pokémon Yellow (still the only Pokémon game I’ve 100% completed although I got damn close on Silver), but the game that probably took up most of our lives was Age of Empires 2.
Man, what a game. The source of 100% of my historical knowledge. There’s basically no limit to how satisfying it is to build up your civilisation from a bunch of dumbasses picking berries into a giant empire with enough war elephants to form a single continuous line from one edge of the map to the other. A good deathmatch could keep you occupied for days. I don’t think I ever completed the campaign without cheating. Hey, that game was HARD, ok? And my mind for strategy hadn’t quite developed. Who am I kidding- I played it again about a year ago and I still couldn’t do the Joan of Arc missions, which are the easiest. The cheats were hilarious too- summoning a squad of machine gun cars or furious monkey boys to flay your foes into jelly was endlessly entertaining.
One of the best things was that even if you finished the campaigns you could make your own using the mapmaker. I guess it’d be pretty basic by today’s standards but if you were good you could make some pretty complicated scenarios and import all kinds of sounds and new units. There was a whole culture back in the early days of the ‘net of making campaigns and uploading them for others to download. Some of them were incredible- brilliantly conceived battles and stories that used the Age of Empires engine in really clever ways. After playing a few of these me and my bro thought we’d try and make our own for people to enjoy. And thus the custom campaign “A bunch of stuff” was born.
Naturally most of our early custom maps were just us experimenting and generally faffing around with triggers and stupid sound effects. Seeing how many elite samurai you could fit on a map before our computer crashed; seeing who would win between 100 monks and 100 battering rams- that kind of rubbish. Most of these, um, “maps” were about as far removed from being a coherent Age of Empires campaign as you could get while still technically being the same game, but that sure didn’t stop us! We cobbled together what we thought were the best of our efforts, strung them together with some nominal narrative and shoved it online labelled as exactly what it was: a bunch of stuff. There was one halfway decent level at the beginning (made by John) that had some kind of a story, with you controlling one guy going around this maze doing missions and stuff, but most of them were just massive battles or joke scenarios where you control a hundred explosive-rigged demolition ships and have to blow your way through a blockade of war galleons to reach some island with an elephant on it. Yeah… I kinda had a thing for the war elephants.
OH MY GOSH I found it! I never expected you’d still be able to find it online! Hahahaha! You can download and play our decade-old masterpiece right here.
Apparently over 1000 people downloaded it! Man, I should send them an apology. You can also find my second campaign “The Mole”, an epic comedy which I actually put a bit of effort into but which is probably still just as crap. It’s got some laughs in it though.
Given how many actually GOOD campaigns were put up online, into which a lot of time and thought had obviously gone, that should’ve been the end of that- our pile of crap should’ve been recognised for what it was and ignored. But some genius took it upon himself to REVIEW the thing and send us a copy.
I wish I could still find the original review because reading it was one of the funniest experiences of my young life. Seeing some ultra serious connoisseur of homemade game levels treating something called “a bunch of stuff” like it was worthy of serious artistic consideration had me and John in stitches. Campaigns were scored out of 5 in various categories and I remember hitting the 0.5 mark in most criteria, and the comments were equally scathing. Words like “aimless”, “pitiful waste of time” and “really, really badly made” were thrown around, but what annoyed this guy the most was the sheer stupidity of some of the stuff we put in there. In the first level there was this little bit in the maze where a random villager would tell you that the “PLATINUM BOAR” was destroying his house, whereupon most players (including our reviewer) would think that killing the foul beast would yield some kind of reward. Mr. Critic reported his efforts to slay the vicious creature (which was basically just a regular wild boar with its HP and attack raised to ridiculous levels), only to have the villager curse him for slaying his one and only friend in the world and begin attacking you himself. Man’s love-hate relationship with nature in a nutshell. We thought it was pretty funny at the time, but the reviewer apparently didn’t, simply commenting “ARRRGH! WHAT GIVES??”. He did admit to finding the demolition ship level rather fun, but elsewhere slated pretty much every aspect of the thing, from the nonsensical plot to the terrible levels that didn’t really function in any way. I think he even criticised the name.
So there you have it. The phrase “a bunch of stuff” stuck with me since then. I think what made the whole thing so memorable was that I was totally new to the internet at the time. The idea that someone I’d never met had found our little campaign and taken the time to tell us how much he thought it sucked really made me marvel at the potential of the world wide web. I later resurrected the name “a bunch of stuff” for a piece of music I wrote during my music GCSE lessons. I’d finished my actual composition so just began messing around making a cool sounding rock/metal song based around some generic chord progressions. It turned out way better than my actual piece. Even nowadays if you looked on my computer you’d see most of the folders called things like “work stuff”, “important stuff” or “silly stuff”. So I guess it seemed only fitting that a blog of my random musings should bear the immortal name of so much of the random junk in my life that came before it.
So…yeah. There you go. If you’ve gained nothing else from this, you now know that I have a ridiculously good memory for really specific, totally unimportant details. Ask me where I was when I heard some important news or what my earliest memory is and I’d have no clue. Ask me about the critical reception my first A of E custom campaign received and I’ll write a whole damn blog about it. I guess you’ve also learned that I’ve always been a nerd. But that should’ve been obvious.